By Kathryn Foley
Lisbon is the perfect city for a weekend away. With its rich cultural heritage, iconic attractions, vibrant communities and a fresh food scene, there is so much to take in. While 2 days in Lisbon may not seem like much time, with some careful planning you can experience its true essence and enjoy your time like a Lisboeta. A good itinerary will include the main attractions but also take you off the beaten track and to the hidden gems where locals like to hang out. So, if you are planning a trip and are looking for the best things to do in Lisbon in a short space of time, all you really need is to adopt the laid back local attitude, be ready for some lazy long lunches and a late night or two!
Day 1: The neighborhoods of Lisbon
Every Lisbon tour should include experiencing its most iconic sights- the vintage funiculars which trundle up the steep, cobbled lanes of Mouraria and Alfama. As the only areas of the city that weren’t destroyed by the the city’s infamous earthquake in 1755, these neighbourhoods are where you can really see Lisbon’s rich history come to life. Explore Mouraria, the neighbourhood of the Moors, which was born in 1147 and is as diverse and culturally rich as it was back then. If you want to save your legs, hop on one of the old funiculars and head straight up Mouraria’s steep hill; it’s true that the trams are always busy and you’ll have to queue, but with just 2 days in Lisbon I’d say it’s worth the wait. Jump off at the Sé, the Romanesque cathedral which was built on top of the ruins of a Moorish mosque and discover its history through the excavated areas which are on display.
Lunch in Lisbon
You are bound to work up an appetite while cramming in as many things to see in Lisbon in 2 days as possible. After exploring Mouraria and its surrounds, immerse yourself in Lisbon’s food culture with a long lunch. This generally means sharing plates amongst the table while lazily sipping some sangria and savouring the dishes that are local favourites. Luckily for you, one of the best restaurants in the area is a literal stone’s throw from the cathedral, but you’d walk straight past it if you weren’t looking. Santo André is one of Lisbon's best kept secrets. An unassuming looking terrace that’s partially hidden behind an ancient looking stone wall; venture inside and grab a table where you can cool off in the shade and enjoy the smokey bbq flavours that waft over from the grill. Start with a jug of sangria, then choose from plates of regional sheep milk cheese, cured meats, garlic covered prawns and grilled sardines or octopus, and revel in the dishes which seem to never stop appearing from the kitchen.
A touch of history
After your relaxing lunch, meander up the hill and visit Castelo de São Jorge, one of the most historic landmarks and certainly one of the top things to do in Lisbon. The castle is made up of different parts which were built at various points throughout history; the Moorish Castle dates from the 12th century. After you’ve explored this fascinating site and admired the views over Alfama, head down into the neighbourhood and take your pick from the bars which are dotted all over the area and enjoy a drink and some small plates of nibbles to begin your evening. In Lisbon these bites and a pre-dinner drink are known as petiscos, and make the perfect aperitif to enjoy as the sun sets over Alfama’s colourful roof terraces and you ponder over things to do in Lisbon at night. When the time comes for dinner, wind your way back into the heart of the neighbourhood and spend the evening in a casa de fado, where you can listen to the melancholic folk music that is a beloved part of the city’s cultural heritage as you eat. If you’re not ready to go to bed after this, there are plenty of tiny bars in the area where you can grab a nightcap of ginja, the local speciality of sweet cherry liqueur.
Day 2: Start the day right
Of course, no Lisbon tour would be complete without trying ‘Pastéis de Belém’, the sweet custard tarts which are one of the city’s most famous delicacies. Although you can try pastéis de nata at any bakery in Portugal, the Belém pastries are the original version and have been made to the same secret recipe since 1837! So for an indulgent breakfast, take the tram from Praça da Figueira to Belém, a district to the west of Lisbon and make a beeline for the bakery where you can enjoy a coffee and an unforgettable Belém pastry.
Explore Lisbon's cultural landmarks
Aside from trying the most delicious pastries, your 2 days in Lisbon itinerary plan should include a visit to Belém which features a rich history and cultural landmarks that paint a vivid portrait of Portugal’s “Age of Discovery.” Start at the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which is coincidentally where the recipe for Pastéis de Belém came from! This beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site was built to honour Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1498, and the ornate monastery is full of intricately designed cloisters and hidden historic gems. Further along the river you’ll find the Torré de Belém, an elaborate fortress which once sat in the middle of the river, but now sits watch along its bank. Last but not least head to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the eye-catching Monument to the Discoveries which pays tribute to some of the leading figures of this age who are carved into the stone of this striking landmark.
Grab a lunch from one of the best kept secrets Lisbon has to discover
You’ve probably worked up an appetite now, so it’s time to jump back on the tram and make your way to one of the most authentic eateries and Lisbon's best kept secrets. Cantinho das Freiras, the nuns’ canteen, serves up traditional home cooking every day, made from whatever fresh produce is available. It’s great value at just €8 for a main and dessert, so grab a plate (it’s self service) and enjoy some classic Portuguese cooking, courtesy of the nuns who call this spot home. To make the most of your 2 days in Lisbon hit the pavement again to explore Baixa and Bairro Alto, Lisbon’s most famous central districts. Wander under the regal porticoes and across Praça do Comércio, the impressive square that's at the heart of the city’s pedestrianised zone. Then for an alternative view which has only recently been open to the public, head up to the top of the Arco da Rua Augusta, the monumental arch which has panoramic views over the square and downtown district. Stroll along the elaborately cobbled streets of Baixa until you reach Bairro Alto, where you can visit the Igreja-Museu São Roque. This 16th century site is another one of Lisbon's best kept secrets; it’s unassuming and plain facade hides the most exquisite and ornate church in Lisbon.
Lisbon at Night
As dusk falls it is time to start planning things to do in Lisbon at night, and that starts with dinner. One of Lisbon’s greatest food gems isn’t actually in Lisbon but is sitting quietly on the opposite bank of the river. So, meander down to the Cais dos Sodré port and jump on the commuter boat to Cacilhas, which is where the best seafood from the region actually comes in. This charming neighborhood is nirvana for any seafood lover, although the sheer number of similar-looking restaurants can seem a little confusing at first. So skip the restaurants that you’re greeted by as you step off the ferry and head for Ponto Final - they have the best sunset views over the river and serve the most delicious dishes in the area - setting the scene for the perfect way to end your 2 days in Lisbon. Just remember that Lisboetas don’t eat fish on Mondays and Ponto Final is closed on Tuesdays, so avoid these days if you can.
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