15 things to do and tips to Lisbon and Cascais – active city break
Lisbon is one of the world’s oldest capital cities, built on seven hills and on the banks of River Tagus. The climate, history, architecture, food and wine have allured millions of visitors and made it one of the top 10 visited cities in Southern Europe. I was intrigued to visit, and totally charmed by the city that ended up exceeding my high expectations!
eBike tour over the hills of Alfama
Bicycling around Lisbon? Yes, sounded like a fantastic idea to see the city! But with an electronic bike? Hmm, I have to admit I wasn’t convinced it would be sporty enough. But on the other hand, I had thought about giving it a try for some time already and now was a perfect opportunity as Lisbon is known for its numerous hills! I found the tour with Boost via Tripadvisor and it sounded like a lot of fun. I booked it on my mobile on the same morning – very pleased with how well everything worked! I needed to get to the office 15 minutes before for check-in and soon our guides were calling the group together. In addition to great views and insights to the city, the tour was also good exercise, fun and informative – learned a lot of interesting facts about the city’s past. It was a hot day with over +30 degrees Celsius and I could feel the morning run in my legs, so I was a bit worried how it would work out. Luckily soon I noticed that it was pleasant to ride the bike as it was easy to turn on or off the electricity and switch gears just as on a normal bicycle. The chopper vintage style eBike actually looked stylish too!
Tagus River Waterfront Promenade
The southern part of the waterfront promenade stretches over 10 kilometers (I ran from my apartment close to Apollonia Station to Belem Tower) and provides a great flat path for walking, jogging and bicycling. There’s a few areas of cafés and restaurants with lovely terraces as well as some of Lisbon’s key sights: Cais do Sodre, MAAT, 25 de Abril Bridge (that has a bit similar looks as the Golden Gate Bridge), Padrao dos Descobrimentos, and Torre de Belém. Time flies when running on this route and (although first I thought of taking the train back) found it still interesting on the way back as well.
Cais do Sodre
The atmosphere of Cais do Sodre is trendy and energetic with people flocking to the numerous restaurants and bars. There’s a nice spot with reclining benches to sit down and relax, possibly listening to a street artist perform while gazing at the river.
Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)
MAAT portrays striking modern architecture and with its white tiles and curvy form. The building’s roof invites to walk up to slope to the terrace with amazing views to the river and city.
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
Padrao dos Descobrimentos is monument for the Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal was the first European country that sent explorers to search for the sea route to Asia. Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Columbus – just some of the names from history books of extraordinary explorers of the seas. It’s fascinating to think that over 500 years ago here the ships departed to trade and explore the world.
Torre de Belém
The Belem tower was originally built to protect the city. It’s quite rare to have such a military construction also look magnificent but Belem tower indeed is especially beautiful and impressive. Unfortunately, the lines are long so it’s not a place for a quick pop-in. However, it’s beautiful to see from the outside and worth the visit even if you don’t feel like queuing for the entrance.
Miradouro Nossa Senhora do Monte Belvedere
There’s a number of viewpoints on the Lisbon hills and the views are spectacular over the city and São Jorge Castle at Miradouro Nossa Senhora do Monte Belvedere. There’s a small chapel that can be visited for a quiet moment. The best part was the Maria Limao stand serving fresh homemade lemonade that tasted heavenly after the cycling in the afternoon heat.
Elevador de Santa Justa
The Elevador de Santa Justa is a unique lift designed in the 19th century by Gustav Eiffel’s student – it’s easy to see the resemblance to the Eiffel tower in Paris. The lift was built to allow people to move from the Baixa district up the Carmo Hill but today the stylish lift and the viewing platform at the top make it a popular tourist attraction and you can expect long queues if you plan to visit. However, it’s impressive with the lightning just walking by it in the evening.
Parque das Nações
Parque das Nações is the modern part of the city that was originally built for the Expo 1998 and is quite a contrast to the historic city center. There’s green parks and a riverside promenade for walking and jogging. The views to Vasco da Gama bridge – the 2nd longest bridge in Europe with a total length of over 12 kilometers (7,6 miles) – and Vasco da Gama Tower over the river are impressive.
There’s also a telecabine or cable car lift from the Vasco da Gama Tower to the Ocenarium over the river but it’s a good idea to check the schedules in advance – we weren’t lucky to be in time to give it a go.
