ONE DAY IN LISBON
How to see the best of one of Europe’s sunniest cities in 24 hours (or slightly more)
You’ve seen Rome, you’ve seen Paris, what now? Lisbon. While not as well known on the tourist route as its glamorous counterparts, Lisbon is one of western Europe’s sunniest and prettiest cities, and home to great sites of history.
However, unlike Paris, you don’t need a full week to get a sense of what is at the heart of this city. All you need is a day, two at most, to experience fascinating museums, beautiful churches, tasty food, and sites that were just made for Instagram.
In fact, Lisbon seems as if it was made for social media. On the Iberian Coast, Lisbon experiences Mediterranean weather, soaking its colourful light. It can get quite warm in summer, so pack a hat and slather on the sunscreen.
Another thing to take is some basic Portuguese. It can be easy to get the Spanish and Portuguese languages confused – they sound quite similar – but the Portuguese do not like to be confused with the Spanish. Brush up on a couple of necessary words and phrases and don’t get them mixed up with Spanish or you may be gifted with some side-eye.
Many streets are on a rather steep angle, making Lisbon one of the hilliest cities to walk around in Europe. If you’re not terribly fit, plan breaks during the day to make it easier.
Here are some of the best, must-see attractions that you can tick off your to-do list in less than 24 hours. And thanks to Lisbon’s respectable public transport system, especially its trams, it’s straightforward to get around.
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One site you won’t often find on a tourist map is the world’s oldest bookshop. Outside The Bertrand Bookstore is a plaque that acknowledges that it’s been open since 1732 but inside, the bookshop is surprisingly modern and filled with a highbrow collection of books from architecture to zoos. Bertrand Bookstore has since become a chain, with about 50 other stores in Portugal, but this is the one to visit, especially if you’re walking around the city central. It’s close to cafes and other shops, so even if buying books isn’t on your to-do list, it’s worth stopping by.
Chiado is a chic part of Lisbon that’s equal parts historic and convenient. It’s full of everything you want in one snug square, including fashionable shops, theatres, elegant cafes and historic spots. It’s also the spot to buy authentic souvenirs; the fine porcelain store, Vista Alegre, is a popular choice for its colourful wares.
Chiado has a great, friendly vibe and, surprisingly, one of its most famous spots is a cafe: A Brasileira, which has made its mark because famed poet Fernando Pessoa was once a regular patron. Given its connection, there’s almost always a queue wanting a table, although nearby cafes are just as good, if not better, and there are no queues.
Chiado is all about enjoying the finer things in life, and it’s easy to spend a couple of hours or even a full day enjoying its sites.
In the centre of Chiado Square is a statue of (another) poet, Antonio Ribeiro, which is a great spot to catch one of the city’s free walking tours.
THE ESSENTIAL TART
Portugal has contributed much to the world but its most famous – and popular – export is the Portuguese tart: a crispy, flaky pastry filled with a creamy custard that’s topped with cinnamon. Today, thousands of cafes and bakeries across the world make their own versions of the tart, but the original home is still going strong, Pasteis de Belem. The bakery’s 170year-old recipe is a well-guarded secret and is used to pump out more than 16,000 handmade tarts every day. The distinctive blue and white shop front is easy to spot, as is the constant long line to purchase one (or two) of the crunchy delights. One tip is to get there early, when the bakery opens at about 7am, buy a box of tarts and eat them as you stroll to the nearby museums.
A hop and a skip away from Pasteis de Belem are two of Lisbon’s best historic sites: Jeronimos Monastery and Santa Maria de Belem Church. These imposing buildings are the historic heart of Lisbon, the former once being home to the Order of Saint Jerome and the latter being one of the most opulent churches in Portugal.
The monastery’s late Gothic architecture and grandness mean that it’s just as interesting on the outside as it is on the inside; don’t be surprised if you spend more time outside than in.
Being holy places, it’s best to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees to avoid any issues in entering either buildings.
If you need a little downtime, or just after some time in the sun, across the road is the Vasco da Gama Garden, which is beautifully manicured. You’ll often find families and tourists with a box of Pasteis de Belem tarts having an impromptu picnic.
If your stay extends to two days, or you’re happy to pack in a busy day, a short trip just outside the city limits will take you to the breathtaking Pena Palace. Its colourful exterior makes it look like a Disney castle come to life, sitting atop a mountain and shouldered by lush forests and gardens. Once you arrive at the palace gates, you need to walk up a rather steep hill (or buy a ticket for the shuttle to skip the walk) to get to the palace itself. Inside, the rooms have been immaculately kept, many with opulent, original furnishings.
The gardens are vast and are worth walking around after you’ve experienced the former royal household.
Despite its rather isolated location, there is a bus that takes visitors right to the palace gates. Otherwise, you can hire a car and take a break in the nearby village, which is charming and photogenic, with quaint cafes and shops.
Given Pena Palace’s popularity, it’s best to pre-buy tickets online.
PENA NATIONAL PALACE Pena National Palace above Sintra town in summer (main); the cloisters from the upper level of the Monastery of Jeronimos (below left); a street car trundles through the old town.
MONASTERY OF JERONIMOS