Although it is often by-passed for larger cities in northern Europe, Lisbon is a must see city. It is beautiful, historic and has mild winters. It is also one of the European capitals closest to the USA.
Lisbon is often compared to San Francisco due to its steep hills, trolleys and suspension bridge stretching across the Rio Tejo. But unlike other European capitals (and San Francisco), Lisbon is quite affordable for a vacation destination.
Plus, the fact that so many Portuguese speak English can make for an easier trip if language barriers are intimidating.
Lisbon is easily navigated via public transport as well as by taxis/Uber.
The absolute best way to get around is by purchasing a Viva Viagem “Zapping” card at one of the train stations. It can be used on buses, trolleys, metro as well as the trains to Cascais and Sintra. It costs €0.50 and is reloadable. The absolute best part is that with the card each ride is €1.30, whereas some rides cost up to €3 each when paying with cash.
The Metro is convenient for getting around within Lisbon, and is inexpensive with the Zapping card.
If you do not mind a more crowded commute, the trolleys in Lisbon are historic and adorable. My favorite trolley ride is the 12E Trolley from Praça da Figueira to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, which has an amazing view of the Alfama neighborhood and is a short walk to the castle, Castle of São Jorge.
Trains for to Lisbon’s surroundings and beyond are cheap and convenient.
With the Zapping card described above, the train to Cascais from Lisbon’s Cais de Sodre station takes 40 minutes and costs €2.20.
A trip to Sintra from Lisbon’s Rossio station takes 40 minutes and costs €2.20
Note: When booking trains, it will make your life easier to know from which of the 4 stations in Lisbon the train runs:
Cais do Sodré – West to Cascais and Estoril
Oriente – South to Algarve and Evora
Rossio – Northwest to Sintra
Santa Apolónia – North/Northeast to Madrid, Paris, Porto and Coimbra
A unique feature of Lisbon are the elevadores (funiculars in English) around the city that sweep you up the steep hills in Bairro Alto. They also make for great photos. As with metro and trolleys, with a Zapping card the cost is only €1.30.
Taxis are metered and a trip within the center of Lisbon should cost under €10. In any place, you should always ask the driver if the ride is metered and if not, agree on a price before getting in the taxi. To get an idea of how much a taxi ride should cost, you can always use a fare estimator online.
Note: There has been resistance to Uber in Portugal, because of its competition with cab drivers and that fact that the service is less regulated than taxis. Regardless, I have been using Uber consistently with no issues. It is your decision whether to use Uber or not.
Ubers are quite convenient and cheaper than taxis. The Uber app will give you an estimate of the fare and, as in the US, you pay by credit card in the app and thus do not need cash. Since you can enter your destination when you order the Uber, you also avoid language difficulties. If you do not plan to use your cell phone to avoid additional charges, you can connect to wifi at your hotel or wherever you are long enough to order the Uber. Or you can buy a Portuguese sim card (see below). Uber sometimes will have surge prices in times of high demand, but if that is the case, you can always choose to take a taxi.
If you are pressed for time, have limited mobility or trouble navigating the steep hills of Lisbon, I highly recommend hiring a tuk tuk to drive you around. They are much smaller than cabs and good at navigating the crowded streets of Lisbon. There are many that offer set tours and prices but you can negotiate with the driver based on your destination.
Lisbon is a very dense city and the historic part was built hundreds of years before cars were invented. Thus, it is not easily navigated by car and parking is difficult and expensive. If you are renting a car to visit other places in Portugal, I recommend doing so as you leave Lisbon, not when you arrive.
Due to the outrageous costs of an international phone plan (through Verizon, it used to cost me $10 a day for international usage, plus the costs of calls and texts) I recommend either:
1) turn off roaming on your cell and only use the phone when connected to wifi to access emails/social media or
2) if you will be in Portugal for a long time and/or need to use the phone or internet frequently, buy a local sim card.
Local phone cards are much, much cheaper than US plans (a monthly phone/text/data plan runs under €20). Three companies offer pre paid and contract phone plans: Vodafone, MEO and NOS. The only downside to buying a local sim card is that you will not receive text/calls made to your phone while the local sim card is in the phone, but you will receive them once you reinsert the US sim card. With a Portuguese sim card, you can still access your emails/Facebook/Instagram on the phone with the Portuguese sim card. I use Vodafone because there are convenient locations – there is one on the south side of Rossio/Praca Dom Pedro IV.
ATMs for local banks are prevalent around Lisbon. For safety reasons and to receive better fees, it is best to use an ATM attached to a bank (look for Multibanco or MB signs). Occasionally I run into an ATM that does not accept foreign cards but have always found another nearby. ATMs in high traffic areas are often privately owned and charge higher fees than bank ATMs – they usually advertise that they accept foreign cards – avoid them unless necessary. **Some ATMs will offer you the opportunity to do a currency conversion – do NOT accept this option, it will give you a very unfavorable conversion rate.** ATMs may have a €200 withdrawal limit, but you can use the same card to withdrawal money multiple times at the same ATM, although each time there may be fees.
There is a serious pickpocketing problem in Lisbon, especially in the summer season. Pickpockets often dress as tourists, complete with cameras and backpacks to blend into crowds, especially on public transit. Tourists who have been victims of pickpocketing often report that it happened when they were in the middle of a crowd waiting to board a trolley. The few times I have been afraid of this happening, I carry my purse either under my jacket with my hand on it, or in front of my chest like a football. I look ridiculous but I have also not been pick-pocketed.
I recommend carrying a cross body bag with the essentials – phone, camera, guidebook/map, one credit card, one debit card (for withdrawing cash) and enough cash for the day. You can also carry a copy of your passport or a picture of it on your cellphone for emergencies.
The emergency number for Portugal is 112 and will connect you to medical services, and the police and fire departments.
US Embassy & Consulate
The US Embassy is in Lisbon and there is a consulate in Açores (Azores Islands)
Avenida das Forças Armadas
Avenida Príncipe do Mónaco, 6-2 F
9500-237 Ponta Delgada
Tel.: 351 296 308 330
The US Department of State has a Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP) that allows you to register and provide information about your trip that can help locate you much faster in an emergency. It is free and does not take much time. I always use it and recommend it in case of an emergency occurs.
If you have any additional safety information or tips, please let me know in the comments!