Praca do Comercio
The commerce square was destroyed in the devastating earthquake, tsunami and fire that hit Lisbon in 1755 but it was rebuilt later. You can walk through the beautiful arch and along the Augusta pedestrian street with lots of stores towards the Rossio Square in the city center.
In addition to Rua Augusta and other streets in Lisbon city center, there’s lots of other shopping centers and malls. El Corte Ingles is a high-end department store with restaurants on the top floor. Vasco da Gama mall in Parque das Nações was our favorite as a modern mall with lots of international brand stores and a variety of restaurants. For a completely different shopping experience you can try the Feira da Ladra “Thieves market” that’s an open air flea market in Alfama open on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Restaurants and Cafes
Dinner at Time Out market
is a modern indoor market or food court with lots of different restaurant stalls with a wide selection to choose from: local food, pizza, hamburgers, salads, sushi – about anything really. There are long tables that bring a communal and relaxed feeling to the dining experience even if you’re traveling solo. It can be loud and crowded at peak times, so it might be a good idea to go early – at least on a Tuesday evening at 9 pm it was super busy but finally managed to find some free seats!
Pastel de nata at Pastelaria Alcôa
Ask anyone and indulging in Pastel de nata is one of the things not to miss when visiting Portugal! I’m usually not a big fan of pastries and cake (except raw cake) but I have to admit that the Pastel de nata with some cinnamon and powder sugar sprinkled on top are an incredibly tasty treat. One of the best places is Alcoa.
Brunch at Deli Delux
A combined deli store and restaurant and located across the street from Apollonia station with a seaside terrace. There’s 3 options of brunch sets as well as the menu to choose from. I selected the menu with eggs benedict. The cold cuts and cheese were high quality, but I missed having some fresh greens. I arrived after 11 am and there was plenty of space but an hour later the place was packed so it’s a good idea to come early to get a nice table.
Late lunch at Nicolau
This became one of my all-time favorite cafes! I was so hungry after the bicycle tour and thankful to find a table outdoors and the menu had so many healthy options to choose from! There’s also all-day brunch available. I got the guacamole, quinoa and smoked salmon salad and the green detox juice as well as sparkling water – all for under 20 euros. The cafe closes at 8pm so it’s best for brunch or late lunch. I liked the self-service with paying the bill at the counter and found the interior of the cafe stylish and child-friendly.
All-you-can-eat dinner at Arigato Sushihouse
Amazing sushi, very fresh and beautiful like pieces of art. Perfect when really hungry as the waiters go around offering more and more options, also exotic ones and dessert sushi.
Cascais is a small coastal town easily reachable from Lisbon city center by train. The train from Lisbon Cais do Sodre station takes just about 30 minutes. The public transportation ticket is valid on this trip and although it was hot the trains had at least some air conditioning. On the weekend it can get crowded so it’s a good idea to be early to ensure getting a seat on the train. Optionally, taking an Uber isn’t a bad idea especially if there’s more persons and luggage – the cost of the half hour drive was less than 30 euros.
Cascais has lots of beautiful buildings and views.
There’s several lovely beaches in Cascais and despite the crowds it didn’t feel too crowded (at least outside of the holiday season, maybe August could be too busy).
Cascais has been nominated as European Youth Capital 2018 and despite it’s small size is a vibrant place. I happened to visit during the LUMINA Festival da Luz / Festival of Light. The Festival is organized as a celebration of colors and forms and it welcomes lots of people and families who come to enjoy the light shows with music and street food.
There’s plenty of restaurants and all types of cuisines to choose from. I enjoyed a vegetarian buffet dinner at Café House of Wonders. The café is known for its rooftop terrace and vegetarian buffet (possible to request gluten free). Unfortunately, the terrace was closed due to the light spectacle, but I got a nice table outdoors downstairs.
Where to stay
I was reviewing Lisbon hotels and was really happy to find this spacious and modern studio apartment in with self-check-in close to the Alfama district and many of Lisbon’s main sights. Based on the description online I thought it would have a balcony to a courtyard but as a positive surprise it turned out to be a French balcony with views all the way to the sea over the buildings across the street. The impressive Pantheon was just around the corner too.
