Any visit to Lisbon should include a wandering along the waterfront. Along the Tagus (Tejo) river, you will find everything from Lisbon’s highly acclaimed aquarium to numerous outdoor cafes, along with some of Lisbon’s most famed tourist attractions.
Exploring the Belem Region alone can take a good part of the day. Belem is an area to the south of the city where you will find the Belem Tower, the Hieronymites Monastary and several monuments. You can also sample Lisbon’s favorite pastries there. The Belem Tower is a Unesco World Heritage site, built at the mouth of the Tagus River in the 16th century as part of defense system.
Close by is another Unesco World Heritage site, The Hieronymites Monastery, whose construction began in 1459. The monastery is an amazing site both due to its size and the ornate limestone carvings that decorate its walls. The style (manueline) uses martime elements, such as seaweed and shells in the intricate design.
Cafe Pasteis de Belem
Just a short walk away is the Cafe Pasteis De Belem where you can sample the egg custard tart that is known as the king of pastries in Lisbon. The recipe was created over 100 years ago by the monks and is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the city. Only a handful of people know the recipe (which is never written down). In order to guard the recipe, those who know it pledge to never eat the same meal in a restaurant, travel together or ride in the same car. It’s that good! Of course there are imitators around every corner, selling the tart under the name Pasteis De Nata. No trip to Lisbon is complete without trying one (or two. Go ahead, it’s ok, they’re small).
25 de Abril Bridge
Up the river from Belem you will come across the marina and 25 de Abril Bridge that connects Lisbon with the Almada Province. The bridge was constructed by the American Bridge Company, who also built the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Standing next to the bridge on the Almada side is the Cristo Rei monument. The 92 foot statue was built in 1959 to thank God for sparing Portugal from entering World War II. A quick glance will confirm that it was modeled after the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Stop by the marina (Docas de Santo Amaro) for lunch or dinner with a view. Rumor has it you can sample a fine glass of sangria there…
Mercada Da Ribeira
A little further along you will run into the ferry landing. Across from it is the Mercada Da Ribeira, where you can buy fresh vegetables, meats, or the famous salt cod, Lisbon’s favorite food. Interestingly cod is not available locally, which is part of the reason for the salted preserved version being so popular. Apparently it became a prized food by the wealthy as a rare and exotic food brought in from the new world. Since then it has become easier to import and accessible to the entire population. You can find cod fish, or “bacalhau”, on most every menu and in every market. Unfortunately it is something that your nose will likely find well before your eyes. Despite that, with hundreds of years learning how to soak and bring the cod back to life, the Portuguese boast having over 500 recipes for their favorite food.
Lisbon Time Out Market
Next to the market is a newcomer to the area, the “Time Out Market.” This is a place where foodies flock to taste offerings from foodstalls, some including menus from the top chefs in Lisbon. The concept is not new. There are Time Out Markets in Sydney, Paris and London to name a few. Despite it’s popularity many locals wrinkled their nose when we mentioned the place. A few locals we spoke with felt it “won’t last,” partially due to the reportedly high fees each stall is charged in order to operate there. Despite these reports, we had a great time strolling around and sampling the food. What can we say…it was a lot of fun.
Ferry to Calcilhas
If you decide to skip the market, a great option is to take the ferry across the river to Calcilhas. A boat leaves every 20 minutes and it only takes about 10 minutes to get across the river. Once you arrive you are greeted by the smell of grilling fish (in our case this was primarily sardines, which are in season in the summer). There are several restaurants to choose from and all of them were bringing out amazing-looking dishes.
Note: when you sit down at most restaurants in Lisbon you will be given a bread basket and other offerings, such as sliced cheese or olives. The first time they arrive it’s like a wonderful surprise – look at the treats and we haven’t even ordered. But not so fast, everything you gobble up will go on the bill. This is not just in restaurants for the tourists. We’re told it is more of a cultural thing than a way to extract more money from unsuspecting visitors. And if you come do sample the bread and cheese, it’s worth the small amount they charge.
As a last stop on the waterfront tour, and able to gobble up a 1/2 day visit on its own, is the Lisbon Aquarium. Recently named by Trip Advisor as the second best aquarium in the world (first place going to the Monterey Aquarium in Northern Califonia).
Getting Around Lisbon
Each of these sights are easily accessible via public transportation (bus and metro, including Calcihas) or by taking one of the cities hop-on hop-off bus tours. Just make sure you bring plenty of water and wear comfortable walking shoes – particularly if you plan to venture toward the sites in the city center, and inevitably, up a few of the famous 7 hill. Here’s our complete list of fun things to do in Lisbon, Portugal, including our guide to wine tasting in Lisbon and day trips and overnight excursions from Lisbon!