Quirky things to do in Lisbon

Andy Stevens / 18 October 2016 ( 28 June 2017 )

Saga Magazine's guide to quirky things to do in the Portugese capital, Lisbon - from riding a segway to drinking Ginjinha (not at the same time!).



Spectacular beaches, historic cities and some of the world’s finest wines, discover more about Portugal. Find out more here.

Lisbon is one of those universally-praised, stand-out cities from where returning visitors habitually announce excitedly to their friends: "You really MUST go there!"

A glorious confection of old world charm mixed with a gutsy embrace of modernity, the capital of Portugal is genuinely a city like no other. 

And this grand old lady on the River Tagus is near to us, as well; it's easy to forget that Lisbon is just a relatively short flight away from the UK.

This friendly city insouciantly enjoys her otherness, but it's still a shame that Lisbon remains something of an unsung hero alongside those other big European capitals and cities which are never shy in singing their own praises.

Still, all the better for visiting Lisbon, as the city rarely gets absolutely clogged with tourists to any manic degree, unlike some other popular destinations. 

For such a remarkable place, Lisbon deserves greater recognition than she gets.

So here we endeavour to offer you a tempting mixed platter of quirky things to do and see in Lisbon, which we hope will go some way to redressing that balance - and give you great ideas for a fun and inspirational time during your stay in this infinitely absorbing and historic city:

Let the tram take the strain

Tram in Lisbon

Heard about Lisbon and you'll have heard about the hills. Yes, there are seven of the them on which the city is built, and they're invariably steep and narrow in the old town. 

But worry not, as that doesn't mean you have to climb them. That's what the city's wonderfully clanky and rattling old yellow trams and municipal elevators are there for, to do to the hard work for you.

The best way to soak up the charm of Lisbon's vertiginous old town without the shoe leather wearing too thin is to take an unforgettable trip on the city's famous No 28 tram.

Climb on board in Lisbon's downtown district and enjoy the ride through the evocative historical streets of the Alfama, Baixa, Chiado and Estrella districts, taking in landmarks including the Sao Vicente de Fora church and Sao Jorge castle, each well worth a visit while you're up in them there hills.

Lisbon's city elevators have, like the trams, been doing the donkey work getting people up and down and up again in her steepest districts since the 1880s. 

They are still operational and have even been designated as national monuments. Take the Santa Justa, Gloria and Bica elevators to reach those high points.

Segway to go

Segways in Lisbon, Portugal

If you're feeling particularly adventurous, a popular way to conquer and explore Lisbon's hills is by Segway, those self-balancing electric two-wheeled vehicles.

Segways have taken off in a big way in Lisbon, and there are lots of well-organised guided tours available. You won't be expected just to hop on and zoom off on your own, so no need to worry on that front.

Instead, expert guides will take the lead on historic tours of the old town sights from Lisbon's archaeological and colonial past, which combine walking and a spot of wheel-based novelty that we bet you wouldn't try at home.

Take in the Tagus

Monument To The Discoveries on the River Tagus, Lisbon, Portugal

From the Phoenicians to the Romans, the Vikings to the English, Portugal's long history as one of the world's greatest seafaring nations is never far from the surface in Lisbon, with the city's mighty River Tagus providing that constant, living silvery thread to the past.

These days, the Tagus doesn't convey Portuguese explorers into the Atlantic Ocean as they set sail to discover new worlds. 

But you can nonetheless feel a romantic surge of what those great adventurers would have felt as they set out from their home to lands unknown when you take a sunset cruise on the Tagus.

A trip on the Tagus is a must when you visit Lisbon. As the sunset dips below the Atlantic horizon, on the gentle waters you can lap up a literally different perspective on the city, observing its historic sights such as Belem Tower (which commemorates the city's patron saint, St Vincent), the Monument To The Discoveries (celebrating the great explorers) and the monument of Christ the King, a statue which ties Portugal indelibly to its colonial past with Brazil.

Experience the best of the Portugal with a stay at the 4* Holiday Inn Algarve Find out more here.

Go see Fado

Spellbinding and mournful Fado music being played in cafe in Lisbon

Spellbinding and mournful Fado melodies wafting out of small bars onto the higgledy-piggledy streets of the old town capture so much of the essence of traditional Lisbon.

