Lisbon is built on seven hills, so getting around Lisbon can be a workout. Numerous slopes and few really flat areas are one of Lisbon's trademarks. This is also a city of enchanting contrasts: The elegant squares, broad avenues, monumental buildings and rectangular layout of the lower areas quickly gives way to the hilly, narrow, winding, unpredictable and cramped streets of districts such as Alfama and Bairro Alto. The elegant dining rooms and smart rooftop bars of expensive hotels seem like a different world compared to the excellent restaurants disguised behind an inconspicuous facade in a modest Bairro Alto street. Quality patisseries and restaurants thrive side by side with late night bars and noisy discos. The old, tiny squeaky trams (one of the city's trademarks) is no less of a contrast to the efficient metro network.
The city stretches along the northern bank of the river Tejo as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. As the terrain rises north away from the water, steep streets and stairways form the old tangled neighborhoods or give way to green parks in the western suburbs. Basic navigation is easy by learning the main axis from the Praça do Comércio (the waterfront) through Rossio (main square) and Avenida da Liberdade (main street) to Praça de Marques de Pombal and Parque Eduardo VII on the top. Each neighborhood (such as Alfama or Bairro Alto) is distinct and easy to recognize. The hilltop castle and the waterfront are clear reference points, landmark structures such as the Santa Justa elevator, the Rossio station facade, the massive Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa), the white dome of Santa Engrácia and Augusta street arc (Arco da rua Augusta) also adds to the sense of direction. Also look out for the two huge bridges across the Tejo. Navigating the winding, hilly and narrow streets can challenging; however, only the most detailed map gives the precise location.
It is often said that Lisbon lacks a defined "downtown", but tourists will find most of their points of interest in a relatively compact area centered around the vast Praça do Comércio, facing the river. This is the starting point of the pedestrianized grid of Baixa (lower town), which immediately borders other historic quarters of Alfama, Chiado and Bairro Alto. Further northwest from Baixa stretches Avenida da Liberdade, a broad boulevard resplendent in leafy trees, chic hotels, and upmarket shops, terminating at the circular Praça de Marques de Pombal. The financial center, however, is further removed (hence the notion of "no downtown") up north towards the hills, and not directly connected to the historic districts.
Other districts of interest to the tourists are generally those by the riverside - the historic Belem in the southwest, the modern Parque de Nacoes in the northeast and the gentrifying Alcantara by the Bridge of April 25.
Since December 2012, Lisbon was reorganized into five zones (zonas), which are further divided into 24 civil parishes (freguesias). While the zonas reflect the actual characteristics of each area well, which also aids orientation for the tourists, freguesias serve mostly administrative purposes and are of little interest to tourists. More important are the unofficial bairros (neighborhoods), which lack administratively defined boundaries, but are entrenched in local tradition and referred to in most tourist guides and even official publications. The main characteristics of each zone and most prominent bairros are outlined below.
The historic center of Lisbon is the river-front belt formed by the hills of Bairro Alto and Alfama and the flat area of Baixa between them. It contains the following bairros:
The geographic center of Lisbon is also its economic and civic center, with the main shopping and leisure boulevard of Avenida da Libertade, the large parks, and prominent museums, as well as modern office towers scattered across Avenidas Novas and the hills of Campolide.
Zona Campolide, or the western zone, extends west of the historic center along the riverside and encompasses the following bairros, which here actually coincide with official fregusias:
Zona Oriental is the eastern zone, following northeastwards from the center. Most of the area are residential districts and industrial docklands of little interest to the tourists, with the exception of the Parque de Nacoes - the ultra-modern district built at the easternmost end of Lisbon for the 1998 World Expo, making the most of its river-front location.
The North of Lisbon is of precious little interest to the tourists, except perhaps for the Jardim Zoologico (zoo) and the Sete Rios long-distance coach and train station, both at the very southern tip of the zone.
