A compact and hilly setting beside the ocean makes for some stunning scenery, the food’s great, the nightlife is buzzing, there are good beaches nearby and a resurgent cultural scene, plus one of the most enchanting tram rides in the world – what’s not to love?
By day Bairro Alto, the ‘Upper District’, just east and uphill of the city centre, is a sedate residential neighbourhood but, come evening, the place bursts into life and its narrow streets are thronged with locals hopping between one-room restaurants, small bars and fado houses (restaurants with live fado music).
You probably didn’t know
With some 2,800 hours of sunshine a year, Lisbon is Europe’s sunniest capital. It also boasts the mildest winters.
Pereira Maintains (1994) is the lyrical story of a small-time newspaper editor, struggling under the harsh political regime of Lisbon in the 1930s. It’s beautifully atmospheric.
Things to do in Lisbon
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
You can’t visit Lisbon without gorging on pastel de nata – local custard tarts – and the best place to do this is the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, the cafe that invented them. It sells up to 20,000 of them a day, bought takeaway by the half dozen in specially designed cardboard tubes, or delivered to tables that fill the labyrinthine interior of tiled rooms.
A Primavera do Jerónimo
You may have to wait on the narrow street outside A Primavera do Jerónimo until a table comes free (staff offer drinks to those in line), but it’s worth persevering for good, hearty Portuguese home cooking, served in what feels like somebody’s front room. Expect soup, meat and grilled fish prepared in a kitchen in open view. Space is a little cramped but it all adds to the conviviality. Find it in the Bairro Alto at Travessa da Espera. Closed Sunday.
Just north of the centre, near the Intendente metro stop, Cervejaria Ramiro is a Lisbon institution (it was founded in 1956) and is the place to indulge in seafood. Local specialities are fresh shellfish, particularly clams and percebes (barnacles). It’s hugely popular with locals and visitors, so expect to queue for a table. Open from noon to gone midnight, closed Monday.
The food court at Mercado da Ribeira
Opened in May 2014, the food court at Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s main market hall, has quickly become the go-to destination for the city’s foodies. It hosts some 35 kiosks serving regional specialities, from sardines to custard tarts, wines and chocolates, plus there are a clutch of restaurants operated by some of the country’s top chefs. It’s open daily from 10am until midnight (or until 2am Thursday to Saturday), and you’ll find it at Avenida 24 de Julho 50, across from Cais do Sodré.
Rua Nova do Carvalho
The Cais do Sodré neighbourhood has recently transformed from dingy and down-at-heel to become a vibrant centre for nightlife. At the heart of it is Rua Nova do Carvalho, which has been painted all pink, and is where you find a bunch of cool music clubs, including Musicbox and Povo, as well as the sublimely quirky Sol e Pesca (Sun and Fish), a fishing tackle shop that is also a bar that sells canned fish to accompany the beer.
Portugal has always enjoyed strong links with Africa, something that is reflected in Lisbon’s live music scene. Check out B.Leza, a legendary African club that moved into a new warehouse home near Cais do Sodré in 2012. It features acts from places like Angola and Cape Verde, Wednesday to Saturday from 10.30pm. Find it on Cais da Ribeira Nova, behind the central market.
Another area on the up is former red-light district Intendente, now a hub of pop-up bars. Start exploring at Casa Independente, which is a decaying mansion (really!) overlooking the central square with a bar and café, and a host of small rooms to hang out in. It hosts regular gigs and DJ sets.
A Vida Portuguesa
For artisanal crafts head to A Vida Portuguesa, which stocks a wide range of beautiful and unique locally made items from soaps and olive oils to hand-woven rugs and furniture. The vintage packaging is especially charming. There are two branches: one near the Intendente metro and another more central at Rua Anchieta 11 in Chiado. It also has a stand at Mercado da Ribeira.
Single item shops
Once upon a time, Lisbon was divided into artisan sections, where you’d find clusters of shops selling one thing. That’s no longer the case but you’ll still find plenty of shops selling a single item, from tinned sardines to handmade candles, many of which haven’t changed in more than 100 years. Check out Chapelaria Azevedo Rua, a wood-panelled hat shop on the corner of Lisbon’s main square; Luvaria Ulisses, a bespoke glove maker a few streets away, that has been in business since 1925; the church-like Caza das Vellas Loreto, which has been selling handmade candles since 1789; and Conserveira de Lisboa, where Lisboetas have gone to buy hand-wrapped tinned sardines since 1930.
The first thing any visitor to Lisbon should do is ride the eléctrico 28 (the tram). It runs through some of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods including Baixa, Chiado, Alfama and Graca, rattling up and down hills and squeezing between buildings. You can buy a ticket onboard or, if you are going to be using public transport a lot, invest in a Lisboa Card.
What country and western is to Nashville and jazz to New Orleans, fado is to Lisbon. It is the main cultural expression of the city, although when you hear it sung – full of anguish and pain – you can’t help but think, “Why so miserable?” Experience it at a casa de fado (fado house), a restaurant where professional musicians perform; entry is free but you are expected to eat and there may be a minimum spend. Give Parreirinha de Alfama a try, owned by fado legend Argentina Santos. It’s on the Beco do Espírito Santo, near the São Miguel church; dinner is from 8pm, fado from 9.15pm.
Museu Coleção Berardo
Not as well known as it should be, the Museu Coleção Berardo is a showcase for the collection of modern art, amassed by a former media magnate. It includes works by Picasso, Warhol and a host of other 20th-century luminaries; unsurprisingly it is particularly strong on local girl Paula Rego. It is out in Belém and is one of a cluster of important museums.
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