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visiting lisbon

Inspired by a rubbish article I just read on Hello! I’m going to say something about Lisbon. The main point of difference will be that I have been to Lisbon.

When I say rubbish, I don’t just mean the spelling and bad writing, or the regurgitation of suggestions made in most guidebooks with embellishments like “discover” and “savour” as though the visitor will be overcome by rapture and stupidity from the moment they set foot off the plane. It’s rubbish as in nonsense, bullshit, fantasy. Take the …“endless white sands and unspoiled beaches in Cascais”. Sorry, nope. They end. Quickly. And they are crowded and grubby. Anyway, does anyone visit Lisbon to go to the beach?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great town. It’s bad travel writing I have a problem with.

When you live here you get spoiled. It’s hard taking guests around places you’ve been to several million times before and still maintain some enthusiasm and pride.

So this is my guide:

Don’t take people anywhere you won’t enjoy yourself. This means nothing you’ve done before unless it’s really worth doing again. No “must-dos” or “quintessentially Lisbon” just for the sake of it.

Eat a lot, relax a lot and remember you’re on holiday.

Don’t try to walk everywhere.


Torre de Belém

Fortunately Lisbon does have a lot of quality stuff to see. I can keep going back to the Gulbenkian and the Berardo in Belém because they are world class museums. The Gulbenkian is not trying to represent a nation’s cultural identity, and yet it does. This originally private collection shows you what one person can do in a lifetime. If that’s too serious then there’s the ridiculously camp Museu dos Coches or for a Portugal-specific experience there’s the Museu do Azulejo. I recognise that these museums are commonly recommended, but I’m happy to put my neck out to say that it’s because they are good, relevant, interesting and/or… fun.

Architecture is my thing and Lisbon is full of really remarkable buildings, new and old. It’s one of the things that drew me here. Oriente and Rossio stations exemplify the contrasts of Lisbon but also the boldness of this seemingly shy country. I can’t drag every guest around to my favourite buildings but most will happily take in a palace. Palácio da Fronteira (more like a private house, not like Mafra) doesn’t make it onto top 10 lists, give thanks, but it is a beautiful and memorable sight and very typically Portuguese.

But I always start a tour of Lisbon with a massive scoff at Confeitaria Nacional. If there is one single thing that defines Portugal in my mind it is pastry, and Lisbon has the best cafes in the country. The Nacional and Versailles are the pinnacle in show-off grandeur but there are less audacious shrines to the art of sweetness all over town. I challenge you to find better cakes and coffee anywhere in the world.


Lalique at the Gulbenkian

Public transport can be more than simply useful if you buy tickets for everyone before they arrive. I keep a stash of old cards which I fill up for the sole purpose of a tram to Belém, a ride on one of the three funiculares and for the ferry. Either very early or late in the afternoon get down to the docks and take a ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas, if only for the views of the city from the water. Gorgeous.

Lisbon is certainly not fashion Mecca, but if you do your research you can find some excellent small boutiques of designers lesser known and more original. Custo Barcelona  is a favourite with us, but there are other stores in the Chiado-Bairro Alto-Principe Real area that are home grown and representative of the small but lively creative industry in Portugal. Fabrico Infinito sells homewares, jewellery and miscellany. Less a souvenir, more a piece of art.

While restaurants serve food and hotels are places to sleep, in Lisbon they can be worth selecting for their historic value and interior design alone. You don’t necessarily go to Galeto or Casa do Alentejo for the food, but for the decor. Both high grandeur and cool can be found in Lisbon’s hotels, from the over the top baroque Pestana Palace, to the art deco Britania, über stylish Fontana Park and the very funky Florida or grass on the walls at Living Lounge Hostel. Just go for a drink at the bar if you’re not going to stay.


Britania Hotel

Overrated Lisbon: a strictly personal list

Castelo São Jorge

The Expo site: Parque de Naçoes, The Pavilhão and all that stuff

The Oceanarium

Cascais & Estoril – there’s nothing left of the 1930’s glamour

Vasco da Gama bridge – yes, it’s very long indeed, but there’s nothing on the other side and Ponte 25 Avril looks better.

Praça do Comercio – nice arch. The end.


Things I can do again

Jerónimos, Belém Tower

Taking pictures in the crooked lanes of Alfama & Graça

Eating with the povos: Casa da India and a hundred other tasquinas

Hunting fabrico próprio pastelaria, claro.


