Set over seven rolling hills with vast picturesque vistas, Lisbon is a truly beautiful city. Yellow trams chug up cobbled streets to lofty viewpoints or miradouros, ramshackle orange-roofed houses are painted in perfect pastel shades and clad in ornate patterned azulejo tiles, while sun-drenched terraces provide a welcome resting point along the way. Meandering through back alleys you’ll come across tiny wine bars playing local fado music, historic patisseries and boutiques with wood-panelled cabinets that have remained unchanged for a 100 years, next to shabby-chic shops and bold, colourful graffitied walls. Lisbon’s a bit rough around the edges, but it is charmingly so.
I had never been to Portugal but Lisbon had long been on my wishlist to visit. So, when my boyfriend turned the big 3-0 and I wanted to whisk him off for his birthday weekend to somewhere sunny and warm, but not too far away, it seemed like the perfect place to explore, enjoy and indulge ourselves. We’d had quite a stressful few weeks so a couple of days email-free in a pretty city with nothing to do but let our feet guide us was absolute bliss.
The weekend was a surprise and he didn’t know where he was going until he got on the aeroplane and heard the air stewardess speaking portuguese and guessed. I had roughly planned an itinerary and booked a restaurant for his birthday night, but for the rest we just made it up as we went along and weren’t too worried about rushing about to see things and tick off boxes, we just wanted to breathe it all in and take our time.
So here, I’ve created a travel guide for 3 days in the sunny portuguese capital, including the best coffee, culture and cute corners of the city away from the crowds. I’ve collated all the places we visited in a handy Jauntful map below.
There is also a downloadable pdf version which you can print off here or just click on the tab on the right above.
Our itinerary in brief…
Day 1: Explore the beautiful old district of Alfama
Day 2: Culture, culture, culture!
morning: Explore Belém and the Unesco world heritage site Mosteiro of Jerónimos, afternoon: visit the cultural centre and museum Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
Day 3: Explore Baixa, Bairro Alto & Chiado, including the Museu de Design e da Moda and Museu do Chiado
And here’s what we got up to in more detail…
Day 1: Explore Alfama
Alfama is one of the oldest districts of the city and also one of the prettiest. A web of cobbled streets weave uphill from the imposing Gothic cathedral Sé to the commanding Moorish castle of São Jorge, passing shaded terraces and bars spilling onto walkways. On the steep climb up, miradouros or viewpoints provide breathtaking views across the rooftops and the river Tagus beyond. Start at Miradouro de Santa Luzia with its bougainvillea draped outlook and Largo das Portas do Sol further along, before making your way up to Miradouro da Graca for a well earned pit stop and cold drink.
We loved Cafe da Garagem in Alfama. Hidden beneath a theatre, it’s a little gem of a place far from the madding crowd. The light, bright conservatory-like room looks over this incredible view of the city and serves great coffee, cake and fresh juices. You can easily while away a whole afternoon here, whether it’s simply looking out at the view or playing chess and chatting away. There’s quirky details too – the tables are made of doors, there’s vintage touches everywhere, and the receipt even comes in an old shoe!
Day 2: Belém
On the second day we headed a little further out of the city centre to Belém, home to some of Lisbon’s best museums and top attractions. We dipped into the awe-inspiring Mosteiro of Jerónimos, a Unesco world heritage site, and walked around its golden cloister admiring the ornate arches and expressive gargoyles while avoiding a couple of showers.
Lunch was petiscos or tapas in 2 a 8; tempura green beans, fragrant clams and fresh octopus salad, before leaving room for one of the famous pasteis de natas from Pasteis de Belem. They’ve been making the traditional sweet custard tart since 1837, following an ancient recipe from the monks of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
Next up was Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, one of our favourite finds of the trip. Much like the Barbican in London, it’s a Brutalist, concrete arts venue designed in the 1960s, with a modern art gallery and architecture exhibitions, an auditorium for concerts and an open-air amphitheatre in the surrounding leafy gardens. It was designed by three Portuguese architects – Ruy d’Arthouguia, Alberto Pessoa and Pedro Cid, who envisioned it as an enormous cultural centre, where the public could flow freely between auditoria and exhibition spaces. We spent so much time wandering through the jungle-like gardens, admiring the architecture and stopping by the lake-side cafe that we ran out of time to actually see the art inside!
Day 3: Explore Baixa, Bairro Alto & Chiado
On day three we explored a couple of other districts in the centre of Lisbon. Baixa, Bairro Alto and Chiado are slightly chicer, refined versions of Alfama, with smart boutiques, rich, ornate buildings and art galleries. The back streets still have the same rough-around-the-edges charm, with hidden cafes and laundry strung up from one building to another drying in the breeze.
We started in the heart of the city at Praca do Comercio before taking in two art galleries – the Museu de Design e da Moda and Museu do Chiado further west. Housed in a former bank, the Museu de Design e da Moda is worth going as much for the building as for the design and fashion inside. Iconic furniture from the likes of Alvar Aalto and Ron Arad rub shoulders with fashion from Christian Dior and Balenciaga against a backdrop of rough concrete and rich marble panels.
The Museu do Chiado, split between two buildings including a former convent, shows 19th and 20th century works from artists such as Rodin as well as contemporary Portuguese work. Stop off at the cafe and enjoy their small sculpture garden.
We then meandered our way up to Bairro Alto, climbing up to the steeply inclined Elevador da Glória, Lisbon’s second oldest funicular that connects Praça dos Restauradores to Rua São Pedro de Alcântara. We chanced upon Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, a fine viewpoint with the best views across the city. Here the city has the feel of Paris, with peaceful flowing fountains and relaxed open-air cafes – with the sun shining and the sky as blue as blue can be, it was the perfect ending to the trip.
We still had so much to see and only really scratched the surface, but that gives us an even better excuse to visit again. I loved the city’s undeniable charm, and the hodgepodge of art, culture and local life that gently buzzed from it’s streets. Lisbon, we can’t wait to be back!
All images my own, except the images from Jauntful in the guide widget.