Lisbon is one of the most beautiful and spectacular cities in the world, with rich culture blending in with modern and vibrant lifestyles. It’s certainly one of the most romantic places you’re ever going to see, and to make things even better – it can be really cheap. Here, I’m gonna show you how to enjoy your trip on a low budget, as well as some tips and tricks to make the most of your visit in Lisbon and not miss out on anything!
Lisbon at a glance
Lisbon has a Mediterranean, almost sub-tropical climate which makes it suitable for visits all year round. Its easy going people, unique charm and spectacular buildings make it lovely no matter the season, but if you want to enjoy the beautiful beaches, then you should of course visit it in the summer or early autumn. If you want to escape harsh winters, Lisbon is also the city for you; out of all the major cities in Europe, it has the warmest winters on the continent, with average temperatures above 15.2°C (59.4°F).
The city is located at the wide mouth of the river Tagus (Tejo) where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. A port city, a cultural powerhouse, a meeting point of different cultures, Lisbon enchants visitors with a dazzling blend of traditions and new-age wonders. You will find here traditional street food vendors, arabian cuisine, barbecues, but also high-end restaurants and private cooking studios.
All in all, Lisbon has a bit of something for everyone – for the hopeless romantic, for the party animal, but also for the family type and for people who just want to have a nice time; of course, there are a lot of things to do for people on a budget. Lisbon can be very slow and enjoyable, but also fast and hectic. You’ll find a cultural mosaic, with thriving communities of Africans, Moors, and even Chinese (I was surprised to see how big the Chinese community is in Lisbon). You’ll find that the city itself has a high living standard, with a GDP much above the European average, but you’ll also find people living on the streets in many neighborhoods. It’s a city of contrasts, a passionate city, one that you have to feel of if you want to understand.
Cheap Accommodation in Lisbon
The first thing you want to do for your travel is find a cheap and good accommodation. There are plenty of nice places where you can spend the light in Lisbon, but there are also lots of tourist traps and expensive hotels – so be careful. Whatever you decide, it’s important to book your accommodation at least one month in advance! If you don’t do that, then you might find that prices went up by a big margin, and it can be very difficult to find reasonable solutions.
The easiest way to find a place to sleep in Lisbon is in a hostel. There are many hostels in Lisbon placed very close to the center (in walking distance), and the prices can go as low as $8. You’ll usually find a place in a hostel room going for $10-12 though (under 10 euro). You can look for prices on websites like Hostel World or Hostel Bookers. What I recommend is paying attention to the hostel’s facilities, and especially keep an eye out for hostels with a kitchen. More often than not, it’s worth paying an extra buck or two to have a kitchen. This will allow you to save more money on food; even if you don’t want to cook (because you want as much time as possible for yourself when traveling), you can easily microwave some frozen products or pizzas or whatever. It can save you a lot of time and money.
However, there are other options. Websites like Airbnb are really good when you are traveling with friends, because they allow you to rent an entire apartment – including the kitchen and all the facilities. Again, if you look with enough time in advance you’ll likely find good prices, comparable to those from hostels.
The cheapest way (read: free) to travel would be to couch surf – if you’re not familiar with the concept, couchsurfing allows you to stay as a guest at a host’s home for free. Of course, this is the cheapest alternative, but many people don’t feel safe or don’t like the idea, so this clearly isn’t for everybody. All in all, you should be able to easily find cheap accommodation in Portugal’s capital.
Food in Lisbon
Lisbon is one of the cities with the most varied and spectacular cuisine in the world! But just because you’re traveling on a budget doesn’t mean you won’t get to test any of it – on the contrary. Many of the Portuguese specialties are quite cheap and you’ll be surprised to see how far a few bucks can get you. The main tip (and this sounds deceptively simple, but it’s important) is: buy fruits and vegetables from local vendors, but also check out the big supermarkets. Lisbon is a city with many small vendors who know that many tourists visit the city and try to make the most of it. You’ll find many a tourist trap, or vendors who simply don’t have a fixed price and charge as much as they like – only buy from places where the price is displayed, or ask for the price beforehand! Something as simple as a bottle of water can cost anywhere from 40 euro cents to 2 euros, depending on where you buy it from. Actually, if you’re visiting the city in the summer, water is extremely important because it gets very hot – make sure to pack some more.
Portugal has many special fruits all year round, so be sure to check some of that. You’ll be able to find local markets quite easily, and supermarkets often have promotions for certain fruits. Pineapples are pretty cheap, apples and oranges can be too (depending on the season), there’s plenty of bananas and other European or South American fruits. Fruits are good snacks, they’re nutritious and will help you get going through the day.
If you want something more serious, then there are also plenty of options. Street vendors sell very cheap kebap or shawarmas for $4-5 (about three euros), and you can also get Chinese food for about the same price. But if you want some traditional Portuguese food, you’ll have to pay a bit more attention. You likely won’t be able to dine on bacalhau or scabbardfish, the most traditional foods of the areas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat tasty local cuisine. A common soup is caldo verde with potato, shredded kale, and chunks of chouriço (chorizo) sausage. As a matter of fact, Portuguese have lots of tasty (and sometimes very cheap) sausages – try to find ones you like! You can also find lots of foods with beans or chickpeas, as well as chicken dishes. Some restaurants sell “Today’s menu” for a reasonable price, though I’d recommend avoiding the big restaurants and focusing on smaller, local establishments. Ask where the locals are eating, not “what’s a good place to eat?”.Also, something which is very specific in the moorish neighborhood in Lisbon (Mouraria) is that people just sell barbecue (fish, chicken, pork, you name it) on the side of the street. I had some very tasty snacks there, and I advise you to do the same! It’s quite an experience, and it’s clearly stepping outside of the normal comfort zone.
