Decoding Lisbon: Tips For Visiting and Avoiding Tourist Traps
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Planning a trip to Lisbon Portugal? If so, here are my tried tested tips for visiting Lisbon, including what tourist traps to avoid at all costs.
Lisbon is a feast for the eyes. It’s an artistic ensemble of sparkling azulejos, eye candy vistas, pastels houses, and melancholic Fado music. Lisbon just exudes old world charm.
But like most popular capital cities, Lisbon has its fair share of tourist traps and suffers from overtourism. Many “must see” tourist sites can easily be skipped or viewed with a skeptical eye.
After my recent geographical cure in Lisbon, here are my takeaways and "what to skip" suggestions for Lisbon. I know some seem counter-intuitive, but I’m just giving my advice. I dislike lines, crowds, and tourist traps, so that informs my POV.
If you don't want to waste time, money, or effort in Lisbon, here are the tourist traps you should avoid and things to do in Lisbon instead.
Tourist Traps To Skip in Lisbon and Tips for Visiting
1. Tram 28
Skip the famous yellow Tram 28. Yes, I know it goes through many famous neighborhoods of Lisbon.
But there will be long lines to hop on board. It’s slow and insanely overcrowded with sweaty tourists and locals packed like sardines. You could be on it for an hour. Who wants that when you could just walk? Or use Uber; it’s dirt cheap.
Tram 28 is also notorious for pick pockets. And you’ll be squinting at lovely neighborhoods through dirty windows. If you want a tram experience, hop on the Elevator da Glória in Restauradores Square or Elevator da Bica on Rua de São Paulo. Both head up to Bairro Alto.
2. Santa Justa Elevator
I’m not sure why Santa Justa Elevator is billed as a must do site. The neo-Gothic wrought iron elevator is legendary and lovely, to be sure. But it can be easily admired from the street.
The lines are exceedingly long, deathly long. It’s simply not worth your time in Lisbon to wait for an hour or two to go up and down. Snap a picture and go on your way.
If you must ride the elevator, you’ll have to pay € 6 and arrive at 7:30 am when it opens. That’s what I did, after gasping at the lines the day before. I had a great view of Carmo Convent, which you can visit in the Chiado area. But I couldn’t really see or photograph St. George’s Castle because of sun glare.
You can get the same view from the São Pedro de Alcântara miradouro, which can be accessed for free from Largo do Carmo square in Chiado. There are also plenty of other Lisbon miradouros with lovely views. Here are the best ones.
3. St. George's Castle: Fake Recreated Castle
Despite what you may have read, St. George’s Castle in the Alfama district is not an "ancient" Moorish Castle. That’s nonsense; don’t be taken in. In fact, it’s a fake, a mid 20th century replica built by dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in 1938-40.
It’s rather atmospheric and has amazing views. But you have to wait in line and pay € 8.50 to see them. There are other free miradouros in Alfama, including Largo das Portas do Sol and Miradouro da Graça.
The best thing about the castle is the showy peacocks. The castle itself eminently skip-able, especially if you're a genuine ruin luster.
4. Decoding Sintra, the Most Popular Day Trip from Lisbon
Nearby Sintra is rock star glamorous. It's got castles and palaces galore. It's dazzling, colorful, and romantic. Even the town itself is quaint, filled with artisan shops, and well worth exploring. Sintra packs a punch and delivers on its hype.
It's also a popular place loaded with tourists, and it wasn't designed for congestion. Don't just day trip there. You'll only see a fraction of what's there. Try to stay overnight unless you're severely pressed for time. The castles are spread out, and you can't walk to many of them.
Here are my tips for visiting Sintra. My favorite palace there is the mysterious Quinta da Regaleira, which has fabulous gardens filled with intriguing follies, beautiful stone spires, and a Masonic initiation well.
If you can't stay overnight, I recommend skipping Monserrate Palace (too far afield) or substituting Monserrate Palace for the overcrowded Pena Palace.
You can also skip the National Palace of Sintra in the center of town. You'll get a good look at it's exterior anyway, and it's the least impressive. If you only like luxurious palaces, you can skip the 10th century Moorish Castle.
