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How to make the most of 3 days in Lisbon Portugal

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Spending three days in Lisbon

An important part of European history, great food, architecture and people have all put Lisbon on the must-visit map. Our guide on how to spend three days in Lisbon will give you plenty of inspiration, tips and advice to plan your trip.

Portugal has always been one of the best destinations to visit in Europe, it’s just that not many people realised it. Prior to our arrival in Lisbon, Portugal’s historic capital, we had memories of a previous visit here.  It was back in 2004, long before Portugal had ascended to its current levels of tourism. 

We had driven up from the Eastern Algarve and had certain memories that we were keen to revisit.  The memories of crooked laneways, tiled buildings, tony bars and steep steps were relived once more as we made our way around the time-worn neighbourhoods of Lisbon.

There is so much to see and do in Lisbon that you really should spend at least a few days here.  We spent almost four days here which was perfect for the start of our road trip through the west coast of Portugal.  Lisbon is a city that is spread out, and the major areas and points of interest that you may want to explore aren’t located conveniently together.  There is a good public transport system here, but it is also an easy city to walk around (notwithstanding the hills).

lisbon sign
Lisbon Portugal centre

Lisbon facts

Firstly, where exactly is Lisbon? Lisbon is the largest city in Portugal with over 500,000 people calling it home. The capital city can be found on the Atlantic Ocean and along the impressive Tagus River. When you are standing on the Lisbon waterfront, you could be forgiven for thinking the river is indeed an ocean. The Tagus River that starts in Spain empties into a large bay before hitting the Atlantic Ocean.

Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe and this is no more obvious than when you are strolling around the neighbourhoods. Down by the waterfront, new development is being encouraged, mixing in with the older establishments. Its southern border lies along the water. In the north it is bordered by the Portuguese Serra De Sintra mountain range, the location of Sintra, a great day trip from Lisbon.

cathedral near largo do carmo
Near Largo do Carmo Cathedral

Lisbon is an ancient city, built over seven hills.  This means that whilst there is an abundance of great spots for taking in sweeping city views, it also means walking up hills.  Unless you’ve been practising your hill climbs prior to your arrival, the hilly streets can test even the fittest of visitors.  For those with mobility issues, you will need to choose your path carefully.

Pro tip: As is the case with much of Lisbon, the pavements are also covered with decorative mosaics, tiles and marble.  Add some water to them and a downhill trajectory, and the chances of slipping on these surfaces escalate considerably.  It is important to wear good walking shoes with good grip.   I will never forget the time in 2004 when a friend of a friend that we were dining with slipped on a plastic bag in the wet on a Portuguese footpath.  She broke her arm when she fell. 

I loved how the hills meant the addition of some incredible stairways in the laneways, linking neighbourhoods together and creating a sense of secret passageways behind the scenes.

city views Lisbon
One of the many amazing views over Lisbon

The two faces of Lisbon

Lisbon is a perfect city to spend a weekend break, especially given its proximity to major European and UK cities.  A few hours on a plane and you’ll find yourself being welcomed into a city full of colour and fun.  The scenes at the airport as we arrived validated in an instant the fact that this city had become a party town.

Lisbon has become one of those cities, like Amsterdam or Budapest, that is actively promoted as a great place for bucks (stag) parties. It’s also a destination of choice for many celebrating milestone birthdays and events.  Case in point, as we stood to wait for our luggage, we were surrounded by about 20 women, all uniformly attired in “Sharon’s 50th birthday” t-shirts.  Stereotypically, these groups will create a certain reputation for the city which isn’t entirely fair, but nonetheless real.

What this also does, is contribute to an influx of tourist-oriented bars where people go to drink a lot and party. Then there’s the restaurants, that are opened to satisfy these weekend visitors. In these you’ll find cheap food, made quickly and without any of the normal love, attention and produce that goes into making the beautiful traditional Portuguese good. These visitors don’t come for the food.

The other Lisbon is the one we loved and fortunately, there’s plenty of it to see and find. You just need to get away from the areas that cater to the party people. Fortunately most of the people mentioned above are largely confined to bars and nightclubs.  They weren’t the ones heading out in the early hours of the morning for fantastic views over the city, nor wanting to get into every nook and cranny to discover cool places to eat.

Things to do and see in Lisbon

Our strategy was to divide our daily plans up into the local area districts, visiting the key sights in each of them and spending time wandering around the streets, finding all the hidden gems.  

Pro Tip:  Don’t try to see all the key places in Lisbon in one day.  It just can’t be done.  If you are only in Lisbon for one or two days, select the most important places to visit and concentrate on spending quality time there. 

