Best Things to do in Lisbon and Porto That Aren’t Touristy

lisbon portugal

Lisbon and Porto are fantastic cities to visit on your first trip to Portugal, and you could spend several days in each! I think both of these cities are the perfect choices for the first timer’s visit to this beautiful country.

Since I’ve been to Lisbon and Porto more times than I can count (and lived there!), I wanted to share some of my favorite things to do that are a bit more off-the-beaten-path.  I still recommend visiting all the popular sites like St George’s Castle, the Jeronimos Monastery, and wandering around the Alfama neighborhood, but here are my personal favorites if you have visited previously or like to get off the beaten path a little bit – or want suggestions for a rainy day!

Lisbon Story Center

This charming museum right near the main tourist office in the Praça do Comércio is a guided tour with earphones that is controlled by GPS.  In this multimedia experience,  the narrator will start whenever you are at a new “chapter” of Lisbon’s story.   The section on the Lisbon earthquake,  for instance,  will actually start trembling to replicate the earth moving.   The section about Lisbon’s growing importance as a sea port has barrels and fake sea gulls and a model ship.   The museum is about 45 minutes with the guided narration,  and I think it’s a wonderful stop at the beginning of your stay to get acquainted with Lisbon’s history (most other sites in Lisbon and Portugal don’t do that good a job of explaining their history).

Lisbon: Find the ‘Miradouros’

Whenever you see a signpost that says “Miradouro” in Lisbon, you know you are guaranteed a wonderful sight.  Miradouro means “viewpoint” and there are wonderful terraces built on Lisbon’s highest points (this is the city of seven hills after all).  Climb up to a miradouro on a summer’s evening, buy a cold drink or listen to a musician playing outdoors, and enjoy the sunset over the Tagus river from your incredible vantage point.

Lisbon: Coach Museum & Naval (Maritime) Museum

The Maritime Museum is definitely worth a trip and can sometimes by overlooked by visitors,  but it’s a great explanation of Portugal’s relationship with the sea and has an impressive collection of royal barges. It’s now housed in a wing of the Jeronimos Monastery so it’s easy to visit when you’re in the Belem area of Lisbon.

Another Belem museum is the Coach (Carriage) Museum, actually one the most popular museums in Lisbon.  It houses a unique collection in the world consistig of vehicles from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries including coaches, berlins, sedan chairs and carriages – all of which are decorated in a rich and profuse style.

Lisbon: National Tile Museum

The Museu Nacional do Azulejo (Portuguese for National Museum of the Azulejo), occasionally known in English as the National Tile Museum, is an art museum housed in a converted convent dedicated to traditional tilework of Portugal. The museum’s collection is one of the largest of ceramics in the world.  You can even do a tile-painting workshop here if you would like to make your own azulejo.   This is not a normal ceramics museum with glass displays – it almost feels like a living work of art, since the convent itself is decorated with tiles and still maintains its gorgeous chapel and cloisters.   Even the museum’s cafe is stunning – set in an 18th century kitchen and decorate with food-themed tiles.  It’s easiest to get here directly with a taxi or Uber, as it’s not near the historical walking center.

Lisbon:  Visiting the lesser-known sites of Sintra

Sintra, the beautiful mountain town close to Lisbon, is one of the most popular day trips for tourists and even when crowded is very charming – a castle or palace on every hillside everywhere you look.  Tour companies often only bring their buses to two or three main sites here though – so I like to visit the lesser-known sites of Sintra sometimes!  For example, Montserrate is an incredible palatial villa inspired by Moorish architecture in the midst of stunning botanical gardens (there’s a baobab tree!).  There are beautiful stone structures surrounded by exotic plants and it’s the setting for a photographer’s dream!  In 1809,  Lord Byron visited Monserrate and became fascinated with its desolate, yet romantic character. He decided to write about Monserrate in what later became a classic work of poetry: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Another tip for Sintra:  everyone lines up to see Pena Palace, yet very rarely do visitors venture more than a few steps into its extensive gardens.  Buy a ticket to see the grounds of Pena and tour the outside of the palace, but skip the inside and after exploring the perimeter of the palace, head to the gardens and enjoy exploring – keep an eye out for the duck’s houses in the middle of the lakes, shaped like little castles!

Lisbon and Porto: Food Tours…and any excuse to eat, really

If you had to choose between a food tour in Lisbon and Porto, I tend to prefer Porto because the northern region does have some unique food dishes that they are very proud of and tend to incorporate into their tours.  Of course all tours will have the tasty pastels de nata (egg custard tarts) that Portugal is known for, as well as meat croquettes, bifana sandwiches, or perhaps piri-piri chicken.

I think a food tour is often the best way to see much of the city on foot while learning about their culture through gastronomy.  Guides will often give you fantastic recommendations to return to specific restaurants for dinner throughout the rest of your stay. 