The haunting folk sounds of Fado were born in Lisbon's Alfama district. Hear it live - which you must - and you will detect echoes of elements of its disparate roots in Moorish and flamenco styles.

 But while the genre's fame has rightfully spread beyond Portuguese shores as one of the authentic greats of what's still sometimes called world music, Fado is at heart all Lisbon's.

Fado venues are plentiful in the city, but for an unforgettable evening vibe Tasca do Chico on Rua Diario de Noticias high up in the old town will stay with you forever.

Ginjinha genius

A Ginjinha Registada, the oldest and most famous establishment in Lisbon dedicated to sell Ginjinha, a type of Sour Cherry Brandy typical of the city Image © giuseppe carbone / Shutterstock.com

Don't be fooled by the gin-based name of Lisbon's favourite drink. Ginjinha, the city's signature grog usually served in shot form, isn't an off-the-wall relative of mother's ruin.

This sour cherry liqueur (the name comes from the ginja berries used to make it) is, however, available for sensible sampling from innumerable hole-in-the-wall joints in old town Lisbon, and in bespoke ginjinha shops.

Ginjinha bars are usually tiny affairs of no more than a few square feet. Join Lisbon locals as they stop on the street for swift shot of ginjinha which customarily has a bit of fruit at the bottom of the glass or cup. And don't forget to spit out the pips. It'd be rude not to.

Secret Sintra

Pena Palace, Sintra, Lisbon, Portugal

Hidden serenely in the mists of the mountains in the greater Lisbon region is the village of Sintra, a location which retains a mystical place in Portuguese culture.

Sintra is home to royal palaces, ornate chalets and mysterious gardens, perched in a location which through the centuries has been a source of inspiration for writers and poets, including Lord Byron.

The seclusion of Sintra has had an irresistible lure for royalty, and its hilltop, multicoloured Pena Palace is a breathtaking gem of 19th century romanticism which has been given Unesco World Heritage status.

In parkland below the palace, the Quinta da Regaleira estate had a rich history linked to the rituals and secrets of freemasonry. 

The estate's secret gardens and wild woods are home to symbolic structures, initiation wells, tunnels, fountains and lakes which give the place a pervading air of mystery.

The great Portuguese bake-off

Traditional Portuguese Custard Tart

Lisbon is a city where cake is king for a day, every day, with tons of great bakeries that can't be bettered.

You might argue that few cakes could out-humble the dear old custard tart. But in Lisbon, notably on its home turf of the attractive district of Belem in the west of the city, the Portuguese version takes the biscuit.

Known variously as Pasteis de Belem or Pasteis de Nata, this feted custard tart is made, customarily, to a secret recipe and has locals and visitors queuing for a daily fix of these straight-from-the-oven little sugary, cinnamony discs of joy.

Meanwhile at Praca das Flores in Lisbon's Principe Real area, you'll find mouthwatering homemade cupcakes battling for the baking crown with style and a dollop of irreverence served in a highly-rated shop with an incongruously punny name, Tease Rock and Roll Bakery.

You'll get the hipster picture, of course - but don't let that put you off. This quirky baking-with-attitude emporium knocks out irresistibly artful cupcakes to be taken with a great free cup of tea ('Tease', you see) to boot.

Up the palace

Fronteira Palace, Lisbon, © ruigsantos / Shutterstock.com

So Lisbon's Benfica district isn't just about the football, as that area's world-famous club's fans might have you believe, after all. 

A visit to the nearby Palace of the Marquesses of Fronteira, built in 1640, is a grand, stunningly-proportioned private residence partially open to the public that is aesthetically every bit a match for the beautiful game.

Visitors to Fronteira Palace are habitually thrilled by the beauty of its rooms and gardens. The so-called 'Room of Battles' is famed for some of the most exquisite tilework you will see anywhere, in a country feted for its beautiful tiles.

There are also superb 17th and 18th century frescoed panels and paintings to enjoy, while Fronteira's formal gardens, replete with statues, fountains and, yes, more beautiful tilework are a particular delight.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.