Here’s our guide of how to spend three days in Lisbon.  All of these were intertwined with cheeky stops at market stalls, hole-in-the-wall bars and other spots that only the locals would know about.

Visit the markets

The Portuguese love food and this is evident in the number of markets or mercados in the city.  Visiting them was always going to be high on our list.  Ever since that last visit, we had always remembered fondly the fresh fish and simplicity of the Portuguese food and cooking.  We couldn’t wait to get in amongst it all once more.

The Mercado da Ribeira built right near the waterfront ,and in one of the oldest areas of Lisbon, is an example of how markets are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  No longer just a place where the locals come to buy their supplies, they are now hip places of interaction, food and entertainment. 

During the early hours of the morning and up until the early afternoon, the outer part of this market is alive with the fresh produce vendors, doing what they and preceding generations have been doing since it commenced in the 1890s.

sardines
Fresh sardines are a Portuguese speciality

The internal part of the market, known as the Timeout Market, is filled with vendors selling food.  It operates all day but really comes into its own from lunch onwards.  By evening, it’s the place to be and finding a place to sit at a communal table to eat your freshly prepared meal is like trying to find gold in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Here you can dine on freshly sliced jamon and match it with a cheese or two.  Add a glass of Portuguese favourite, rosé, and you’ve got the perfect match. 

Asian food, Portuguese chicken, sardines and anchovies served straight from their colourful tins sit alongside stalls aligned with Michelin-starred chefs.  Like any good market in Portugal, there’s also a chance to sample the fabulous Pastel de Nata, the mainstay of their culinary history.  These egg custard tarts are divine, but not all are made equal. 

Here at patisserie Manteigaria Silva, Stirling declared he’d found the best ever.  It was also at this moment we decided we would test as many pasteis de nata as we could over the coming two weeks, with an overall decision to be made on conclusion of our time in Portugal. 

inside the mercado da ribeira
Inside the Timeout Market (Mercado da Ribeira)

Pro tip: Scan the food vendors first and make a decision as to what you want to eat and then send someone else in your group off to buy it while you find a seat.  It’s a fun environment to eat in and dealing with food envy is rife as someone always sits near you with something else you wish you had ordered!

Dotted throughout the city, providing access to the various local communities, the markets offer a chance to explore the local foods and indulge in that wonderful European culture of a stand-up bite to eat with a glass of wine, regardless of the time of day.  In Portugal, they love sangria too – no surprise given its proximity to Spain – and you’ll find plenty of that in the markets also.

lisbon market
Mercado Baixa

Eat Pasteis de Nata

Ok, I’ve already indicated that we made this a bit of a pastime whilst we were here.  Fortunately, I lost count after a while as to how many we had actually “tested”.  Unfortunately, my photos and video don’t lie.  Eatine one Pastel de Nata or many Pasteis de Nata is an absolute must when visiting Lisbon.

Read more >> Which pastel de nata did we love the most in Portugal?

pasteis de nata
Pasteis de Nata

Take in the views

With seven hills there is an almost never-ending amount of vantage points from which to get a great view.  These locations, called miradouros, are mentioned in any Lisbon guide book

What they don’t mention however is that you really shouldn’t kill yourself trying to get to them all, regardless of how each one may be talked up as being the best.  They are all mostly equal, with clear views out over the terracotta rooftops.  Most of them give 180 or 360-degree options, and all will allow you to look down over the city towards the river.  The view from Sao Jorge Castle was one of the best.

Other mirodouros include:

  • Mirodouro Das Portas do Sol
  • Mirodouro de Santa Luzia
  • Mirodouro Graca
  • Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte
  • Mirodouro De Sao Pedro de Alcantara
  • Miradouro de Santa Catarina
view from sao jorge
View from Sao Jorge Castle

Visit the important historical sites

One of the oldest cities in Europe, and virtually destroyed as a result of an earthquake in 1755, it boasts many interesting monuments and buildings that either survived or were rebuilt in the following years.

Praça do Comércio

Once the site of the royal palace, following its destruction by the earthquake, the square became the most important commercial hub in Portugal.  Located alongside the Tagus River, it was an essential trading port.  Today it’s an area where people flock for events and to meet up with friends.  It’s also a transport hub with ferries crossing from here and trams heading out to neighbouring area Belem.

Many cafes and restaurants can be found here, but if you can, do what the locals do and pop into a local market and then come back here to eat and people watch.