It was first time for me to book a self-check-in place. First, they send a code to your email to get through the front door. The self-check-in kiosk was easy to use, just needed to have the reservation number (in the email), as well as my passport and credit card ready. Just like everywhere in Lisbon, you need to pay the city tax (1 euro per person per night but max 7 euros) even though you’ve prepaid the stay. The kiosk printed out the access code to the room as well as the WiFi code.
My apartment was on the second floor and I was pleasantly surprised of its size and the view in the morning sun when waking up. I was a bit concerned at first about the noise and sound-proofing of the apartment, but I slept very well in the end. I liked the location in the old part of Lisbon and within walking distance of the shoreline and services. The only issue was that the WiFi was quite patchy, otherwise it was a great stay.
Cascais: Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel
If you’re looking for a bit of luxury weekend escape from Lisbon, Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel is a perfect place. At check-in I got upgraded to a bigger room with a nice large balcony. The bathroom with a tub was wonderful. A long swim in the outdoor sea water pool couldn’t have been more refreshing on a hot afternoon!
The hotel is located a bit outside the town center but it’s just about one kilometer pleasant and safe walk along the seaside. The hotel gym access is included in the room fee but use of the spa (indoor swimming pool and sauna) costs 20 euros. The breakfast was incredibly good with a broad selection of cold and warm options without forgetting special diets. They served an excellent macchiato with almond milk and the outdoor seating was superb.
Don’t book a hotel before doing some research on the city districts first. Lisbon has different districts with strong characteristics. I almost booked a hotel far away from the city because it seemed like a great deal and had good reviews, but it would have required taking public transportation to access all the places I wanted to go. Know what’s important to you when you travel, do some research, and compare hotel offers. Personally, if possible I prioritize walking distance to the seaside (especially if there’s a promenade for jogging/bicycling) as well as proximity to restaurants and shops.
Transportation: from airport to the city and out and about
Overall, the public transportation in Lisbon is cheap and works well. However, if you plan to use different modes of transportation (metro/train/bus/ferry, etc) don’t take just any ticket – Via Viaggem Zapping card is the best option as you just upload cash to it and can use it across the whole public transportation system. But note that what you upload on the card stays on the card without possibility to get refunded. Lisboa card (available for 24/48/72 hours) that includes admission to public transportation and a number of sights could also be a good option.
Yellow trams are a famous part of Lisbon and are fun to watch rolling in the streets. However, especially the route 28 that’s popular with tourists can be very crowded and risky due to pickpockets, so watch out if you decide to go on-board.
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At the airport, the metro station is right outside of the arrivals hall. There can be long ques to the ticket vending machines, but the line was moving quite quickly – big thanks to the employee who was helping out the tourists! After 2 stops at Oriente, I needed to change from metro to train. It was a bit confusing how to find my way but eventually figured out that it required moving up a couple of floors to get to the trains. I think I just missed one train as I needed to wait about 15 minutes but then it was just another couple of stops before arriving at Santa Apollonia station from where it was just a short walk to my apartment.
Uber service in Lisbon is fantastic and would also be a good option from the airport especially if you’re staying at a place further away from the public transportation network.
I took the train from Lisbon Entrecampos station to Albufeira-Ferreiras to visit Algarve region. The first class ticket cost just a bit more than second class and made the 2,5 hour travel pleasant on board the high-speed train traveling at top speeds over 200 km per hour. It’s easy to buy the tickets online and if you book early you could find a nice discount on the ticket. It was a nice experience to cross the 25 de abril bridge by train and say goodbye to the city from the train window.
On the way back, we had a rental car to return and it was super easy as it was right next to the airport without too long walking distance.
Lisbon is a big city that has the traffic jams of a metropolitan city at peak commuting hours which means that buses may be behind schedule if caught in congestion. In any case, don’t jump on a bus going to your destination before double-checking the route. I was happy to find a bus going to the right destination and hopped on – only to realize a few minutes later that it was going in the wrong direction and it would take around triple the time!
Next time in Portugal I’d love to visit Porto as well – here’s a 3 days in Porto itinerary from Sidewalk Safari for inspiration. There would also be much more to see and do in Lisbon than what was possible to fit into a weekend! I really enjoyed the city and would be more than happy to return to see and experience more, especially:
- Ferry from Cais do Sodré across Tagus river to Cacilhas
- Cristo Rei Monument to Christ
- Museum MAAT from the inside
- Estoril beaches
- Sintra castles and national park
Have you been to Lisbon and would you have other recommendations on things to do?
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