Good resources

The Wallpaper guide



museu-do-azulejo lisboa

Museu do Azulejo



  1. emma November 22, 2012 6:09 pm Reply

    custo barcelona used to be a favourite anyway… it’s gone 🙁

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  2. Johanna Bradley November 22, 2012 7:20 pm Reply

    Read with interest. It’s always interesting to have an insiders view. Belem’s impossible to resist, but I never made it to the Jeronimos Monastery because I was the victim of street crime on the intended day. I will go back at some point, because the Azulejo Museum is an absolute must for me. I’ll consult your site again before my next trip.

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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Victim of street crime? In Lisbon? Wow!

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    Margarida   Reply: February 3rd, 2013 at 10:27 am

    @Johanna Bradley, What a bad luck! I’m living here for 40 years and never had any trouble….

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  3. Ailsa November 22, 2012 8:17 pm Reply

    Love your blog, what I love about Lisbon is the great little shops hidden in little allies all over the place and of course the cafe, when I lived in Setubal I would go almost every week by train and wander off somewhere just to explore, actually it is worth going over the Pont Vasca da Gama bridge just to visit Setubal market and eat the fish you won’t find a better place for fish in Europe there is a restaurant behind the Tribunial can’t remember the name but the fish is just the best. Also the cafes in Portugal are for real Australia goes on about the cafe culture but there really isn’t one compared to Portugal how I miss it. There is a great dress shop at Principal Real called Espace B check it out stuff from Paris for great prices, and a florist call le nom de la rose my Facebook photo is taken with the florist.

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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    good tips. I also love all the small old shops – especially the hole in the wall ones around Largo Sao Domingo and the ginja bars. The baixa is full of excellent old shops, some with amazing old fit-outs. I love the art nouveau bit on Sapateiros and the haberdashery shops on Augusta (I think)

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  4. Ben November 22, 2012 8:28 pm Reply

    I largely agree with your “overrated” list (especially with regards the crowded Oceanarium), but the castle would remain on my “must do” list. This isn’t for the castle itself, but for the views – I love maps, and the views from up there are like the live version – I could sit and just stare for hours.


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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    fair enough… as a general rule I find “views” boring but the trouble is you dont know until you get up there. The disappointment then kills the location for me. The only consolation is when the journey up is fantastic… like the santa justa elevador. Sensational lift, view, boring.

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  5. Kathleen November 22, 2012 9:07 pm Reply

    Thank you, Emma, your article made me smile. Lisbon is my favourite city! Have you ever been to the Museu Bordalo Pinheiro? Small, but great :-). I hope I soon can make use of
    your recommendations for a visit in Lisbon. My ‘withdrawal symptoms’ because of not being in Portugal for more than a year are getting worse …

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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    strangely I havent been to the RBP in Lisbon. That’s the point too, is that there is genuinely always more stuff to see…

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  6. Julie Dawn Fox November 23, 2012 1:25 am Reply

    Ha ha. I read the same pile of tosh and thought that if they’ll publish that, there’s hope for me! I much prefer your guide to Lisbon – there are a few places, like the coach museum and Palácio de Fronteira, that I’ve yet to experience for myself -and I agree totally about the Park of Bations. My heart sinks every time I hear people sending unsuspecting tourists in that direction.

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    Julie Dawn Fox   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:26 am

    @Julie Dawn Fox, Oops! I meant Nations, of course.

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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    indeed, WHY DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE JOBS? and shouldn’t their job be, not writing a shit article but searching the web for us to write it for them?

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    Julie Dawn Fox   Reply: November 29th, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    @Emma, That would be a far better use of everyone’s time and money!

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  7. Steve November 23, 2012 3:43 am Reply

    Lisbon, my fave city in the world. The Texas Bar (I won’t go there) as an 18 year old sailor in the 70’s Portugal had a magnetic pull on me that still stays today

    Custard Tarts and coffee in that cafe in Belem (forgot its name but always has long lines to get in) is heavenly

    Good to see you back Emma on the blog Emma
    Steve in Queensland

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    Emma   Reply: November 23rd, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    ‘an 18 yr old sailor in the 70’s in Portugal’. Mate, that’s a byline for a book if there was.

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    Margarida   Reply: February 3rd, 2013 at 10:31 am

    @Steve, The custard tarts are the “Pasteis de Nata” and the cafe in Belem is “Pastéis de Belém”

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    mike beever   Reply: May 6th, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    @Steve, I used to go to the Texas Bar in the 1960’s as a visiting Merchant Seaman…what ambience the place had….a sloping entrance and the biggest pair of cows horns I have ever seen….

