Lisbon, the 3rd sunniest city in Europe, has a yearly average of 2799 hours of sunshine. It has UNESCO sites both in the city and nearby. Famous barrios and ancient monuments are within easy walking distance of each other. Iconic trams and world-famous cakes compete with each other for your attention. With all of this, the city is just calling out for a visit. For my trip, I somehow managed to find 4 consecutive days of rain, drizzle and something in between. Certainly not what I was expecting in May, but I wasn’t about to let that spoil my tour. Here is an amazing selection of things I enjoyed doing in Lisbon and Sintra.
Despite 85% of the city being destroyed in an earthquake in 1755 it offers so much to see. Think about what you want to see and plan accordingly. Whilst lots of the popular destinations are within reasonable walking distance of each other, others are further afield. For example, Belém is a good 30-minute tram ride from the centre of the old town and the sites in Alfama.
Before starting to talk about the places to go it’s worth mentioning the Lisbon Card. It is definitely worth purchasing if you intend to make as much of your time in Lisbon as you can. You can get a 24, 48 or 72-hour card which gives you free, or discounted entry,
Tram 28, as any guide book will tell you, is the iconic tram ride to take in Lisbon. This vintage yellow tram rattles around the narrow streets and takes you past many of the popular sites and lookouts. It winds its way through the old town taking in districts like Alfama, Baixa and Bairro Alto. It takes about an hour from end to end and at €3 is cheaper than taking an open-top bus tour.
One downside is that it is extremely busy and unless you get there early in the morning you will have to queue. You’ll also need to get on at the start point in Martim Moniz Square to have any chance of getting a seat. Don’t expect to use it as a hop-on, hop-off service around the city. One alternative suggestion, for which I’m grateful to Time Travel Turtle, is to walk the route. This way you can take in the sites, stop as long as you want and then get the tram back when it is often less crowded, so you still get the experience. The
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Arrive early to avoid the queues, or have a Lisbon card for queue jumping is my advice. The monastery is incredibly popular and long queues form outside waiting for tickets. The complex consists of the Church of Santa Maria de Belém, the monastery cloisters, the Maritime Museum and the National Archeological Museum, all of which have separate queues. The church is free to enter but the rest have entrance fees. €10 for the monastery, €5 for the NAM and €6,50 for the maritime museum. The first two are free with the Lisbon Card, the latter 33% off.
The Church of Santa Maria de Belém is a beautiful building both inside and out. Its construction follows the Late Gothic Manueline style which incorporates maritime themes and objects seen on voyages into ornate sculptures that decorate much of the original building. This is rather fitting as the church is the final resting place of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer who discovered the sea route from Europe to India. His discovery sped up the transportation of spices to Europe which took much longer on the overland journey.
The monastery, which is also known as the Monastery of the Hieronymites, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They started building it in 1501 but took more than 100 years to complete it. Looking at the complexity of many of the carvings it isn’t difficult to see why. The vaulted ceilings in the cloisters must have also taken considerable work to construct. Perhaps surprisingly for its complexity it survived the earthquake mostly undamaged.
Torre de Belém
The Torre de Belém, or Belém tower, is just a 15-minute walk from the monastery. It is a small fortress, standing on the Tagus River, ready to defend Lisbon. Work started on the tower in 1514 and, like the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, it was highly decorated in the Manueline style. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entrance is €6, free with the Lisbon Card.
If crowds aren’t your thing then it’s
Much of the inside of the tower empty although the ground floor does have replica cannons in the 16 windows. If you are happy being in small spaces, with a low roof, you can even go down into the pits where prisoners would have been kept. As you would probably expect though, there isn’t much in there and it doesn’t come with a view.
Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém
The pastel de nata is a hugely popular Portuguese pastry. It is a flaky, puff pastry shell filled with egg custard and topped with a cinnamon dusting. Legend has it that the monks at the Mosteiro created them along with other pastries. Apparently, they used egg white as starch for their clothes and had a lot of egg yolks leftover to make cakes. Following the dissolution of the monastery, they sold the recipe to a sugar refinery who opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém who have made them ever since, still using the secret recipe. The cafe is just a short walk from the monastery.
I don’t know how much of the legend is true but the shop’s website does recount some it and they do make fantastic tarts. There is often a queue of people waiting to get in, as they have a large cafe in the back, but it is well worth the wait. If an egg custard doesn’t appeal then there are many other cakes you can try as well. If you are as sweet-toothed as me, you will be in heaven.
Bairro Alto and Santa Justa Lift
The Bairro Alto is the upper district of downtown Lisbon. There are many bars and restaurants in the area and it is very popular in the evening. One way to get up there from Baixa is to take the Santa Justa, or Carmo, lift. It is easy to find, just look for the long queue of tourists in Rua de Santa Justa waiting to use it. There were several lifts and funiculars built at the time to make it easier for people to move between the districts, but this one is the most popular and the only vertical one remaining.
