How to choose sustainable Lisbon tours (includes tour suggestions)
A quick Google search on Lisbon tours makes me dizzy. Do you want to do every possible available tour in Lisbon? Or should you narrow down the list to tours that cover your interests? Should you walk, or should you hire a tuk-tuk?
As much as I appreciate the love of every single tourist for Lisbon, I get anxious when I see a tour group with more than 10 people squeezing their way through the alleyways of Alfama.
The usual reminder: Readers who find Tripper are looking for ways to minimize their negative impact while traveling by supporting the local culture and the local economy.
Therefore, I won’t list every possible Lisbon tour on the market right now because it doesn’t fit the blog’s message.
What makes a tour in Lisbon sustainable?
In a nutshell? One that isn’t free and doesn’t impact the locals’ mobility in the city, and which has a positive impact on the local economy. That is what makes a sustainable tour in Lisbon and any other European city.
I don’t like to call them rules, but here are some guidelines or questions you can ask yourself before you narrow down your list of Lisbon guided tours.
Going on free tours or not
Before saying no or yes to a free tour, find out if it’s a regular gig or a one-time-off event.
For example, it’s not unusual for a museum or a city tourism association to organize a free tour to celebrate a special occasion. It’s okay to participate in one if you’re in town at that time. These tours will typically show up as a Facebook event.
The other kind of free tours I typically advise against are advertised by dozens of guides strategically placed in typical touristic spots. They usually hold an umbrella or wear a t-shirt that says free tours and have a flag of what language they’ll be speaking.
Impromptu tourists show up, wait for more people to join the group, go on the tour, and tip the guide in the end if they liked it.
I’ve never heard of a guide who hasn’t been tipped at the end of the tour. But my concern is that if you choose to go on a free tour, you’re perpetuating a business model that isn’t sustainable. Not to mention how big the groups have to be to make it worthwhile for the guide.
If you want a service, you pay for the service. If you want something for free, you do it yourself.
Supporting local businesses
This one is not an easy guideline to follow, I admit. Most people probably don’t nail it on the head until they’ve visited the same place a few times. However, most tourists only travel to one place once, unless they have a vacation home on their destination.
As much as supporting local businesses seems like a pretty straightforward thing to do, you’re always at risk of getting on a tour that partners with tourist traps. I don’t want to spark the discussion on what makes a local business local.
So, the rule of thumb is to read the tours’ description carefully to find out if they mention any stops at cafes, grocery stores, or restaurants for refreshments and which ones. If nothing is mentioned, ask.
The more details you have, the better you choose. The stop should be beneficial for both the business and the tour-goer. Stopping for food or water? Yes, it makes sense. Stopping to buy souvenirs? Not so much.
The question of mobility
Should all your tours in Lisbon be done on foot? Well, of course not. The mobility issue here is, how does your action (going on a tour) impact the daily routine of locals?
For example, going on a bike tour in Belém, or any other area with bike paths makes sense. Chances are you’ll come across many locals running or on their bikes as well. However, going on a bike tour in Alfama seems a bit off, even if you’re part of a small group and you’re riding e-bikes. The same goes for segways, scooters, and sitgos (a segway with a seat).
Another example that should raise red flags is tours that include a ticket for one of the funiculars (Bica, Glória, and Lavra) or tram 28. Those are means of public transport and can’t be used as part of a tour, nor advertised as such.
Can a tourist use the same public transportation as locals? Of course. But a guide can’t or shouldn’t use one on their guided tour. Some people claim it’s illegal for a guide to do it, but I’ve researched and couldn’t find a law that states that.
The mobility issue is about us as tourists taking up locals’ place in public transportation or making their trip from point A to point B take twice the time because a bike tour is causing a traffic jam.
Suggestions of tours in Lisbon you can't miss
Picking or suggesting tours in Lisbon is not easy for me. First, because I’ve been on Lisbon guided tours as a local, never as a tourist. And even if I’m learning something new about the city, I’m never truly seeing it from a 100% fresh perspective.
That said, I do try to apply the same three guidelines I mentioned above before picking a tour or deciding to accept the media invitation to go on one.
So the following tours aren’t free, they somehow support local businesses, and they have a minimal impact on locals’ mobility. They’re also tours I’ve been on and wrote about on the blog, so in each section, I’ll include a link to the blog post for you to read the full review.
A kind reminder that the tour prices and content may change over time, so please always refer to the tour’s official website for updated information.
