How to choose the best area to stay in Lisbon
If you’re planning to travel to Lisbon in times of COVID-19 please refer to these official sources when planning:COVID-19 Information from the U. S. Embassy in PortugalVisit Portugal’s COVID-19 | Frequently Asked Questions
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for the best area to stay in Lisbon (or any other city for that matter)? Probably location, right?
Most recommendations for where to stay in Lisbon factor the most central location, regardless of why you’re visiting, how long you’re staying, and how do you plan to travel around (Car? Bus? Metro? Walking?).
On this post, I want to shake things up a little and have you looking at finding accommodation in the Portuguese capital from a different angle.
Before you book that hotel that seems located in the perfect spot, let’s assess why are you visiting and how are you planning to spend your time in Lisbon.
Business trips to Lisbon
Whether you’re in town for business meetings or to attend conferences, chances are your interest in networking or getting to know the city is linked to how much time you have to spare.
Business trips are usually quick and to the point – you’re here to work, not indulge in sightseeing.
Unlike other cities, Lisbon doesn’t exactly have a business or a financial district, at least not defined as such. We usually split the city into old and new, residential and touristic.
For the traditional business travelers it all boils down to convenience: a decent hotel with enough amenities for comfort, close to transportation (bus, metro, taxi, airport, train station, depending on how you’re planning on moving around, to, and from the city), not too far from the location where you’ll be doing business (time is money), and within walking distance from restaurants (preferably with enough options for variety).
Business travelers’ best bet is one of these three areas (depending on time management and whether you’d like to include some time off to do a little sightseeing):
- Oriente – the area is 30% chain hotels and offices, 10% restaurants and shops, including one shopping mall, and 60% residential; it’s 10 minutes away from the airport by car or by public transportation (Metro, Red Line, is the easiest and the cheapest) but it’s the furthest from the city center (half-an-hour depending on traffic, time of day, day of the week, and frequency and type of public transportation)
- Saldanha/Marquês de Pombal – a semi-balanced area with big chain hotels, offices, some restaurants and cafes, and private homes; close to Metro’s Blue Line and Yellow Line and buses (including the airport shuttle)
- Baixa – a bit more touristic than the previous areas, but close to Metro’s Blue Line and Green Line, train stations (Rossio and Santa Apolónia), lots of cafes, restaurants, and bars (although most of them cater to tourists, so be aware of tourist traps)
One-time-off trips: in Lisbon for big event
The people who travel to a city specifically for an event are a completely different crowd and I had to do a sub-section dedicated just to that. Think huge events that (will) take Lisbon by storm like the Web Summit or the Eurovision 2018.
Since the real reason to be in Lisbon is to attend an event, your needs are a little different from the typical business traveler and a little closer (but not completely) to the needs of a tourist.
Like the business travelers, chances are your agenda is packed and you have to keep a close eye on your schedule. However, because your whole world doesn’t revolve around the event you’re here for, you’d also like to take some time for sightseeing (and you probably even booked an extra day just for that).
Events attracting big crowds usually take place in one venue in the city: Altice Arena (formerly known as MEO Arena, formerly known as Pavilhão Atlântico – I’m adding both previous aliases because locals will sometimes identify it faster by one of the old names). The venue’s location is great to get crowds away from the city center but, as you may imagine, is not the best place to stay precisely because it’s so far away from Lisbon’s downtown (approximately 20 to 30 minutes, on average).
My biggest advice is to stay close to Baixa-Chiado. The city is pretty walkable so from there you can visit 80% of the must-see spots on your free time and you’ll be very close to transportation to and from the venue in Oriente (you have metro and buses that take you there with little hassle). You’ll also be close to restaurants, bars, and shopping (including a couple of chain supermarkets).
I would strongly recommend that you stay away from crowded areas like Alfama and Mouraria – you can see all their beauty on a walking tour for example. The last thing you want is to climb up (or down) a cobblestoned street after you’re exhausted from conferences or concerts (Alfama isn’t the greatest with public transportation besides bus and tram). Baixa-Chiado is mostly flat, and trust me, you’ll want flat ground after an exhausting day.
If hotels near Baixa-Chiado are full, make your way up the other stations of Metro’s Blue Line – Restauradores, Avenida, Marquês.
Visiting Lisbon as a tourist
Well, dear tourists, the world is your oyster! You get to pick wherever you want to stay in Lisbon!
Okay, sort of. Overtourism is becoming an issue and gentrification in Lisbon is now a reality, despite the City Council not showing any remorse about it (in my eyes, at least).
