Portugal used to be the underdog of Western Europe, but in recent years, or maybe the Ronaldo years, it has become a hot destination with way more to offer for way less money than most Western European countries. I definitely found that to be true, and I wasn’t particularly budget conscious during my 10-day visit. There was just too much sangria and Super Bock to drink and beautiful chocolates to buy.
I visited the sights without a map, discovered some hidden chocolate gems, and got sucked into a tourist trap like a novice. This is Part 1 of my Portugal series to help you navigate and love Lisbon.
From the airport, you can connect directly to the red line metro station. You can buy a reusable card for .50 from the machines, which are in English and Portuguese. One trip on the metro is 1.40 euros. The metro is easy, clean, cheap, and efficient. So are the comboios, which are above ground trains to the suburbs. You can use the same rechargeable card for the metro, comboios, and buses.
Taxis are cheap and most are honest, using their meters and taking you straight to your destination. I only used one, to get to the airport, and it was cheap, efficient, and the driver was nice. Tips are not expected, but if you round up to the nearest euro, the driver will be very happy.
Getting to Alfama:
If you’re accommodation is in Alfama, the old part of the city, you’ll likely be headed to Santa Apolonia Station, which has both metro and comboios stations. It’s at the end of the blue line metro. Once you get to Alfama, you’ll need a map or Google maps in order to find your way through the maze, but once you get to your hotel, hostel, Airbnb, it’s easier than you might think to get around the old city.
I suggest buying a SIM card to use while in Portugal so you have access to Google maps. You can buy a Lycamobile SIM card for 7.50 euros in the airport in a shop called FNAC, but tell the clerk you need data because this card is just for calls. He will install your SIM for you and enter all the magic codes to turn that calling power into 1GB of data. I made a couple of calls, but I could not text. FNAC is located near Starbucks and you’ll pass it on the way to claim your bags. I saw other people buying inexpensive phones in FNAC instead of SIM cards, so maybe their phone didn’t take a SIM? This might be another option for you to stay connected.
There is a Vodafone kiosk in the arrivals hall after you claim your bag and exit. I didn’t know this or I probably would’ve gotten my SIM card from them. But the Lycamobile worked great and had fast data speeds.
Tipping your waiter:
Portugal isn’t like France or some other European countries where tipping isn’t expected or you just “round up” to the next euro. In Portugal, a 10% tip in any restaurant where you receive table service is expected, appreciated, and usually well-earned. No one will be insulted if you leave more than 10%.
Big bottle of water 1.20 euro
Latte or cappuccino 1.50 – 2.00 euro (unless you’re in a tourist trap…)
Beer 2.00 to 4.00 euros, even for a really good one like Super Bock
Meal in a local restaurant 5.00 euros
Meal in a touristic restaurant 5.00 to 50 euros, depending on food, drink, and entertainment available, such as Fado
What is Fado?
Fado is live music and singing in the evenings in local restaurants. It has a long history, and its own museum in Alfama. It may involve a Portuguese guitar or other instrument, and a female singer who belts out ballads in several languages. Some of them are very dynamic performers and it’s well worth seeing. I went to a restaurant called Royal Fado Restaurant that I can highly recommend for its Fado, its food, and its service. I think they primarily serve tourists, but I really enjoyed it anyway.
Must see in Lisbon:
If you only have 2 or 3 days to spend in Lisbon, here’s a list of must sees.
#1 In the neighborhood of Belem (take the green line to Cais do Sodre, and then switch to the combois and get off at Belem) a visit to Jeronimos Monastery is a must. You can see the church for free, but it’s worth it to pay the 10 euros to see the cloister, which is the most unique I’ve ever seen. You can get a combo ticket that includes the monastery and Belem Tower for 12 euros, but you can only get it here, not at the Tower. At the Tower, a single ticket is 6 euros, and not worth it, imo. See “Tourist Traps” below.
#2 Across the street from the monastery, is the Discoveries Monument. You can walk around it and take all the pictures you want, but I recommend paying the 5 euros to see the exhibit on Racism and Citizenship on the bottom floor, and climbing the stairs to the top for the views of Jeronimos Monastery. I suspect they had to close the elevator due to the sheer number of people that would be waiting in line, because there isn’t much room at the top. I guess no one wanted to climb the seven flights of stairs, because it was just me and two other people up there.
From Belem station, exit and climb the stairs to the footbridge where you can cross over the main road, turn left, and walk the short distance to Jeronimos Monastery which will be on your right. To get to the Discoveries Monument, you don’t need to cross the road. Just exit the station and continue west on foot along the water. From the Discoveries Monument, you can walk under the main road to get to Jeronimos Monastery.
#1 Lisbon Cathedral or Se Cathedral – free to enter and stunning inside
#2 Miradouro de Santa Luzia – free viewpoint worth climbing the hill for the iconic views, which are much better here than from the Santa Justa Elevador which is likely to have a long line
#3 My favorite site in all of Lisbon, and during this entire trip, was Sao Domingos Cathedral just off Rossio Square, behind the McDonald’s. This church survived earthquakes and fires, and the columns inside were not repaired. The ceiling was repaired, however, because they had no choice, and it’s painted an unusual shade of orange. The contrast is just stunning and I found the smell of candles and the whole atmosphere here so peaceful. I am not a religious person, but I love this place and the resilience of not only the structure, but the people that worship here every day.
