Explore Baixa Chiado: Lisbon’s Most Tourist-y Area
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Everyone has something to say about Baixa Chiado. Locals are tired of the tourist crowds (if you read Fernando Pessoa’s “What the Tourist Should See”*, you’ll realize this has been a tourist-y area since the 1920s, so there’s nothing new about this complaint nor is it linked to news of overtourism) and tourists fall in love with the spacious squares and the Instagrammable façades of the shopping streets.
But are the Chiado and Baixa neighborhoods nothing more than one giant tourist trap? Or are they worth a visit?
The historical importance of Baixa Chiado
Before dwelling on all the things you can do in Baixa Chiado without feeling you’re being ripped off as a gullible tourist, I need to tell you what Lisbon baixa (the Portuguese word for downtown) is all about.
This is the area of Lisbon that best represents resilience, reinvention, and rebirth. It’s also been the stage for events of revolution and change.
The earthquake of 1755 destroyed the whole downtown, the tsunami that followed washed away whatever was left, and all buildings burned down to ashes in a devastating sequence of related events.
In 1908, the king of Portugal was murdered at Terreiro do Paço (also known as Praça do Comércio), and a republic was established two years later.
In 1974, military troops and civilians gathered at Largo do Carmo wielding red carnations and celebrating the coup that led to the fall of the dictatorial regime that lasted for 48 years.
A fire partially destroyed Chiado in 1988 that spread too quickly before the firefighters could reach it in time. What you see now is the result of over 20 years of careful planning and reconstruction by a team of professionals led by renowned Portuguese architect Siza Vieira.
So, for cultural tourists, there are a lot of layers to discover here, way beyond the crowds of travelers in the summer and the annoying tourist traps (you can’t prevent them from existing, but you can learn how to spot one in Lisbon).
It will probably be crowded with tourists from June to September. It will probably be crowded with locals on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays (even in the Winters — all it takes is a bit of sunshine). It will be overpriced. It will test your patience most of the time. But, the good news is, you can live and see past all this and still enjoy Baixa Chiado.
Top things to do in Baixa Chiado
If your time in Lisbon is limited (or you’re so mesmerized by this area that you don’t feel like going anywhere else), there is enough here to keep you busy and still leave Lisbon with fond memories (hopefully with intentions to return).
Please note that this is a tourist-y neighborhood, so your chances of finding “hidden gems” or “off-the-path” spots are pretty slim (despite the dozens of writers and bloggers who have claimed they HAVE found them here…). Just embrace it as part of Lisbon and skip some of the places your intuition (or this blog post) tells you to skip.
Nope. It’s not a typo. It’s my invented (?) word that means exploring or enjoying squares. Not the geometrical shape. Squares as in plazas, public squares.
One look at a map of Lisbon or photos from the city’s downtown and you’ll notice its perfect urban planning that came from the mind of Marquês de Pombal (the king’s Secretary of State in charge of the post-earthquake reconstruction of the city in the 18th century).
All of them have cafés or restaurants or both, with outdoor seating (because we love to make the best of our 300+ days a year of sunshine). Some of them have shade, others do not, which means you have different squares for different seasons. A few are merely for passers-by, but most of them are an invitation to sit for a while.
Praça do Comércio spreads open to face the river Tejo via Cais das Colunas, surrounded by the mustard-yellow buildings of the Portuguese ministries and their old cafeterias now turned into cafés and restaurants (a bit on the pricier side if you’re a local but quite popular with tourists).
Praça da Figueira is smaller, the unofficial border between Mouraria and Baixa Chiado, and the public transportation hub for tram 15 and a few other buses going West to Belém (it’s easier to catch them here because a seat is practically guaranteed and it’s still a long ride). It’s also one of the best spots to see the castle on top of the highest hill of Lisbon.
“Rossio” (officially known as Praça Dom Pedro IV) has the beautiful and all-Portuguese wave pattern in calçada portuguesa (the typical black-and-white cobblestone pavement) and is just steps away from the iconic Rossio train station, the National Theater, and other entertainment venues like the Coliseum and Teatro Politeama.
Praça dos Restauradores, named after the obelisk in the center (a monument to the liberation from Spanish ruling in 1640), has a unique cobblestone pattern and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful old buildings in Lisbon – Cinema Condes (now Hard Rock Café Lisbon) and Teatro Eden (now the VIP Executive Éden Aparthotel).
Largo do Chiado and Largo Camões are iconic squares in Lisbon. Chiado is smaller and undoubtedly more crowded, and Camões is a classic meeting point for locals before heading to Bairro Alto for drinks on weekends.
