11 Unique Things to Do in Lisbon—Conquer a Castle by Elevator

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There are many unique things to do in Lisbon—some are on the typical tourist path, and others require a local guide to flush them out for you. In this city, learning about them is a great part of the fun.

You’ll see lots of lists and itineraries for the top things to do in Lisbon, and truly, you can’t go wrong with anything you decide to do. It’s an incredible city filled with wonderful architecture, incredible food, and lots of interesting history.

Here are my top picks after visiting and touring with a local guide and what I’d highly recommend checking out. Some of these places may not be on other tour recommendations, and others have the interesting perspective of a local!

Check out this post if you’d like a three-day itinerary for Lisbon.

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A Brief Introduction to Lisbon

Lisbon is one of the cities of seven hills touted as Europe’s second-oldest capital. It’s home to some of the world’s greatest explorers, like Magellan and Vasco da Gama. You will proudly be told it’s western Europe’s oldest capital by the locals.

Lisbon is known for its spectacular beaches, incredible seafood, other amazing food, and sweet, fortified port wine. Portuguese azulejos tiles steeped in history and culture adorn churches, homes, and other buildings.

Before people knew of soccer great Christiano Rinaldo, they were talking about Portugal and its exquisite capital city, Rainha do Mar (Queen of the Sea).

Some lesser-known facts make Lisbon special, things I didn’t read in tour books. I learned about a different, local slant walking the streets with local guides. This is the Lisbon I would like to introduce to you in this article.

1. Meet the Most Influential Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese poet, writer, and critic and was one of the most influential literary figures of the early 19th Century. He wrote in over 70 different distinct personalities, or heteronyms, as he called them.

These personalities had different philosophical beliefs and writing styles. He and others viewed them as unique individuals. These heteronyms even criticized the work of his other personas and often held contradictory beliefs at times contrary to popular opinion.

Signs of him can be found throughout Lisbon, hiding in plain sight. Searching for them in random areas throughout the city is one of the fun things to do in Lisbon. He is always represented by a tall, thin likeness with a long coat, hat, and glasses.

There is a statue in front of his favorite coffee shop in the Chiado district, A Brasileira, where young writers used to gather. There is another statue in front of the house where he was born, across the square from the Opera House. We saw a third statue on a random balcony!

An interesting note: Pessoa means “a person”(a single individual) in Portuguese.

2. Conquer a Castle by Elevator

“This is the city where you can conquer a castle by elevator!” I heard this on a free walking tour, and it still makes me laugh.

It conjures an image of Don Quixote in my mind, riding on his horse with the long jousting lance in his hands, trying to fit into an elevator. Though this attraction is one of the things people first learn about when planning to visit Lisbon, it is a unique structure worth seeing.

Ride the Santa Justa Lift

What this colorful saying represents is the Santa Justa Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa). Included in many “must-do” lists of Lisbon and “must not do” lists that rail against the cost of riding the lift and the long line waiting for it, this saying greatly represents the Portuguese people.

The people have a refreshing attitude, tinged with a touch of humor, often self-deprecating humor and general kindness. I never got lost without someone offering me assistance, and I get lost quite often.

The Santa Justa Lift leads you halfway up the hill to Graca, the highest point in the city and next to St. Jorge’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge). Two tips:

  1. The Santa Justa Lift is not required. From one vantage point, it looks like the lift is the only way up when you can walk around it.
  2. You can access the back of the lift near the back of the Carmo Convent to take in the view without the cost and the wait.

2. Ride a Trolley Car (or Get your Exercise)

The hills of Lisbon are rather steep, and I laughed during my trip that in just four days, I was back to hiking shape. I was only partially joking! There are five funiculars, or lifts, in several neighborhoods in the city. I stumbled upon one a few minutes walk from my apartment that looked like an old trolly car called Elevador da Bica.

These trolley cars and funiculars are actually used for transportation, though they look pretty cool as well. This one in the picture, Bica, is covered in graffiti.

I hiked up the steep hill as the trolly very slowly made its way downhill. However, I felt better for the walk, especially considering that I saw very few overweight Portuguese. Due to their general fitness level navigating the hills, it is no big shock as to why.

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Bica Lift

3. Visit the Oldest Bookshop in the World

Livraria Bertrand (Bertrand Bookshop) was established in 1732 in the Chiado district (not far from A Brasileira). It quickly became a local favorite for writers. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the oldest bookshop in the world still in operation today.

The original location was mostly destroyed by the Earthquake of 1755 and was re-established in another location in 1773, where it remains today. There are now 52 Bertrand Bookshops across the country.

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4. Walk through History—The Carnation Revolution

The Carnation Revolution (Revolução dos Cravos), also referred to as the 25th of April (vinte e cinco de Abril), was a military coup that overthrew the authoritarian dictatorship in 1974.  Estado Novo was mostly led by António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled the country for nearly 40 years.

