Lisbon is having a moment. It’s the place on everyone’s lips and its breezy sea views, shiny tiled facades and red roofs are on many an Instagram feed. The food surprises, with a depth that goes far beyond the familiar pastéis de nata (custard tarts) that are so well known and loved. There is history; from the 12th-century Moorish castle that dominates the skyline to the beautiful 16th-century Manueline Monastery of Jerónimos and the bombastic 18th-century heart of Lisbon, built after much of the city was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.
There is authentic, genuine and hospitable hospitality; and a wave of new and affordable hotels along cobbled streets and flanking bougainvillea-covered squares, all exuding a sense of place. Because Lisbon, unlike much of the world, has not become global: it remains resolutely Portuguese, facing the sea, with its back to the rest of Europe and its identity intact. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in this exciting city.
For more Lisbon inspiration, check out our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and attractions.
How to spend your weekend
Start with a food-focused walking tour that puts the city into context along the way. Highly recommended are Culinary Backstreets, which take you to an authentic, hidden Lisbon where generations of families have salted cod or prepared piri-piri chicken over charcoal pits.
Lisbon’s domed 19th-century market hall, the Mercado de Ribeira, was converted in 2014 into the Time Out Market, a bustling food hall that remains a major attraction. Some of Lisbon’s best culinary experiences can be found here, from shops owned by Michelin-starred chefs like Henrique Sa Pessoa to exquisite melt-in-your-mouth hams and unctuous Serra da Estrela cheese at Manteigaria Silva, a Lisbon institution . Or lunch on sushi with a twist at Confraria.
Located along the Tagus River, the Bélem district contains some of the capital’s most interesting historical monuments, such as the Bélem Tower and the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Take tram 15 or 127 from Praça do Comércio and get off at the monastery. This extraordinarily ornate Manueline monastery was built from the taxes levied on spices flowing into the country, and contains the tomb of the great navigator Vasco de Gama, who led Portugal’s Golden Age of Discoveries, as well as that of writer Luis de Camoes who the history of them.
A few steps further takes you to Café Pastéis de Bélem, named after the custard tarts (also called pastéis de nata), which were created here in 1837 via a secret recipe from the monastery. They are still served warm from the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon.
After exploring the heritage in Bélem, take a stroll through the lush tropical botanical gardens, created in 1906, which stay open until 8 p.m. in summer, until 7 p.m. in autumn, and until 6 or 5 p.m. as winter progresses. o’clock. There are more than 600 species of exotic plants and trees, mainly from former Portuguese colonies, along with ducks and peacocks, a herbarium and a large lake.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, you can neatly connect the importance of spices in Portuguese history and their use in contemporary cooking. Book a table at Michelin-starred restaurant Feitoria, located on the edge of the river near Bélem, and prepare to have your senses dazzled with dishes of Malagueta, chocolate and goat’s milk from talented chef Andrea Cruz . Find more of the city’s best restaurants in our guide.
Start by climbing the winding medieval streets of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, Alfama, and winding your way to the city’s Moorish highlight, Castelo São Jorge. Dating from the ninth century, the dusky orange walls of the old castle dominate the town and are visible from almost every street. From here, the whole of Lisbon is spread out below you.
Go to the Gulbenkian Museum, named after one of the greatest philanthropists of the 20th century, the Armenian Calouste Gulbenkian, who left much of his art and historical objects to his favorite city, Lisbon. Look out for priceless Greek vases, ancient Chinese porcelain and paintings by Rembrandt, Monet and Van Dyck. Find more of the city’s top attractions in our guide.
Lunch at JNcQUOI, on Lisbon’s main boulevard. It’s perfect for people watching while enjoying the lobster hot dog.
Head to Sintra and explore this extraordinary aristocratic hill town west of the city, a Neverland of fairytale palaces, manicured flower gardens and wild forests. Don’t miss the gardens and palace of Monserrate. The train to Sintra leaves every 20 minutes from Rossio station and takes about 40 minutes.
