When I first visited Lisbon almost three years ago, the city still felt relatively under the radar. And even though its popularity has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years, when you wander through the maze of streets in neighbourhoods like the Alfama and Graça, it stills feels like there is so much that is yet to be discovered. Lisbon is compact and relatively small as far as European capitals go, but the neighbourhoods are diverse and distinct. This means where you stay can have a huge impact on how you experience the city. Whether you want to be steps from large boulevards lined with restaurants and boutiques or enjoy a bica (espresso) every morning with the local crowd, here’s a guide to finding where to stay in Lisbon.
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Western Europe, but the majority of what you’ll see was built during the eighteenth century. After most of Lisbon crumbled under the catastrophic earthquake on November 1, 1755, the rest was either consumed by fire or swept away by the tsunami that trailed close behind. The ancient Moorish area called the Alfama that slopes up one of the seven hills of Lisbon miraculously survived.
Get an overview of the area by hopping on the crammed Tram 28 where you’ll hurtle past sites like the Sé Cathedral. Catch the last train at night to avoid the queues and see the city in a different light. While there is a growing number of tourists that are pounding the limestone pavements of the main streets (which are still incredibly tiny by any standards), you can still find a more authentic Lisboa through the alleyways and down the staircases. Pass through streets shaded by laundry strung out to dry, a lady selling Ginja (Portuguese cherry liqueur) from her front window, and get drawn in by the sweet, mournful sounds of fado drifting from a small café.
Come here to wander and get lost, and while you’re walking the streets, hunt for your favourite façade among the buildings covered in colourful tiles. There’s no shortage of breathtaking views on this hilltop; admire the bright pink bougainvillea adorning Miradouro de Santa Luzia or stop at Portas do Sol to watch the colours of the day fade over the Tagus river.
If you keep walking up the hill from the Alfama (and it is quite a hike), you’ll soon find yourself in Graça. Come to Graça to find the best views in Lisbon. See the whole city spread out before you from the São Jorge Castle, or find your way over to Miradoura da Graça. From here, you’ll have a view of both São Jorge Castle and all of downtown Lisbon. Miradoura da Graça is also worth a visit for its open-air café where you can savour delicious food and drink with the view. Before you leave, step inside Graça Church, housing an ornate Baroque interior dating from the 13th century. If you still have some life left in your legs, spend the extra effort to walk another ten minutes to the top of the hill. At Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte, you’ll be one of the few enjoying the arguably best lookout in town.
If you are looking for a nice place to eat some trendy Portuguese food, listen to good music, have a glass of wine and party a bit, head to Damas, a super fun and versatile space in the heart of Graça. They offer vegan and vegetarian options for food and a lot of really interesting cultural events. An amazing place to chat with locals while enjoying some good music.
While the Alfama has become overrun with tourists, Mouraria, on the opposite side of the hill (closer to the Martim Moniz metro stop), feels relatively undiscovered. It was the other neighbourhood that survived the earthquake but due to its prior reputation as a slum, the area didn’t see many visitors. Buildings are being renovated and restored, so that is rapidly changing. Walk down Beco das Farinhas to meet the elderly inhabitants of Mouraria; there is an outdoor art display by photographer Camilla Watson with photos of local residents.
To see the work of more local artists, duck into the Parque de Estacionamento do Chão do Loureiro (yes, it’s a parking garage!). Every level is painted by a different street artist, showcasing some of the best talent in Portugal. As the most multicultural neighbourhood in Lisbon, head over to the Martim Moniz square with its rows of restaurant kiosks if you’re in the mood for something other than Portuguese food. Keep your eye out for Escadinhas de São Cristovão, the smallest bookstore in the world. Also visit Renovar a Mouraria, a local association that promotes multicultural events and has a cafe with cheap and delicious food.
Mouraria and Alfama have some of the most authentic local restaurants in the city. To really live like a local you need to visit one of the famous underground secret Chinese restaurants in the area. These are family run restaurants hidden in backstreet apartments. They are unregulated but frequently populated by locals. Just find an ajar door and press the doorbell. You will be welcomed into a cosy and simple space (often a living room) with authentic Chinese food. Don’t forget to try the fried ice cream.
Baixa is downtown Lisbon. If being central is key to your plans, then Baixa is the best area to stay in Lisbon, though you will be sacrificing that local neighbourhood charm for an area that is mostly businesses and hotels. The Rossio Train Station, one that you’ll likely use if you’re taking a day trip to Sintra, is in the middle of this neighbourhood. The area is mostly flat, so it’s easy to stroll the wide boulevards. Join the crowds perusing the shops along Rua Augusta and relax in the impressive squares flanked by palaces and government buildings. Take the elevator to the top of Arco Triunfal da Rua Augusta; you’ll get a bird’s eye view of Rua Agusta, Comercio Square, and the river beyond. Though most of the area is teeming with tourists, stop by Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha for a few moments of calm. Only the façade of this church survived the 1755 earthquake and the rest was rebuilt from the ruins. For an authentic Portuguese bakery experience, head to Nova Pombalina, a delicious small cafe with natural juices, pastries and sandwiches.
