8 things to do if you’ re visiting Lisbon for the first time…

Lisbon is a beautiful city. Bathed in the sunlight and the breeze of Atlantic Ocean, it is a city of many faces and secrets. Old, new, tradition, innovation, happiness, nostalgia, sadness, culture, fun, taste all are blended in a unique way that creates a unique city. Here are 8 things you must do if you are visiting Lisbon, Lisboa for the locals, for the first time in order to understand the vibes of this city.

Belem – Monument to the Discoveries

1. Visit Belem : Belem is a spacious green suburb at the mouth of river Tagus, where the caravels set sail on their voyages to discover new worlds. Belem is linked with Portugal’ s Golden Age of discoveries and three major sights of the city are located here. Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Torre de Belem and Monument to the Discoveries are all related to the history of the great Portuguese explorers, such Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral, Fernao Magalhaes (Magellan) and many more.

2. Get lost in Alfama : Alfama neighborhood (pictured above) is Lisbon’s true heart. It is the most emblematic quarter and the only part of the city that survived the 1755 earthquake that destroyed the whole city. It is actually a village within the city with narrow streets, tiny squares and whitewashed houses. It was settled by the Romans but it was the Moors who gave its name and shape. Alfama has been the inspiration for the Fado tradition, as it has always been inhabited by sailors and workers. The best way to experience Alfama is by getting lost in its streets.

Sunset at Cacilhas

3. Watch the sunset from Cacilhas : Cacilhas is a waterfront district on the southern bank of Tagus which offers the most beautiful views of Lisbon and has several restaurants known for their fresh fish.  A short walk alongside abandoned riverside warehouses will bring you to 2 restaurants on Rua do Ginjal, Ponto Final and Atira-Te Ao Rio, with excellent food and a breathtaking view of the 25 de Abril bridge. Come here at sunset for a-once-in-a-lifetime experience. (You can reach Cacilhas either by car or by ferry from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre).

Riding Elevador da Gloria

4. Ride an Elevador : Elevadors (funiculars) are a unique characteristic of the city. They are yellow, fun and a useful way for getting to the top of the city’s hills. The first ones were water-powered and built in the 19th century. The Elevador da Bica runs through the Santa Catarina in the Barrio Alto. The route of the Elevador da Gloria goes from Praca dos Restauradores to Sao Pedro de Alcantara and the Elevador do Lavra runs from Largo da Anunciada. The Elevador de Santa Justa  is an 45m-tall iron tower which rises to a cafe terrace with superb view.

A night with fado at Boteco De Fa

5. Indulge in the mystery of fado : “Fado is not meant to be sung; it simply happens. You feel it, you don’t understand it and you don’t explain it.” said Amalia Rodrigues, the greatest fado singer ever. If you are visiting Lisbon and you don’t attend a fado show, you ignore the true essence of the city’s life. There are several theatres, restaurants, fado houses, venues and bars where you could hear fado music. My suggestion is Boteco De Fa (R. do Vigario 70E -616, Lisboa) in the heart of Alfama, a genuine traditional restaurant with tasty local dishes and superb fado singers. Augusto Ramos, the owner and lead singer, will welcome you with a smile but when the singing begins all changed. The door closes, the lights are turned off and Augusto asks everyone to be silent. And then the magic happens …

Central tank of Oceanario de Lisboa

6. Dive into the world of Oceanario : Oceanario de Lisboa is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. It is located in the Parque Das Nacoes, which with its futuristic architecture is a complete contrast to the city’s old quarters. Here is where the modern heart of Lisbon is beating. The aquarium itself consists of four separate sea and landscape parts that represent the habitats of Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans. The main attraction is the enormous central tank with an amazing variety of fish, large and small. Sharks, stingrays, barracudas and many more coexist in a show of nature that will leave you breathless.

Shop window with pasteis de nata

7. Taste the famous pastel de nata : The most characteristic delicacy you can taste in Lisbon is pastel de nata, an egg tart pastry which was created in the 18th century by the monks at Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. At the time the monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes. With the leftovers they created these famous pastry. When the monastery closed, the recipe was sold to the owners of a nearby sugar refinery. Therefore the world famous Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem was established and still operates in Belem (Rua de Belem 84-92, Belem). Here the queue is usually long for take away but shorter for table service. In my opinion, other places to taste this unforgettable pastry are : Manteigaria (Rua do Loreto 2, Lisbon) and Confeitaria Nacional (Praca da Figueira, Lisbon).

 Praca Luis de Camoes in Chiado

8. Grab a bifana while strolling in Chiado : The Chiado quarter is the most bohemian and sophisticated district of the city. It is full of theaters, old-styles cafes, art nouveau buildings, beautiful squares, along with luxurious stores of international brands. While strolling the streets of Chiado, the best way to please your hunger is to eat a bifana, the most famous Portuguese street food. Bifana is pork steak, seasoned with mustard or hot sauce, on bread with garlic. On the corner of Praca Luis de Camoes, you will taste the best bifana in town, at O Trevo, a traditional tasca, where the late chef Anthony Bourdain taste bifana and characterized it as “perfection” (watch the related video here).

Lisbon has many more to offer and is a city that has to be lived in order to be understood.

Related posts :

Lisbon Stories (Fado Route)

Palacio da Pena (by AirDroneView)

4 must-do day trips from Lisbon (except Sintra)