Largo de São Carlos, further down from Chiado and Camões, is the square opposite the Opera Theater and the house where Fernando Pessoa was born (his father was a part-time freelance opera critic who cleverly cut costs by moving across from the opera house).
Largo do Carmo, forever frozen in time as the square of the 1974 democratic revolution, is a shady little spot, perfect for spending time under the shade of jacarandá trees during hot summer afternoons. Also, close to the uber-romantic ruins of Carmo Convent and iron-piece-of-art Santa Justa Lift.
Before the time of malls, Chiado was the place to go shopping. The big warehouse-like shops were busy with Saturday morning customers, and the clerks behind the big wooden counters would climb up and down the ladders bringing items per request.
It was long before the era of self-service. These were the times when shop owners understood the benefits of excellent customer service and the customers expected a high-level experience. Some of them still linger, not knowing how (or not wanting to) work any other way.
Some of the façades may no longer match the store inside (as is the case of the former perfume shop Au Bonheur des Dames that now houses a Nespresso boutique) but local heritage laws protect them.
For a glimpse of beautiful old façades (and a little shopping on the side if something catches your eye), take a stroll on Rua do Carmo and Rua Garrett.
The highest concentration of tourist trappers (be it shops, fake drug dealers, pickpockets, or beggars) is in Rua Augusta and some of its side streets (especially Rua do Ouro and Rua da Prata). But this is also the spot where you’ll find most of the ready-to-wear European clothes brands like Mango, H&M, and Zara.
For high-end designer shops, go further up, past Praça dos Restauradores, to Avenida da Liberdade.
Landmarks, monuments, and sightseeing
Well, at any square in Baixa Chiado you can do all three – visiting a landmark and a monument and look at the sights. I think convenience is one of the reasons why this is such a tourist-y area.
Iconic Lisbon trams? Check. Tram 28 passes through Baixa and Chiado, funicular Ascensor da Glória takes you up from Pracça dos Restauradores to São Pedro de Alcântara, and slightly-hidden funicular Ascensor do Lavra takes you up from Rua de Portas de Santo Antão (just after Fábrica Coffee Roasters) to Jardim do Torel.
Manueline architecture? Done. Check out the church Conceição Velha near Praça do Comércio, one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake, almost intact.
Viewpoints? Several. My favorite view is from the top of the Rua Augusta arch because I like to see the contrast between Chiado (on the left), Baixa (in the middle), and Alfama (on the right). Santa Justa is also a popular one, although I’d skip the elevator ride altogether and walk up to Largo do Carmo.
Monuments? Most of the squares were used for statues and as landmarks. Beyond that, the Carmo Convent ruins are probably one of the most famous (and most photographed) churches in Lisbon. Just don’t fall for the fairytale that they were kept like that as a reminder of the Great Earthquake devastation. There’s more to that story.
Roman archeological findings? Yes, you can also see them here. If there was an upside to the natural disaster of 1755, it was the archeological findings during the city rebuilding. Once to twice a year, you can visit the underground Roman galleries at Rua da Conceição. Much later, during construction work at a bank in the mid-1990s, they found more archeological remains which you can now visit at the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros (NARC).
Baixa and Chiado are also the home of dozens of historic shops of Lisbon, still in business. Take a look at their official website to find them all.
Eating and drinking in Baixa Chiado
Baixa and Chiado aren’t residential areas, so most of the buildings are government offices, banks, shops, hotels and hostels, restaurants, and cafés. Before Lisbon became a popular city break destination, nothing much happened in the city’s downtown after 11 p.m. (and sometimes long before that) except on New Year’s Eve where locals gather at Praça do Comércio for free live music concerts and fireworks.
The high concentration of places to eat in Baixa Chiado means you will most likely find all sorts of restaurants, including vegan and vegetarian options, but you will also find plenty of them that exist solely to scam tourists. Just keep an eye open for those in busy streets (Augusta, Portas de Santo Antão) with waiters outside trying to convince you to come in.
I’ve mentioned some of the restaurants in this area with good Portuguese food in another post , and I have also listed some of my favorite cafés for pastries and coffee that includes some places downtown.
Take all recommendations (even mine) with a grain of salt because, in the end, it’s up to you where you want to eat and drink. Portuguese publications like Time Out Lisbon and NiT (New in Town) usually have decent recommendations. If you feel like a more in-your-pocket solution, download the free mobile app Zomato – I use it frequently.