Lisbon has a wealth of attractions, so it’s important to be strategic. Here are some hints to help you get the most out of the city’s points of interest, both famous and lesser-known, as well as some candid advice about sights that are wastes of time.
The interior of Lisbon’s Romanesque Sé Catedral is worth a look. (Its most interesting sections require the purchase of an inexpensive ticket.) Be sure to visit the atmospheric cloister, which, unlike many of Europe’s cathedrals nowadays, remains reassuringly crumbly and blackened by time. Archaeologists have excavated the large courtyard surrounded by the cloister, revealing a range of structures dating from the eighth century B.C. to the 14th century.
Sé Cathedral is not the only church you should visit. The Igreja de São Vicente de Fora has a beautiful collection of azulejo tile murals in its cloister, and don’t miss the ornate sacristy, the sumptuous Sala da Portaria or the eerie pantheon. The ruined Convento da Orden do Carmo looks straight out of a Romanticist painting, and the blasted baroque walls of the earthquake- and fire-damaged Igreja de São Domingos contrast memorably with its new ceilings. And if you’re in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, the elaborate Igreja de São Roque has rich gilt flourishes and an impressive trompe l’oeil ceiling.
A seven-minute walk downhill from the Olissippo Lapa Palace hotel, the National Museum of Ancient Art displays national treasures dating from the Gothic era to the 19th century, but really it has only a handful of standout pieces: the 17th-century still lifes by Josefa de Obidos, “Panels of St.Vincent” by Nuno Gonçalves and the decorative objects in the “Art From the Portuguese Discoveries” section.
Also known simply as the Chiado Museum, this institution has two entrances. The door at Rua Capelo leads to temporary exhibitions, which may or may not be of interest, and the door at Rua Serpa Pinto leads to the collections, which offer an excellent survey of Portuguese art from the Romanticists of the late 19th century to cutting-edge 21st-century pieces.
This Alfama museum in the 17th-century Azurara Palace displays the private decorative arts collection of Ricardo Ribeiro do Espírito Santo Silva. He donated the palace and its contents to a foundation owned by the state of Portugal, and it is one of Lisbon’s great hidden gems. I particularly loved the Indo-Portuguese cabinetry, the oval neoclassical Music Room (above) and the extravagantly detailed embroidered-silk bedspread in the Showcase Room.
A taxi ride from the center of town, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has numerous paintings, sculptures and decorative objects predating those in the Berardo Collection Museum (see below), as well as more-modern pieces. Rembrandt’s “Pallas Athena,” Turner’s “The Wreck of a Transport Ship” and Renoir’s “Portrait of Madame Claude Monet” are especially memorable. Art lovers should certainly make the effort to visit, but those who have already toured Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, London’s National Gallery and Paris’s Musée d’Orsay have seen similar works of equivalent (or superior) quality.
One of Lisbon’s most popular attractions, Castelo de São Jorge at the top of the Alfama neighborhood has some of the best views in the city. Unfortunately, lines can be long, even in the off-season. Visit as early in the day as possible (the castle opens at 9 a.m.), and avoid weekends. If the wait is too daunting, descend to the Calçada do Marquês de Tancos. To the left of the entrance to the Elevador Baixa and the ZamBeZe restaurant is a terrace with views of Lisbon that are almost as good as those from the castle.
The line for tickets will almost certainly be much shorter at the entrance to the National Archaeology Museum, which is to the left of the entrance by the church. At either entrance, you can buy a combination ticket for the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belém Tower, the National Coach Museum and various other sights I describe below. In the monastery itself, the Archaeology Museum is worth a quick look for its Roman mosaics, but skip the Gold Room and, unless the subject is of particular interest, the Maritime Museum. The flamboyantly Manueline church and the cloister, though they can be crowded, are absolutely magnificent. The choir loft, accessible from a staircase near the entrance to the cloister, affords a stupendous overlook of the church’s nave.
In the resolutely contemporary Centro Cultural de Belém, which faces the same square as the Jerónimos Monastery, the Berardo Collection Museum displays works from the private collection of the same name, encompassing art from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Many of the pieces are relatively minor works by major artists, but there are enough important paintings and sculptures to please any fan of modern and/or contemporary art. Galleries are organized by style period (Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and so on).
At the National Coach Museum, the most impressive horse-drawn carriages, including the fabulously over-the-top Oceans Coach, are now in a new white box of a building across the street from their former home in the royal riding stables. But the original museum, a frescoed space dating to the 18th century, has much more charm, and it also deserves a peek.
The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology connects a former power station with a brand-new white-tiled swoop of a building overlooking the Tagus estuary. In fine weather, it’s a pleasant stroll along the river from the National Coach Museum to the MAAT, and the roof terrace of the new building presents sweeping views, including the 25 de Abril Bridge and the Cristo Rei statue. But before you devote time to exploring the interior of either building, check that the exhibitions are of interest to you. I quite liked the haunting Liquid Skin installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Joaquim Sapinho, in which old portrait photos are projected onto the power station’s boiler doors.
This iconic Manueline fortification in the Tagus estuary has become a symbol of Lisbon. For the best photos of the exterior of Belém Tower, visit as soon after sunrise as possible. Most of the interior is rather stark, but the main terrace gives you close-up views of the intricate Portuguese-Gothic stonework. A small balcony higher in the tower has magnificent views, but lines to access it can be long in high season (the balcony can hold only six or seven people at a time). If the wait to visit the inside of the tower is intolerably long, it’s not a tragedy if you stay outside.