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    RON MCHALE   Reply: July 26th, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    @Steve, Hi steve I was also lured into the texas bar . in 72 when serving on the “TEXACO ROTTERDAM” there was also ” THE ATLANTICO BAR” nearby. remember running past it when my mate and i were being chased by the cops !!!

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  8. Nuvea November 23, 2012 1:55 pm Reply

    Happy to see another post by you! I will have to check out your recommendations the next time I am in Lisbon. I usually only stay in the country with my family, or go to the beaches…
    I did stumble upon a great little port wine tasting room in Lisbon; it was in a neighborhood of antique shops. Solar do Vinho de Porto. I spent the afternoon shopping for antique azulejos, then sat by the fire and sipped delicious samples of port with cheese and nuts for about 10 bucks. I read other reviews that say the service is poor, but I didn’t find that to be the case that day.

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  9. Ana November 24, 2012 7:21 am Reply

    I share your position about not taking guest to the same places. I much prefer to share the delight of the new find, with the exception ofthe occasional favorite, like Jerominos or Regeleira in Sintra.

    One of my favorite things to do in Lisbon is to wander and get lost. Last time we went looking for the Azulejo’s museum, we got lost, wandered through Alfama, until we followed the sounds of live music to end up sipping a cold beer looking over the port surrounded by Portuguese students – it was a great day, we’ll find the museum next time… or not.

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  10. Vern November 24, 2012 1:21 pm Reply

    I was interested in your take of Lisbon. When I travel I visit none of the museums, palaces and things to do. Instead I go to off beat alleyways and where most visitors never venture.
    I have followed this practice in all countries and thus have discovered wonders and delights, most of all I love to observe the local people and watch them go about their daily pursuits. Sometimes I get the opportunity to mime my way with ordinary people, and maybe even get invited to visit their homes, where I can really understand the way of live.
    Generally, I go to unknown cafes and like to sit amongst all locals, with no foreigners.
    In Hong Kong I went by tram from the dockside to the last stop and was the only European on the tram. Then I journeyed by ferry to a little unvisited island and spent two hours walking across this fascinating paradise, and only met local Chinese fishermen.
    After visiting the museum in Cairo – Egypt and seeing the pharoahs war carriages made out of pure gold I lost all further interest in museums.
    Should I visit Lisbon I would go out at night after 10.00PM and sit in an outdoor cafe and listen to Fado players until 3.00AM.
    All travel is about what the traveller wants to do, and not what the tourist operators tell you to do.

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    Ailsa   Reply: November 25th, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    @Vern, I do that too another thing I do is always get public transport to the airport it’s the best part of travelling I could tell you some great stories about some of the transport I’m been on to airports such fun and oh so cheap.

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  11. IsabelPS November 26, 2012 1:37 am Reply

    You left the metro out of your public transport recommendations, didn’t you? Well, it is definitely worth spending a couple of hours hopping in and out whenever one of the wonderful stations tickles your fancy.

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    Emma   Reply: November 29th, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    I believe the underground is for the dead. Nice tiles though.

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  12. Horatio Marteleira November 26, 2012 2:31 am Reply

    I lived in Lisbon (Campo de Ourique) for 7 years and translated, and still translate, a lot of those cheesy “savour this” and “discover that” crap…reams of it. If I had 50 euros for every time I translated “discover bla, bla, bla…” I could make a mattress of bills rather than keep them under the mattress.
    Hey, that’s how it’s written in Portuguese and that’s how they want it; they pay I dish it out. Hope you enjoyed the English version of the audioguide for the Tile Museum.
    Ah yes, what I was going to say is that you forgot to mention “streetcar 28”. I rode that thing hundreds of times and never took it for granted. “I always savoured the breathtaking scenery and discovered something new.”
    It’s a pleasure to see you posting again.
    Horatio (or Horacio – two names, two passports, two birthdates) live from Peniche.

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    Emma   Reply: November 29th, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    thanks horatio, and keep up the good work 😉

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  13. notebooksandteacups November 27, 2012 2:22 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    I think your blog is wonderful, and am a long-time faithful reader. (I generally read blogs on my RSS feed reader, so that’s why you haven’t seen me around previously… rest assured, I’ve been here!) I was recently nominated for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award, and have listed you as one of the blogs that I am nominating for the award in turn. Please visit http://notebooksandteacups.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/extra-blog-award-incites-fear-in-new-bloggers-heart/ in order to see my post which outlines the questions that you will need to answer, and note that the “rules” of the award stipulate that you should nominate between 10 and 12 blogs for the award yourself.

