Lisbon, Portugal is a beautiful choice of European city for a weekend break. We are talking true ‘love at first sight, here, or maybe that should be ‘love at first bite’; we didn’t stop eating from touchdown to taking off, munching on the pastel de nata (or ‘pastéis de nata’) we had bought as gifts. From age old decorative tiles, mixed with modern graffiti aside trundling funicular railways, there is something quaintly crooked and sweetly intriguing around every corner. Climbing high, you can really appreciate views across the red-roofed city. We visited as a family, so my top sightseeing tips are ‘doable’ with a baby, in buggy and/or carrier. If not taking a baby, just add a splash more port and a lot more leisurely lunches.
Where we stayed
The H10 Duque de Loulé hotel, which we found via Booking.com, where I tend to book most of my travel. It was around £60 per night and was clean, friendly and thoughtfully decorated with traditional Portuguese details. Well located, too, for walking around town. When (not if!) we go back to Lisbon, we want to combine our visit with some time in the fishing village of Cascais and spend a week on the coast in the nearby Algarve.
We visited in February, and had the only four days of rain in the month! But the measure of a brilliant city is surely enjoying it even when it is grey and miserable, so, it would be fantastic to go again in the sunshine; and the weather, for Europe, is pretty decent year round. Find out more about Lisbon weather, here. Tip: Don’t fly with Ryanair, as we stupidly did. I’d suggest EasyJet; but that’s a tip for life, not just Lisbon.
1. Ride the funicular rails
Lisbon is characterised by steep and lolling streets. There are a variety of ways to approach them, including a few lifts and trams. The most fun way is to hop aboard one of the three funicular railways: Elevador do Lavra, Elevador da Glória and Elevador da Bica. We bought a 24 hour travelcard, for rails and metro, from the metro station, which we also used when we went to the Aquarium. You can fold up a buggy and transport it on the funiculars and trams. Read more about the funiculars, here.
2. Eat at the Mercado da Ribeira food market
Take the Elevador da Bica down to the Mercado da Ribeira food market, which has been curated by Time Out since 2014 to showcase Lisbon’s finest restaurants and cafes. With a central area of tables and chairs, surrounded by the stalls. From seafood to steak, pastries to sushi, fine wines and fine chocolates, there is so much choice. It was ideal for us, visiting with a little one, as we were a bit restricted in dining out in the evening; so it meant we could sample some of the city’s best, in one place. If we had visited alone or with friends, I imagine we could have spent an afternoon and evening here, eating and drinking the day away.
3. Ride the cable car
We caught the metro out of town to ride the 1.2km Telecabine Lisboa before visiting the Aquarium, which was the cable car end. Built for the Expo’ 1998, it costs around 4 euros for a single journey and has some nice views over the River Tagus and the Vasco de Gama bridge – the longest in Europe. You can just about see the green cable car in the trees in the photo above, which runs along the river, and the bridge in the background.
4. Visit the Aquarium
The Oceanário de Lisboa was a real highlight of our trip – and not only because our baby was mesmerised by the creatures in the big tank. It is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe, with a big focus on conservation education, as well as these spectacular underwater scenes. It is located just outside of the city, just a few stops on the metro.
5. Walk to the top of the town
Parque Eduardo VII runs from the top of the city down to a big roundabout, where a tree-lined avenue continues down the the estuary. It was designed this way, to give an uninterrupted view. Apparently there is also an exotic greenhouse, here, which we didn’t have time to explore this visit. Our H10 hotel was really close to the big roundabout.
View en route up to the Castle
6. Visit the castle
São Jorge Castle is perched high above the city, in the way good castles are, and offers views over the city, taking in the Tagus Estuary and Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, which really reminds me of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. There is an entry fee and it is a bit tricky (bumpy) to navigate with a pram, but on a sunny day, I’m not sure you can beat the views. There are also some pretty peacocks living in the grounds.
The Belém Tower
7. Visit Belém
Take a number 15 tram to the district of Belém, which is around 20-minutes away from Lisbon centre. The purpose of our visit was to eat at Pastéis de Belém, (read on for more info), but we went on into the district to see the Palace and the Belém Tower. It’s about a 20-minute walk to the Tower, taking in the Palace on the way. I love the drama of the Tower, which was built in the 16th century as a fort to protect the coast. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We didn’t have too much time to explore, as wanted to see more of the city, so didn’t go inside any of the attractions – if you have, perhaps you could comment below to let me know your thoughts?
8. Eat the Pastel de Nata (and all the other pastries)
One of the main draws to Belém, for tourists, is to visit Pastéis de Belém, which bakes the famous tarts from a monastery recipe handed down since 1837. We went a bit cake crazy and over-ordered, but, when in Lisbon… The bakery makes over 20,000 tarts a day! Also try the Travesseiros – fluffy and very sweet pastries filled with a sugar cream. Expect queues, and because of that, I would advise taking away. The cafe is busy and noisy, but do have a nose around to see the baking taking place.
9. Visit the LX Factory
We walked back from Belem to Lisbon city to stop off here, at the LX Factory. It is a collection of over 50 independent cafes, restaurants and shops, art exhibitions and workshops. Some fantastic street art, here, and great coffee. Very cool. Just a bit empty on our visit, due to the rain.
10. Wander without a map
If you plan your trip, it is quite easy to see lots of the top sights in Lisbon in a couple of days. I would then recommend throwing away the map and just going for a wander, up and down those slopes. The centre isn’t that big so you won’t be lost for long, and it can feel more satisfyingly immersive than always following the tourist trail.
11. Eat the seafood
Our favourite was at O Cacho Dourado, near our hotel. Fresh food, simply served. Prawns with lots of garlic and a side of ‘vinho verde’ – green wine. SO delicious. Plus, a side of Portuguese cheese. Lots of the restaurants are family-owned and run, and I left it up to the owner to choose what we ate, which, as long as you mention any big no-no’s, can be a brilliant way of opening your palate to local delicacies.
12. Watch pastel de nata being made
Head to Manteigaria to watch the famous little custard tarts take shape. This was by far my top choice for pastel de nata. Served warm, with a dusting of cinnamon and just the right amount of crust and flake. Free to watch, why not eat one at the coffee bar and
maybe definitely pick up a fresh pack on your way out?
13. Check out the abandoned buildings and pretty tiling
On our walk back from Belem to Lisbon, I loved looking at the abandoned houses and buildings, I find them so beguiling. There’s a lot of them, not sure why. Also, the decorative tiles are all over the city, so pretty.
14. Eat the best chocolate cake in the world
No exaggeration, this chocolate cake is the best EVER. I had read about this light and legendary cake, by Landeau, and was sad that we would miss the chance to try it after rain cut short our walkabout. We dashed into the El Corte Ingles department store for cover and, by happy coincidence, discovered that you can buy a slice of happiness in its curated food court on the top floor. I had two slices, one straight after the other. Don’t leave Lisbon without one.
15. Take a piece of Lisbon home
Checklist: box of Manteigara pastel de nata, aged ruby port, vinho verde, sardines (bought for a friend), cherry Ginjinha/Ginja liqueur – made by infusing ginja berries (
Pastel de nata – I dare you to just have one…
Still to see in Lisbon? I would love to hear your recommendations for our next trip! Do let us know by commenting below…
Note: We visited Lisbon independently in February 2019