Europe is blessed to have what seems to be an unlimited number of cities that epitomize everything there is to love about historic architecture. You could be forgiven for suggesting cities such as Rome, Athens, London or Paris when thinking about the so-called “European capital of culture” or “European capital of architecture” but after spending an action-packed 24 hours in Lisbon, we would argue that this should be the near the top.
Portugal is a nation that is frequently left in the shadow of many of Europe’s more infamous countries but this should take nothing away from the beauty throughout this historic country. Whether you are visiting the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, the breathtaking Algarve or some of the lesser known destinations, you can be sure that you will quickly fall in love with this country and want to book a return trip.
24 Hours in Lisbon
Our visit to Lisbon, albeit relatively short, gave us a brief insight into the rich culture that is present in this nation. The locals are some of the friendliest we have encountered anywhere in Europe, perhaps because as our tour guide emphasized, the Portuguese generally don’t care or worry about much, and the history of the city is apparent everywhere you walk.
If you only have one or two days in Lisbon, don’t worry, because you can experience a lot and hopefully after reading our short guide, you will be inspired to book a trip here in the near future. 24 hours in any city is not much time but if you are prepared and you follow our recommendations, you can have an amazing time exploring the beautiful city of Lisbon.
Whether the thought of taking a free walking tour intrigues you, or perhaps you prefer to do everything at a self-guided pace, the choice is entirely yours but we want to give a couple of different options to make the most of your time in Lisbon. Let’s take a look at the best way to spend an awesome 24 hours exploring the city is Lisbon!
Free Walking Tours
One of the best ways to explore any new destination is to head out on foot and simply explore. But when you have limited time, it can be a pretty intimidating thought because you have so many ideas of places you want to visit and honestly, no idea where to start.
The beauty of visiting many of Europe’s leading cities is that there are a plethora of free walking tours available. I know what you are probably thinking when you hear the word “free” but they truly are free and the tour guides are relying solely on your tips.
This encourages them to give you an awesome tour and by the end of the 2 or 3 hours exploring the city, you will likely want to offer them something to repay them for their knowledge.
Lisbon is definitely a city we would recommend taking one of these free walking tours, particularly if you are pressed for time. Sandeman’s New Europe walking tours are an awesome way to experience Lisbon (along with all of their other destinations across the continent) and you can be sure that a passionate local will be on hand to show you the best of the city.
Largo de Camões
Our walking tour started at Largo de Camões, an iconic square in the heart of this historic city. Standing proudly at the heart of this square is a statue of Luís de Camões, an integral figure in Portuguese history. Obviously a walking tour around Lisbon is not going to cover every landmark attraction but our guide did an excellent job of highlighting some of the best places worth visiting.
In addition to emphasizing the best places to see breathtaking panoramic urban landscapes of the city, he took us around some of the lesser known “hidden gems” that locals can generally be found and outside of the standard tourist hotspots.
Our tour guide spent quite a bit of time pointing out iconic landmarks throughout the Bairro Alto district, as we climbed the steep cobblestone streets before admiring the epic scenery across the city, in particular, the towering São Jorge Castle that stands proudly above central Lisbon.
As we dropped back down towards the harbor, we explored Rossio Square and learned a number of intriguing stories about the history of Portugal and specifically Lisbon. This half day walking tour is the perfect way to get a general overview of Lisbon but there will likely be a number of other spots that you will want to experience on your own self-guided tour.
Let’s take a look at some of the specific landmarks that are worth experiencing after.
When it comes to charming neighborhoods in the city of Lisbon, there are none that are quite like the district of Belem. If you only have a short time in Lisbon, Belem is a must see because of the rich history, gorgeous architecture and of course, the iconic Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese custard tart).
Where you are staying in the city will likely determine the best way to reach Belem but for us, hopping on the local bus was cheap, efficient and a great way to explore other parts of the city en route to this historic neighborhood. As we arrived in Belem, we immediately noticed the line wrapped around the corner and quickly realized this was for those delicious Pasteis de Nata…more on those later.
Our first stop saw us head to the symbolic Jerónimos Monastery that stands proudly in the heart of Belem. This 500+ year old monastery (construction started here in 1501) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and was constructed to commemorate the return of the great Vasco de Gama from India in the early 16th century.
