When a friend of mine first suggested going to Lisbon, my initial reaction was a lukewarm, “sure, why not?” I’d never had a strong desire to go to Portugal, but tickets were inexpensive and it would still be warm in September, so we decided to do Lisbon on a budget.
I consider Portugal to be one the most underrated countries in western Europe. Besides some enthusiastic surfer friends, I’ve never heard someone say “I really want to go Portugal”. Sometimes it gets lumped with Spain, as in “I’m going to SpainAndPortugal”, but there seems to be a general lack of enthusiasm about it within the tourist circuit. In fact, up until I actually went to Portugal, I was one of those people. But trust me on this – you should definitely consider Portugal for your next Europe trip. The stunning contrast and cohesiveness of old meeting new, of historical meeting modern, is something that it is so well integrated into Lisbon’s culture and way of life, and makes it a city worth exploring for weeks on end.
In one line: perfect weather, delicious food, historical landmarks and beautiful beaches at really affordable prices. It is easy to enjoy Lisbon on a budget. While I was only able to spend four days in this glorious city, I could easily return and stay for another week. Only then would I begin to truly experience what Lisbon has to offer.
I visited Lisbon in mid-September, where it was a balmy 75 degrees (that’s 24 Celsius for the non-Americans) every single day. Having just come from cold and rainy Amsterdam, it was clear that fall had already hit Europe, but in Lisbon, it was a perfect spring day every day – just be sure to pack some layers for evenings, as they got a bit chilly.
Fresh cod, padron peppers, and the heavenly pasteis de nata…nope, no bad meals to be had. Did I mention that everything is really cheap? This giant fresh fish sandwich cost me less than 5 euros. This is Lisbon on a budget made easy (and delicious).
Being from Southern California, I rarely visit a place just for its beaches. However, I have to admit that the Lisbon beaches left me wishing that I’d made more of an effort to incorporate beach time. Portugal also happens to have the best waves in Europe, so it’s a surfer’s paradise.
The Must Do’s:
Explore ancient castles:
Castelo de São Jorge: The wall of this Moorish fortress is the last standing defensive wall in Lisbon. Within it, you’ll find an entire neighborhood, consisting of the citadel, castle, and ruins of the former royal palace. You can easily spend half a day here, exploring all the nooks and crannies. You’re also treated to stunning views of Lisbon – specifically Alfama – and it’s particularly glorious on a sunny day.
Shop and people-watch:
Take the tram to Praça do Comércio, the large and beautiful commercial square located on the water. Sit and enjoy the sun and Tagus river views for a while before walking down the main shopping road. Here, you’ll find blocks upon blocks of restaurants and shops. Tip: Don’t forget to stop at Santa Justa street – you can take the lift all the way up to the ruins of the Igreja do Carmo church.
Get lost in Alfama:
Tiny cobblestone streets and alleys line the historical neighborhood of Alfama, home to Fado music and picturesque rooftops. Wander through the streets here without a map – you’ll come across the cutest cafes and décor. This is also the best neighborhood to listen to Fado, as the best Fado bars are here.
Go to a live Fado show:
Melancholic but beautiful is the best way to describe the traditional Portuguese music style known as Fado. There are many small restaurants and bars that offer live Fado as long as you eat (or drink), meaning you can make it work if you’re in Lisbon on a budget, so don’t miss out on the experience. It’s enchanting, to say the least.
Ride Tram 28 around the city:
Tram 28 is the worst kept tourist secret for traveling in Lisbon on a budget. The tram takes you though the majority of the cool neighborhoods such as Baixa, Graça, Alfama, and Estrela. Some people use it to get to Castelo de São Jorge, since it’s a fairly steep climb all the way up, but I recommend you buy a 24-hour pass (€6) and start at Martim Moniz station. Tip: If you don’t board where the tram line starts, you’re in for an hour-long packed journey standing up, so get on the tram and grab a seat fast. Best believe I got a seat both ways!
Browse eclectic goods at Feira da Ladra:
If you happen to be exploring Alfama on a Tuesday or Saturday, you’re in luck! The Santa Clara flea market is a large and busy market filled with rows upon rows of stuff – everything from sunglasses to records to clothing. I nabbed a pair of €5 sunglasses here, but it’s a fun place to explore even if you don’t want to buy anything. A great spot to enjoy Lisbon on a budget.
Discover the ancient monastery in Belem:
Take the bus to Belém, known both for its famous pastry shop and its Gothic monastery, Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos. Dos Jeronimos is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a deep-rooted political, architectural and cultural history. Tip: Get here early – the line for tickets gets pretty long pretty quickly! Note that the area around the monastery is well worth exploring. Skip the line and admission fee at Torre de Belem, but meander alongside the Tagus River for shops, people-watching, small restaurants and photo-worthy backdrops.
Take a day trip to Sintra:
If there’s one thing I regret about my trip, it’s not spending enough time in Sintra, the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city an hour outside of Lisbon. Thanks to our leisurely pace, my friend and I made it here late in the afternoon and were only able to visit one of the palaces: the wacky-colored Palacio de la Pena. You have the option of walking up the steep road up to the palace (obviously the cheaper option if you’re traveling in Lisbon on a budget), but we were lazy and short on time so we took a tuk-tuk instead. The castle grounds are huge and you can easily spend a full day walking through the castle and around the surrounding Parque Natural. Come here for the day or two and see Sintra at your own pace.