The Revolution Began with Radio Transmission

According to Wikipedia:

“There were two secret signals in the military coup: first the airing (at 10:55 pm) by ‘Emissores Associados de Lisboa’ of the song “E Depois do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho, Portugal’s entry on 6 April 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, which alerted the rebel captains and soldiers to begin the coup.

Next, on 25 April 1974 at 12:20 am, Rádio Renascença broadcast “Grândola, Vila Morena”, a song by Zeca Afonso, an influential folk and political musician-singer banned from Portuguese radio at the time.

This was the signal that the MFA gave to take over strategic points of power in the country and “announced” that the revolution had started and nothing would stop it..”

A peaceful civilian resistance quickly joined the military rebellion. People flooded the streets “armed” with red carnations, ignoring radio requests by the military to stay home.

It was said that the red of the carnations was to symbolize the blood that was not spilled during this event. (In fact, there were 4 people killed, an incredibly low number.)

People gathered in Carmo Square (Largo do Carmo) in front of the Carmo Convent to witness history. It was at the GNR (Guarda Nacional Republicana) police headquarters that Marcello Caetano, the Estado Novo leader, surrendered.

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Carmo Square, Carmo Convent and Carmo Fountain

In the End

In Portugal, 25 April is a national holiday known as Liberation Day (Dia da Liberdade), to celebrate the event. (Interesting note: our tour guide said that Salazar fell out of his chair at his desk at work, hit his head, and died.

According to my research, he had a stroke, which is likely what caused a fall. Either way, it’s quite a rather understated way for a ruthless dictator to go.)

5. Obsess with a Pastry

I would argue Lisbon is obsessed with pastry in general, as there is, figuratively and literally, a pastry shop on every corner. They are particularly fixated on the Pastel de nata. The Pastel de nata is a Portuguese egg tart pastry. 

If you were to ask for the one treat of Portugal, this would be it, specifically, the Pastéis de Belém. Everyone in Lisbon will tell you the Pastéis de Belém is the very best. No question.

Even when I said that I liked Mantiegaria better, they said no, it’s not the best. I had some fun with this and brought it up with several people I spoke with. I was consistently told Pasteis de Belém is the best. Ok, so they are.

Click here to read about my very non-scientific pastel de nata taste test. Want to learn how to make them? Check out this online class to learn to make pastel de nata!

6. Take a Day Trip to Belém

Though Belém is technically part of Lisbon, it takes a little while to get to and has a unique feel to it, giving the sense of leaving Lisbon on a day trip. It is worth the time and, in my opinion, a must-see.

You May Also Like Why You Should Visit Belem

Belém is in the southwest part of Lisbon, with some exquisite things to see, including Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) and the Tower of Belém,  (Torre de Belém), the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) and the Belém Palace (Palácio Nacional de Belém).

Both the Tower and the Monastery are UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s worth a trip here, and I saw the Monastery, Tower, and Monument in around half a day.

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Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Take a quick walk through the town, which is very small and cute. If you’re looking for cheap eats before getting your Pastéis de Belém, I recommend Pao Pao Quijo Quijo (Bread Bread Cheese Cheese). It’s a tiny sandwich shop with great food that is cheap. You’ll see a long line out the door. With this sustenance, you can brave the long line at Pastéis de Belém.

I had read a recommendation to go inside and bypass the line. However, the line to be seated was even longer than the line outside. See for yourself what your favorite is, but you won’t win the debate with any locals if you don’t select the Pastéis de Belém.

Pastéis de Belém

From the Pastéis de Belém website: 

“In 1837 we began making the original Pastéis de Belém, following an ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. That secret recipe is recreated every day in our bakery by hand, using only traditional methods.

Even today, the Pastéis de Belém offers the unique flavour of time-honoured Portuguese sweet making.”

Some additional history from the website is here. According to local lore, only three people know the recipe, and it’s a closely guarded secret. They are not allowed to travel together, and it is said that they are not even able to be together at one time to ensure that if anything were to happen, the recipe would live on.

Here is the recipe for Pastel de nata, in case you are adventurous. For the recipe for Pastéis de Belém, you’re on your own.

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Pastéis de Belém vs. Mantiegaria Pastel de nata

7. Understand A Spiritual Shock

“The Great Lisbon Earthquake” began on the morning of November 1, 1755. It is believed to have been between 8.5 and 9.0 on the Richter scale. Survivors rushed to the Tagus River, where many were killed by the tsunami that hit less than an hour later.

The city was decimated, and the death toll was in the tens of thousands. It remains one of the deadliest earthquakes in the world to this day.

