Tips to explore the touristy Baixa-Chiado in Lisbon
Everyone has something to say about Baixa Chiado.
Locals are tired of the tourist crowds (read Fernando Pessoa’s “What the Tourist Should See,” and you’ll realize this has been a touristy area since the 1920s).
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 showing you all the things you can do in Baixa Chiado without feeling you’re a tourist, let me tell you what Lisbon’s 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. All buildings burned down to ashes in a devastating sequence of related events.
In 1908, Portugal’s king 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 swinging red carnations and celebrating the coup that led to the dictatorial regime’s fall 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.
Cultural tourists have many layers to discover here, way beyond travelers’ crowds in the summer and the annoying Lisbon tourist traps.
It will probably be crowded with tourists from June to September. It will probably be loaded 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
Suppose you have limited time to visit Lisbon (or you’re so mesmerized by this area that you don’t feel like going anywhere else). In that case, there is enough here to keep you busy.
Please note that this is a touristy neighborhood. Your chances of finding “hidden gems” or “off-the-path” spots are pretty slim.
Just embrace it as part of Lisbon and avoid some of the places your intuition tells you to (or take a note of these 6 places to skip in Lisbon).
Nope. That’s not a typo in the title. “Square-ing” is my invented (?) word that means exploring or enjoying squares. Not the geometrical shape. As in plazas.
Look at a map of Lisbon or photos of downtown. You’ll notice the perfect urban planning imagined by Marquês de Pombal (the king’s Secretary of State responsible for 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 faces the river Tejo and Cais das Colunas, surrounded by the mustard-yellow buildings of the Portuguese ministries. The old cafeterias are now cafés and restaurants (a bit on the pricier side if you’re a local but quite popular with tourists).
- Praça da Figueira is smaller and has one of the best views of St. George Castle. The square marks the unofficial borderline between Mouraria and Baixa.
- “Rossio” (Praça Dom Pedro IV) has the beautiful, all-Portuguese wave pattern of black-and-white cobblestones. It’s near the iconic Rossio train station, the National Theater, and other entertainment venues like the Coliseum and Teatro Politeama.
- At Praça dos Restauradores you’ll see a unique cobblestone pattern and some of the most beautiful old buildings in Lisbon: Cinema Condes (Hard Rock Café Lisbon) and Teatro Eden (VIP Executive Éden Aparthotel).
- Largo do Chiado and Largo Camões are iconic squares in Lisbon. Chiado is smaller and more crowded. Camões is a classic meeting point before heading to Bairro Alto for drinks.
- Largo de São Carlos is the square of the Opera Theater. Opposite the court, it’s the house where Fernando Pessoa was born. The writer’s father was a part-time freelance opera critic. He cleverly cut costs by moving across from the opera house.
- Largo do Carmo is a sheltered little spot, perfect for spending time under the shade of jacarandá trees during hot summer afternoons. It became known as the square where the 1974 democratic revolution started. It’s also close to the uber-romantic ruins of Carmo Convent and iron-piece-of-art Santa Justa Lift.
Before there were malls in Lisbon, Chiado was the place to go shopping. The shops were always busy with Saturday morning customers. The clerks behind the wooden counters would climb up and down the ladders fetching items.
It was long before the self-service era when shop owners understood the benefits of excellent service, and customers expected a high-level experience. Some of them still linger, not knowing how (or not wanting to) work any other way.
Local heritage laws protect the store’s façades, although they now house different businesses. Like the former perfume shop Au Bonheur des Dames now transformed into a Nespresso boutique.
For a glimpse of beautiful old façades (and a little shopping on the side if something catches your eye), head to Rua do Carmo and Rua Garrett.
Rua Augusta, Rua do Ouro, and Rua da Prata have the highest concentration of tourist-centered shops and scammers. But these are also the streets where you’ll find most of the ready-to-wear brands.
For high-end designer shops, go further up, past Praça dos Restauradores, to Avenida da Liberdade.
Landmarks, monuments, and sightseeing
At any square in Baixa-Chiado, you can visit a landmark or a monument and sightsee. That convenience is one of the reasons why this neighborhood is such a touristy area.
Iconic Lisbon trams? Check. Tram 28’s route includes Baixa and Chiado, funicular Ascensor da Glória takes you up from Praça dos Restauradores to São Pedro de Alcântara, and 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. It’s one of the few buildings that survived the 1755 earthquake, almost intact.
Viewpoints? Several. My favorite is the view 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). And although I’d skip the elevator ride altogether and walk up to Largo do Carmo, Santa Justa is also a popular one.
Monuments? The Carmo Convent ruins are among the most famous (and most photographed) churches in Lisbon.
Roman archeological findings? Yes, you can also see them here. Once to twice a year, you can visit the underground Roman galleries at Rua da Conceição. And at the bank’s headquarters, you can see more remains at the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros (NARC).
The Baixa-Chiado neighborhood is also the place to visit dozens of historic shops.
Eating and drinking in Baixa Chiado
The high concentration of places to eat in Baixa-Chiado means you will find all sorts of restaurants, including vegan and vegetarian options. Still, you will also find plenty of them that exist only to scam tourists. Keep an eye on those in busy streets (Rua Augusta, Rua Portas de Santo Antão) with cookie-cutter plastic menus and waiters harassing you with the specials.
Take all recommendations (even mine) with a grain of salt. 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. But, if you want a more in-your-pocket solution, download one of the free mobile apps I frequently use, Zomato.