Lisbon bears the distinct honor of being both the capital and the largest city in Portugal. It features extravagant architecture, charming cobblestoned streets and the kind of breathtaking scenes that create lasting memories on a holiday. These blessings mix curiously well with the contemporary vibe highlighted in its many trendy shops, eateries and bars. This cultural fusion between the old and the new is precisely what makes this classic capital a truly remarkable place to visit.
But what if you only had one day to discover Lisbon? A challenging feat to be sure, but if diligent, you will be rewarded with a glimpse of this ancient city’s glorious historical past hidden among its many modern conveniences.
[Also see our travel article “24 Hours in Barcelona“]
Morning: Medieval Streets and Magnificent Views
With a trusty map in hand, begin your exploration of Lisbon in the district of Baxia, located in the heart of the city. Take a stroll around the scenic Praça do Comércio Square via the pedestrian Rua Augusta, and then make your way east to the Alfama district – its winding streets making it the oldest, and arguably the most charming area to visit.
Attractions of interest include the 12th century Sé Catedral (the oldest building in Lisbon), the Tile Museum and the unique façade of Casa dos Bicos (House of Spikes), one of the only surviving structures following a devastating earthquake in 1755.
After exploring the area at your leisure, enter the legendary 6th century Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George’s Castle), boasting some of the best views in town. For a quick bite to eat, stop off at Restô do Chapitô, a casual eatery serving international cuisine at reasonable prices.
Afternoon: A Walk Down Memory Lane
Once you’ve had your fill of historic sites, jump on the famous Tram 28, to the main shopping district known as Chiado. A short distance from the trendy retail stores along Rua Garret, visit the whimsical A Vida Portuguesa, a shop dedicated to vintage Portuguese products. Here you will find a fine collection of kitchen and bath products along with an assortment of knick-knacks all featuring retro packaging.
Take a breather (and a step back into the past) at the Santini ice cream parlor, established in 1949 and serving the best artisan ice cream in the country. The shop itself is decorated in nostalgic red and white stripes, colorful 50’s inspired posters and comfortable booths that are usually filled with locals and curious visitors throughout the day. End your exploration of the area by taking a ride to the top of the Santa Justa Elevator, a favorite local landmark built in 1902.
Evening: Fashion Fusion of Classic vs. Contemporary
Next, walk north towards the longest, most fashionable avenue in Lisbon, the Avenida da Liberdade, and make a stop at the regal Dona Maria II National Theater in Rossio Square. This area is full of lovely garden belvederes, cobblestoned streets, as well as high-end shops and art nouveau edifices. Once you’ve had time to explore the avenue at your leisure, continue right off of Rossio into the bohemian Barrio Alto district. A popular meeting spot is the scenic Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara; an ideal place to savor a drink and watch the sun disappear behind an exquisite panoramic landscape.
Afterwards, enjoy a meal at a neighborhood institution; the Bota Negra restaurant, which serves traditional Portuguese cuisine and whose popularity is evident; there is a long waiting line almost every night of the week. Later, wander around looking for a Fado music venue – at the very least for a quick listen to the haunting melancholic sounds of the traditional guitar.
Night: Unforgettably Energized
After midnight, locals flock to the large selection of bars in and around this district. The atmosphere is rowdy mayhem as revelers take to the streets, often with drink in hand, as they decide which venue to hit next. One memorable establishment is the wacky Pavilhão Chinês; a former general store turned exotic cocktail bar that features walls covered with the owner’s immense display of oddball collectables including medals, mugs, toy soldiers and teapots.
Once things die down in this area, make your way to the Cais do Sodré district, once the seedy hangout of sailors and prostitutes, and discover nightlife filtered through the lens of the area’s gritty past. One place that cannot be missed is the playful Pensão Amor (The Guesthouse of Love) club, a former bordello still displaying its original stripper pole plus erotic “graffiti” art on the walls.
If you feel more at home in a more contemporary environment, then end your night at the trendy Lux Club. Located in the riverside Alfama district, it is considered the most glamorous nightclub in town in light of its VIP patrons and impressive line-up of the world’s best DJs.
Sunrise: A Walk Back in Time
Those willing and able to stay up all night are rewarded with a final tour of Lisbon’s most grandiose local landmarks. Venture towards Belém, the city’s historical district. Explore the 16th century Belem Tower, a former fortress dramatically incorporating both Moorish and Venetian architectural influences. If time is short, spend it at the district’s highlight attraction: Jeronimos Monastery, a powerful reminder of Portugal’s glory days with its stupefying cloisters and immense Gothic interior.
Start your morning, and end your trip, devouring a pastel de nata, the sinfully delicious signature pastry at Pastéis de Belém, a legendary bakery inaugurated in 1837.