Where to Wander in Lisbon

July 7, 2011

We missed out on Brazil in South America but we knew we had Portugal down as our first European destination. We expected a culture change and once we heard the language we knew it was a whole new world. Every time we tried to do something typically tourist in Lisbon we felt like we were being foiled. So we just ended up wandering.

Lisbon laundry

Lisbon’s older bairros offer charming streets and laneways for wandering.

We wandered into the streets of Alfama on a Sunday afternoon and marvelled at the narrow streets and staircases, colourful tiles and views of the city. Few people must have dryers in Portugal, for vivid hanging laundry completes the aesthetic. In our neighbourhood, the Bairro Alto bars beckoned us to cheap sangrias in the street. People move at a slow pace anyway because of the hills and slippery stone sidewalks. It’s not even very hot here for July: the highest temperature we experienced was 25°C.

Lisbon Lisboa skateboarding

Skaters use space in Bairro Alto

Lisbon is both easygoing and hip at the same time. Our hostel bedroom featured Colleen Moore wallpaper and a balcony where we could check out the neighbours. A young couple gave each other haircuts on denim washing day and the elderly woman staring out her small window, perhaps at the noisy dog drawing our attention down to the Union Jack Mini Cooper parked in front of a flash renovated apartment house. While some residents looked like exports from Williamsburg, Brooklyn or San Francisco’s Lower Haight (and we did meet a guy from SF), others wore shorts and summer hats while they poked around shops in Baixa and Chiado.

Bairro Alto sunset

We enjoyed sunsets from our balcony and views over the city.

Strutting down the outside street mall of Rua Augusta, we were reminded of our tourist status.

“Hashish? Coke?”

Guys shoved such wares under our noses as we tried to read our map. This practice took us back to Cartagena where we were constantly accosted in this way. It continued into the night in Bairro Alto, by hustlers competing with the restaurant touts. We were, however, reminded of the cosmic shift in our location when we approached a crosswalk. Waiting for the traffic for the opportune time to pass, we were pleasantly surprised when the first car stopped for us. This was power over cars we hadn‘t felt in some time.

Modern tram Lisbon

One of Lisbon’s more modern trams in Belem

Belem felt different, full of museums, monuments and wide open spaces. We spent some time in the Modern Art Museum, which was free and contained some excellent works by well-known artists. Views of the 25th of April Bridge allowed us a closer look: the beautiful suspension bridge is the same colour as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but the design mimics the Oakland Bay Bridge of the same builders.

jesus tiles Lisbon

Religious pictures are a popular subject for the tiles that decorate buildings’ exterior walls.

In general we loved Lisbon the most when we wandered away from the well-known tourist haunts.

Tram 28 crowded Lisbon

The packed 28 tram is a tourist favourite – see the major sights for €2.50


  • While it’s always good to speak at least some of the local language, Portuguese is not on the lips of most travellers. Relax – at least some English is spoken pretty much everywhere and Portuguese people are generally friendly.
  • Skip the 28 tram (€2.50) and explore some unique shops, even if you don’t buy anything.

tile alcove lisbon

  • Shun the recommendations with lines out the door. Enjoy the grungy and unusual aspects of Lisbon instead.
  • Plenty of free lookout points exist around the city. Try Alfama and the Bairro Alto and head up the stairs.
  • Lisbon has world-class museums closed only on Mondays. Visit the Museo do Fado, Museo do Chiado and any of the attractions in Belem

Lisbon urinal

  • Most restaurants have an interesting custom of bringing ‘couvert’ to your table. These are usually a bread basket, butter, cheeses, olives, ham and/or pate. Check the menu for prices as even that half-pat of butter can run you €1.
  • Ignore anyone asking you if you want drugs on the street. White foreigners are often targeted.
  • If you use the Metro or train system, keep the green card for recharging or pay € .50 for a new one unnecessarily.
  • AskMe Lisboa centres are located around the city, offering help with accommodation, activities, maps and other information.
  • Try green wine and sangria. The former is actually a refreshing white wine while the latter is cheap and delicious.

Lisboa lavanderia

  • Head out to the relaxing beaches west of the city for a few days, including Cascais, Estoril and Guincho. We’re relaxing in Cascais as we write this. The temperate weather is comfortable, but very breezy. Northern Portugal awaits…

We have one more day in Lisbon after our trip to Porto. Which of your favourite spots in the city have we missed?

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  • Deco McDeco

    Sounds like a cool joint, would love to go there one day. Some many things to see and do …

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      There are many streets to get lost in and all of them colourful.

  • http://www.ramblingtart.com/ Krista

    I lived in Portugal as a nanny and was so dirt poor that all I could do was wander the streets as well. :-) I absolutely LOVED it!! :-) I lived in Porto and Coimbra/Miranda de Corvo, but never made it to Lisbon. I’d love to wander there one day. :-)

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Haha – you must go to Lisbon if you love Portugal! We’re in Porto now and have yet to explore as we just got in today. =)

  • http://www.lisaoverman.com

    I loved my visit to Portugal. You’re right the people are SO friendly and the fish, cheese and fresh options, amazing. I fell in love with the tile work. I ended up buying a tile mural and accent tiles for my kitchen.

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      We do love the tiles! We’re in Porto now and just saw a whole church covered in blue patterned tiles. So interesting – the sidewalks as well.

  • http://roymarvelous.com/ roy | cruisesurfingz.com

    I’ve great things about Lisbon but still haven’t managed to make it over there. Green wine huh, sounds interesting. What did it taste like?