Another thing you won’t want to miss is the Portuguese pastry shops – they’re simply stunning! The Pastel de nata is the classical pastry which you can find virtually everywhere. It’s a small cake that usually goes for about $1. But don’t stop there – the diversity and deliciousness cannot be overstated! Again, look out for small pastry shops where the locals are eating – you can’t go wrong with that. A special mention goes for the pastel de Belém, which you can only find in the Belem area. They’re absolutely amazing! Beverages in Lisbon are also pretty decent. Coffee and tea are generally cheap, beer can be quite expensive (I’m not really a fan of Portuguese beer), but the wines are very good, and again, very diverse. Of course, don’t miss out on the Porto (or Madeiran) wine.
Transportation in Lisbon
If you arrive at the Lisbon Airport, you’ll have to take the subway downtown. Transportation can be pretty expensive; one travel with the metro is 1.4 euro ($1.7), and you also need to buy a one-time card which will carry your trips on it (don’t throw it away!). So if you go somewhere both ways, that’s $3.5 a day, which can add up when you’re traveling on a very tight budget. Overground transportation is just as expensive, and can be very crowded and hot (especially during the summer).
However, the good news is that most of the noteworthy spots in Lisbon are within walking distance! Basically, you can walk across the entire city center in about 20 minutes. I actually suggest walking a lot on foot in Lisbon, because you’ll discover something new and interesting around every corner. There are oh so many hidden treasures which you won’t find on any map, and this is by far the best way to discover the city. Getting lost is quite possibly the best thing you can do in the city (don’t get really lost though).
Be advised though that Lisbon is not the safest city in the world. While I never felt threatened in it, I did notice quite a few pick pockets. Keep your wallet well hidden in your pocket, and pay attention around you. If you do decide to take the tram, be advised that not all stations sell tickets. The tram is actually one of the biggest attractions in Lisbon (though most locals are not fans).
Attractions in Lisbon
Attractions in Lisbon are plentiful – as I said, there’s something for everyone. If you want to just walk around and see the many sides of the city, then of course, that’s free. This was actually my favorite thing while in Portugal’s capital, and I found myself endlessly wandering on the small streets. I found lots of awesome graffiti, street artists, delicious small restaurants, awesome churches… and many, many more! It’s like it doesn’t end – every street corner has something new and exciting to bring you! So this is my main advice – walk. See the streets, see the people, see the river and the ocean. To me, the most beautiful things in Lisbon are the small things. If you get tired or lost, just spot the closest station to you and you’re good to go.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no awesome museums in Lisbon – on the contrary! If that’s your thing, you’re in luck, because the city hosts a myriad of varied museums and exhibitions. The art museums are especially attractive in Lisbon – you have the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum with mixed art works, the Orient Museum, the Museum of Popular Art, the Museum of Ancient Art and many others. I also recommend (if you have the time and you’re into this) check out the National Coach Museum, the Navy Museum and the Carris Museum. The people in Lisbon sure love their trams!
Of course, while in Lisbon, you really don’t want to miss the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The 500 year old magnificent architecture is stunning no matter if you’re religious or not. The entry to the church is free, you only have to buy a ticket if you want to visit the upper choir and cloisters. While the monastery is not very close to the city center, it’s close to another attraction which you shouldn’t miss – the Tower of Belem (remember, the same area where they sell the great pastry). In the city center, you’ll also find the city castle – the entry is not cheap, but you’ll get the chance to visit an actual Moorish castle, and maybe even better than that, you’ll have a great view of the city. Surprisingly enough, I’m not entirely sure it’s worth it if you have a very tight schedule – or a very tight budget. Another sight which I recommend visiting is the Carmo church. The entry costs $5, but you get to see a roofless church – the roof was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake and was never rebuilt. It’s an eerie and exciting feeling – with great exhibitions as well.
There are other free attractions in Lisbon. The Santa Justa Elevator is the first that comes to mind – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The parks are also very nice, with some very old and big trees. Definitely not a sight you want to miss. All in all, you can do a lot of things with very little money.
To sum it up…
Lisbon is an amazing city. It can be very dirty and very loud, but it’s still amazing. Though it’s one of the more expensive European cities, you can find lots of cheap (or even free) stuff there. If you just plan a bit ahead and keep an open mind, you can have a magnificent experience for a very low price. I expect that $25 a day (21 euro) should be enough to have a very pleasant stay. If you don’t couch surf, I don’t think you can pull it off for less than $15 a day – after all, you have to find a balance between saving money and actually having a good time. There’s no point in traveling someplace if all you do is worry about money. But again, for $25, you’ll definitely be able to have a good time in Lisbon and explore the city’s past and current history.