If you dislike crowds and lines, skip Pena Palace altogether. You can also skip the interior of Pena Palace and just explore the exterior and the gardens. There's a separate queue to go inside (with no skip the line option). On balance, I think it's absolutely not worth the long wait. Inside, you shuttle from room to room in huge crowds. The real beauty is outside.
5. Sé Cathedral: Nothing To See Here
The Lisbon Cathedral, often called simply the Sé, is a Roman Catholic church with a fortress like exterior in Alfama. Like St. George’s Castle, it’s been rebuilt. The church and its imposing facade fit in nicely with the vintage look of Lisbon.
But it’s nothing special, and rather ugly, inside. So don’t bother waiting in long lines to access it, unless you are extremely serious about church interiors. The cloister also costs € 2.50.
6. Jerónimos Monastery: the Sticky Ticket Situation
This gorgeous 16th century Manueline structure, Jerónimos Monastery, is quite stunning and a UNESCO site. Personally, it’s so unique that, on balance, I thought it was worth the rather hefty 12 € price tag to enter.
But getting a ticket is the real problem. You can’t buy tickets online, that I could find. Even if you somehow succeed in buying online tickets, I read that the security guards insist that the vouchers be printed for scanning.
There's a long queue at the main entrance. At least there was in late April, somewhat to my surprise. I can't imagine what it would be like in high season.
But, don’t be fooled and waste time. There's actually a separate line for purchasing tickets off to the left of the main entrance. And there's a huge line there as well.
You purchase tickets via a machine, and some people were befuddled by it. It can all be very time consuming. If you're visiting in high season, you may want to skip the interior and just admire the exterior.
To speed up the arduous process, my daughter and I split up. She stood in the entrance line while I stood in the ticket line. I highly recommend this approach.
I didn't know this at the time, but if you are willing to pay 2 € extra, you can skip one line. Instead of waiting in the monastery ticket line, head over to the nearby Archaeological Museum. There, you can walk right in and buy a combined 14 € ticket for both the museum and the monastery. 16 € also get you into Belem Tower.
If I had a do over, I would definitely have used that approach. I also wouldn’t have gone first thing in the morning. (Though that made parking easy.) I would visit an hour or so before it closes when the day trippers have dispersed and gone back to the historic core of Lisbon.
The equally stunning Manueline church is free. There’s a separate line for that too (to the right of the line at the main entrance), but it moved fairly quickly.
If you don't want to pay the high ticket price for the Jeronimos Monastery and want somewhere less touristy, try the jaw dropping 17th century Sao Vicente de Fora Monatery in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon.
Here's my guide for visiting this wonderful alternative spot. And here's my guide to all the must see sites in Lisbon's Belem district.
7. Pastéis de Belém: Get Them Anywhere
Many tourists make the trip to Belem just to visit the Pastéis de Belém bakery on Rua de Belem, 5 minutes from Jeronimos Monastery. They come for the gooey egg custard tart known as the pastel de nata.
This bakery has a compelling back story. It supposedly has the “original” pastel de nata recipe passed on through many generations of monks from the monastery.
I’m sure they're quite delicious, and I do love baked goods. But there was no way I was queueing in that horrendous line. It’s a classic tourist trap. You can get pastel de nata everywhere in Lisbon.
There’s so much to do in Belem, I’m not sure why you’d waste your time there. Unless you’re desperately hungry or are a foodie determined to compare these tarts with other (probably very similar) tarts you’ve had elsewhere.
8. Belem Tower
I enjoyed casting my eyes on the Manueline-Gothic style Belem Tower, which is also part of Lisbon’s UNESCO designation. It’s just a 15 minute stroll down the road along the river from the Jerónimos Monastery. And there are plenty of places to sit and admire it. It looked very Game of Thrones-ish to my eye, which is always appealing.
But there was a massive line to get in, a massive line in the blazing sun on a hot day. We didn’t wait, and I’m glad.
I later read that it’s a stony cramped experience. You can only move in one direction when you see the flashing green light. If you must trudge inside a cramped monument, The Discoveries Monument is your better bet.