    I realize that I’m not on the Pulitzer committee, but please know that this nomination is heartfelt, and that I believe that you should be recognized for the awesome work that you’re doing. Congratulations.

    Thanks for the great gift that you give to the world through your writing and willingness to share your journey!


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    Emma   Reply: November 29th, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    so sweet, thanks a lot!

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  14. Carla Fernandes December 1, 2012 10:44 am Reply

    Being a “lisboeta” living abroad, I read your post with much interest. One of my favourite guides of Lisbon is this one: http://www.lecoolbook.com/lisbon
    Though a little dated, perhaps (2008), it offers a different perspective from the usual “discover this” “enjoy that” bla bla bla.

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    Emma   Reply: December 5th, 2012 at 6:25 am

    That’s a superb tip! I want the whole library! Cool!

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  15. john December 3, 2012 4:35 am Reply

    Hi Emma
    like your comments on visiting Lisboa. We arrive 31 Dec for 6 days and neeed cakes/natas every day at 11am precisely. Can you suggest a tour/itinerary based around your cakey favourites?
    john with an incomplete casa near Moncarapacho

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    Emma   Reply: December 5th, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Yes. I accept the mission. Will report shortly.

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  16. Ana December 5, 2012 4:11 am Reply

    Emma, the best cake house/pastelaria in Portugal is the Academica, in Évora. In Lisbon, they are mostly quite good.

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  17. Portuguese in OZ December 7, 2012 5:40 pm Reply

    Emma, greetings from Sydney. I read your blog with interest. I have been living in Sydney for quite some time, but I have lived in Lisboa whilst at Uni (5 years). I like to read your remarks as you make us see things about Portugal we usually do not notice, maybe if one day I make my remaks about Sydney I may highlight a Sydney that you is differnet than what you know and perceive. Castelo de S Jorge overrated? a suggestion, try to go there one day at sunrise or early in the monring? Praca do Comercio a nice Arch..humm, different tastes..

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  18. Leonardo December 19, 2012 4:13 am Reply

    Hi, Emma, i follow your blog for some time now.

    You said that you like architecture. Architecture can mean also a country’s History.
    So, i’m Portuguese and in this particular matter i have to disagree with you. The Sao Jorge (Saint George) Castle is “not” about the view.

    Is more like like the “piece of resistance” of Lisbon’s and Portugal History. If there’s a symbol of my country is this particular monument: it covers every centuries and all the different mentalities: the mourish presence, the reconquista, the independence, the people’s life, the royal palace, the court’s life, the royal weddings, the reception of Popes or of navigators, the first staging of famous Portuguese plays, the hospital and the religious events, the military life, the king’s archive, and later the reconstrution after the 1755 earthquake, the list goes on forever. I believe the stones really can talk there.

    Being classified as a national monument since 102 years now, was not only a rational attitude, of all the Portuguese castles this one in particular represents much of our story.

    The Praça do Comercio again, is not about the arch, it’s a beautiful square that is by all means sub-exploited. The King Joseph’s equestrian statue is under huge restoration nowadays until next summer, will be nice to see what it looks like. The square and the statue meant to represent the minister Mister Pombal and the King’s powers.

    It is (was…) also a gate for the river: did you know that yours king Edward VII (1903) and Queen Elizebeth (1957) visited Portugal and entered the country from this gate? Quite royal 🙂

    Also remember in this square, the Portuguese Monarchy ended and in 1974 the April’s revolution have important activities there too. So there’s a lot of History here.

    All the other sites you noticed overrated are what we can call new Lisbon, they’re not touristic sites per se (i mean historic places), except Oceanarium. They are interesting to see by a Lisbon citizens because we remember what the place looked like in the past. The transformation is truly remarkable, let me tell you.

    Ah, don’t forget this (a tipical tourist mistake), Lisbon is not about the places around the river. I feel like everything else is underestimated.

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  19. Allen May 2, 2013 8:39 pm Reply

    Nice post Emma.I am reading your post first time And yes lisbon is such a nice place. Streets are like a venue there.We have been there once. But didnt click the pictures as such.The architecture of buildings is very unique always reflects the classical node and panoply of real Lisbon.Lisbon always been good to travel in every season and traveling frames over there are awesome.Like there cafes, narrow streets with deep coloured stone floor , colorful residential areas. Really Nice Post

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