Lisboa Ask Me Centre, Pç. do Comércio, ☎ +351 21 031-2815. open 09:00-20:00 daily. The sparkling new center will help you find accommodation and the staff are happy to dispense advice, maps, and brochures. Smaller Ask Me Lisboa kiosks are dotted about the Rossio district and airport and their multilingual staff also have maps and brochures.
The Lisboa Card, which can be purchased from tourist information outlets, offers free use of all public transport in the city and free or reduced price tickets to many museums, galleries, and tourist attractions. They are not very good value unless you plan to visit a lot of museums. Especially so if you are a holder of a student identification card (international or national) since the student discounts to these attractions are often the same as for the Lisboa Card.
Lisbon has a very efficient public transport network that covers the entire city in addition to the surrounding areas. It consists of a bus and tram network operated by Carris, the separately-run Lisbon Metro underground rail, as well as commuter trains and ferries which connect Lisbon to its neighboring suburbs. Additionally, Carris operates no less than four unique funiculars and one public elevator that both function as parts of the public transportation system.
While numbering may suggest otherwise, Lisbon retains only five of the 28 tram lines it became famous for.
At stops and on timetables, the five tram lines are marked with an "E" for electrico (which stands for "tram" in Portuguese) i.e. 12E, 15E, 18E, 25E and 28E to distinguish them from bus services. Buses and trams generally use the same stops.
Lines 12, 15, 18 and 28 are still operated using the "Remodelado" tram cars. These were built in the 1930s & their motors & brakes were replaced in the 1990s.
Instead of paying for a ride on one of the costly tourist buses, try line 28, which winds its way through the "Old Town" of Lisbon beginning in Graça then down to the Alfama and to the Baixa then up through Chiado to Bairro Alto, and then down to Campo Ourique, taking you by many of Lisbon's most famous and interesting sites including monuments, churches and gardens. The trip is hilly, noisy and hectic but it affords many beautiful glimpses of the city. And, although the tram can sometimes be overrun with tourists, you will definitely get a flavor of the locals, as many "Lisboetas" commute daily on these historical trams. From start to finish the ride takes around 30 minutes. Beware of pickpockets!
Or Ascensores e elevador as they call them. The Viva Viagem card is accepted on these routes as well.
Lisbon's recently refurbished metro system is clean, quick, and efficient. While metro announcements are made only in Portuguese, signs, and ticketing machines are generally bilingual in Portuguese and English. Every line shares at least one station with each of the other lines, so once you are in the system, you can go pretty much everywhere the system reaches to, which is most of the important locations in Lisbon.
No metro line goes to Belém. You need to take a train from Cais do Sodre, tram line 15E or a bus to get there.
Most of the metro system is a free art gallery. You'll find art by contemporary artists inspired by the stations' surrounding area. Check the subway webpage for more details on this curiosity. The red line is the newest one and has the best pieces of art.
The first metro of each line leaves the terminal stations at 6:30 daily, the last metro leaves the terminal stations at 1:00 daily. Some secondary station halls close earlier, some are closed completely on weekends.
Carris operates a dense network of buses. Bus lines operating in the day start with a "7" (save for the "400" line that runs within the Parque de Nacoes), and those starting with "2" operate at night (00:01-05:00) when no daytime lines operate.
On the maps and in publications, bus and tram lines are color-coded with reference to the directions they go to. Orange lines stay within the central area, pink go to the east (Belem and Ajuda), red to the north (Parque de Nacoes and Portela), while blue and green to the northeast. This is more or less where each of the corresponding metro lines (red, green and blue) go. Grey-coded buses move between the outer districts and do not stop in the historic center. Do note that the buses themselves are all in standard yellow Carris livery and do not carry such indications.
Two of the popular bus lines now offer complimentary NetBus Wi-Fi service - line 736 from Cais do Sodre via Avenida da Libertade and Avenida da Republica (stops at Campo Grand, Campo Pequeno, and Entrecampos), and line 783 from the Portela Airport to Amoreiras shopping and office centre via Avenida da Republica and Praca Marques de Pombal. Using those two bus lines you can get to most of the important tourist attractions while enjoying Wi-Fi - simply log in to the "CARRIS-TMN" network while on the bus.
