Where to Stay in Lisbon
San Francisco has nearly 20 sister cities, and for some inexplicable reason Lisbon isn’t one of them. With historical trolleys shuddering up and down 7 steep hills, a deep sea port, and even its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, if you didn’t look twice you might mistake the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific.
Behind all of these similarities and beautiful landmarks is a city undergoing a revival. Prior to its recent growth, Lisbon was considered more a backwater of Europe. Traces of this can still be seen today, if you know where to look. Abandoned buildings, or at least the abandoned upper floors of buildings, can still be seen in its center, but they are fewer and farther between. Cranes and construction areas dot the skyline today, and once dilapidated facades are now shining historical landmarks. Cruise ships now regularly stop during peak tourist season, and the dining scene delivers some of the best seafood anywhere.
Choosing a place to stay in Lisbon can be difficult as each of its neighborhoods have their own unique advantages, which means the disadvantage of each is that you have to choose only one. The three neighborhoods to focus your stay around, which compose the “core” of Lisbon, at least from a visitor’s perspective, are the Alfama, Baixa, and Barrio Alto neighborhoods.
The oldest, most traditional, Lisbon neighborhood, the Alfama is also where to go if you want to enjoy a meal accompanied by traditional fado music. The lamentations of old, lonesome wives or widows of sailors, this music can be found in most small restaurants or bars in this neighborhood’s maze alleys.
Barrio Alto & Chiado
For that cool, hipster vibe, complete with trendy restaurants and cafes, the Barrio Alto neighborhood can’t be beat. Built on and around another hill, make it easy on yourself and arrive to your reservation on one of the historical trolleys that make its way through its streets instead of climbing those steep cobblestone streets in heels.
The newest of the neighborhoods, due to its destruction in the infamous earthquake of 1755, Baixa contains wide, grid patterned streets making for easy walking, and easy shopping. The closest thing to a true “downtown”, it’s also conveniently situated between the hills of the Barrio Alto and the Alfama, and contains the Rossio train station.
Further west a few kilometers from the Barrio Alto, just on the other side of the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (the Golden Gate Bridge’s cousin, in looks if not in name), is the neighborhood of Belém. Though Belém isn’t centrally located around the neighborhoods above, it’s worth a day trip for a few key sights, and therefore including in your considerations when deciding on a place to stay. First, it is home to the famous, or infamous, depending on your current diet, Pastéis de Belém. Nearly 200 years ago this establishment began producing the original Pastéis de Belém, a custard tart topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, using a secret recipe known to less than 10 people in the world. You can find these tarts throughout Portugal, known as pastel de nata everywhere else, but this place makes the best. Frankly, it’s probably due to the fact that they make so many every day that you are undoubtedly eating one fresh, but the experience is still fun, and at about 1 euro a piece, it’s a cheap thrill.
Pastéis de Belém conveniently sits less than a block away from the other main sight in Belem, the Jerónimos Monastery, meaning you can enjoy a pastel before, and after, you visit. The monastery is famous as being the place Vasco da Gama and his men spent their last night in prayer before embarking on their expedition around Africa to Asia. Today, you can visit Vasco da Gama’s tomb inside the Church of Santa Maria adjacent to the monastery, as well as marvel at the ornate Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I, whose rein during the early 1500’s coincided with the monastery’s development.
We threw our dart at the board of Lisbon apartment rentals and landed at the bottom of Barrio Alto’s hill, near the river Tagus. This ended up being a great location due to it being flat ground outside of our front door, while also being close to the Time Out Market, a world-renowned food hall with top chefs and restaurants from all over Lisbon under one roof. We would end up visiting Time Out Market nearly every day in Lisbon to try a new dish, and never left disappointed. Further, the Cais do Sodre train sits just next to the Time Out Market, making for easy transportation options to Belém.
Regardless of which neighborhood you choose, you’ll be able to easily explore them all. Hopping on a historic trolley for a trolley-guided tour through the three neighborhoods is a wonderful experience that takes less than an hour to crisscross up and down the hills. Use the map below to get a better sense of Lisbon’s neighborhoods. The map also has pins for top attractions and dining options you shouldn’t miss, such as Pastéis de Belém or the world’s best chocolate cake and Landeau. The biggest mistake you can make is failing to make a decision at all, so take a deep breath, make your decision, and enjoy exploring Lisbon!