Constructed in 1902 the lift is 45 metres tall, or seven stories high and is built out of elaborate wrought iron. If it wasn’t for the queue it would be the fastest way to get from Baixa to Bairro Alto. When you see it, you could be forgiven for thinking the design has similarities to a certain tower in Paris. If not in shape then in style. It may be no coincidence that the architect, Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard was said to have been an apprentice to Gustav Eiffel. The lookout from the top gives a great vista across the clay rooftops of Baixa and up towards the Castelo de São Jorge.
Castelo de São Jorge
St George’s Castle overlooks Lisbon from atop a hill in the Alfama district. The Moors built the castle when they ruled the area in the 11th Century, although there is evidence that people lived there over 1000 years before that. The country eventually fell to Christendom and the castle eventually became the home of the Portuguese kings. You are able to climb the ramparts for a walk around the fortifications as well as see a permanent exhibition on historical Lisbon. Don’t be surprised to hear the resident peacocks who can be quite noisy. Entrance is €8,50.
Getting to the castle, with it being on the top of a hill, is a bit of a hike. Sadly, none of the public transport runs very near to the entrance, although Tram 28 comes the closest. It is still well worth the walk for the views across the city, even when the weather is miserable and the clouds fairly low. I imagine it looks stunning when the sun is out.
Built in 1147, the oldest church in Lisbon is also its cathedral. It is said to have been built on the site of an old mosque after the Moors were driven from the city. Found in the oldest part of the city it is easy to drop by if you are visiting the castle. Tram 28 also runs past the cathedral. It’s free to go in but if you want to see the cloisters with the archaeological ruins you have to pay.
Comercio Square & Rua Augusta Arch
Before the Great Earthquake of 1755, the Royal Palace occupied the site at Comercio Square, overlooking the river. Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed and rather than rebuild the Royal Family moved elsewhere. In its
Ajuda National Palace
Following the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, the Royal Family moved into a new wooden structure in Ajuda. After an unfortunate fire in 1794 burnt that down the current neoclassical palace was built instead. It was never really finished, even though King Luis I took up residence in 1861. If you have ever visited royal houses or palaces before you will know what to expect. The rooms look as though they haven’t been touched since the monarchy was abolished in 1910, except perhaps for a bit of dusting. The country’s Preside
When I visited the palace there were very few visitors. This may be because it is near neither Belém nor the Old Town, at the top of a hill and away from the other popular sites. If you have the time though, it is still very much worth a visit. Entrance is €5 or free with the Lisbon Card.
These statues are two of 23 at the entrance to the palace. They are there to represent different positive attributes for people to aspire to.
I’ve probably said it before, but one of my pet hates in a city is graffiti. Sticking your tags everywhere just makes things look ugly and uncared for. It gives an area the impression, genuine or not, that gangs operate here, so why would I want to visit? In contrast, street art when done well can be thought-provoking, fun or just liven up a drab area. Lisbon is well known for its street art, both from famous artists as well as locals. You can even take a guided tour or download an app to help you find it. Whilst I didn’t take a tour I did download the Lisbon Street Art app and though it’s not perfect it did help around the narrow, windy streets of the Alfama district. Here are some of my favourite pieces.
I love outrageous architecture and amazing gardens and Sintra has both in abundance. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra is only 18 miles (29km) from Lisbon and easy to get to by road and rail. There is a direct train from Rossio station, near the historic centre of Lisbon and it takes about 45 minutes. The tickets only cost €2,25 each way. The line is part of the Lisbon network so takes the same Viva Viagem card you’ll probably use in the rest of the city. Depending on the traffic you may get there more quickly by car, but finding a parking space once you get there is another matter. For this reason and others mentioned below, driving there is not recommended. I would, however, recommend having two days there to do everything justice.
Once you get to Sintra the roads to and from the sites are one-way, narrow and hilly with little parking, meaning they get busy and easily blocked by cars manoeuvering everywhere. Even in May. Far better to take one of the local buses that go to the sites. The 434 runs a circular route from the station to the Castle of the Moors onto the Pena Palace and back to the station. Tickets cost €6,90 for one hop-on, hop-off circuit. It’s an easy walk of less than half a kilometre between the two sites so there is no need to wait for the bus. To try and reduce the crowds I suggest going to the palace first then walking back to the castle, rather than the more traditional order.
Castelo dos Mouros
The Moors built the castle in the 9th Century but it fell into disrepair when they were driven out over 200 years later. It wasn’t until 1000 years later that King Ferdinand II rebuilt the ruin near the gardens of Pena Palace. Perched high on the mountain top it has some amazing views. You get a great view of Pena Palace and out to the west, you can see the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’ve come all this way you might as well climb on the fortifications and follow the walls around, but a good head for heights is essential. The path around the battlements has no guard rail and there are some big drops, on both sides.