Brunch and browse at LX Factory:
I would have never found LX Factory if it weren’t for a friend of mine who studied abroad in Lisbon. While it’s further from the city center than most tourists venture, it is worth the trek. Once a collective of industrial factories, this area has since been renovated to a “creative island” of shops, cafes, and small businesses. This is a beautiful spot to enjoy a real (American) brunch, as well as discover a bit of the underground art scene.
See ultra modern Lisbon:
Remember earlier when I said that Lisbon cohesively intertwines old and new? Well, that’s definitely not the case at Parque das Nações, Lisbon’s modern “new city”. This municipality was created for the World Expo in the 1990s, and is home to a spectacular mall, the Lisbon aquarium, and lots of new offices, hotels, and apartment buildings. I didn’t feel like I was in Lisbon anymore! Frankly, there isn’t a whole lot to do in this area but it’s a surprisingly peaceful place to spend a few hours walking around – there’s also a cable car to ride if you’d like.
The Must Eat’s:
“Pitéu!” That’s what the Portuguese say about delicious meals…and boy did I eat plenty of things worthy of that exclamation! Unfortunately, I didn’t dig as deeply into the food scene here as I would have liked, but if there are two foods not to be missed in Lisbon, they are the salt cod (bacalhau) and the famous egg custard pastries (pasteis de nata) from Pasteis de Belém.
If you have a sweet tooth, then this homemade fudge and chocolate shop is right up your alley! My friend and I stumbled upon this place while looking for a café to have breakfast. After eating some forgettable sandwiches, we opted to try some fudge for dessert, and we were very impressed. The women at this tiny shop make all the fudge from scratch, and you can tell. They also have cookies, chocolate and a bunch of other snacks. If you find yourself in Alfama, don’t say no to dessert!
I’m usually the last person to tell you to eat at a chain restaurant, but Nata is a solidly delicious choice that can be found all over Lisbon. Not only is their cod sandwich to die for, but it’s a bargain at less than €5 (I did say that Lisbon on a budget wasn’t too difficult!), and is guaranteed to leave you satisfied. Don’t forget to grab a pastel de nata (egg tart) for dessert.
Although I suggest listening to Fado in Alfama, we ended up at this place in Bairro Alto since we were meeting some friends for dinner. The Fado here is beautiful and intimate – we were seated directly in front of the stage and really got the full experience. The food options here are on the more expensive side, so not exactly in keeping with ‘Lisbon on a budget’, but I have to admit – they were really good. I wasn’t too hungry and opted to have just the heavenly fresh cheese (queijo da Serra) and spiced potatoes. Even if you don’t go to Mascote, make sure you try queijo da Serra at least once.
I’m pretty sure this place doesn’t serve anything besides their signature codfish croquette, but that doesn’t matter. A traditional croquette doesn’t actually have cheese, but I like their version made with Serra da Estrela cheese much better than any of the others I tried. They’re quite overpriced at €3.50 a pop, but how often are you in Lisbon? Be warned: you WILL get cheese all over yourself (unless you’re one of those magically dainty eaters #jealous), so take a bunch of napkins!
Nothing makes me happier than finding out that a city has a gourmet food hall. At Mercado da Ribeira, you can access amazing eats at one central location, thanks to the market’s partnership with some of Lisbon’s best restaurants and chefs. I opted for a prego no pão (steak sandwich) with chips, but you could come here every single day of your trip without running out of options to try.
Remember when I told you to go to the Feira da Ladra market? Well, this is where we went directly after the market to get homemade Portuguese food. The family was cooking up a storm, and I ate a giant plate of delicious sardines and grilled veggies. I have no idea if the same vendors are always there, but if you want an authentic home cooked meal, check it out!
Brunch at LX Factory:
I mentioned LX Factory earlier as a fun place to explore and eat. I came here for Sunday brunch, and let me tell you – what I ordered at Café Na Fabrica was enough food for two people, easy. It was very American (a mix of carbs, eggs, more carbs, fruit, and more carbs), but I’d been traveling for a month at this point and wasn’t about to say no to a little taste of home. There are plenty of cafes at LX Factory, so you can always eat a smaller meal here if you wish.
Do NOT leave Belem without trying these egg tart pastries. This is not a joke. I even made my friend try them despite her stomach queasiness. They’re that good. I probably ate close to half a dozen that day (oops) but these will absolutely be the best egg tarts you’ve ever had in your life. Tip: The to-go line moves quickly, but if you want to dine-in, tables are up for grabs inside. Just hover near people who are finishing up. A ton of tourists were waiting to be seated by the host in one section and the line there was long.
I didn’t actually eat at Park, but man do I wish I had. I did come here and dance the night away to some cheesy 90s’/00’s music though…which is exactly why I would come back here again and again. Park is a chill rooftop bar and restaurant with spectacular views of Lisbon. The “secret” entrance is through a parking lot, so let’s just say there aren’t too many tourists up there. Trust me on this, you don’t want to miss it.
Where to Stay:
I stayed at this Airbnb. It was inexpensive, easy to find, and located in the heart of Alfama – perfect for staying in Lisbon on a budget. I don’t think I would have spent enough time wandering through this area if I wasn’t staying here, so I’m really glad I did. Sign up for Airbnb and get a $20 credit here. Other good central areas to stay are Bairro Alto, Baixa Chiado or Cais de Sodre.
There are very few cities that I’ve been to that I would consider “perfect” cities, but Lisbon truly is one of them. Budget friendly and beautiful with a sense of joie de vivre, I know that my first visit won’t be my last. As I said before, there’s something about Lisbon.
Have you traveled in Lisbon on a budget? Did I miss any of your favorite places in this guide? Share in the comments below!