Lisbon, Portugal: Rustic, Beautifully Rough and A Great Workout

Lisbon… it wasn’t love at first sight. Nor second, third or fourth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating city with SO MUCH to see, and it slowly grew on me with each visit, but it didn’t immediately charm me the way some other places have.

Lisbon by Cattie Coyle Photography

Lisbon is a very LOUD and pretty chaotic city with lots of traffic in all forms: buses, cars, taxis, trams, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, scooters, even tuk tuks. And people. Lots of people.

Parts are very gritty, run down and rough around the edges. There are lots of boarded up buildings, crumbling walls, and graffiti.

Lisbon architecture by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon by Cattie Coyle Photography-2Lisbon stairs by Cattie Coyle Photography

Honestly, if I had arrived in a city looking like that in the US and in some other parts of Europe, I would be scared. And wouldn’t have stayed long. And definitely wouldn’t have walked around with my camera out and taking pictures. But I have been told Lisbon is safe (a claim that is backed up by statistics), and it is true that I never felt unsafe even in the scariest looking back alleys. What was I doing in a back alley? Taking pictures of course! 🙂 There is a lot of beauty in that urban decay.

Stairs by Cattie Coyle Photography

So am I suggesting you shouldn’t visit Lisbon? Not at all! You absolutely should!

If large cities are your thing, stay in Lisbon. If you like to visit cities but prefer to stay somewhere a bit more quiet, I highly recommend doing what I did and stay in Cascais. It’s only 40 minutes away by train, the train station is super conveniently located – you can walk to everything from it, the trains run often, are very affordable (€2.25 each way), and it’s a pretty ride along the coast.

And in addition to being safe, there are lots of other things to like about Lisbon.

The architecture is beautiful and there are so many fun and interesting details everywhere that your head spins (at least if you’re addicted to architectural details like I am :-)).

Teatro Politeama by Cattie Coyle Photography

Scrolls by Cattie Coyle PhotographyFernando Pessoa by Cattie Coyle Photography

And it’s definitely not all crumbling structures – there are many parts where the buildings are beautifully preserved or restored. And there are lots of pretty squares with leafy trees and outdoor cafes.

Lissabon building facade by Cattie Coyle Photography

There are also lots of fun, pretty, and unique stores, cafes and restaurants.

Shoes & Booze by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon cafe by Cattie Coyle Photography

And tiles. So many tiles!

Door and azulejo tiles by Cattie Coyle PhotographyPortugal azulejos tiles by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon door and tiles by Cattie COyle Photography

If you’ve been slacking off on your workouts, walking around the city is a great opportunity to catch up. Lisbon sits on 7 hills and there are lots (LOTS!) of stairs and super steep streets.

Lisbon buildings by Cattie Coyle Photography

I am clearly not a Lisbon expert, but here are some tips based on my own experiences:

Visit on a Sunday

If you, like me, prefer less chaotic settings, visit Lisbon on a Sunday. The larger stores, as well as most cafes, restaurants and museums are open, but there is a lot less traffic and fewer people. I still wouldn’t describe it as serene, but it’s definitely less overwhelming. Some museums also have free admission on Sundays, especially on the 1st Sunday of the month, but some come with restrictions like “free only for Portuguese citizens or permanent residents”, or “Free for unemployed visitors from the EU”, etc., so check their websites first.

Explore on Foot & Dress in Layers

Sidewalk tiles in Lisbon by Cattie Coyle Photography

Walk, walk, walk. Stroll, meander, explore, get sidetracked and lost. This is not a tip unique to Lisbon, it’s what I like to do everywhere I go, but Lisbon is a particularly good place for it. When I travel, I actually like to not have too much of an itinerary, I prefer to just see where the road takes me and discover things along the way. My husband and I found the Rodin museum in Paris that way – we walked down a street and I saw “The Thinker” above a hedge. So don’t think you miss out on everything with this approach! And you get to see a lot of unique things that you would have missed if you just follow the main roads.

Wear comfortable, non-slippery shoes, both because of the intense up and downhill walking and also because there are cobblestones everywhere. And some are pretty smooth and slippery, especially when it’s raining. My favorite walking shoes are from Xero – read my review here.

Dress in layers. Even if it’s slightly chilly when you start out, by the time you’ve climbed all those stairs and steep inclines, you’ll be thrilled to be able to take a few layers off.

Get A Travel Card

Viva Viagem by Cattie Coyle PhotographyEventually, you’ll be too tired to take one more step, and that’s when the travel card comes in handy. Paying cash on trams, etc. is a LOT more expensive than if you use a travel card (tickets are €2.85 if you buy them on the tram vs. €1.25 when you use the card). The cards are called “Viva Viagem” and you can buy them for €0.50 at any train or metro station. You can then either load them up with money and pay as you go (“zapping”), or get a 24-hour day pass (€6.30 at the time of writing) which includes unlimited travel on the metro, buses, and trams, plus the Santa Justa elevator (see below). If you know you’ll be taking the E28 tram and riding the elevator, this is a great deal, because the elevator alone is €5.15. The cards are made from not too heavy cardstock and feel like one time use tickets, but don’t throw them out – you can fill all of them up again!

