Top 10 things to do in Lisbon, Portugal

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Geographically, Lisbon is the only capital city splendidly situated on the Atlantic coast. It boasts of being Europe’s sunniest city with an average of 2,799 hours of sunshine a year. It plays host to the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, River Tagus that covers 1,007 kilometers (626 miles). Resembling neighboring cities like Rome, Istanbul and Moscow, Lisbon has the endearing term of “City built on 7 hills” although some argue there are 8 hills.

From natural sculptures formed on picturesque beaches, street elevators that go 45 meters (147ft) up in the air and a hidden city under the city, Lisbon has a lot to offer any discerning traveler.

A moment in history

Lisbon is a city that is draped in history, famous for being the starting point of Vasco da Gama’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery. The city was a part of the Roman empire at one time, conquered by the Almoravids Dynasty and later occupied during the Norwegian crusades.

Lisbon was almost completely destroyed by the Great Lisbon earthquake that struck on the morning 1 November 1755, All Saints’ Day. 5-meter (16ft) fissures appeared around the city and 40 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami engulfed the harbor rushing up the Tagus River. Candles lit in honor of All Saint’s Day fed a firestorm that burnt for days. This resilient city recovered better than ever and has earned the title of one of the world’s top ten cities as recognized by Lonely Planet Guides.

Lisbon has managed to perfectly blend amazing natural surroundings with medieval architecture and traditional heritage, while still showing progressive thinking with a modern twist.

See the largest indoor sea

Whether young, young at heart or hardly young, Oceanário de Lisboa (Lisbon Oceanarium) has to be at the top of your wish list as it legitimately thrills people of all ages. Built to resemble an aircraft carrier perched on a pier in an artificial lagoon, the Lisbon Oceanarium is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe playing host to a collection of 16,000 marine species including birds, mammals, amphibians and terrestrial plants from 450 different species.

What catches your eye first is the 1,000 m2 (11,000 sq. ft), 5,000,000-liter (1,300,000 US gal) tank with massive windows to get you up close and personal with the deep blue sea. Gawk in amazement at over 100 species from all over the world including barracudas, rays, moray eels and the 1,000 kg (2,205 lb.) ocean sunfish. Due to their demanding care requirements, Lisbon Oceanarium is one of the only aquariums in the world to accommodate a sunfish.

Adjacent to the main exhibit are four different habitats and 25 thematic aquariums all decked out to represent native flora and fauna.

Take in the scene on route 28

To really experience the sights and sounds of the city, you need to hop on to the classic E28 Lisbon tram.

As part of the public transport system, this charming yellow tram rattles its way around the tourist districts of Martim Moniz, Alfama, Graca, Baixa, Estrela and Campo Ourique. Dating back to the 1930’s, the route 28 tram is the only one that can navigate the various tight turns and gradients of the old rail line.

When planning your trip, keep in mind that the trams are usually standing room only as there are very few seats. To increase your chances of getting a chair, board the tram at the departure locations.

Ride the funicular railways

Having been built on seven hills, Lisbon’s city planners incorporated funicular railways to help connect neighborhoods.

The ancient Ascensor do Lavra is a 188m-long funicular that dates back to the 1800’s. Going at an average grade of 22.9%, this funicular connects Largo da Anunciada to Rua Câmara Pestana. Ascensor da Bica is another funicular that winds around the cobbled lanes of Largo do Calhariz.

While not a funicular, everyone must have a ride in the soaring Santa Justa elevator. Opened in 1902, this iconic street elevator was built by an Eiffel Tower apprentice, using the same techniques and materials as the Eiffel Tower. It stands out as a top attraction at 45 meters (147ft.) high and offers extensive views of downtown Lisbon. The walkway connects the districts of Baixa and Chiado.

Tour age-old streets under modern streets

When looking for adventure on the streets of Lisbon, we ask you to genuinely focus on looking under the streets. You might just stumble across a 2000-year-old Roman underground city structure. The Galerias Romanas was unearthed after the earthquake of 1755, revealing bridges, corridors and rooms. There is a catch though. You can only access this piece of history through a small square metal hatch in the middle of the street. How fun!