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      It reminded me of a Sav Blanc but that’s a bit simple. It was light white wine, lower-alcohol and inexpensive; refreshing =)

  • http://www.yTravelBlog.com/ yTravelBlog

    I wish i can remember the name of the place we went to but it was an old church on a hill somewhere (yeah I know helpful) The Church had been converted to a beer hall/beer garden. It was beautiful with great views. There was a beerfest on there when we went. We had a great time, the highlight of Lisbon. Hope you can find it

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks for the tip – that sounds ace! We’re going to have to ask where that is when we go back in a couple of days =)

  • http://www.thetravelchica.com Stephanie – The Travel Chica

    That Urinol sign is awesome!  Lisbon looks like the type of city I would love to wander around for hours.

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      It was! And it had a line, of course =)

  • Sherry

    I have not been to Lisbon, but I do want to visit. The two things that I’ve been highly recommended to do are: 1) Go to a fado bar to  watch the show. 2) Skip the tours and just take in the city by simply walking in it.  By the way, the view from your balcony is spectacular, especially with that sunset.

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks, Sherry! We thought about a Fado show but weren’t sure where to go for the best value – maybe an investigation for our last night in Portugal =)

  • http://TravelingCanucks.com/ Cam

    Loving the tips – would love to visit Portugal again sometime soon!

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks so much, Cam! =)

  • http://twitter.com/100Mileshighway Katherina

    I went to Lisbon last month and loved it! One thing I really liked about the city (particularly) were its miradores! I loved the Mirador de Graça, which has a small bar were you can drink a beer or a coffee. Sunsets are spectacular! There’s also the Mirador de Santa Luzia, which is said to be one of the most beautiful ones in the city. 

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks for sharing those, Katherina =) Not sure if we wandered past those because I don’t know the names of everything in the city but when we get back we’ll look for one to watch the sunset!

  • inka

    Great summery of what and what not to do in Lisbon. If you have a chance travel north to the border with Galicia/spain, enjoy medieval towns and the best ‘carabinieri’ (king prawns) you will ever taste, not to mention other seafood and fish. Did I miss it or did you listen to any fados?

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Oh, Inka that sounds heavenly – wish we had time to go up there! We did not listen to any Fado but everyone keeps recommending it. Wish I knew the best place!

  • http://twitter.com/emilyinchile Emily

    Vinho verde is so good! My dad buys it in California, and I love the little bit of sparkle it has to it – perfect for summer.

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      It really is! I’d never heard of it before…

  • Sonja

    Thanks for the great post – appreciate the tips! can’t wait to hear about you adventures in Porto. We are headed to Portugal at the end of the month. Do you mind sharing where you stayed while in Lisbon as well as Porto?

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks, Sonja! We stayed in hostels in both Lisbon and Porto: Oasis Backpackers Mansion in the Bairro Alto in Lisbon and Magnolia Porto Hostel

  • http://turkishtravelblog.com Natalie

    Love the post and the pictures. Would freak me out though if someone offered me hash or coke

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks, Natalie – oh goodness are they shady. They just hiss at you and then flash the goods in your direction. Creeps me out! We encountered a guy in Porto as well…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Randy-Kalp/753634832 Randy Kalp

    Young skaters, religious wall art and trams, yep, I’m sold!

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      It’s pretty cool! And we love Porto too =)

  • http://www.kriskoeller.com Kris Koeller

    Looks like a beautiful city.  Great photos!

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks Kris. It sure was fun!

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Love Lisbon!  One of my favorite cities in Europe!  I didn’t experience some of the things you did in Lisbon though – no hash or coke for me!  I thought it was an incredibly diverse and reminded me a lot of my experiences growing up in the South.  I found that the people there were some of the best English speaking people I have met in all of Europe.  As for other things to do, wander the streets is a great idea.  Wander the Bairro Alto area which is hip and young.  Also, I really enjoyed the Gulbenkian Museum though it was a bit difficult to find at first.

    I can’t wait to go back to Lisbon!  Upon my first visit there, it is one of the best cities I have ever visited!

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      It is a great city – glad you agree! =) I loved learning about the mix of people there and their history.

      Hopefully you got that we didn’t actually accept the hash or coke, haha

      Have not heard of the Gulbenkian Museum – what is it?

  • Mark

    I’ve been living in Lisbon for 8 years and I must say those hash dealers are very well known and unavoidable downtown.  They’re actually all of the same Gypsy family, it seems.  They’ve been there for years and can’t get arrested because supposedly what they’re selling is not real hash.  So their only crime is false advertisement, and tourists who end up buying their “product” obviously won’t go to the authorities to complain about it afterwards.  This page explains it all better: http://www.lisbonlux.com/crime.html

    Lisbon is not one of those cities to see from a tourist bus.  It’s a place that demands wandering, and you’ve missed its essence and beauty if you don’t just “get lost” on the streets.

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Thanks so much for the info, Mark! Shame they can’t do anything about them because they certainly freak people out.

  • http://manonthelam.com/ Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    I’ve been hankering to get to Portugal for some time — one of my best friends is from there, and they are some of the friendliest people on the planet. Plus they have GREAT food! 

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      You’re absolutely right – great people and food!

  • Claire

    I haven’t seen too many bloggers write  on Portugal, so this is a cool post. It is on my list to experience, but I need to wait until the price is right!

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Portugal was quite expensive – I don’t think any more than the rest of Europe, though…

  • http://www.delapuravida.com Erin in Costa Rica

    I want the URINOL sign for my house, that is just awesome :)

    • http://inspiringtravellers.com/ Andrea and John

      Hahaha…we loved that too!

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