Ride a Tram

You have to in Lisbon, right? It’s the thing to do and a great way to see a lot of the city (fairly) quickly. Take the E28 at one of the starting points (Martim Moniz or Campo Ourique) and stay on it from beginning to end. It goes through several neighborhoods (Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela) and past lots of interesting architecture and beautiful scenery.

The tram stops frequently, not only to let people on and off, but because of traffic jams, streetlights, obstructions in the middle of the tracks, etc. These are great opportunities to take pictures from a slightly different viewpoint! The windows are wide open so there is nothing between you and whatever you’re taking a photo of. But be careful reaching too far out with your camera or arms or other limbs – some streets are very narrow. You also pass foliage that sometimes temporarily enters the tram, and there is traffic coming the other way too, often very close.

Bring a jacket or sweater. I’ve been on it when it wasn’t super hot outside and it was freezing inside with the wind blowing through.

If you’re standing up, hold on tight! The trams are kind of rickety and the stops and starts can be very sudden. And keep an eye on your belongings – they are often frequented by pickpockets. Last summer when a friend and I got off the tram, she discovered that the strap to her camera had been cut. So pay attention.

Avoid riding at rush hour – it’s not just a quaint tourist ride, people do use it as their transportation to and from work and it can get really crowded.

A Few Lisbon Favorites

I have of course not seen everything in the city, but here are a few things that I found myself returning to several times:


Miradouros are viewpoints overlooking the city and there are many. Of the ones I’ve been to, my favorites are the Miradouro das Portas do Sol and the neighboring Miradouro De Santa Luzia, both in the Alfama district (conveniently, the E28 tram makes a stop here). Both have lots of pretty details, Santa Luzia in particular (a church, tiles, etc.), great views of the city and river, and there is also a really cool looking restaurant with fun drinks and good light meals.

Miradouro De Santa Luzia Lisbon by Cattie Coyle PhotographyMiradouro De Santa Luzia Lisbon by Cattie Coyle PhotographyPortas do Sol restaurant Lisbon by Cattie Coyle PhotographyPortas do Sol restaurant Lisbon by Cattie Coyle Photography
Largo das Portas do Sol, Beco de Santa Helena

The Elevador de Santa Justa

This wrought iron elevator tower helps you avoid a little bit of uphill walking when going up from the lower streets in the Baixa neighborhood to the charming Largo do Carmo square. It was constructed in the early 1900s, designed by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard who was a student of Gustave Eiffel, and as you might expect, the ironwork is gorgeous.

Lisbon Portugal Elevador de Santa Justa by Cattie Coyle Photography

Lisbon Portugal Elevador de Santa Justa by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon Portugal Elevador de Santa Justa by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon Portugal Elevador de Santa Justa by Cattie Coyle Photography

It’s now a national monument, but also still a functioning elevator with a viewing platform on top. And even if you don’t ride the elevator or go up on the platform, the views of the city from the lower platform and walkway above the street are fabulous (and free!).

A Vida Portuguesa

Beautiful store in an old perfume factory with classic artisanal Portuguese products. It is filled all kinds of things from toothpaste to rugs and everything in between. A perfect place to get smaller easy-to-pack souvenirs and gifts to bring home. And the store itself is gorgeous with old wooden cabinets and original decor. They now have several stores, four in Lisbon and one in Porto. The original store is located at Rua Anchieta 11, in the Chiado district.

Lisbon shopping A Vida Portuguesa by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping A Vida Portuguesa by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping A Vida Portuguesa by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping A Vida Portuguesa by Cattie Coyle Photography

The Ribeiro da Cunha Palace

If you find yourself in the Príncipe Real neighborhood, this place is definitely worth a visit. The beautiful 1877 palace is home to Embaixada, a shopping gallery with chic stores and the interestingly named (and highly rated) restaurant Gin Lovers & Less in the Moorish-style indoor courtyard.

Lisbon shopping Embaixada by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping Embaixada by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping Embaixada by Cattie Coyle Photography

Lisbon shopping Embaixada by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon restaurants Gin Lovers & Less by Cattie Coyle PhotographyLisbon shopping Embaixada by Cattie Coyle Photography
Praça do Príncipe Real, 26

There are obviously millions of other things to se and do in Lisbon, and this is not even scratching the surface. I have a long list of things I want to do and see the next time I’m in town. Do you have any Lisbon favorites? Please share them in the comments below, I’d love to hear!

More Portugal on the blog

PS. If you love an image in this post that you don’t see in my store, and would like it as a print, just get in touch and let me know which image it is, and the size you would like. I’m always happy to make a custom print when possible.

All text and images © 2018 Cattie Coyle. All rights reserved.

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