On the way back, you will stop at the busy seaside resort of Cascais and enjoy an ice cream at Santini, an institution in Portugal that has been around for 60 years. Take the Atlantic promenade to Estoril, where ancient palaces from a bygone era stand among tall palm trees on the water’s edge.
Mini Bar, in central Lisbon, is one of chef José Avillez’s many restaurants. It is a gastro bar set in Bairro Avillez and perfect for those who love culinary wizardry. The El Bulli olive is not what it seems; the Algarve shrimp ceviche is served on a piece of lime and the golden egg is made from hummus. The informal atmosphere, affordable prices and friendly staff make for a fun night out, and there is a live DJ on Fridays and Saturdays. Find more of the city’s best bars in our guide.
Príncipe Real is the neighborhood of the moment. It’s a hotspot for Lisbonites, with great bars (Pavilhão Chinês, also known as The Chinese Pavilion), restaurants (A Cevicharia) and concept stores (Embaixada).
The most charming way to tick off a few sights is to ride the yellow tram number 28 as it passes through Lisbon’s most beautiful and historic streets.
Buy a map of the city, a pair of flats to help with the cobblestones, and walk everywhere. Lisbon is really not big and as you pound through the streets you get under the skin of the city.
Head to the roof terrace of Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, where you can enjoy the lively atmosphere and excellent cocktails at Seen with Lisbon at your feet.
Did you know?
Coffee, originally from Brazil, is excellent here, whether in one of the 19th-century sidewalk kiosks or in an elegant café, such as Café a Brasileira.
Where to stay in Lisbon
The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz’s prime location, just off the main Avenida de Liberdade, means easy access to the capital and to art museums such as the Gulbenkian nearby. The décor is grand, think chandeliers and enormous floral displays on gilded furniture. A sleek new swimming pool awaits outside.
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The Palacio Principe Real with the pink walls is located in the greenest district of Lisbon. The 25 rooms overlook the red-roofed capital or the Palacio’s lush gardens (think jacaranda and palm trees, vibrant bougainvilleas and wisteria climbing the wrought-iron staircase), which are surrounded by a sleek swimming pool. Awarded the best hotel rooms in the city by Lisbon Insider.
From €432 per night.
Teatro B&B is an enticing offering in the cobbled heart of Lisbon’s Bairro Alto district, with 20 opulent bedrooms and theatrical interiors. The two-storey café, with independent access from the street, is a popular local breakfast venue.
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What to take home
Portuguese olive oil is delicious. Many shops allow you to taste before you buy, but to explore the plentiful choice, head to Manteigaria Silva, Lisbon’s best delicatessen, where regional hams hang from the ceiling and cheese-filled cabinets tempt shoppers.
From the stable of the 19th-century Vista Alegre come glass and crystal, porcelain and pottery, which is as relevant today as it was about a century ago. Buy from their store in Chiado.
When should I visit Lisbon?
Lisbon is a year-round destination; rarely too hot or cold. The first spring buds usually appear around the end of February (purple Jacaranda trees dominate the boulevards in May), while the last gusts of Saharan-warmed winds keep the mercury high well into November. August is the time when locals escape for the breeze of the Algarve and tourists flock for the guaranteed blue skies of Lisbon.
Essential information: what you need to know before you go
British Embassy: 00 351 21 392 4000; Rua de São Bernardo 33. Open Mon-Fri, 9am-1pm and 2.30pm-5.30pm
Emergency services: call 112
Lisbon Tourist Office: 00 351 21 031 2819; visitlisboa.com, Praça do Comércio
Local laws and etiquette
Phone code: dial 00 351 for Portugal and then 21 for Lisbon if calling from Great Britain
Time difference: no
Flight time: London to Lisbon takes just over two hours
Mary has lived in southern Portugal for over twenty years. When she’s in Lisbon, you can find her chatting with the chef at the latest culinary hotspot, trying out a new rooftop bar or sampling the newest hotel in the area.