Ferries connect Lisbon to the suburbs across the Tejo river in the south. Taking a ferry to Cacilhas is a good opportunity to see Lisbon from the water. A ferry is paid for just like a metro trip; you can even use your zapping Viva viagem card.
The ferry boat takes you to Cacilhas (the journey takes 10 minutes) or Trafaria (Almada), Seixal, Montijo or Barreiro (this journey takes half an hour). The boats are operated by Transtejo.
The best and, in many cases, the sole way to pay for city transport is by buying the rechargeable green "Viva Viagem" smartcard (also referred to as "7 Colinas"). It's valid on the metro, trams (electricos), urban trains, most buses, and ferries. The exception is buses run not by Carris—other bus companies have their own tickets.
The Viva Viagem card can be charged in three different modes:
There are ticketing machines located at the train or metro stations, which also provide instructions in English. You can also buy the ticket from the driver or machines on board (the latter only available in some new trams). Tickets purchased from a driver will not include a Viva Viagem card and will cost more, so it makes more sense to buy the ticket before starting the trip.
When using suburban trains, your tickets are charged onto the same kind of Viva Viagem cards. You cannot have more than one kind of ticket on one card, however, so you will probably need at least two of them, one for zapping (regular bus and metro use), one for suburban travel. The TransTejo (TT) ferries can make you buy yet another "Via Viagem" card with white stripe in the bottom, claiming that CP or Carris "Via Viagem" cards are not valid for them.
Cycling within the city is now much easier because of the work the municipality has been putting in with bike lanes, slowing car traffic, changing car traffic patterns and adding speed bumps etc but, of course, parts of the town will always be part of the surprisingly hilly terrain of Lisbon. If you plan to cycle, some of these streets do have tram lines, potholes and an absence of designated bicycle lanes, so visitors wishing to venture into city traffic by bicycle should be used to urban riding. Riding on the footpaths is not recommended. It is advisable to get advice at local bikeshops.
Although better than in recent years there are still bike lanes in town the newest, nice and safe stretches from Baixa to Belem along the beautiful river Tejo water front aptly known as the Poetry Bike Lane.
These days car drivers are often weekend cyclists and way more careful with cyclists, more than ever before. Good spots for anyone to cycle safe are along the flat riverfront area stretching from Parque das Nacoes, to the central area of Cais Sodre, where you can rent bikes look below for bike Iberia, and particularly from here to Belem. Must do for all travelers or cycling enthusiasts: A scenic and safe bike ride on bike lane from Baixa along the waterfront to the historical area of Descobertas-Belem-Jerónimos.
Just outside of Lisbon you can take a free bike (but often in poor condition and limited offer) on trains or ferries along the coast from Estoril towards the beautiful beach of Guincho, reach Sintra, Cascais or Costa da Caparica. If traveling from Lisbon (and back) you should consider renting a bike there as there are no restrictions, nor additional charges, on traveling with bicycles on commuting trains.
If you take a bicycle in public transportation beware of the following:
Bike shops in Lisbon town center are rare. You can find a SportZone near Rossio or in major shopping malls. Ask there for specialist shops, shop assistants are usually very helpful.
Think twice before using a car in the city unless you are prepared to spend hours in traffic jams and looking for parking space. The busy traffic and narrow streets with blind corners can be overwhelming to tourists. Also, due to lack of space and overcrowding, parking is difficult and annoying, as well as potentially dangerous - check the "Stay Safe" section below, regarding potential problems with criminals and homeless people who stand near parking spaces to "help" you park your car and then attempt to extort money from you.
If your accommodation is in the center of the city, walking is a great alternative. Many of the attractions of the city, such as the Castelo and the Alfama and Bairro Alto districts, are within easy walking distance of the Baixa. Central Lisbon is very intimate and walking is a very nice way to get around. Note however that the city is very hilly, a constant up and down everywhere, and streets/sidewalks are largely covered in cobblestone (some slippery when wet). For visitors with mobility issues, central Lisbon can be challenging.
