Belem Tower from the park
Europe,  Portugal,  Travel

The Best and Worst of Lisbon

Multi-award winning city, with a growing economy, exploding tourism and a mix of art, hipster areas and iberian style of life, Lisbon has gained the spotlight in recent years for tourists looking for a beautiful, not extremely expensive and close to the sea city escape. It is easy to declaim the wonders of Lisbon.

As any other place though, there are less desirable areas, less positive experiences, less endearing attractions and its share of ugliness, no matter how rare and hidden it may be. So, instead of the countless “best of” articles, I want to write a more objective, and yet concise, list of the best and worst of Lisbon. Starting from the best.

The Best of Lisbon

Art

From the Manuelin style, so present in Lisbon, to large 19th century streets, a vast choice of museums collecting, modern, medieval and Age of Discoveries marvels, churches, miradouros and plenty of azulejos adorning walls and streets, art is everywhere around you in Lisbon. Impossible not to stop and gape in wonder at a few of the main wonders of the city. If you are looking for art, you’ll find plenty of.

Sé Cathedral interior
Sé Cathedral interior

Highlights: Jeronimos Monastery, the Belem Tower, the Praça do Comercio, the Se Cathedral, the whole Alfama neighborhood, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

Food

The Pasteis de Nata are worldwide famous at this point but not the only delicacy that the local cuisine can offer you. Lisbon is a mixed city and you’ll find a large choice of different origins mixing together, like indian and portuguese restaurants, African cuisine, chinese dishes meeting european tradition and the regional cuisines of Alentejo, Algarve or Trás-os-Montes. For food connoisseurs Lisbon is a trove of culinary discoveries.

Portuguese breakfast
Portuguese breakfast

Highlights: Manteigaria, for the best pasteis de nata in the city, Zé Varunca, for the earthy Alentejan cuisine, Cantinho do Aziz, for african-inspired no-frills dishes, Lisboa Tu e Eu (R. Adiça 58, 1100-538 Lisboa, Portugal) for great sardines, Atalho Real, for steaks, and the area in and around Mercado Central for all kinds of tapas, snacks, street foods and quirky dishes.

The colours

Perhaps it’s obvious for those who often travelled to Lisbon but one of the best features of the city are its colours: azulejos foremostly but not only. Buildings of different pastel colours are intertwined with classical white-washed, mediterranean-style, houses, and lush gardens. While it is relatively common to find small towns that are extremely colourful all around the world, it is not so common to find a large city like Lisbon to feature so many different colours in the facades of buildings that are not even just limited to the old town.

Lisbon street
Lisbon street

Do not be surprised to walk around Lisbon and see a dark red building next to a white one next to a green one next to a blue and white one. Colours are all around you in Lisbon and it’s definitely one its best features.

Highlights: Rua Vieira Portuense in Belém is a congregation of pastel-coloured houses, near the Jeronimos Monastery, Rua Sacramento à Lapa, one of the most elegant streets of Lisbon, Calçada Santana, a steep way down towards the sea bordered by myriads of colourful houses, Rua da Adiça, for the village-feeling right in the heart of the Alfama district, the now famous Pink Street, plus many, many others.

The atmosphere

Perhaps it has to do with the surging economy, with the universities and international companies attracting young workers and students from all over the world, or with the calm attitude of the portuguese people but the atmosphere in Lisbon is one of the best aspects of the city. Calm yet vibrant, hipster but not too much, unpretentious, joyous but not overtly so, positive yet aware of the woes of the not-so-distant past, Lisbon has a more multicultural and positive feeling yet maintaining the core of the iberian culture feeling atmosphere that makes it a unique city (not even Porto has the same atmosphere).

Highlights: Bairro Alto is the core of the movida and cultural happenings so wander there to have best feel the Lisbon atmosphere. In general though, go through the tiniest streets you can find, the further away from the main touristic thoroughfares to experience what life is like in Lisbon.

The Worst of Lisbon

The queues

Inevitably with the tourism increasing, the number of tourists presents at any time at the main attractions increases too. In Lisbon this reaches extreme levels as everywhere you will want to go there’s a huge queue to get in. Sometimes a double one, like at the Jeronimos Monastery: one for buying the ticket and another to actually entering the monastery. Expect every day to spend half an hour, at the very least, queueing, anywhere you go. Go to Lisbon with plenty of patience unless you want to be walk around constantly pissed off.

Lowlights: Jeronimos Monastery, as said, but also the Elevador de Santa Justa, Belém Tower and the São Jorge Castle will take a long time to get inside.

The pavements

Lisbon uphill street
Lisbon uphill street

Good luck walking the streets of Lisbon with high heels after a light rain. The city is built on seven hills and a large part of the pavements of the streets is made of cobblestones of various shapes and sizes, locally known as calçada Portuguesa, often leaving large gaps between them. Other than risking getting stuck or falling down, which happened to me even as a sneaker-wearing man, the city is quite tiring in walking through. There’s hardly a linear, sea-level street, most of the main centre of Lisbon is a constant up and down, with no chance for an easy walk. The knees of the lisboans must be very trained.

Lowlights: the Alfama district is the hardest to walk through but Bairro Alto isn’t a walk in the park either (pun intended)

Mass-touristic souvenirs

Unlike other similar countries like Italy or Greece, it’s quite hard to find good, local, artisans in Lisbon. The souvenirs are largely mass-produced and but for food, it’s hard to find shops that offer products locally produced, unique to them and not the generic cork bags, olive oils, soaps and omnipresent fridge magnets as everywhere else. It may be unimportant to many travellers but I personally love to be able to spend my money on something that is made by the local population, helping the local economy instead of a big company decentralized somewhere in the Far East. In Lisbon this is hard.

Lowlights: everywhere is roughly the same but the Baixa is heavily geared towards tourists and international brands.

The dirt

I was born in Naples, which is far from being famous for its cleanliness so I feel I shouldn’t write about the dirtiness of Lisbon but Sylwia and other people I know lamented how Lisbon’s streets aren’t well kept in terms of trash, nor the trash bins aren’t emptied often enough and the smell of the sea isn’t exactly an eau de toilette. That’s all very true. You may be used to worst places and not blink an eye but definitely the dirt is one of the worst aspects of Lisbon.

Belem building
By far not the worst building in a central area (Belém)

Lowlights: the main touristic districts aren’t the worst but lateral streets of the main ones are often the most neglected, and dirties, ones.

Think of the Best and try to avoid the Worst

I hope that this list hasn’t put you off from visiting Lisbon. Most of the worst can be avoided or bore with if you know it beforehand. Which you do now after reading this article. Don’t be discouraged and focus on the best parts of Lisbon, you’ll surely have a great time in a wonderful european capital.

What do you believe is the best and the worst of Lisbon? Let me know in the comments.

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

2 Comments

  • Teresa

    This was an interesting read. I can definitely recommend going to Lisbon outside of the season: we visited in March, which meant that we got to enjoy emptier pavements, warm weather and clean streets. It’s the tourists trashing the streets after all.

    • Gianluca Fiore

      Yes, outside of the main touristic season the “worst” aspects are much more bearable, if not absent at all. Some of the trash will remain, especially if going a bit off the main touristic paths, but that’s understandable everywhere.

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