The building is predominantly Manueline style, which for those of you more familiar with traditional European architectural styles is similar to late Gothic.
The interior of the Church of Santa Maria is particularly unique and is home to the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões. Self-guided tours of the monastery itself are available throughout the day for a small admission fee (10-12 Euros at the time of publication) but regardless of your desire to explore every intricate detail, this is a Portuguese landmark you cannot afford to miss.
Take a short walk from Jerónimos Monastery towards the Targus River and you will see yet another iconic landmark – Belem Tower. This structure was first built to defend the city of Lisbon between the years 1514 and 1520.
Classified as another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Portuguese capital, this tower was transformed from its original design as a defensive outpost to a lighthouse and later a customs house. A narrow, spiral staircase winds its way through the tower passing through five floors before reaching the roof terrace which is the perfect spot for an overlook as you admire the city and ponder what life was like 500 years ago.
Tickets can be purchased (or if you purchase the Lisbon Card, admission is included) to view the interior and climb to the summit of the tower but again, this is another attraction that you can enjoy just as much from the outside as you appreciate the architectural ingenuity that went into the Manueline style design of the structure.
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
After exploring Belem Tower, take a stroll along the banks of the Targus River before stumbling across yet another integral landmark in this historic neighborhood. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos, translated as Monument to the Discoveries, is a towering structure standing at 170 feet tall.
This monument was developed to commemorate the Age of Discoveries in Portugal in 1960, 500 years after the great Prince Henry the Navigator, who discovered the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde. Visitors can climb to the top of the monument to take in spectacular views of the city.
Pasteis de Belem
Walking around the district of Belem taking in all of the aforementioned landmarks will certainly work up an appetite to enjoy the neighborhood’s piece de resistance – the Pasteis de Nata. There is no better place to experience the most authentic Portuguese custard tart than along the main street in Belem at Pasteis de Belem.
As I mentioned earlier, as you make your way into this neighborhood you will quickly realize where this shop is located given the hoards of visitors that will be lined up waiting to sample this local delicacy.
Renowned as the best place to enjoy Pasteis de Nata, it’s fair to say that it’s worth the wait. Rain or shine, people will line along the street waiting for their moment to purchase a number of the Pasteis de Nata pastries.
After spending 30 minutes queuing, we purchased a box of six custard tarts and I can 100% confirm that these are as good as their reputation suggests. Regardless of the length of time you have to wait…folks, trust us when we say, it’s well worth the wait! I would definitely recommend purchasing at least six of these small tarts but feel free to buy more, you won’t be disappointed.
What exactly is inside the Pasteis de Nata from Pasteis de Belem? Well folks, unsurprisingly it’s a secret…dating back to the mid-19th century from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Don’t worry, some things should just be left in the ancient archives and we will all just enjoy this decadent delight!
São Jorge Castle
If you opt against the free walking tour and choose to spend the morning exploring Belem, why not hop back on the bus after lunch and head for the historic São Jorge Castle. Located on the summit of São Jorge hill, this castle dates back to the 5th century when a small fortress was originally constructed on this site.
The Castle’s iconic years were between the 13th and 16th centuries when it was occupied by the Kings of Portugal. A visit to São Jorge Castle will likely take several hours as there is a vast area to cover.
You may also choose to spend time exploring the nearby neighborhoods of Alfama and Castelo. The streets that meander through this part of Lisbon epitomize everything there is to love about European ancient architecture, while this is also the perfect area to grab a bite to eat from a local cafe and enjoy mingling with locals.
Renowned as the “City of Seven Hills”, it’s no surprise that Lisbon is known as such because of the various climbs that you have to make in order to explore this historic city. But after experiencing several of these, we can attest that it’s well and truly worth the effort.
Whether you are following our recommendations because you only have a short time in Lisbon or you have more time to slowly make your way around these historic landmarks, the capital of Portugal is a vibrant city that should be on everyone’s radar.
We are excited about returning to Lisbon in the not too distant future hopefully, as there is A LOT we still need to explore both inside the city and with a number of nearby day trips that are intriguing. Places such as Sintra, The National Palace of Queluz, the coastal resort of Cascais and many others are on our bucket list but when it comes to Lisbon, this is a city you can enjoy regardless of the time you spend there!