Lisbon is a city for all budgets
It is possible to enjoy Lisbon on a budget and experience its architectural beauty, manageable size, mild climate, friendly citizens and lack of siestas. We are not the ones who will tell you where to find a 15€ hostel room (although this site will) or how to put together the least expensive possible stay in Lisbon.
We are the ones who will advocate for splurging on staying at the amazingly flawless Four Seasons or the tasting menu at trendy MiniBar in the lively Chiado neighborhood. But Lisbon doesn’t force you to choose between splurging or scrimping.
And we love that the Portuguese don’t close for siestas. Because they can go all day without a nap you effectively get three more hours a day to spend as you please. (Blonde often used that time for a nap.)
Enjoy Lisbon’s Street Art
The Portuguese people have been unusually entrepreneurial, hard-working and creative in finding ways to improve their economic woes. One particularly imaginative endeavor was the Crono Project, a collaboration between City Hall and a group of widely respected international street artists.
Many formerly majestic buildings have fallen into disrepair. Rather than letting them sit there as eyesores until they get hoped-for restoration or unfortunate demolition they have been turned into works of art.
One of the major street artists from Portugal is Alexandre Farto who uses the pseudonym Vhils. His technique is to use a hammer drill to create a relief of etching on walls. In the building above Vhils’ technique was combined with the work of the Italian street artist Pixel Pancho. Pancho creates futuristic art with earth tones to make it appear to be ancient. Both men have contributed other street art to Lisbon, all of which you can enjoy on your own two feet and sans any budget.
Visit the Embaixada in Lisbon’s Principe Real neighborhood
Another example of pride, creativity and entrepreneurship is the Embaixada, a neo-Moorish palace from the 1800s which has been divided into a selection of small shops and a restaurant. Prices in the shops range from a few euros for beautifully wrapped and scented soaps to outrageously expensive original artwork. We particularly liked that almost everything sold here is made by Portuguese designers.
And whether or not you’re a shopper you can enjoy the Principe Real neighborhood where the Embaixada is located. It has a low-key luxury that manages to also seem trendy. There’s a beautiful grassy park with a cafe overlooking the city and views reminiscent of San Francisco. The views all over Lisbon are great value for those on a budget.
Learn about Lisbon’s history of bullfighting
We abhor bullfighting but on a tour of Lisbon with the very fun Sidecar Touring Company we found ourselves interested in seeing this bullring. (Because we booked through the Four Seasons on short notice we were taken around by the company’s CEO who had enough stories from his life in and around Lisbon to entertain us thoroughly.)
The bullring was built in 1890 and has a Moorish North-African style as it was modeled on a bullring that existed in Madrid at the time (but no longer does). The floors of the bullring are sand.
In 2006 extensive renovations were done to the building. A removable roof was added and a shopping center was built underneath. The bullring is now used for concerts and other types of performances as well as occasional bullfights.
You can go see the bullring on your own for a fee which varies depending on whether you are going on a night when there is a bullfight or if you are just going to see it to learn about how bullfighting is done in Portugal. We definitely did not want to see a bullfight.
Portugal likes to think their style of bullfighting is more humane than Spain’s. In Portugal the bull is not killed ( at least in front of viewers) at the end of the fight. This was decreed by King Miguel of Portugal during his reign of 1828-1834 as he considered it inhumane to the animal (duh).
Our guide, João de Lemos Soares, told us a story of how when he was in college some of his friends persuaded him (alcohol was involved) to go to a bullring and learn how to wrestle a “small bull” by the horns which is a component of a Portuguese bullfight. João went expecting to see friendly bulls the size of Brunette.
When he got into the ring and the real bulls, which were neither small or friendly, ran his way he leapt over the barricade in front of the stands. His pride sustained extensive injuries and his body suffered a few too!
Have a pastry and coffee at one of Lisbon’s iconic pastelarias
Another part of our sidecar tour was stopping at Pastelaria Versailles. Portugal’s pastel de nata custard tarts are a major part of the country’s national pride. This establishment rivals the quality of the proclaimed Pastéis de Belém. But the Belém establishment (which we also visited) is packed with tourists (like us). At Pastelaria Versailles your pastry can be consumed in an elegant 1920’s building with a Baroque-style interior, rich woods, ornate mirrors and smartly dressed waiters. The cafe is a National Heritage site and is one of the most famous cafes in the country. This elegant experience will definitely not break even a modest budget.
Our guide had come here many times as a young man accompanying his mother. He said he has a fondness for the place because when he was there as a child the owner said to him “Young man you must remove your hat to dine here”. It was the first time anyone had referred to him as a man so the reprimand was an unintended thrill!
Explore the Alfama in Lisbon
Did you know that in 1775 Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake that destroyed much of the city? We didn’t. But the Medieval area known as The Alfama is built on dense bedrock and survived the earthquake. It was originally built by Romans and Visigoths who supposedly built it in such a confusing labyrinth of twisting narrow streets to thwart invaders. Apparently we are invaders as we kept walking into dead-ends and no matter what direction we went we tended to end up somewhere we’d already been. That’s OK, it’s charming and way too small to get lost in any worrisome way.
It’s easy to entertain yourself wandering among the whitewashed or tiled buildings with their laundry or flower baskets, peering into shops, having a drink and indulging in some people-watching or climbing the hill to the castle to view the sunset.
Speaking of that hill, consider Tram 28
Virtually every article of travel advice for Lisbon tells you to ride Tram 28. One of its charms is that it will take you up the hill to the castle as well as on a great sightseeing loop of the city.
What others may not tell you (you heard it here first) is don’t bother trying to get it at its starting point at Praca Martim Moniz. We stood there for about an hour in intense sun while the line barely moved. We ended up surrendering and taking a tuk tuk (which was fun but cost more than the 2.85€ for the tram).
The next day we went to the Mini-Bar restaurant. After dinner we decided to walk around and see a little of the hopping Chiado neighborhood. We immediately spotted one of the 28 trams and scrambled on.
It was really fun to do at night. In the daytime those who had managed to get on one were squeezed in with the majority of them standing packed together in the heat. They were probably unable to see much but the armpits of strangers.
At night the lights reflecting on the cobblestoned streets of the Alfama, the camaraderie of the locals laughing at some of the improbable complications (having to stop the tram to find who parked a truck that stuck out into the street by a crucial 2 inches preventing the tram from proceeding) and seeing the city without masses of people was really enjoyable.
We didn’t get to do the entire loop as we had gotten onto the last tram for the night and when it was the end of the line there wasn’t going to be another loop.
And that’s why God invented cabs.