Tickets cost €8, although a discount is available if you are visiting other sites too. For
Pena Park and Palace
By far the most extravagant and outlandish of all the buildings in Sintra is the Palacio Nacional da Pena. This garishly bright, fairytale castle was built by King Fernando II and was heavily influenced by German castles at the time. He even installed a drawbridge into the design. Tickets cost €14 to visit the grounds and the staterooms inside the Palace or €7,50 just for the grounds. This latter ‘Park only’ ticket still includes entrance to the castle terraces, battlements and watchtowers. Unless you are keen to see the staterooms I’m not sure if the extra expense is worthwhile. When I visited, the queue to see them despite the heavy rain was well over 200m long and moving at a snail’s pace. Don’t join this queue by mistake to see the terraces.
The palace consists of a renovated, old monastery (painted red) and the newer castle (painted yellow) and really defies categorisation. It was clearly never built with defence in mind but to be used by the Royal Family as a summer residence. Being built on the second-highest hill in Sintra does however give it superb views across the park and countryside.
The gardens were no less enthusiastically designed than the palace itself. Romantic gardens were in vogue at the time so the King had his 200-hectares lain out with meandering paths, duck ponds, faux temples and statues. It is a work of art in itself and takes a fair amount of time to wander around. If you don’t mind the uphill walk you can even climb to the highest point in the Sintra Hills where a stone cross stands. When it’s cloudy the view leaves a lot to be desired but I imagine when the sun is out it must be outstanding.
Monserrate Palace is a gorgeous mansion outside of Sintra. It also has some stunning gardens containing exotic plants from around the world. Bus 435 runs a circular route to the palace and back and costs €2,50. Entrance to the palace, €8.
Englishman Sir Francis Cook designed and built the palace in 1860 for use as a summer home. Gothic, Moorish and Indian influences are vividly apparent in the construction, although sadly much of the inside has deteriorated after being left empty and unoccupied after the 1940s. Renovation work has repaired some of the damage and where not complete pictures show how it originally looked. Whilst looking outlandish the mansion fits nicely with the extravagant architecture found elsewhere in Sintra.
Wandering through the gardens, you find hidden treasures, such as waterfalls or the collapsed chapel below. One minute you are deep in a New Zealand tree fern forest expecting Velociraptors to pounce, the next you are in a Mexican desert where rattlesnakes could be hiding in the giant agave. Truly magical.
Quinta da Regaleira
Negotiating the Quinta da Regaleira feels like being in a Tomb Raider or Uncharted video game, with moss-covered buildings hidden away in dense forests. Vincent Price wouldn’t have been out of place in the main Gothic house either. It is, however, the amazing, enchanted garden with hidden passages, wells and extravagant architecture that deserves top billing. They feel like they ought to belong to an ancient, secret society but were only built in 1904 by a wealthy businessman, Carvalho Monteiro. Was he a freemason? You decide. The house and gardens are only a short walk from the train station and it costs just €6 to get in.
The Initiation Well descends 27 metres down a spiral staircase into the hill from where secret passages lead away to other parts of the grounds. The passages were poorly lit and full of puddles when I visited, making finding entrances extra challenging.
Much of the house was closed for renovation when I visited although it was possible to view the ground floor rooms. This didn’t matter too much as I felt the gardens deserved more attention anyway. You get a basic map on arrival but it is pretty much useless other than for giving you a general idea of what is there and where you may be. For me, it was far more fun just getting lost, meandering through the gardens and trying to find the secret passages between features.
Cabo da Roca
Roughly 18km or a 30-minute drive from Sintra is Cabo da Roca. Cabo da Roca, or Cape Roca, is the westernmost point of mainland Portugal and indeed of the whole Eurasian landmass. So if you have a list of the extreme points of Europe to visit, this is one you can tick off. The site is very popular with coach parties wanting a photograph in front of the monument so you may have to wait a while for your moment.
The area is windswept and fairly barren, so stay away from the cliff edge, behind the safety barriers. People have died taking selfies here. The cliffs are up to 100 metres high and it gets very windy as the sea breezes pick up. Much of the area is now covered by invasive plants that seem to thrive in the salty, blustery environment. These were either introduced as ground cover or escaped from a garden centre and have now overtaken the original flora.
Finally, if you venture just a little further north you will find some excellent sandy beaches with amazing surfing. Whilst not in Lisbon the beaches are only a 50-minute drive away and an excellent escape from the maddening crowd.
If you are heading further north then be sure to click here to find out about the amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites, and more, in central Portugal.
Alternatively, if you want to head into Northern Portugal and are looking for inspiration then this post here will give you some ideas for what you can see in and around the Porto and Douro Valley areas.
For information on places to see and entrance fees, I found the Visit Lisbon website invaluable. Check it out here. All prices quoted are correct as of 21st August 2019.