European Travel: A Philadelphian’s Guide to Lisbon

Go because you already have a layover. Stay for the views, the culture — and the month-long festival you happened on.

europe travel lisbon

A view of Lisbon with the Castelo de São Jorge in the background / Photograph by Kavalenkava Volha/iStock Photo/Getty Images

For me, visiting Lisbon was unexpected. My husband, Luke, and I were focused on getting to Seville, Spain, for our friends’ wedding, but most flights stopped in Portugal’s historic capital. So we decided to start there.

I’m glad we did — and you should, too. Lisbon’s a quick plane, train or car ride to other European destinations. (We took a one-hour flight to Seville but considered booking a driver via Daytrip.) It’s easy to explore — the Lisboa Card offers free public transit and access to myriad museums and sites. Beyond that, the centuries-old city feels as if California’s coastal-cool Laguna Beach and cosmopolitan San Francisco had a baby, with its hilly streets, yellow trams, and views over pastel-colored buildings and red tile roofs. 

Take in those panoramas from hilltop landmarks. The 11th-century Castelo de São Jorge has towers and ruins to discover — when you’re not gazing across the River Tagus or glimpsing peacocks strutting in the gardens. The Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Júlio de Castilho courtyard, with its bougainvillea and murals made of blue and white tile (a.k.a. azulejos), beckons you to relax (if you can find a seat amid the Instagrammers vying to take a shot from the pergola).

Rooftop bars provide another perspective. Park — an oasis atop a parking garage — is up a sketchy staircase, but you’ll be rewarded with sunset scenes of an adjacent church. (Go early; Park fills up for evening DJ sets.)

Back on solid ground, stroll the Praça do Comércio, one of the largest squares in Europe. The yellow buildings lining three sides and the central arch paint a dramatic harbor-front picture. Trade the Belém Tower tour — the exterior is impressive enough — for the 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site with awe-inspiring architecture, including its spindly two-level cloister.

europe travel lisbon

The pool at Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon / Photograph courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon

Lisbon is known for its food — fresh shellfish and pastéis de Nata (egg custard tarts) served from acclaimed restaurants and neighborhood outposts. Prado offers seasonal fare in a greenery-infused industrial setting. Taberna Moderna is tops for its pop-art decor, braised tuna, and G&Ts custom-created for each diner from a list of 80-plus gins. If you stay at the recently renovated 282-room Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (rooms from $920) in Avenidas Novas, try Michelin-starred Cura.

We stayed in Alfama, one of the oldest districts, which is peppered with cozy eateries like Medrosa d’Alfama, Ginjinha da Sé and 7Bicas. Their simple exteriors often hide azulejos, archways and bric-a-brac, along with diners drinking crisp vinho verde. Traditional fado music floats from nearly every enclave.

Many spots participate in the Popular Saints’ Festivals in June, a month of parades, mass weddings and more celebrating Saint Anthony. Our visit coincided- with the kickoff — but we had no idea. Instead, we watched warily as plywood structures were built outside our door and garlands were stretched from windows. Then, one night, revelers streamed into the cobblestone streets. Sardines and meats were grilled on open stoves. Ginja (sour cherry liqueur) was served in chocolate shot glasses. The air buzzed. Not sure what to expect, we joined the party. Next time, we’ll stay all month.

Getting there
American Airlines flies direct from Philadelphia to Lisbon between  March and October. Budget airline TAP Air Portugal flies direct from Newark and JFK  and offers a free stop-over in Lisbon.

>> Click here for more European vacations from Philadelphia.

Published as “European Vacation: Lisbon, Portugal” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.