Praça do Comércio
Praça do Comércio

Castelo São Jorge

Almost visible from any location in the city, the 11th century Castelo São Jorge sits in its forceful and strategic location above the town. In a city that already has plenty of great outlooks, you’ll get one of the best views over the city from up here. Take the time to wander around its gardens and soak up all the history of this incredible structure that has been a home, palace and fortification.

Walk the ramparts, climb up the towers and watch out for the peacocks. We purchased the skip the line tickets ahead of time to avoid the long queues.

sao jorge castle

Rua Augusta

Running from the arch (Arco da Rua Augusta) on the square is Rua Augusta, Lisbon’s mosaic-tiled, pedestrianised commercial street.  Here you will find all of the main shopping chains and local boutiques along with services such as banks, cafes and restaurants.  You’ll also see your fair share of buskers and people trying to sell you things you don’t need.  It is, however, a street full of history.  Look up and you’ll see buildings dating back to the period after the 1955 earthquake and under the Millenium Bank, you’ll find old ruins of old Roman Baths which may be seen on a guided tour.

main pedestrian street
Main pedestrian street in Lisbon

Santa Justa Elevator

Visitors to Lisbon are encouraged to take the Santa Justa elevator to the top to enjoy views of the city.  If you are only going to be in Lisbon for a short time and can’t access the other miradouros, then the view from this part of town is definitely the one to include.

I loved the elevator for other reasons. Built out of wrought iron, and reaching far into the sky, it is simply beautiful.  Once used to transport people from the bottom of the steep hill in the Baixa district, today locals would keep far away.  It’s become one of the premier tourist attractions in Lisbon, generating long snaking queues for those wanting to steal a view from the top platform.

Unless you really love queues (which I don’t) or you really want to experience the lift (which I didn’t), there’s a faster and cheaper way to get the same view without potentially wasting hours, yes hours of your time.

By walking just a few streets, (turn left from the Santa Justa Elevator, then right, right and right again) you can access the viewing platform of the Santa Justa Elevator from the Largo do Carmo.   If you wish to get right to the top viewing platform, a small payment can be made here for access.  If you need to get back down to where you started, the lift that provides access for the Bellalisa Elevador restaurant can be used for free.

view from santa justa
View from Santa Justa elevator

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

This magnificent building survived the earthquake with only minor damage.  I shudder to think how much history was lost during this time.  Inside the walls are covered with blue and white tiles, once covered up in a previous era, now being carefully uncovered and celebrated.  Frescoes adorn the ceilings and a large cloistered area sits in the centre.  Climb the stairs all the way to the top and once again marvel at the beautiful view from yet another city viewpoint.

Catch a tram

I love a city with trams.  There’s just something very special about these age-old forms of transport, clunking around on equally ancient tram tracks.  In Lisbon, if the trams aren’t hugging the corners, barely missing the buildings, they are climbing the tight hills.  The number 28 tram is an iconic route to catch, taking you through the narrow and often hilly streets of the Alfama district.  

This one comes with a warning as well.  While it is part of the usual public transport route, the bright yellow tram is often the first thing visitors to Lisbon want to do.  This means huge queues and long waits as the trams don’t hold a lot of people.   If you aren’t one of the first people on board, you’ll also have to stand meaning you won’t get much of a view either.

While it got us up to the area we wanted to explore, I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch this particular tram again.

tram in lisbon portugal
The #28 Lisbon tram
hilly street with tram

The pink street

Photos of this street flood Instagram. It will be enough to make you put a visit to Rua Nova do Carvalho at the top of your list.  Why?  Because it looks gorgeous!  The bright, hot pink painted street just makes you want to go and check it out.  In 2011, the street was painted in an effort to gentrify an area near the Cais do Sodre railway station that was the frequent hangout of sailors and prostitutes.  Now, it’s a funky little area, full of nightlife and bars.

But let’s talk about THAT pink.  Unless it’s just something that you seriously want to do, I’d give it a miss.  Why?  Because it’s just not that pink.  In 2011 it would have been, proudly showing off its shiny new coat.  Today, after years of general traffic, it’s more of a dirty pink, covered with gum and looking very uninteresting.  The photos you will see of it are heavily edited.

Check out these below so you know what I mean.

Walk the streets of each district

Alfama

Alfama is one of the oldest districts in Lisbon, once the home of dockworkers and sailors alike.  Today, you can still see evidence of a grungy past, but signs of revitalisation are occurring with funky wine bars and cafes popping up along the cobbled streets.

It’s here where I pause to think about the state of Lisbon.  When you look closely at it, it’s actually quite a dirty looking city.  Many of the walls, particularly in the inner city are covered in graffiti (not street art, although some may view this as one and the same).  The buildings show the signs of being in an extremely old city.  Worn, tired and dirty, but for some reason, the splashes of brightly coloured tiles and paint seem to give this city its real persona.  