If you become lost or cannot find the location you are looking for, try to locate the nearest Carris bus or tram stop. Most of these stops (not all) have a very good map of the city with your current location clearly marked on the map. All the prominent tourist sites in Lisbon are also shown along with an index at the bottom of the map. A quick consultation with one of these Carris maps should point you back in the right direction.
You may also use the funiculars and elevadores. Day passes for public transportation are also valid for those.
Hop-On, Hop-Off Tours are also a good option to get to know Lisbon. Carristur is operating with the brand Yellow Bus Sightseeing Tours and has tours in double-decker buses and old tramcars. Lisboa Autêntica, a walking tour company, offers unique, specialized tours in English (and five other languages). English tours are "Lisbon Essential," "Old Lisbon," "Lisbon Wine," "Lisbon Gastronomy," and "Fado of Lisbon."
Take bus 28 to the west (Restelo direction), which follows the coastline and provides an express service with few stops. Train Cascais suburban train (line "Cascais todos" or "Oeiras"; the express trains don't stop in Belém) to Belém and walk to the attractions. Tram 15 to the west (Algés direction), which follows the Junqueira residential line. Check the route map inside the tram: it helps to find a right station for most famous of Belém attractions. The extensive bus network also serves Belém from various departure points around the city and can be less busy than the tram.
Note that to reach the waterfront attractions such as Belem Tower and Padrão dos Descobrimentos from the town centre/tram line, it is necessary to cross over the railway line by the footbridges - there is one at the railway station and another near Belem Tower.
The neighborhood features:
Parque das Nações ("the park of nations") is a district built from scratch for the 1998 World Expo (and hence also known as Expo to the locals) in the northeastern end of Lisbon. After the Expo, many of the impressive constructions and decorations were kept, while new residential, commercial and office buildings were added to form a thriving, mixed-use district consisting exclusively of modern architecture and making the most of its river-facing location by offering a number of leisure facilities.
Despite the fact that Parque das Nações is quite removed from downtown Lisbon, it is reasonably easy to get there by metro (red line), train or bus. Look for stops and stations named "Oriente", for the spectacular Gare do Oriente train station in the middle of the district.
Go out at night to the central Bairro Alto, or 'High Neighborhood'. Just up the hill from Chiado, this is the place to go out in town. In the early evening, go to a fado-themed restaurant near the Praca Camoes, and head upwards as the evening goes on. If you're in Lisbon on the night preceding a Feriado or public holiday, you have to check this out. Tiny little streets which are empty in the daytime become crammed walkways which are difficult to get through. For more of a clubbing or disco experience, try the Docas district along the marina overlooking the Ponte 25 de Abril.
The revista is a kind of theatre that was born in Lisbon. It's one of the things that is essential to see when you visit the city. You can only find it in one place: the Parque Mayer. Nowadays only one of the theatres is working:
Make sure that you dine at a restaurant that plays traditional fado music. Beware that you'll pay more than in normal restaurants, and the food and drink quality may not be up to the price, you're paying for the music experience.
Portuguese dining rituals tend to follow the Mediterranean siesta body clock.
Most restaurants are very small, family run and generally cheap. Some of them have a sheet on the door with the "pratos do dia" (dishes of the day) written on it. These dishes are usually cheaper and fresher than the rest of menu there, and unless you're looking for something specific, they're the right choice.
During the dinner the waiter will probably bring you some unrequested starter dishes (called couvert): as those are not free, feel free not to touch them and they will not be charged on your bill (but check it!).
Never ask a taxi driver about which restaurant you should go to, they will take you to an expensive tourist-oriented restaurant, where they will receive a commission.