Tourists are mostly attracted to the (so-called) authentic neighborhoods like Alfama, Graça, Mouraria, Bairro Alto and (more recently) Príncipe Real and Cais do Sodré. The downside is that this authenticity is now a fabrication to attract even more tourists, causing evictions and a very unsustainable lifestyle for the struggling residents (who, eventually, move out). Complaints about noise after hours and drunken foreigners ringing the wrong apartment doorbell in the middle of the night have become too frequent.
As much as I’d like to tell you these are the best places to stay in Lisbon to get the pulse of the city, I’d be lying to you. You can experience that just by taking a stroll through any of these neighborhoods in the early morning. Besides, those cobblestoned alleyways and stairs are tough to manage when you’re dragging a trolley behind you.
Unless you’re visiting on a weekend getaway or in the city for less than a week (in that case, you’ll want to stay as central as possible), your experience will probably be better if you stay in one of the extremes – Belém, to the West, or Oriente, to the East. Considering you will probably only spend time at the hotel in the morning for breakfast and at night to sleep, and you don’t mind a little commute time, both areas are well connected to public transportation that will take you directly to or close enough to all must-see spots:
- Bus 728’s route by the river connects Oriente to Belém (and vice-versa) with strategic stops near Metro stations at Santa Apolónia (Blue Line), Terreiro do Paço (Blue Line), and Cais do Sodré (Green Line), and close to many must-see spots along the way;
- Despite Belém not having (yet) a Metro line, it’s served by the urban train (Cascais Line), trams, and buses to the city center. Plus, the location near the river is a bonus if you enjoy running, biking, or other outdoor activities;
- Oriente is closer to the airport (10 minutes away) and is served by Metro (Red Line), buses (including the express bus 782 to and from the city center during rush hour on weekdays), and urban and international trains. It’s surrounded by shops, restaurants, and the urban park Parque das Nações.
Longer stays: in Lisbon as a digital freelancing nomad
Lisbon sells well as a destination for digital nomads these days, especially since tech events like the Web Summit made the Portuguese capital its headquarters from 2016 to 2020.
The café culture also helps – most places, even those without a WiFi connection, will let you stay for as long as you want for as little as €0.60 for an espresso (although indulging in one or two pastries or grabbing a bite at one of these cafés won’t break your budget). A lot of these places are a mix of family’s and students’ hangouts and digital nomads’ workspace.
Choosing the best spot to live in Lisbon is a little trickier, though. Short term rentals become too expensive for someone staying for a couple of months and the price of long-term rentals has gone up significantly since Lisbon became a popular tourist destination.
Investing in a public transportation pass is not an option and being close to day-to-day important facilities like a supermarket (and for most, a coworking space) is an important factor.
Areas like Alcântara, São Bento, Santos, and Madragoa are some of the most recent favorites for digital nomads – they’re not entirely remote from other members of the digital nomad community and they’re close enough to locals to not make you feel entirely like a foreigner. There you will find cafés with good WiFi connection, cowork spaces, small family-owned grocery stores and markets, and just enough authentic atmosphere so you don’t feel like you’re completely disrupting life in the city.
Notes on accommodation in Lisbon
Overtourism is becoming a problem in the city but the locals don’t blame it on tourists. The current law favors short-term rentals over long term rentals, with significantly better tax benefits for the first one. It’s not surprising that most property owners want to make the highest profit, especially if that piece of property is located in one of the hot zones for tourists. For that reason, long-term leases aren’t renewed and these houses are listed on sites like Airbnb.
Ridiculous prices range from €400 a month for a bedroom in a shared apartment to €1000 a month for a studio apartment not bigger than a closet in Bairro Alto. Property owners get cocky to the point of bragging how they will find tourists who don’t mind paying those prices – and, most of the times, they will.
Right now, despite a visible economic resurgence in Portugal, there is an abyssal discrepancy between the average income of the Portuguese and the prices of rent, particularly in Lisbon and Greater Lisbon.
But that’s a problem local authorities have to fix, not tourists.
However, you can contribute to the balance between locals and visitors while visiting Lisbon, especially if you’d rather rent an apartment for a week instead of staying in a hotel.
Since July 1st, 2017, all rentals in Portugal listed on websites like Airbnb, Booking.com or Homestay must be officially registered with the Tourism Office. This way, the owner of the property is forced to pay taxes so, in a way, you as a visitor are contributing to the local economy. It doesn’t solve all housing problems in Lisbon, but it’s a start to fix the accommodation crisis and the opportunistic endeavors of some.
Owners can no longer list a property without this number. If one of these websites list an unregistered property, they will be fined.
Before booking, look for a registration number that looks like this 12345/AL (AL stands for alojamento local, local accommodation in English). On Booking.com it’s usually mentioned in the Fine Print section and on Airbnb is mentioned in the description. Some apartment owners add the information (like the one below) to the photo gallery of the property.