This isn’t a city that has spruced itself up to be put on display for tourists.  This is a real city, full of locals going about their daily business and living in houses that could be centuries old.  You’ll see no better example of this than in the Alfama district.

We took the tram up to Largo da Graça and then took in the view from nearby Miradouro da Graça.  From here we could see the Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora, so we took to the streets and walked on up.  Later we walked up the hill to the Castelo de Sao Jorge.

walk the streets of alfama
The streets of the Alfama district

Have a beer in a city park

Lisbon is a casual city and little pop-up bars exist all over.  At the end of a busy day walking the streets, it’s good to pull up a chair, sit in among the locals and enjoy a cold beer.

having a beer in a local park

Track down the best Piri Piri chicken

If there was one thing on our mind when we returned to Portugal, it was to eat Piri Piri chicken.  A favourite in the Algarve, it’s not as common up in these parts, so the hunt was on!  There are a smattering of places where you can buy dishes imitating this moist, chilli-oil chicken but unless you find the authentic locations, you’ll come away disappointed. 

piri piri chicken lisbon

Find a ‘hole in the wall’ bar

I keep talking about our first trip to Portugal in 2004.  It obviously left a lasting impression on me.  I remember our host, Mary taking us into a small village near the resort she owned.  Here, in the pouring rain, she pulled us into a hole in the wall where we were faced with several local men. Suddenly three small shot glasses appeared in front of us filled with ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur.  There are plenty of opportunities to do that still in Lisbon. It’s fun searching for them.

bar hole in the wall

Find a street party

We visited Lisbon in June, right in the middle of the Festival of Saint Anthony.  The city really comes alive during this time, with parties in the streets every night.  By day, the streets are normal, but by around 5 pm, the minibars and portable beer kegs start getting rolled out.  BBQs are set up, cooking the strong-smelling sardines, and everyone gathers in the street to chat, drink, eat and dance.   Seeing grandmothers sit at the front of their house that they have transformed into a portable bar is a sight that continues to elicit a smile from me every time I think about it.

street party

Sit with the locals and take in the sun

The promenade that runs along the Tagus River is a place of great frivolity, especially in summer when the sun is out and everyone is feeling happy.  The bars and restaurants here are full and mobile vendors sell organic orange juices and ice cream.  It’s easy to participate in such activities, or simply to pull up a chair and take it all in.

locals sunning themselves near the ocean

Check out the strange rock creations

Whilst you are on the promenade, be sure to pay a visit to the strange rock creations.

Visit Belem

Only a short tram ride out of Lisbon, Belem should not be missed.  Whilst most people will go here for the “famous” Pasteis de Belem and the Belem Torre (Tower), there’s so much more to do here.  

Don’t miss >> The best ideas for a one-day itinerary in Belem

belem torre
Belem Torre

How to get to Lisbon

By air

The Aeroporto de Portela, Lisbon Airport provides easy access to the Portuguese capital with regular full-service and budget flights from the UK and Europe.  Direct flights from the US and Canada are also possible.

Coming from Australia, we flew via Hong Kong and then Paris to arrive here.  It was a huge flight – 47 hours from the time we left home until we arrived in Lisbon.  Not for the faint-hearted.

Getting to the city is easy via taxi, Uber or the Aerobus.  We caught the Aerobus, a shuttle that runs every 20 mins to the Cais do Sodré train station.  

There is also a Metro station that runs directly to the city centre. The ‘Aeroporto – Saldanha’ line takes you to downtown Lisbon and takes around 20. minutes to reach the city.

By train

Travelling by train is possible from within Portugal and also from Spain, which also has connections to other European cities.

By car

Portugal can be reached easily by car via Spain.  While I don’t recommend having a car in Lisbon, if you are planning on seeing more of Portugal, road tripping is a fantastic way to see the country. In this case, do what we did and hire a car or motorhome once you have spent enough time in Lisbon.

Staying connected in Lisbon

Hotels and many of the cafes and restaurants have wifi.  If you are needing to stay connected more often, especially if you are road tripping and need access to Google Maps, we recommend a local sim or travel wifi.

Getting around Lisbon

Public transport is well connected, easy to use and inexpensive.  With trams, buses, metros, chair lifts and even elevators part of the public transport system, there are many options to get you around the city.  If you are staying in Lisbon for three days, or longer, consider buying a travel card.