Galerias Romanas is only open twice a year and bookings for tour time slots have to be made in advance.

Admire the iconic Torre de Belém

The Portuguese capital is filled with a myriad of architectural styles from the Mudejar to the Baroque, almost Gothic and part Romanesque. There is no better landmark to illustrate this than the UNESCO World Heritage Site Torre de Belém. Standing tall at the mouth of the Tagus River, Torre de Belém sits in the middle of the Tejo Estuary and protects the Belem and Restelo shipyards.

This fort dates back to the 16th Century and features ornately carved battlements, Arabic inspired watch towers and the earliest stone carving of a Rhino.

Experience nature on steroids

Lap up the dramatic limestone coastline of Lisbon while enjoying a boat cruise to the Cave of Benagil. Also known as Cathedral of Benagil or ‘Algar de Benagil’, the cave of Benagil is technically not a cave as it is not completely underground.

It is a collection of fragile, golden colored rock arches, sea pillars and hidden grottos that were all naturally chiseled-out by severe winter storms. The precarious balanced rock formations are set on a backdrop of turquoise sea waters creating a serene, mind-blowing scene. Dock your boat, discover pirate hideouts and create selfie moments on the beach under a massive rock.

A treat for library enthusiasts

Lisbon has something special to offer avid booklovers. It is home to the oldest known bookstore in the world! Founded in 1732, Livraria Bertrand was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records back in 2010, as the oldest operating bookstore in the world. Although it has changed hands, locations and has been renamed 11 different times, the Livraria Bertrand has been a popular hangout for Portuguese writers and intellectuals across different generations.

For a slightly different experience, venture into the Livraria do Simão which is probably the smallest library in the world. The former tobacco shop is crammed into less than 4 square meters (43 sq. ft.), making it impossible for the owner and client to be inside together. The shop stocks over 4,000 rare books in several languages.

Enjoy a sundowner at Rossio Square

With an exquisite cobblestone wave pattern adorning the walkways, Rossio Square is Portugal’s equivalent of London’s Trafalgar Square. What used to be the site for public beheadings and bullfighting showdowns was converted into a meeting place for locals where ‘Lisboetas’ stroll around or relax on shady benches, play dominoes and people watch.

Rossio Square is a great spot to enjoy the surrounding medieval architecture like the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II, that was built in the 1840s. Enjoy a local snack while the two elaborate Baroque fountains bubble around you.

Inspire your inner architect by exploring the ornate art deco Eden Theatre at the nearby Praça dos Restauradores, a historically important square that shares the same train station as Rossio Square.

Shake off the heat in Bairro Alto

When looking for a place to let your hair down, Bairro Alto is the bohemian neighborhood to check out at sunset. Known as Lisbon’s premier touristic district, Bairro Alto is lined with authentic pastelaria bakeries, alternative shops, al fresco cafe’s, international restaurants and beatnik style bars.

Most establishments are open till late at night and Fado music blares from various nightlife spots. Stroll around to the S Pedro de Alcântara, a terraced garden with one of the city’s best viewpoints.

Haggle for souvenirs at Feira da Ladra

Since the 12th Century, gypsy traders and motley talisman dealers have been assembling on the sidewalks of Campo de Santa Clara, displaying their wares in makeshift stalls or on stretched out blankets. The Feira da Ladra open air market is held every Tuesday and Saturday. Known to the locals as the market of Santa Clara, it offers a little bit of everything from junk to unexpected treasures including clothes, shoes, books, electronics, dishes, coins, furniture, military objects, hand-made artisan goods and antiques.

The market is open from dawn to early afternoon and gets busy as the day progresses. Ladra is the Portuguese word for thieves and tourists should be aware of pick pockets when the human traffic gets hectic.

For those with the gift of gab, you may get an occasional bargain from a friendly trader as the prices at the market are never fixed. 

A city worth the trip

With a promise of sunshine for most of the year, adorable historic and contemporary architecture, pristine beaches with natural wonders and some eclectic man-made marvels, it’s no wonder that Lisbon is recognized by Globalization and World Cities as an alpha-level global city.