9. The Pink Street: Don't Believe Instagram
The famous Pink Street, or Rua Nova do Carvalho, in Bairro Alto is Instagram famous. Many people seek it out for that reason alone. The street was once in a red light district. Now it's just a clubbing hotspot. If you’re looking for night life, by all means go there. If you’re not, skip it.
It’s just a rather unattractive dirty street.
10. Time Out Market
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this Lisbon hotspot. On the one hand, it’s not really an authentic Portuguese experience. And it’s always crowded. You may have trouble finding a seat.
On the other hand, it’s in a cool converted warehouse. It’s foodie heaven, with some of Lisbon’s best chefs serving incredible food in the many food stalls. There are also wine bars galore. Portuguese wine is cheap and tasty. IMO, it's better than France or Spain for the price.
I went to Time Out Market for dinner one night and tried two different places. I had some incredible shrimp and octopus. Though it was crowded, it had an energetic, fun vibe.
11. Rua das Portas de Santo Antão
Skip a stroll down the pedestrianized Rua das Portas de Santo Antão near Rossio Square. It’s full of tourist trap restaurants with pictures on the menus. You'll be harassed by aggressive waiters urging you to sit down at their establishment.
I was, and I just can't stand the hustle. We beat a hasty retreat. Find a quiet spot on a quaint cobblestone side street instead.
12. Graça Instead of Alfama
If the lovely Alfama is crowded with tourists and tourist buses, skip it and head to neighboring Graça. It's off the usual tourist track and has an authentic local flavor. It also has two of the best viewing points in Lisbon, the Miradouro da Graça and the Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte.
Right next to the Miradouro da Graça is the Church of Convent of Graça, a rather large Baroque edifice that has been restored. There's also a lot of cool street art in Graça.
13. Baixa District: Tacky Souvenir Shops
Don’t spend too much time in the Baixa neighborhood. The main square, the Praça do Comércio, is impressive to look at. But that’s about it. Other than that, its filled with tourist shops and tourist restaurants. It’s not the place to buy souvenirs.
The best thing about Baixa is that is has tram, train, and bus connections to get to other places in Lisbon. Otherwise, skip it and spend time elsewhere.
14. Pilar 7 Bridge
I’m not sure what the big deal is about a bridge. I guess it’s fine to look at. But to pay 6 € for another view that you could get elsewhere? And it's not that easy to get to either. Hard pass, unless you’re a bridge fanatic or engineer.
One upside: it's included in the Lisbon Card.
15. Off the Beaten Path Chiado
Instead of cruising Baixa or Bairro Alto during the day, try the Chiado neighborhood. I loved it during my visit. It’s a rather arty upscale neighborhood. It’s filled with lovely cafes, chic art galleries, and tony boutiques (though the restaurants are quite touristy). It also has a proud literary history. When I was there, there was an open air book market on Rue Anchieta.
Chiado is also where you’ll find the Carmo Convent, probably the best historical site in Lisbon and a memorial to the worst day of Lisbon’s history, when a 1755 earthquake demolished the city.
And you can find the world’s oldest bookstore, Livraria Bertrand. The bookstore opened its doors in 1732. It was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, but rebuilt in its current location on R. Garrett 73-75. Books are everywhere, tucked into odd shaped nooks. There’s an ancient magic to its walls and vaulted ceilings.
16. Museums in Lisbon
There are many museums in Lisbon. This isn't so much a "what to skip" tip, as what to pick if you only have a few hours for a museum.
If you have to pick one museum, my favorite is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo or National Tile Museum. It's housed in a beautiful 16th century convent, and delves into the rich legacy of Lisbon's azulejo tiles. The convent is itself a piece of art. And the adjoining Madre de Deus Church is a glittering, riotous hunk of gold.
Azulejos are Portuguese to the core. And every inch of the museum is filled with azulejos from the 15th century to present. The piece de resistance is a 75 foot long panel made of more than 1,300 tiles, created in 1738. It shows Lisbon in all its glory as it existed before the 1755 earthquake.
The museum is slightly off center. Take an Uber or catch the 794 bus from the river side of Praça do Comércio.
If you'd like to avoid tourist traps in Lisbon, pin it for later.