Lisbon Portugal, or the city of seven hills, is fast becoming known as a premiere tourist destination. Lisbon’s gastronomy, iconic architecture, fascinating history, and relatively moderate prices make a visit here an attractive option when considering a European vacation. After a few visits, Lisbon has risen to a top spot on a list of our favorite places to visit. And after 4 years of full-time travel, we’ve seen a few. We’ve compiled our favorite list of things to do in Lisbon, including getting in some wine tasting, enjoying Lisbon’s waterfront, and doing one of our favorite activities, taking a regional cooking class. We’ve now turned our attention outside of Lisbon, with our suggestions of some fantastic day trips or overnight excursions from Lisbon. Those who would enjoy outdoor adventure, sandy beaches, nature preserves, medieval castles with hidden passageways, or a tour through a macabre church covered in human remains, will all find a place of intrigue on this list.
Day Trips from Lisbon Portugal
Upon arriving to Sintra’s city center, the first thing you will notice is the high mountains ranges that loom above. Perched on the surrounding peaks are glimpses of castles of every sort. Old, sprawling, ornate or bright and colorful properties dot the landscape and invite discovery. Upon closer inspection, Sintra will also reveal its wooded pathways, underground tunnels and hidden passageways that will give you the feeling that you have fallen into a fairy tale.
While Sintra does have it’s charms, it also has its corresponding challenges. Sintra can by no means be considered an undiscovered hidden gem. This is exceedingly evident during a packed bus ride up the narrow winding roads to the castles. It is still worth a visit, and for those who would like a less packed and jarring experience, plenty of private vans and tuk-tuks are available for hire.
The main attractions, the colorful Palácio da Pena, ancient stone Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors), and whimsical Quinta Regaleira whose grounds contain a number of surprise tunnels and ornate statues at every turn, are all accessible by the local tourist bus, tuk-tuk or taxi. Keep in mind that each attraction will come with their own price of admission, but once you are there, why not go all out? Sintra is easily accessed from Lisbon by bus or by train. Note that lines to buy train tickets in Lisbon can become quite long, and can actually be purchased in advance. Once arriving in Sintra, there is a tourist information office across the street where tickets for the tourist bus can be purchased (while again avoiding the line). Tickets are also available while waiting in the line for the bus that forms outside the train station. Another good recommendation is to get there early and avoid the weekends. With that in mind, a trip to Sintra bring the best memories of a trip to Lisbon.
Evora is a short 1 1/2 hours from Lisbon, either by bus or train, but the experience here might as well be in another country all together. Sure there are some of those staple things you’d expect from a Portuguese destination, such as plenty of shops selling products made or cork along with opportunities to sample wonderful Portuguese cuisine. From there the place feels like another world.
A walk up the narrow winding streets reveal ancient ruins, including a Roman Temple and Aqueduct. The most unusual sight, however, lies within the Sao Francisco Iglesia (St. Frances Church). Contained within the larger structure is the Capela dos Ossos, or Bone Chapel. The walls are adorned with over 5000 bones. Franciscan monks in the 16th century were faced with the problem of overcrowded cemeteries. Their solution of using the bones create ornate designs was also a not so subtle message that life is temporary. A fact that, if remains are buried, may not be as well appreciated by those who remain among the living. Admission to the site is a mere 2 Euros. Once arriving in Evora, the city center, which contains all of its not so hidden treasures, is a short 10 minute walk.
Setubal is a day trip best known for one group of inhabitants that you may not have anticipated – pods of dolphins. In the wetlands in the area encompassed within the Sado Reserve Natural Estuary (Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado), dolphins have made a permanent home in the area. They can be frequently spotted on a boat ride through the area, where another local is also a common site – flocks of flamingos. Birders and nature lovers will be completely in their element here. But if that doesn’t appeal, Setubal is also the home of a nice span of beach.
Setubal can be reached in about an hour from Lisbon by bus, taxi or ferry.