If I were ranking neighbourhoods by the quality of their pastéis de nata, those delectable little Portuguese egg tarts, Chiado would be at the top of the list. No matter where you stay in Lisbon, make at least one stop at Manteigaria to pick up a few. There’s more than just delicious sweets in this neighbourhood: try Sea Me for fresh seafood, Taberna da Rua Das Flores for its ever-changing menu of small plates, and O Trevo for simple but tasty €2 bifanas (pork sandwiches). To see a more historic side of this neighbourhood, visit the Carmo Convent. Stepping inside is a bit surreal; you can still see the damage caused by the Great Lisbon Earthquake as the roof is still missing. Chiado restaurants can be very touristy and overpriced so look out for local, authentic places. For some really delicious vegetarian food, don’t forget to check Jardim das Cerejas. For only €7.50 you can eat as much as you want.
Just up the street from Chiado is its rowdy neighbour, Bairro Alto. Originally a working-class neighbourhood, Bairro Alto comes alive at night with people from all backgrounds looking to bar-hop and party until the early morning hours. Keep this in mind if you’re not planning on joining the revellers as noise may be an issue. Most façades that weren’t already covered in azulejos have received a colourful street art makeover. Bairro Alto is a place to drink on the streets and meet new people. You can get a pint in most places for less than 1,50 and you just spend your night drinking outside. If you’re looking for an authentic place to listen to fado, make a reservation at Tasca do Chico at seats fill fast at this small bar with live fado singers.
If you’re looking for a more cultural experience, check Galeria Zé dos Bois (ZDB), an art centre created as a non-profit organisation. Enjoy concerts, movie nights, exhibitions, artistic performances and a beer in the terrace.
Cais do Sodré
It seems that the riverside district of Cais do Sodré in Lisbon shook off its unsavoury reputation as a seedy area frequented by sailors almost overnight, transforming into one of the trendiest areas in the city. People flock to Cais do Sodré during the day for the Time Out Market Lisbon, a fish market remade into a food hall with outposts from some of Portugal’s most prominent chefs and restaurateurs. Head down the famous “Pink Street” to check out the most popular bars and clubs.
Cais do Sodré has become such a hotspot that it is edging out Bairro Alto as the neighbourhood with the best nightlife in Lisbon. You can’t leave Lisbon without eating sardines, so try some of Portugal’s famed canned fish at Sol e Pesca, a bar housed in an old fishing shop.
If you’re looking for something more chill, visit Arco Da Velha, a cafe and restaurant decorated like your grandma’s house. It’s the perfect place to relax after a day exploring while enjoying a slice of cake and a cup of tea, or an imperial (a small pint).
Though Príncipe Real is centrally located, it feels like an upscale suburb with its mansions, a palace, and so many Lisboetas meeting up for a drink at the local refreshment kiosks. This small residential neighbourhood oozes with charm and its streets are lined with fabulous shops and boutiques. If you’re looking for unique Portuguese finds, peruse the goods at places like Entre Tanto and the 21 PR Concept Store.
The Embaixada is one of the most stunning buildings in Lisbon; this Neo-Moorish palace from the 1800s now functions as a two-story fashion bazaar with a café in the interior courtyard. You’ll find plenty of delicious, although more expensive, eats around the neighbourhood, like peri peri chicken at Frangasqueira Nacional, fresh and basic fish dishes at Churrasqueira da Paz, or pregos on bolo do caco (steak sandwich on flatbread) at O Prego da Peixara.
Gelateria Nannarella piles cones high with scoops of authentic Italian gelato and Bettina & Niccolò Corallo Chocolate & Café make three-ingredient chocolate sorbet with the chocolate from its plantation in São Tomé. If you need a place to relax after so much eating and shopping, enjoy respite from the hot sun under the large cedar tree in the middle of the Jardim do Príncipe Real.
Campo de Ourique
If you ride Tram 28 all the way to the end of the line, you’ll pass by both the expansive Jardim da Estrela and the Basilica da Estrela right before you enter the neighbourhood of Campo de Ourique. Many families call this neighbourhood home and the streets are always busy with shoppers, dog walkers and people out for a daily stroll. Swing by the Campo de Ourique Market, a smaller version of the Time Out Market in Cais do Sodré, for fruits and vegetables or even dinner from one of the food stalls.
Get your fill of Portuguese sweets at Panificação Mecânica or pick up some Pão de Deus from one of the many traditional bakeries in the area. At the edge of the neighbourhood you’ll find Tapada das Necessidades, a large garden area that feels a bit forgotten with its empty fountains and a glass-domed greenhouse sitting bare. With peacocks strolling the grounds and space to stretch out on one of the few grassy fields in the city, it still feels like a little slice of peaceful paradise.
Intendente is one of Lisbon’s trendiest areas where you can find a lot of interesting people, good food and cultural events. Zona Franca and RDA associations are amazing places to hang out, meet locals and try incredible vegetarian food. You can become a member by making a donation to help them run their activities.
Crew Hassam is an extremely versatile place where you can dance all night long, browse their vinyl collection, eat pizza and pancakes and just relax in one of their many comfy areas. There is always something interesting happening at Casa Independente, a creative space located in a beautiful mansion just in front of Largo do Intendente. You can have some drinks and snacks during the afternoon or enjoy your evening on weekends with concerts and DJ sets.
About the author
Kelly Barcus is a travel blogger and photographer living in Newport Beach, California. When she isn’t exploring the beaches and trails in her own backyard, she’s planning her next trip. She loves taking her little kid on big adventures and documenting them on her travel blog No Man Before and Instagram.
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