7 highlights of Lisbon: a 48 hour itinerary

Arco da Rua Augusta Portugal was a country that in my world had long stood alone. For many years it had been the only gap on my western European travel map. It may be because it’s out on a limb; you don’t go through Portugal to get to anywhere. So it was a long overdue moment when we touched down in Lisbon and we were able to explore this country that brought us Vasco da Gama, Christiano Ronaldo and piri-piri chicken.

Praca dom PedroWe spent two and a half days in Lisbon and got to see a few of the main sights in that time. How much time do you need? That depends on how much you want to see, but what is not in doubt is the need to bring with you the right shoes to handle the city’s treacherous cobbles. I didn’t, and found myself nursing an impressive selection of blisters by the end of day 2. Self-inflicted but no less unpleasant as a result: be warned.

An easy to negotiate, the highlights of Lisbon can be divided into three areas. On a weekend trip allow each of these at least a half day.

Belem

Belem TowerIt is here that Lisbon’s most photographed building is found. The Belem tower stands on the shoreline, around 5km west of the centre of the city. The park and promenade in front of this chunky 16th century fortification are a popular spot for Lisbon families to enjoy the afternoon sunshine, and to watch the crowds of tourists presumably. The tower has been designated World Heritage Site status along with the nearby Jeronimo Monastery, and both are well worth the tram ride out of the city.

Padrão dos DescobrimentosA relatively new addition to the Belem district is the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, or the Discoveries Monument. This pays homage to the legions of Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, many of whom probably set sail from somewhere close to this spot. You can climb to the top of the monument to see wider views of the Tagus estuary, although the views from ground level are very good on a sunny day.

Downtown Area

Elevadores, LisbonLisbon’s central area is easy to get around by foot, and trams run around much of the city if your feet tire of walking. It’s a surprisingly hilly city so take the opportunity to make use of the funicular Elevadores. These bright yellow cars have shuffled up and down the hills of Lisbon for over 100 years; as well as providing an easy ascent to the best viewpoints in town, they are an attraction in themselves. The careful counterbalancing requires that a maximum of 20 people can go up the hill while only 15 can come down.

The walls of Castelo da Sao JorgeOther attractions include the impressive cathedral and the Castelo de Sao Jorge that overlooks every part of the city from its prominent spot high to the east of the central area. Although the castle is open until 9pm in the summer, be sure to get there before 5pm to see the Camera Obscura in action. As a big fan of these clever devices I was disappointed to miss out on this unusual view of Lisbon.

Monument to Dr José Tomás de Sousa MartinsAn obscure sight is the statue to Dr Jose Tomas de Sousa Martins above the centre of the city. He is a 19th physician who spent his life working with the poor of the city in the treatment of TB, eventually succumbing to the disease himself. Since his death he has been credited for many miracle cures and a legion of devoted followers come to the statue to give thanks, in the form of stone slabs carved with their personal messages.

The central area is packed with restaurants, most of which have touts cajolling passing tourists to sit in their chairs and eat from their plates. I have a strict rule about never eating at a place with a tout outside, and after a brief search we found the excellent Casa Da Mo, serving good Portuguese food in an unhurried and pleasant environment. We even went back there for our second night; something I rarely like to do.

Parque das Nações

Flagpoles of the World, Parque das NaçõesA new district that was developed on the east of the city to house the World Expo 98 event, it gleams in the shadow of the 17km long Vasco da Gama bridge. While the bridge dominates the waterfront, it is Calatrava’s Oriente station building that is king of the shoreline. A bus, train and metro transport hub, it is linked to the swanky Vasco da Gama shopping mall. I’m not a shopper but I did appreciate the well stocked food court.

Sea DragonMost visitors come to this district to visit the Oceanarium, said to be the second largest in the world. Be prepared to stand in line during busy periods as it is a very popular attraction; we queued for 20 minutes to get our entry tickets. Well worth a look, the central tank is home to a wide range of species, many of which presumably would never meet in the natural world. I was left wandering why many of the exhibits hadn’t eaten each other, and I concluded that they had become so deeply institutionalised that the killing instinct had left them for ever. Our personal highlight was the mystical sea dragon, which looked for all the world like a piece of plant life until it floated gracefully across its circular tank.

The Parque das Nações is full of weird and wonderful sights and you can easy pass a couple of hours here. Don’t miss the flags of every nation in the world here, along with a musical playground, volcano fountains and some very weird interactive sculpture.

Sintra

Palace at SintraWe took the chance to visit Sintra, around 30 km out of Lisbon and home to the magnificent Pena Palace. It’s well worth a visit but try to get there earlier than 10am – we didn’t and had to negotiate our way around in between several very large tour groups. There is a direct train service to Sintra from the city centre.

Lisbon Card

I was grateful to the Lisbon Tourism folks for offering me a complimentary Lisbon Card (ok, I did request it). With one free card we purchased another 48 hour pass for the normal rate of €29.50. This allows free entry to some city attractions, discounts for others and free public transport anywhere in the city.