Cascais is a seaside city about 30 minutes west of Lisbon. A short walk from the train station reveals a small beach and a pedestrian street bursting with shops and restaurants on either side. It’s a nice place to slowly wander through and carefully select that perfect spot for a long leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe. Those who are looking for a little more activity can take advantage of the free bikes available in the town center. There is 5 1/2 mile (9 km) bike path along the sea cliffs (Boca do Inferno) that ends at the picturesque Guincho beach. Here all sorts of water sports are available including paddle boarding and surfing lessons. Others who are less inclined might enjoy some shopping the followed by another favorite local sport, wine tasting!
Cacilhas is small area of about 6,000 inhabitants across the Tagus River from Lisbon. The picturesque peninsula is accessible from Lisbon via ferry or bus. The ferry ride is only about 10 minutes and offers some beautiful views of Lisbon along the way. Once you arrive, the biggest appeal of the area will soon present itself. There is a long line of seafood restaurants spilling into the streets, many with outdoor barbecues grilling up the day’s fresh catch. During summer months, large fresh sardines are plentiful and are a favorite with locals.
A popular restaurant choice is the The Ponto Final, which boasts wonderful reviews, a menu including typical Portugese seafood dishes, and dramatic seating perched atop a narrow pier. Note when dining in many restaurants in Lisbon, the bread, cheese and other delights that may be placed on the table are often not gratis. Waiters will happily remove those items if you ask. If not, don’t be surprised when the bill is a little higher than you might have expected.
After lunch, it’s an easy trip to visit the popular Cristo Rei statue, which overlooks the Rio Tejo from this side of the river.
Overnight Excursions from Lisbon Portugal
While technically Porto can be done as a day trip from Lisbon, this beautiful city deserves a day or two on a Portuguese itinerary at a minimum. Here you will find all of the characteristic buildings covered in ornate blue tiles, in an area surrounded by sweeping panoramic views of the Douro river. Porto also offers the opportunity to enjoy tastings at the famous Porto fortified wine, which can also be enjoyed at area restaurants along side the area’s favorite sandwich, the Francesinha. The multilayered pork sandwich is covered in a rich beer and butter sauce, topped with cheese and joined by a side of fries. Here’s our list of 10 top things to do in Porto, Portugal, including tracking down the famous sandwich. Porto can be reached by train from Lisbon in under 3 hours.
Badajoz, Spain is one of the areas best kept hidden gems. It has all of the features of a most visited European city, minus the actual herds of people. There are fantastic restaurants with regional delicacies from both Spain and Portugal, which makes sense given its location on the border between the two. Within the historic city center there are many small taverns spilling over into the narrow cobbled roads. A further wander revealed a pristine Moorish neighborhood that gives way to a view of old city walls.
We found one of our favorite Spanish dishes, Carrilladas, which are fork-tender slow cooked pork cheeks in a rich brown sauce, at a little hole in the wall restaurant called Meson El Postigo. The tiny place is filled with locals, and the tapas are simple and absolutely delicious. We couldn’t believe the large portions and the low prices.
If making a decision about whether to visit Portugal or Spain, Badajoz is a great option to get the feel for both places in one quaint location. We were completely taken with the place and disappointed that we only had such limited time there. To be fair, Badajoz is about 4 hours from Lisbon by bus, making it a better overnight (or two day) trip.
With an almost 5 hour train ride from Lisbon, Lagos is the furthest suggestion as a trip, but well worth consideration on a itinerary through Portugal. Lagos is a small city in the Algarve area of Portugal, and is a favorite summer destination. It’s expansive maia praia beach (accessible from the city center via a tiny ferry) can get very popular with locals and tourists alike. But the main attraction here is the smaller beach coves and rock formations that are mainly accessible to those who have a car or hire a boat.
The beautiful rock arches surrounded by a light blue sea is a sight that deserves a place in a portfolio of souvenir photos of a lifetime. It also makes taking a chilly morning drive to the ocean to watch the sun rise while the rest of the world sleeps.
Here’s a short video from Lagos for a little extra inspiration. Happy Travels!