The day of the earthquake is a holy day called All Saints’ Day in the Catholic religion, the dominant religion in Portugal. Candles were lit in honor of the holiday and caused a devastating fire following the earthquake.

In the end, more than 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed. Some ruins remain from this disaster, including the Carmo Convent.

The earthquake struck on a Catholic holiday and destroyed most of the important churches in the city. It caused anxiety and concern, leading to a crisis of faith where some saw the disaster as divine judgment.

Added to that, the only neighborhood that survived largely intact was Alfama. At that time, it was known as the “sinner’s neighborhood” where prostitutes, thieves, and people of “ill repute” lived.

8. Learn About the First Anti-Seismic Neighborhood

As a result of the devastating earthquake in 1755, attempts were made to create an anti-seismic neighborhood. The Prime Minister, known as the Marquis of Pombal, was tasked with the rebuilding effort.

He began a query throughout the area to reconstruct the disastrous event from a scientific perspective. He used this intelligence gathered to rebuild.

Pombal decided to construct a city of big squares with widened streets. In addition, Pombaline construction was introduced, named after the Marquis. These buildings are among the earliest seismically-protected constructions and include the Pombaline cage, a symmetrical-wood-lattice framework aimed at distributing earthquake force.

Of course, this wasn’t modern times, so structures were built with reinforced framed wood walls. Testing was done by running troops and herds of horses to simulate the tremors of an earthquake.

Some samples of the original walls can be seen in various places around town. This included a small optometry shop we stopped in during my walking tour.

There was also a great example in my apartment, which was very interesting. I didn’t realize what it was until I learned more about this on a tour. Lisbon’s lower areas, known today as the Pombaline Lower Town (Baixa Pombalina), run from Cais do Sodre to Rossio and is over 235,000 square meters.

Pombaline Construction

9. Dine on “Illegal” Chinese Food

Chinês Clandestinos, or underground “off-the-books” Chinese restaurants, are found hidden in a residential, non-touristy area of the Mouraria neighborhood. You won’t see any sign over the door or menu displayed at these restaurants, which are operated out of homes. Only insider knowledge and the smell will give them away.

Some discretely display red lanterns above the door, like the one that we saw on a walking tour. Most have no name and are only known by their address. Here is a blog post that I found and thought was interesting.

Chinês Clandestinos

10. Learn About Insulting a King by a Statue in His Honor

This one is somewhat speculative as I have been unable to verify the story by research, but I thought it was interesting and worthy of sharing.

Commerce Square ( Praça do Comércio) is an impressive sight. It was created as part of the rebuilding effort following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, ordered by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, the Prime Minister during the reign of King Joseph I (Dom Jose I). 

The square faces the Targus River, and to the north is an exquisite and impressive Rua Augusta Arch containing Greek mythical figures and historical people (including the Marquis).

In the center is a large bronze statue of King Joseph I, known by some as the “coward king.” According to my tour guide, King Joseph left the responsibility of rebuilding the city to the Marquis and ran off to Brazil, where there was a Portuguese colony.

He called attention to many of the design features of the statue to tell the story: it was facing away from the city of Lisbon, where he turned his back to run to Brazil (and faces both Brazil and the Christ the King statue that was later erected, inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil.)

He is on a short, fat horse, not a large, magnificent stallion, trodding on snakes, carrying a small object instead of a long sword.

Is this statue in honor of the king or an insult to him? We may never know. It does make for an interesting story, though, doesn’t it?

Praça do Comércio

11. Take a Day Trip to Sintra

The most popular day trip from Lisbon is a visit to Sintra. This magical town is filled with beauty and intrigue. It features a stunning palace at the top of the mountains overlooking a historical and picturesque city center.

This is the place where the Portuguese royals used to go for the summer as it’s cooler and less humid than in Lisbon.

You can visit several palaces, though my favorite place was Quinta da Regaleira. It does have a small palace, but what makes this property so interesting are all of the hidden symbols related to Masons (Freemasonry), the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians.

The highlight of visiting Quinta da Regaleira is seeing the Initiation Well. Here, you can walk on water to achieve enlightenment.

You May Also Like The Best Day Trip from Lisbon: Sintra

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Pena Palace

Why You Should Steer Away from Guidebooks to See the Unique Things to Do in Lisbon

These are some of the many reasons why Lisbon is such a special city. Lisbon is an incredible place to visit, and I fell in love with Lisbon and Portugal.

There is so much to see and do, and I think these items are part of what makes Lisbon so very interesting and worth looking past the guidebooks to see what really makes this city special.

Here are some fun tours you can do in and around Lisbon. Though I always recommend free walking tours to get to know a place, these will help you to know Lisbon in a different way.

And if you are lucky enough to have some time for day trips, here are some tours to tempt you!

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