Something else to try is sampling petiscos! These are somewhat taking to Spanish tapas, and are typically found in taverns and small restaurants.   These wonderful small plates often feature meats and cheese, octopus salads, codfish cakes, or marinated beef.  They are fantastic to share among friends or over a glass of wine!

Porto: Crystal Palace Gardens

These idyllic gardens are wonderful to visit in Porto. There are even some wonderful lookout points over the river and the city, and there’s a one-star Michelin restaurant hidden in the gardens as well.  At first when entering, everything looks perfectly manicured, but then you realize there are steps and trails down the hillside that allow you to explore various sections. There are also several themed mini-gardens including the Garden of Feelings, the Garden of Aromatic Plants, and a Rose Garden.  There are also several peacocks that are happy to pose for photos. Don’t miss the library, the cafe, and the pond with ducks either!

Porto:  Vila Nova da Gaia

Situated on the other side of the Douro River in Porto is Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia).  You can easily walk across the bridge multiple times a day between the two towns. Despite its location, Gaia is actually a city in its own right and extends quite some way from the riverside.

This is where all the port wine in the world originates and has done since the 17th century. Historically barrels of wine from the upper Douro Valley would be transported by boat to Gaia. Once here the wine would be taken to one of the port lodges that dominate the riverfront to be made into port. These days the barrels arrive by road, but the process is the same.

You can spend the afternoon visiting over 20 port cellars that allow drop-in visitors for wine tastings right here in Gaia, if you don’t have time to make it to the Douro Valley during your trip.  Familiar names such as Sandeman, Taylor’s and Cálem all have tasting tours where you can familiarize yourself with ruby, white, tawny, vintage and crusted ports from a number of vintages.But even if you don’t drink alcohol (Mr TravelObservations does not drink, which is why I have so many options for non-wine focused activities in this list), Gaia is a charming area to explore on foot and I quite like its riverside restaurants for a wonderful view of Porto at night as you dine outside.  There are also mazes of cobblestone streets to explore and some great artisan shops as well.

Porto: World of Discoveries

I visited the World of Discoveries on a very rainy day in Porto and it was great for an indoor activity, if you like museums in general. For half of the experience, you are in a BOAT and you go through real water sailing past narrations of Portuguese history.  It wasn’t very crowded when I did it, so it didn’t feel Disney-esque at the time.  This interactive museum is geared towards families, but I still appreciated learning more about Portugal’s Age of Discoveries through this medium on a rainy day.

Porto: Alfandega light shows

Alfandega means customs house, and the customs house on the river in Porto has been transformed into a conference center and permanent exhibition space. In the original customs house level below ground, authorities have set up some for the most incredible light displays.  It’s an incredibly interesting way to experience art.  The Porto Legends exhibition is permanent, and then there are temporary light shows that change depending on the season.  “Porto Legends, the Underground Experience” is an immersive virtual show that tells the culture and history of the city and the northern region and also features narration by Jeremy Irons.  The focus here is on myths and legends, not history.

Porto: Catch the sunset

You can go to the Jardim do Morro, a small park in Porto, for sunset.  It’s on the hill next to the top of the Dom Luis Bridge. People go there and sit on the hill and have a glass of wine or a picnic.   You can’t miss it, it’s pretty obvious when everyone starts congregating.  People also stand on the bridge but you have to be careful of the tram passing by!   Grab a baguette and some cheese and a beverage of your choice and just enjoy the view.

So there you have it – some of my favorite things in Lisbon and Porto to suggest for visitors who may be on their second visit and want to go beyond the standard first timer’s tourist sites.  Truthfully, there is so much to do that I’ll probably have to write a Part 2 eventually.  Let me know if you’ve visited either city and think I should add anything else to my list!

Lisbon and Porto: Fado, or dinner with Fado performance

Fado can be an acquired taste, but the Portuguese are fiercely proud of this melancholy musical tradition that’s on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list.  I normally like to go to this restaurant for a fado dinner in Lisbon:  because it starts earlier (8pm).  It also funds a student program so they have artists in residences who perform and who explain in English between sets.

Fado has strict etiquette, so it’s not a reflection of the restaurant if you think the service is bad.  For instance, they will only take orders in between sets, they don’t like to be passing around food during the music.  They also expect people to be very quiet and listen to the music,  it’s not “background music” for chatting. Sometimes they don’t even let people enter the bar if the set has begun, they have to wait outside till there is a pause!

Traditional Fado is found on every street corner in the Alfama in particular if you just want to go for a stroll but it often doesn’t start till midnight or later.  That’s why I like to take guests to an organized dinner where the singers will explain a little bit about the songs between sets.

You can also visit the Fado Museum in Lisbon to learn more about this art form.

By the way, fado is a little different all over Portugal.  In Coimbra, only males sing fado, particularly university students It’s a bit more energetic and youthful, I like Coimbra fado a bit better myself as it tends to sound more hopeful than tragic!

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