Sometimes dining is about the food, sometimes it’s about the experience, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s about both. That wasn’t often the case for me in Portugal, but I had some interesting experiences, and some I don’t care to repeat.
#1 A Brasileira – This 1905 café in Baixa hasn’t changed much since it was built. It has an energetic atmosphere and was really hopping when I was there, but I still don’t think it’s a tourist trap, possibly because of all the local lined up at the bar for a shot of espresso and a pastry, and it was cheap. I took a seat inside, had an okay cappuccino and a terrible ham and cheese sandwich, and took pictures of the décor, which is the real reason to come here. I went at 9:00 on a Sunday, and I enjoyed it, but it was hectic. Standing room only. I didn’t stay as long as I wanted, but I still loved looking around and the service was efficient and professional. These guys and gals didn’t have time to be friendly.
#2 Alfama Too – I discovered this cool restaurant on Largo de Sao Rafael No 7 on my first night after noticing grilled octopus on the menu. I liked it so much, I went back again. They serve lots of tourists, but have traditional dishes, like the octopus and chourico, or what I call “flaming sausage,” which is cooked in a clay dish using alcohol set on fire to grill it. A show and a meal in one and it’s only 4.50 euros. The sangria is tasty, big, and cheap, and the service is good.
#3 Royal Fado Restaurant in Alfama, a bit down the hill from the cathedral – While I was out wandering on my second day, I stopped to look at the menu here and noticed it was really beautiful inside. As I was standing there, an older man who worked there stopped to talk to me and tell me about Fado. He was so nice, and clearly very proud of the restaurant and the entertainment. So I came back that night. He seemed surprised, but very pleased.
I came around 7:00PM with no reservation, ordered a beer, and the waiter brought me a plate of prosciutto, olives, and gorgeous bread and explained that if I ate it, it would be 11 euros. I ate it all. For dinner, I indulged in a prawn risotto that was the stuff dreams are made of. Just before 8:00PM, two guitarists started to play. One of them is blind. Then at 8:00, the real entertainment appeared. This Fado singer was larger-than-life and clearly loved her job. It was highly entertaining, and while most people were tourists, it didn’t feel like a tourist restaurant. Be warned, it is not cheap, but I thought it was worth it.
#4 Time Out Market or Ribeira Market – Located directly across from Cais do Sodre (end of the green line) metro station, you’ll find just about anything your heart desires in the way of cuisine and drink. There’s a huge clock tower in front, and as you enter you’ll see two sides. To the right is the traditional market, but it was mostly coin and stamp dealers selling their wares when I was there on a Sunday. I think on weekdays it is a fish and vegetable market. The renovated side to the left welcomes you with small restaurants serving international and local cuisines.
In the middle are lots of tables and seating, and a Super Bock beer kiosk. Super Bock is a Portuguese craft beer, and it outshines all others. I loved the Amber IPA and the stout so much, I had three. They were only 3 euros each! How could I not? This is really excellent beer, and even though I ate lunch here, I left feeling pretty good. I hope I can find Super Bock at home…
#5 Not a restaurant, but a special suggestion – If you’re a chocolate lover like me, you need to visit a shop in Alfama, not far from A Brasileira, called Chocolatario Ecuador, on Rua da Misericordia 72, near Baixa-Chiado metro station. These beautifully displayed chocolates are not cheap, but the handmade chocolate bars and bombons are divine. I got one of each of the twelve flavors of bombons in a beautiful box for 12 euros, with unique combinations that rivaled anything I had in Belgium. The 180g chocolate bars here also have some unique flavors, and while they’re not cheap at 9 euros each, I really didn’t care. I restricted myself to two and wish I had bought more. What was I thinking?
Lisbon Tourist Traps:
I’m pretty good at avoiding them, but I got sucked into three of them here, all in the same day! I must have had a serious case of FOMO!
TT #1 Nicola Café on Rossio Square – I suppose it’s not any more expensive than other cafes on the square, but this art deco café is simply not worth the hassle. The coffee was average, the croissant was old, but the real reason to avoid it is the terrible service. I was the only customer, and I got a menu thrown at me and the waiter spoke to me like I was an idiot. He was awful and so was my entire experience here.
TT #2 Belem Tower – I already had a ticket because I bought the combo ticket at Jeronimos Monastery. If I hadn’t, I would’ve had a long line to wait in before I could enter. As it was, I walked right in and immediately saw, well, nothing. It’s not worth waiting in line, or even going inside. Very photogenic outside, but if you enter and climb up to the viewpoint, the view isn’t even that great. It’s much better to pay the 5 euros and climb the Discoveries Monument. Belem Tower is definitely not worth waiting in line for.
TT #3 Pasteis de Belem – This icon of Lisbon across from Jeronimos Monastery is a huge cafeteria-like restaurant famous for their pastel de nata, or Pasteis de Belem egg custard tarts. And that’s exactly what they are. Egg custard tarts. I walked in. Had to sit in the last room for table service. I had egg tarts, good service, terrible coffee, and my life did not change one bit. I do not why so many people flock here to buy these tarts. If you really like these egg tarts, you can find them literally everywhere! Personally, the gelatinous texture kind of turned me off and I didn’t have them again. But it was cheap, and they serve a lot more than Pasteis de Belem. The spinach quiche was actually pretty good.