Try the magnificent pastéis de nata at any pastelaria; or better yet, visit the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (Casa Pasteis De Belem) 1 (Rua de belem 84; +351 21 363 74 23; take eléctrico #15 from Praça do Comércio, or the Cascais suburban train line from Cais do Sodré station, to Belém stop). They are served right out of the oven there, with the side of confectioner's sugar and cinnamon; as you navigate through the azulejo-decorated labyrinthine passages of the expansive shop, stop to look at the workers behind glass panels turning the endless stream of these delicacies, just baked, each in its own little ramekin, over onto the waiting trays. These are absolutely a must eat and you can't possibly regret it.
For Portuguese traditional cuisine at its finest, head to the area of Chiado. Tour groups primarily feel at home in Alfama. Traditional Portuguese restaurants are in Bairro Alto, scattered abundantly through its quirky narrow streets.
Tourist traps with laminated menus and meal deals are mostly concentrated in the Baixa area. It has an exception, however: Rua das Portas de Santo Antão (north-east from Praca dos Restauradores, parallel to it)—it's the seafood strip, and home to the best greasy spit-roasted chicken this side of Louisiana at the Bonjardim restaurant, Travessa not Rua! Santo Antão, 11 (It's in two buildings across a small side street off Rua Santo Antão). appropriately nicknamed Rei dos Frangos.
For a familiar taste at one of the many chain eateries, head to Doca de Santo Amaro (train/tram 15 station Alcantara-Mar) and Parque das Nações (metro Oriental). All the culinary and clubbing kudos is right now concentrated in Doca de Jardim de Tabaco (piece of river waterfront right under Castelo de Sao Jorge). Quality dishes for a high price are in well-to-do Lapa.
You will find traditional meals served in small coffee shops/restaurants, especially in the old parts of town. Some will be better than others, just check if there are a lot of locals eating there! They will be very cheap and home-style cooking. The owners probably won't speak English and the menu will probably be in Portuguese only!
Lisbon is known for its lively nightlife. For going out, stroll around the old neighborhood of Bairro Alto for an after-dinner caipirinha or ginjinha and people-watching. Its small streets, full of people, are packed with a high variety of bars. On weeknights bars close at 2 AM, weekends at 3 AM. The party continues in a night-club after that. Just follow the hordes of people down the hill - people have been doing that for hundreds of years.
Alcântara, Santos, Parque das Nações, and the castle area are all neighborhoods with a thriving nightlife. The whole area near the river/Atlantic, known as the docas, is a huge hub for nightlife, as Lisbon has never lost its ties to the sea.
Shops are open a little later than other places in Europe, usually around 9:30 AM-10 PM and the lunch breaks can be quite long, usually from 1 PM to 3 PM.
You can buy a Lisbon Shopping Card, which gives you 5% to 20% discounts at about 200 major stores in Baixa, Chiado and Av. Liberdade for a period of 24 hours or 72 hours.
While most stores are closed on Sundays, many malls are open 7 days a week. They usually open around 9:30 AM and close by 11 PM or midnight, although the film theaters within them usually run a late session starting after midnight.
Grocery stores are closed on Sundays after 1 PM, except (a) those smaller than 2000m2 or (b) from November 1 to December 31.
As with the rest of Portugal, Portuguese is the main language in Lisbon. However, most younger people know English, and it is possible to get by speaking only English. Spanish is widely understood, though few are fluent in it, and many locals will respond more readily to English than to Spanish. Nevertheless, any attempt to speak Portuguese is always appreciated, and even simple things like basic greetings will often draw smiles and encouragement from locals.
When asking for directions or trying to make out announcements, do note that Portuguese, while similar in writing to Spanish or Italian, has a very peculiar pronunciation. In most cases, the letter "j" is pronounced as "zh", thus e.g. the river Tejo is pronounced "tezho" (and not "teho" as Spanish speakers would render it). Portuguese is also very "soft", with a peculiar accent, and many vowel-consonant combinations are pronounced very differently from other European languages. It may be good to memorize the proper spelling and pronunciation of some destinations you intend to visit to avoid misunderstandings or misreading directions.
January 21, 2021
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