Lisbon Walking Tours
Although many parts of the city are walkable, covering it in one Lisbon walking tour is probably a stretch. Most tours will cover Alfama, Graça, and Mouraria, but most don’t follow a set theme.
I don’t have anything against generic tours but, to be honest, you’ll be better off doing it on your own with the help of a Lisbon app.
My suggestion is, if you’re going to tackle the seven hills of Lisbon on a guided walking tour, it better be a learning moment with an expert.
In March 2019, I took the African Lisbon Tour twice. I went alone for the first time. On the second time, I took my son, who was very interested in learning about a side of history we don’t talk about in school.
My initial goal was to write a complete review of the tour, but I soon realized that you get much more from going on it yourself and bonding with your fellow tour-goers.
Naky Galo, the tour guide, not only found a topic no one else was addressing, but he continues to study and research the African presence in Lisbon since he first started this project in 2014.
The tour typically ends with dinner at a small, family-owned restaurant serving mostly food from Cabo Verde. You don’t have to stay for dinner, but I strongly advise you to. Dinner is not included in the price of the tour, but it’s worth it.
Lisbon Food Tours
I’ve been (affectionately) labeled as a “functional eater” by close friends, which, I assume, puts me on the opposite side of a foodie. I prefer sweets to savory food, and I typically eat with the sole purpose of not starving.
So, my suggestions for Lisbon food tours are more about the cultural connection between people, food, and the city.
I know there are loads of food-themed tours in Lisbon, some more “authentic” than others (please take this with a grain of salt). I got a major headache as I scrolled down what looked like an infinite list of food tours on a booking platform.
So what popped up during my search? The one “don’t” you should look for on a Lisbon food tour: the word tapas.
Tapas are Spanish. In Portugal, we eat petiscos. And, no, petiscos aren’t Portuguese tapas. They’re petiscos. Call them bite-sized food or finger food if you will.
I’ve been to three food tours in Lisbon, so not a bad ratio, right? Well, technically, two tours and one workshop, but they all involve food and culture, so it’s perfect.
My first food tour in Lisbon was with Lazy Flavors a few months after I started the blog. They still maintain their core values, and I appreciate that in a company.
Lisbon boat tours
Considering that I live on the south bank of Tagus River, I see Lisbon from the river ferry every day, but it’s not quite the same as seeing the city on a boat tour.
When I went on a few tours with Cityrama Portugal to try out their new app, I had to include the boat tour on the route. There are more companies with Lisbon boat tours besides Cityrama, but I can only recommend the one I did.
Keep in mind this is a small boat compared to the ones of other companies, and that it’s a hop-on-hop-off tour. This means you’ll stop at least two times for people to board or get off.
It doesn’t take much away from the experience if you don’t mind being part of a hop-on-hop-off tour. Besides, it means if you’re in Belém, for example, and feel like catching a boat to Cais do Sodré instead of taking the bus or the tram, you can.
Lisbon Wine Tours
I’m picky, and I’m not much of a wine connoisseur, so for me, the perfect tour has to connect me to the producers and their story. A Lisbon wine tour that just takes you out for wine tasting is not a tour. It’s a tasting.
Keep that in mind when looking for one.
Most wine producers in the Lisbon region are, fortunately, a one-day trip away. The majority of people travel to Colares in Sintra to go on a wine tour.
A few years ago, however, I was pleasantly surprised with the opportunity to do the Rota das Vinhas do Pó (Vinhas do Pó Route). If you want to go on a wine tour that’s not too far from Lisbon, but you don’t want to do Sintra, here’s your chance.
Lisbon Tram Tours
I love that tourists love our trams. I wholeheartedly do. They’re such an important part of Lisbon’s identity that even I have the urge to snap a photo of one, no matter how many times I’ve seen them.
Trams and tram rails are part of one of my first memories of Lisbon, so my fondness for the mustard-yellow electric cars is deep.
And believe me, I understand if every guide book tells you to take a tour on tram 28, you’ll feel like you’re missing out if you don’t. Except tram 28 is public transportation, not an actual tour, and guide books tend to leave that information out. I have no problem in saying you can actually skip it in Lisbon.
If taking a Lisbon tram tour is part of your list of things to do here, opt to go on an actual tour. Sure, the tour trams are red instead of yellow, but they practically do the same route as tram 28.
Besides, if you’re inside the tram, does it really matter what color it is?
They’re also a lot more comfortable than being crammed inside a tram with other sweaty tourists. Most importantly, you won’t be taking the place of locals who actually need to use it to travel across town.
Alternatively, you can do as Portugalist’s author James did and to the same route as tram 28 does on foot.