Portugal: the land of beaches, sunshine, and piri-piri chicken. A go-to destination for any traveller with a pension for good food and great weather while exploring one of Europe’s most historic capitals. Rated as Western Europe’s best value capital city, and the 7th cheapest European city, Lisbon is a must for any backpacker on a budget.
Getting around credit: Mariah Mathew
Portugal has one of the warmest climates in Europe making it a favourite spot for weekend getaways, even in winter. Being very mild and usually dry during this low season, flights and accommodation are at their most affordable and sightseeing is much more comfortable without the swarms of summer tourists. Lisbon is very accessible by foot, if you’re not averse to hills, and walking is the best way to discover hidden parts of the city as you stroll through cobblestone streets, discovering hidden bars and street art. If you jump on the iconic yellow Tram 28, it will take you on a 40-minute journey around most of the major sites in the city, all for the cost of a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking to pack all the sights into a short haul break, take advantage of the Lisboa Card. The card gives you access to most paid sites in the city, as well as free travel on the metro, buses, trams, and certain regional railways. It also covers your trip to and from the airport on the metro, all of which makes it the most thorough and affordable way to visit Lisbon, starting at €19 for 24-hours and discounting on longer durations.
TimeOut Market credit: Mariah Mathew
Where to Eat
Not just Nandos. It’s easy to find a cheap feed in Lisbon, as long as you avoid the central tourist spots. Some of the best value is in set menus where 3 courses, coffee and a drink will set you back around €12. Keep an eye out for lunch time deals in particular.
If you’re a seafood lover, Portugal’s coastline makes it home to some of the most amazing fresh fish and ocean delicacies available, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a hefty menu for it. Wash it down with traditional sherry liqueur, ginjinha, a glass of fortified madeira and port, or a uniquely Portuguese, vino verde.
If you’re fancying street food, one of the most popular markets in Lisbon is the imposing warehouse TimeOut Market - ground zero of the city’s trendy gentrification. From sashimi to jerk chicken, not to mention great quality and reasonably priced Portuguese dishes, it’s the most diverse food hub you’re likely to find in the city. Keep an eye out for seasonal pop-up markets in Rossio Square.
Where to Stay
Lisbon’s hostels have been recognised internationally as some of the best quality and value in Europe, taking home several Hoscar awards and snatching top spots in online reviews. Have a look into places like Goodmorning Lisbon, Lost Inn Lisbon, and Traveller’s House, which all deliver excellent value for money. Another favourite is Living Lounge Hostel which exemplifies the comfort hostel trend on the rise in Lisbon, with free crêpes for breakfast and spacious rooms, dropped right beside the metro in the heart of the city. Rooms start from €12 a night and help provide travellers with the option of travelling on a budget without sacrificing comfort or convenience.
Street Art credit: Mariah Mathew
What to See
Start your tour of Lisbon at Praça do Comércio, one of Europe’s largest town squares and home to the beautiful Rua Augusta Arch. Then make your way towards the Old Town where you’ll see Saint George’s Castle; once the heart of historic walled Lisbon and the highest point in the city. Step through the narrow maze streets of Alfama, the oldest and most atmospheric part of Lisbon. Take a step back in time to visit the traditional shops and houses in Baixa, or hit the bars and clubs in Cais de Sodre. Be sure to keep an eye out for street art scattered around the city - it has some of the best in Europe and doesn’t cost a cent.
Belém credit: Mariah Mathew
A short ride out of the centre, you’ll find the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT) which makes for one of the most exciting and popular additions to contemporary culture in Lisbon. A short walk further, by Belem metro station, you’ll find Jerónimos Monastery and a small bakery close by that arguably sells the best and original recipe of the pastéis de Belém, a favourite egg custard desert. Further along still is Torre de Belém, the medieval style defensive tower and UNESCO Heritage Site built in the 1500s. Grab a picnic and set yourself up on the grass by the tower which overlooks the Tagus River. Dip your feet in the water and soak up the sunshine at one of the most beautiful spots in the city – and it’s free.
If you’re looking to escape the city, just a 30-minute train ride out of the city you’ll find yourself on the white sandy beaches of Cascais. Portugal’s coast is a popular destination for surfing so hostels regularly organise group day trips, though if you’d like to venture off with friends there are plenty of hire places around the city that offer rental equipment.
Pena Palace credit: Mariah Mathew
If you’d rather head inland, Sintra is an unmissable bucket list tick for any visit to Portugal. A 40-minute train ride from Lisbon will take you to the heart of this little town, most famous for the Pena Palace, or Palácio da Pena. This brightly coloured castle is incredibly well preserved due to it never having been in any recent battles or bombings and, having been functional in the 19th century, is one of the few palaces you’ll see that was operational long enough to contain a telephone and collect the porcelain living room brickabrack to rival your nan. Getting to the palace takes you up a very steep, winding road which isn’t often walked. Buses are available for a fee, but a much shorter Uber ride will cost you around the same price and save you money if you’re travelling in a group. You can easily spend a day in Sintra once you’ve made your way from Pena Palace, with sites like the Castle of the Moors and Sintra Palace, museums, quaint shops and wine bars all on the doorstep of this little town.
Lisbon isn’t short on high points for panoramic photo ops – a benefit of being built on 7 hills. St George’s Castle, while not being free with the Lisboa Card, is discounted and will set you back about €7. As the highest point in the city, it’s one of the best views in town.
If you have the Lisboa Card, the highway bridge-turned-museum, Ponte 25 de Abril, is free to climb and will take you inside the bridge supports and construction – a mechanical engineers dream. The elevator takes you to the top of the bridge, inaccessible to pedestrians, and allows you to stand on a glass floor 80m above the highway, overlooking the Tagus River and the more residential side of Lisbon.
Elevador de Santa Justa will get you beautiful panoramic views of Lisbon from the opposite side of the old town overlooking St George’s Castle. Again, it’s free to those with the Lisboa Card, but try arriving early enough to avoid the long queues.
If you don’t have the Lisboa Card and would like the second best thing for free, there’s a museum right beside the exit of the Santa Justa viewing platform, and if you find your way to Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, you’ll be able to take in the same skyline. Alternatively, some of the best rooftop bars are Chapitô à Mesa and Bella Lisa Elevador, which offer great views for the entry price of a drink.
City Views credit: Mariah Mathew
Visiting Western Europe’s capital cities don’t have to break the bank and Lisbon is proof. Initiatives like the Lisboa Card and high-quality, low-cost hostel accommodation are part of why Portugal is making travelling through Western Europe more accessible for the budget conscious traveller. So, put your packed lunches away, avoid the dank 18 person dorms, and only pre-drink because you want to, not because you have to. Visit Lisbon.