Often overlooked for its popular European cousins, Lisbon specializes in lulling tourists into a laid-back charm. Perched atop seven hills, its alleyways wind between bleached-out limestone buildings. Fanciful St. George’s Castle peeks out to the skyline, lending an Old World mystery to the burgeoning cosmopolitan city. And despite the modern sleek buildings that are slowly rising throughout the city, village life holds strong.
But there’s more to Lisbon than lazing about in coffee shops nibbling pastéis de nata (cinnamon and custard tarts) all day: From exploring the Fado clubs in Alfama to taking in the view at the top of the Santa Justa Elevator; from laying out at the Cascais beaches to cheering on bullfighters at the Praça de Touros Camp Pequeno; from gazing at the gargantuan displays at the Oceanarium to gorging on bacalhau (salted cod); Lisbon’s quiet coastal capital is rich with opportunity.
How To Save Money in Lisbon
- Get a Lisboa Card These cards offer free use of all the city’s public transport and free or reduced ticket prices to many of the major attractions. They can be purchased at tourist information outlets or on Lisbon’s tourism website for 24-, 48- and 72-hour increments.
- Stay in a pension A pensão (pension) is like a guest house, with separated rooms and sometimes an adjoining bathroom to share with your neighbors. Rates are more than reasonable, especially since guest houses are usually located close to the attractions without the pricey hotel rates.
- Sightsee on Sundays Museums and many other attractions are free on the first Sunday of each month.
Lisbon Culture & Customs
Lisbon is growing in popularity as a travel destination, but it’s far less overrun than European tourist meccas in Italy, France and neighboring Spain. This makes it easier to find yourself among residents — even in popular tourist neighborhoods. Your neighbor in the cafe is more likely to be reading a Diario de Noticias (a popular local newspaper) than a Lonely Planet guide. If you’re comfortable speaking Portuguese or have at least packed a phrasebook, feel free to strike up a conversation. As the Travel Channel puts it, “Those who do visit Portugal will certainly notice and enjoy the hospitality of the Portuguese people, which in itself is an attraction of the city.”
Lisboans follow the Mediterranean clock. Meals are later than in northern Europe, but not necessarily as late as in Spain. Lunch typically starts after 1 p.m. and dinner after 8 p.m. Landing a 7 p.m. dinner reservation is a sure way to meet only tourists. The official currency is the euro. Since the euro to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates, be sure to check what the current exchange rate is before you go. Major credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and shops. Tips are welcomed, of course, and 5 to 10 percent will do in most restaurants if the service warrants. Smaller tips are the norm in cafes.
Lisbon is among the easiest cities in Europe to find a good, affordable meal. This is true for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any meal in between — even in many tourist districts. If you’re on a budget, it’s possible to experience the best of traditional Portuguese food for less than 30 euros per day, per person. Thankfully, Lisbon also has a cosmopolitan restaurant scene, and you can find just about any type of cuisine around town.
The Portuguese have cultivated a rich seafood diet, and you can find fish and shellfish on most lunch and dinner menus. Bacalhau (salted cod) is an especially popular traditional Portuguese dish. But it’s an acquired taste, so you might want to consider a backup option if you’re not feeling adventurous.
Another Lisbon specialty to try? Pasteis de nata. These tasty cream-filled pastries are everywhere in Lisbon. Eaten for breakfast, afternoon snack, or both, pasteis de nata are full of sugar and satisfaction. The most famous ones can be found at the Pasteis de Belém (in the district of the same name), which began selling them 200 years ago. The coffee in Portugal is not miraculously better than coffee elsewhere, but the Portuguese know how to enjoy it more than just about anyone else. Whether in the morning or afternoon, you can find Lisboans packed into cafes. Don’t assume cafes or “coffee shops” are necessarily limited to coffee, however. Affordable wine, beer, pastries and even full meals are available. It’s pretty easy to find a beer for less than 1 euro, for example, even in some touristy cafes.