Lisbon deserves at least three days, but if you’re stopping over for just 24 hours, you can still see the main landmarks and experience much of the best of the city. Just follow this itinerary:
Rossio Square, the heart of downtown Lisbon.
Morning - Ancient Lisbon
As most hotels in Lisbon are downtown, in the Baixa, Chiado or Avenida da Liberdade areas (and those are in fact the most recommended neighborhoods to stay), that’s where you’ll most likely be starting your day. If you’re staying in other districts, downtown is just a short walk or Metro or tram ride away. Find your way to Rossio Square, then walk down the city’s main pedestrian street (Rua Augusta), turn left (when facing the triumphal arch) on Rua da Conceição, and keep following the tram tracks up the hill towards the cathedral. Peek inside the church, and then continue up the hill, always following the tram tracks, until you arrive at the picturesque Santa Luzia viewpoint. After a few selfies, join the other tourists at the other viewpoint just steps away (Portas do Sol), for the most beautiful panoramic view of old Lisbon.
The triumphal arch at the end of Rua Augusta
Back by the Santa Luzia viewpoint, you might have noticed a sign pointing to the castle. That should be your next destination -- it’s right up the narrow street Travessa de Santa Luzia. Waiting in line at the ticket office, exploring the monument and admiring the breathtaking view over the city can take over one hour. Walk back down the hill or take a tram back down to Rua Augusta. You might want to go up the triumphal arch, or go under it and head directly to the city’s biggest square, Praça do Comércio. You’ll inevitably stop and take a few photos in the majestic surroundings, and relax on the waterfront. Continue west (to the right when facing the river), and walk along the Ribeira das Naus promenade. It’s now lunch time, and a very recommended spot for that is just down the road. That’s the Ribeira Market, with its very popular food hall known as Time Out Market. Since you’re in town for such a short amount of time, this is a great place to sample local cuisine and get to know the creativity of some of the top chefs, at affordable prices.
The castle is one of Lisbon's main attractions
Afternoon - Monumental Lisbon
The market is perfectly located for your next destination. Across the road is the Cais do Sodré train station, with trains to the historic district of Belém. Tram 15 and buses stopping outside the station also take you there, but they’re always packed and much slower than the train. This is where the tourist card (the “Lisboa Card”) comes in very handy -- you may ride public transportation and visit most monuments in Belém for free! Make sure you order it online and pick it up at the airport’s tourist office when you land (you may so do here: Lisboa Card). The card also saves you time, as you can avoid the long waits in line for tickets.
Ancient Lisbon seen from the Portas do Sol viewpoint
From Cais do Sodré to Belém, the train takes just 7 minutes. Once you step off the train, walk up the road, along the waterfront, towards the Discoveries Monument. After posing for photos with the leading figures of the Age of Discovery behind you, continue up the road to Lisbon’s most famous landmark, the Belém Tower. If you’re very short on time, skip the interior and admire it from outside (there’s a limited number of people allowed inside at a time, so there are often long waits). Back by the Discoveries Monument, use the underpass to cross the road to the Jerónimos Monastery. Here you’ll want to go inside, for the church and especially the magnificent cloisters.
The Ribeira das Naus promenade
Now you still have time for one more attraction, and this will depend on your interests. If you enjoy royal residences, head up the hill to Ajuda Palace. If you prefer modern and contemporary art, visit the MAC/CCB Museum, and take a close look at pieces by Picasso, Andy Warhol, and other major international artists. If you like contemporary architecture, there’s the landmark MAAT, which also offers a wonderful view of 25 de Abril Bridge from its rooftop. For something completely different, and not found anywhere else, visit the Coaches Museum right next to the train station, with its collection of fairytale carriages used by European royalty.
No matter which of these attractions you choose, you’re close to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (aka “Pastéis de Belém”) pastry shop, which is a mandatory stop, for Lisbon’s famous custard tarts. Most people line up outside to grab a tart to go, while others go inside and relax in one of the tiled rooms, with a couple of tarts and a drink.
The MAAT - Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology
Evening - A Taste of Lisbon
At the station in Belém, take the train back to the center of town. From outside Cais do Sodré Station, go up the sloping Rua do Alecrim. At the top, you might want to take a break in Camões Square in Chiado, but then should continue up the hill, or take tram 24 from the square, towards the São Pedro de Alcântara viewpoint. The beautiful view over the city and towards the castle is the perfect ending to your day, just before dinner.
Where you dine will of course depend on your tastes and budget. From the viewpoint, venture into the narrow streets of Bairro Alto, a bohemian quarter with a number of restaurants. For a really special experience, choose one of the sophisticated and Michelin-starred restaurants in the neighboring Chiado district, but for something more affordable yet still memorable, choose the monumental Palácio Chiado or the Bairro do Avillez restaurants.
If you’re a night owl or want to experience some of the nightlife before retreating to your hotel, head to the famous Pink Street.
Belém Tower, Lisbon's most famous landmark.
The itinerary above includes the main landmarks and neighborhoods, and the spots with the best views of the city. Of course you can’t say that you’ve fully experienced a European capital in just a few hours, but following this advice will give you an idea of what Lisbon is about. However, to really capture the essence and the soul of the city, you need at least one or two more days. This allows you to see the contemporary (and not just the historic) side of the city, and visit the Parque das Nações neighborhood, join the locals at the Lx Factory complex, relax at the docks, and visit some beautiful and even one-of-a-kind attractions, like the Tile Museum. Seeing the city in just a few hours also deprives you of Lisbon’s very best experience -- wandering around the hilly but very picturesque ancient quarters and unexpectedly discovering beautiful viewpoints, riding the iconic funiculars, and stopping to photograph tiled façades, artistically designed cobblestones pavements and street art.
If it’s summer, you’ll also want to head to the beaches, and any sunny day is a perfect day for some of Europe’s most fantastic castles and palaces in Sintra.