We walked everywhere in Lisbon, apart from when we caught the Number 28 tram and the tram to Belem.  If we needed to go somewhere a bit further afield, for example, a restaurant at night, we just caught an Uber.  

Alternatively, buy a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off bus in Lisbon. You can buy your tickets ahead of time and they will only start counting down the time period the first time you use and activate them. Depending on your itinerary, you can buy a one-day ticket or there are others that cover up to three days.

Where to stay in Lisbon

Hotels are in high demand during the peak summer season, so if you are planning a future visit, I’d recommend getting in as early as you can.  The usual big chains operate here but there are also many boutique hotels.  

Because we were staying for three days in Lisbon, we wanted to get a taste of the local community as well as have a kitchen for self-catering.  We stayed in a local apartment in the Bairro Alto district, right in the heart of everything and close to the Mercado da Ribeira and public transport options.  

Pro Tip: Air conditioning in apartments in Lisbon can be scarce.  If you plan to stay in an apartment in the summer, be sure to confirm that they have air conditioning or else you are going to have an uncomfortable stay

More reading>>  Family hotels in Lisbon

Heading to Lisbon? You can check out all hotels, reviews, availability and prices and book right here.

Thinking of going on a road trip through Portugal?  Let us help with planning tips and inspiration.

Lisbon travel guides

Other useful Lisbon information

Lisbon Card

If you are planning on staying in Lisbon for three days or more, we recommend the Lisbon card. This gives you unlimited rides on public transport as well as free or discounted entry to many of the main places of interest in Lisbon. It will also cover some of the significant monuments in Belem.

Buy your Lisbon Card online

Lisbon Tours

Food

If you are tired of walking around yourself, or know ahead of time that you would love to have someone teach more about Lisbon; its history, food and wine. Or, you’d just love to have the hassle taken out of your travel adventures, there are many excellent tours available.

One of our favourites, is food-related, of course. We always take a tour with Eating Europe when we can. We can recommend the Lisbon Food Tour (book here) and if you get to Porto, they also have a food tour there.

Fun

There is a very popular day trip from Lisbon to Sintra that sells out fast, especially in summer. It’s always best to buy your tickets online, ahead of time, as soon as you know your dates.

Book the small day trip tour from Lisbon to Sintra which includes a side trip to Cascais here.

Another popular tour which is a lot of fun combines some of the best things to do in Lisbon; drink wine, sail on the river and watch the sun set. Jump aboard a sailing ship for two hours of relaxation, seeing some of the best monuments in Belem. The 2-Hour Lisbon Sunset and Wine Sailing Tour can be booked here.

Wine

We also loved this wine tour. Wine is a very important part of Portuguese culture, but many of us don’t know a lot about it. Take this premium wine tour in Lisbon and be taken to three of the best wineries in the city and enjoy a sumptuous lunch.

Book your flight: Flights are an important part of travel and we’re always looking for the best deals. If you can travel mid-week and be flexible, you’ll often find great deals on flights. We use I Want That Flight in Australia (for domestic and international flights deals). We also use Skyscanner and Momondo(US) and Airfare Watchdog is a useful resource for checking flight prices.

Book your accommodation: We all love to stay in different places. From the comfort of a self-contained apartment or house to a resort or luxury hotel. sometimes we just need something quick, easy and comfortable for an overnight stay. Vrbo is great for holiday rentals of more than seven days and often has great discounts for longer periods. Trip Advisor is perfect for getting reviews, checking availability and pricing comparisons all in one place. For the same reason, we also love Booking.com (they have excellent cancelling and refund options) and Hotels Combined and have often found great savings on their sites.

Book your rental car or motorhome: We always use Rentalcars.com anywhere in the world for car hire. We recommend Apollo Motorhomes in Hamburg (use our code APDEBEERCROI for €50 off your hire) and Anywhere Campers if you want one-way hire motorhome in Europe. If you’d like to buy your own motorhome in France, we use and recommend France Motorhome Sales.

Book a tour:  We travel independently but occasionally even we find a great tour we are dying to take. If you are looking for advance tickets to an attraction, groups tours or private tours, we use and recommend Get Your Guide and Viator. Both have a great range of tours and flexible cancellation policies. If you are looking to do a food tour in Europe, we also recommend Eating Europe Tours.

Be covered: We always travel with travel insurance. We did it before the pandemic and it’s even more important for us to do so now. We use Cover-More in Australia. SafetyWing has great rates for travellers who are away from home for extended periods. World Nomads also has good coverage.

Be ready: Make sure you pack a few essentials; universal adaptor, power bank, noise cancelling headphones

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