Having a card is very convenient, especially if you end up using public transport extensively. However, I think it would be hard work to visit enough attractions to make the cards worthwhile financially. We did a lot in two days, and as our cards started at lunchtime we even took the chance to use the card in nearby Sintra on the third morning, yet we made savings of €42 between the two of us; good as we got a complimentary card, but not worthwhile if we had paid full price for two. The thing is that Lisbon’s attractions are very reasonably priced, meaning that even a busy itinerary of sightseeing, and there is much to see, will not break the bank.

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13 Responses to “7 highlights of Lisbon: a 48 hour itinerary”

  1. Hi Andy

    Wow, you sure did a lot in 48 hours! Thanks for the memories of one of my favourite places in Europe. I just love Lisbon for its walkability, relaxed ambience and interesting sights virtually every step of the way!

    Will you return?

    May 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm
  2. Hi Andy

    Lisbon looks amazing. Did you find that it was expensive to eat and do non-touristy things? I suppose the Lisbon card helped with your sight-seeing!

    May 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm
  3. My favorite city in all of Europe! Of all the places I have visited, would put it near the top of the cities I would want to live. Love the beauty, culture, and layout of the city. So easy to get around as well and a great walking city. I think you stole some of my photos though! 🙂

    May 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments. Gwen, we did do a lot but then there’s so much to see (as you know!). Agree with you about the walkability – a great city to get around.
    Lindy, the Lisbon card is tough to justify as you would have to go flat out around the tourist sites to get anywhere close to spending the equivalent of its value. Like I said, nothing is Lisbon is expensive compared to elsewhere in western Europe.
    Jeremy, I agree with you – it is a very pleasant city and easy to get around. We’ll have to compare our photos side by side 😉

    May 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm
  5. Marcia #

    Greetings from Lisbon, folks! It is with great pleasure (and pride) that I read this lovely article and your lovely comments. Thank you so much. Lisbon is, in fact, a beautiful town (though I’m a suspect, obviously) worth visiting it!
    I hope you all return to Portugal because us, Portuguese people, we’ll welcome you with arms wide open! 🙂

    May 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm
  6. Woah, that’s one big itinerary! Really interesting though, I am truly fascinated by the street-cars! I love seeing things that have yet to be transformed by technology.

    May 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm
  7. I have been dying to go to Portugal and this tour of Lisbon through your words has only rekindled that desire. How lovely.

    May 7, 2011 at 10:46 am
  8. Ana #

    48h gives you just a flavour… and a desire to get back. From May to October, Lisbon brights up with blue skies and sun shinning. Now blue jacarandas are beginning to blossom and it is the right time to start visiting the secret gardens Lisbon holds, such as Botânico, Necessidades, Ajuda, Ultramar, Gulbenkian, etc. June is the time of the Lisbon festivals, where old neighbourhoods are animated with local outside stalls with sardines, sangria and lots of music (not to forget the mnagericos!), everybody is out and there is a lot of events going on. And it is always time to start discovering beaches not far such as Meco and Alfarim where fresh sea food, lovely local Azeitão cheese, succulent grilled / lemon fish and white sangrias makes us wonder if this is not where we want to stay for the rest of our lives… well at least for me it did! Having a little place in the historic St. George Castle district that I love, sharing it with other travellers is a picturesque experience of old Lisbon that I hope you will enjoy: http://apartamentocastelo.blogspot.com/

    May 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm
  9. bethamy #

    Great itinary Andy I love portugal Going to visit again one day

    May 16, 2011 at 3:02 am
  10. Very helpful post! I’ll also be spending 2 1/2 days in Lisbon, so thanks for the highlights.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:49 pm
  11. Lisbon is a blessed city. The capital of Portugal has a huge cultural heritage to offer and a number of beautiful beaches around it with a great variety of waves. When it comes to sun and sea holidays, Lisbon is one of the best cities in Europe, but definitely is the best European capital in what concerns surfing. You can expect awesome weather and living atmosphere. Lisbon also offers many activities to do, do not just discover the urban side of it and more mainstream. There are plenty of amazing spots, less known and explored.

    For those who love surfing or want to have a different experience, I definitely recommend to have a look to Surf’inn Surf Camps is a surf camps network intended to develop and promote a set of surf and kite activities.. This coast attracts surfers from all over the word due to its amazing conditions.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:14 pm
  12. The creatures in the Oceanarium don’t devour each other because although they appear to be swimming next to each other, they are actually cleverly separated by invisible acrylic walls!
    You made some great choices in your Lisbon itinerary, not forgetting Sintra and Parque das Nações, and you were smart getting the Lisboa Card. In many cities those tourist cards are not worth buying but in Lisbon it’s actually a great deal, saving you a lot of money and time in transportation and attractions!

    August 29, 2011 at 10:51 am
  13. My favourite city of all time. Been back four times and looking for an excuse for a fifth visit!

    March 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm