Fado Music, Forest Castle Grounds, and the Freshest Seafood: The 4-Day Weekend in Lisbon

Tramway in Lisbon
PEC Photo / Getty Images

Lisbon has a San Francisco-like charm (or is it the other way around?)—down to the hills, cable cars, and Golden-Gate-style bridge (called 25 de Abril, to commemorate the 1974 military coup). Your visit is easily paired with Porto to the north, a quick zip down into the fabled Azores, or with numerous other European cities, per TAP Air’s Stopover Program (more on that below).

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So stop putting off one of the tastiest, friendliest, brightest, most affordable European capitals. At any time of year, Lisbon outshines the rest, and it will color you charmed. For the rest of your life, you’ll recall the wine, seafood, pastries, music, tiling, and—we’ll stop there, but you get the idea.

Here’s what to see, eat, and do on your visit to Lisbon, as well as where to stay and how to get there.

How to Get to Lisbon

TAP Air Portugal has a stopover program that allows you to drop into Lisbon or Porto en route to your final European or African TAP destination (there are 70+, including others around Portugal). You can stay up to five nights at no extra cost to your airfare. (Check our Porto weekend guide here.) TAP has partnered with more than 150 hotels and service providers to enhance your stay, too. In the U.S., departure points include NYC, Miami, and Boston, with new roundtrip service from Chicago, Washington DC, and San Francisco starting in June 2019.

Where to Stay in Lisbon

Corpo Santo: You can’t get a better location than Corpo Santo, nor a more authentic-to-local 5-star experience. Its spot along Cais do Sodre puts you at the heels of all public transit in the city, along with walking distance to majority of the sites, nightlife, and commerce. Rooms and suites are understated and sophisticated, while decor and dining summon the azulejo-tile details you’ll see up and down the street. If your aim is relaxation and want to be spoiled, stay here.

The Lisboans Apartments: Much of Lisbon’s center has turned into an Airbnb free for all. It’s a sad reality, and a consequence of all the attention the world is giving Portugal now. If you want to find a happy medium between homestays and hotels, consider The Lisboans. It’s Airbnb-style living with 5-star-caliber details, tucked into the winding roads of Alfama. You’re a stone’s throw away from all the action (and right next to half the fun!). Best of all, you might get a few design ideas for your own home, because their taste is just that good.

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What to Do in Lisbon

Fado: After dinner (or during), plant yourself in Bairro Alto or Alfama by 9 p.m. in order to get a genuine fado performance. You’ll get serenaded with mandolins and heartbreaking lyrics. You don’t need to know the words in order to feel the singers’ nostalgia for the past. (And don’t worry, it’s invigorating to experience, and not the least bit depressing.) Consider Clube de Fado or Mesa de Frades in Alfama, and Tasco do Chico or Adega Machado in Bairro Alto. See if they list performance times or have reservation options, just to be safe.

Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal
Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal joe daniel price / Getty Images

Padrão dos Descobrimentos maritime monument, Belém Tower, and Jerónimos Monastery: These three things needn’t be mentioned in the same breath, but they do come at you in quick succession as you walk the waterfront en route to Belém. Padrão dos Descobrimentos (The Monument of Discoveries) is a memorial for those who explored the high seas and helped build and defend Portugal as early as the 14th century; the monastery and tower are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The monastery took 100 years to build in the 16th century, and was where many sailors prayed before setting sail. The tower was a lookout point and first line of defense for any soldiers on land.

Castelo de São Jorge: You can tour this medieval castle and its grounds from atop the Alfama neighborhood. It’s a good warmup for your day trip to Sintra.

Ride a cable car: If you must.

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Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology: It’s all in the name, with exhibitions from visionaries in all three fields. This newly opened museum is a worthwhile stop on your trek to Belém, and is itself an architectural marvel.

Museo Nacional do Azulejo: See tile displays and learn the history of Portugal’s famous hand-painted detail.

LX Factory: A hipster paradise in Alcântara, with lots of shops and restaurants quietly nestled under the bridge. Good for an easy lunch and a solo stroll.

Jardim de Estrela: Bring a book and relax under massive trees, or just lay out and people watch.

Neighborhood checklist: Stroll the following neighborhoods to get a good lay of the land.

  • Bairro Alto: meandering side streets and excellent nightlife in the city center
  • Alfama: hilly, cobbled streets and one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods
  • Santa Catarina: sprawling views from atop Bairro Alto
  • Cais do Sodre: a waterfront neighborhood perfect for a long walk down the coast, or a glass of wine at Time Out Market
  • Alcântara: docking district-turned-hipster-stomping-grounds
  • Belém: medieval architecture and waterfront memorials
  • Baixa: main shopping district, leading to the grand city square Praça do Comércio
  • Parque das Nações: shopping and lots of green space, as well the Oceanarium
  • Principe Real: hilltop boutique shopping
  • Avenida de Liberdade: high-end shopping
Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology:
Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology PYMCA / Contributor / Getty Images

Oceanarium: We know a good aquarium when we see one. And Lisbon’s is humbling. Whatever the current special exhibit is, get a ticket for that, too.

Avenida de Liberdade and Parque Eduardo VII: The city’s finest shopping district, and the park adjacent to it. Eduardo VII has lots of public events, book fairs, and walking mazes. There’s a good overlook of the city, too, if you climb the hill at its rear.

Carmo Convent: The skeletal but beautiful remains of a Gothic convent, which was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.

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Where to Eat and Drink in Lisbon

Taberna da Rua das Flores: Put your name in early, or enjoy the consolation prize of waiting your turn with a bottle of wine outside. Here’s another reason to get there on the earlier side of the evening: The local-fare menu changes daily, and the sooner you eat, the less likely it’ll be crossed off the chalkboard.

Time Out Market: We wouldn’t normally send you to a food court, but this one is a must. Dozens of notable (and classy) vendors line the perimeter, from dinner to dessert to wine, so that everyone can eat whatever they want. Stop by early in the day to check out the farmers’ and fish markets, too.

Restaurante Esperança: Italian excellence. Maybe it’s weird to seek out Italian in Portugal, but it’s still one of Lisbon’s best, plus the one in Chiado is on the Fado music street, Rua do Norte. (The one in Alfama is worth your stop, too.)

Pharmacia: The execution is a little odd (you’re sprawled out in lawn chairs and drinking from pharmacy-themed drinkware), but wine is wine, and the Tagus River view from atop Santa Catarina is incomparable.

Fumeiro de Santa Catarina: Smoked Portuguese tapas, tucked into the hilltop side streets of charming Santa Catarina.

COMOBA: Easy standard-fare morning eats in Cais do Sodre. Come for breakfast, brunch, or coffee.

A Tabacaria: Start your evening here, and come with an inventive mind. The bartender doesn’t use a menu. Just tell him your preferred flavors (like gin and spicy) or ask him to make whatever he wants. (He made me a pumpkin puree and mezcal cocktail, and he makes a killer cucumber and gin, too.)

Pastel De Nata
Pastel de Nata Lauren King / EyeEm / Getty Images

Lisboa Tu e Eu: An adorable seafood restaurant in Alfama. Pop in after exploring the historic neighborhood; it suits non-seafood eaters, too.

Lounge: An innovative name, no. A fun venue with a cool 20- to 30-something crowd with great DJs, yes.

Lux Fragil: Lisbon’s main club, but a guaranteed fun night if it suits your agenda. For good house music, go here around 2 or 3 a.m. on weekends—the locals stay out all night! Check their schedule, too, since Thursdays often entail a notable concert.

Atalho Real: Because sometimes you need some fine-ass steaks.

Tantura: Not Portuguese (it’s Israeli food), but also a perfect, bustling dinner joint—and every bit as flavorful as the local cuisine.

Pastéis de Belém: This is the place to get your pastéis de nata (also known as pastels de nata, which are those famous bite-size custard tarts).

Palacio da Pena, Sintra, Portugal
Palacio da Pena, Sintra, Portugal Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Day Trip from Lisbon: Sintra + Cascais

Hop the hour-long train to Sintra for a day of exploring castles, palaces, and the city’s pine-forest hills. That’s the main draw: the hike to the regal sites, as opposed to the town itself. (Though it’s every bit as charming as one would expect from Portugal.)

You can download the CP train app and buy your tickets there; otherwise it gets super crowded at the train station, with long lines all morning. So if you buy tickets there, give yourself an extra hour.

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After arriving in Sintra, the three key stops for your hike (or taxi-hailing) are Quinta da Regaleira (palace grounds), Castelo dos Mouros (literally “Moorish castle”), and Pena Palace (a romantic palace and the most photographed of the three). All in, it can fill the day, so it might be worth cutting either of the first two, if you’re feeling diminishing returns. People always debate which one is cooler, so you just have to choose for yourself. Don’t miss the palace and grounds at Quinta da Regaleira, though. You can also add the city’s medieval Sintra Palace to your list if you’re having a regal fit for the day (with its outstanding Azulejo tile rooms), though I suggest you get on your way to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe. Here you’ll get an expansive ocean panorama, but you won’t need to stay long. To get there, hail an Uber from Sintra, then offer the driver extra fare to wait for you there and finish driving you to Cascais after; it won’t cost you much, and will save you the impossible task of hiring a car from the coast.

Then, have the driver drop you in the seaside town of Cascais, which will grant you an easy 30-minute train home. (Be sure to check the train frequency and schedule the day before.) While in Cascais, you can cozy up with a glass of wine along the waterfront, which is often deemed the Riviera of Portugal. If you aren’t otherwise in need of a shower, stick around for some seafood, too. It’s a relaxing end to a hard-hiked day. (One of our favorite wine and seafood joints in town is The Tasting Room.)

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