Traveling to Lisbon? 10 Things You Need to Know

Traveling to Lisbon? 10 Things You Need to Know

Latest update: May 12th, 2017.

They say planning is half the fun. We made a list of the 10 things you need to know before traveling to Lisbon that cover all the basics to make sure you enjoy the very best of the city. We are talking mundane stuff (currency, opening hours, 24h pharmacies…) and insider tips (most popular scams, what is “typical”…) here!

My book “Lisbon Travel Guide for Urban Explorers” is available on Amazon* and iBooks*.

1. Currency

As in the majority of the European countries, Portugal’s currency is the Euro (€). If you are going to travel with mostly cash, try to exchange the currency in your country of departure for lower fees and if possible try to have only small bills of €5, €10 and €20. On one hand you don’t want to be flashing the big bills (like €50 and €100 or €200; €500 bills are an absolute rarity in Portugal) and becoming an easy target for all sorts of people trying to sell you stuff on the streets (from sunglasses to lighters, to hash…); on the other hand, smaller bills will be easier for change in most stores and cafes.

The majority of the places accept payments with debit or credit cards, but the smaller shops may have a minimum amount of €5 to accept payments with cards — that’s because they are taxed on every transaction that is made.

2. Opening And Closing Times

In Portugal, the timezone is GMT.

Most shopping malls open at 10 a.m. and close between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. and are open every day of the week. Street shops, however, have a more restrictive schedule opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m. but they don’t close during lunchtime; on Saturdays, most of them will close early at 1 p.m. and won’t open on Sundays.

Regarding cafes, the closing time may vary according to their location and purpose (some cafes serve meals as well, but they still aren’t classified as restaurants), but commonly most of them will open for breakfast as early as 7 a.m. or 8 a.m.

Restaurants usually serve their lunches between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. and dinners between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., but it also depends on location and popularity which means they can be open until as late as midnight. This schedule is related to what is called the “kitchen hours”, which means the time of day they are just preparing meals. There’s no harm in asking if the kitchen is still open!

Banks are open on weekdays only from 8.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and most public offices open from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.

3. Health And Safety

Lisbon is a reasonably safe city, however, if anything less positive happens (as in many other European capitals, pickpocketing is an ancient art) the Police Station for Tourists is very central and easy to get to in Palácio Foz at Praça dos Restauradores. The Portuguese law enforcement is called PSP (Polícia de Segurança Pública) and they are easily identified by their dark blue uniforms.

There are three 24h Pharmacies in Lisbon and three with an extended schedule (until 10 p.m. or 12 a.m.) in case you need specific medication. For over the counter medicine, most malls have drugstores where you can buy branded or generic pills.

In a case of emergency dial 112. If you are a national from another European country, you can apply for the free European Health Insurance card, valid up to 5 years.

4. Tourism Information

UPDATE: Since 2015, the Lisbon City Council charges €1.00 tourist tax for each visitor coming to the Portuguese capital through the air or sea port (tax excludes travel by train, bus or private car).

The Tourism Information offices or kiosks are called “Ask Me Lisboa”. Their schedule varies depending on their location so the ones with the extended schedule are at the airport arrivals (7 a.m. to 12 a.m.), at the International Terminal of Santa Apolonia train station (7.30 am to 10 p.m., however, it’s closed on Sundays), at Praça do Comércio (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and at Palácio Foz (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.).

This is also where you can buy the Lisboa Card that combines public transportation with discounts on several museums and tourist attractions, valid for 24h (€18.50), 48h (€31.50) or 72h (€39.00).

Note: Prices may vary so make sure to confirm the updated rates.

5. Transportation

Lisbon has a very good and intuitive public transport network of trams, buses, underground, ferries and suburban trains. The trams and buses are operated by Carris (and can’t be missed by their mustard yellow color), the underground is operated by Metro, the ferries are operated by Transtejo and Soflusa (with connections to the Tagus Southbank from Belém, Cais do Sodré, and Terreiro do Paço) and the trains are operated by CP.

From the airport, you can take the Aerobus or the Metro. It’s a matter of choosing the most convenient (where are you staying?) or the most accessible (some underground stations won’t have escalators or elevators). If you are thinking affordable, Metro is the cheapest option.

Prices for one time ticket purchased on board:
Aerobus – €3.50
Metro – €1.40
Bus – €1.80
Tram – €2.85
Boat – between €1.20 and €2.75 depending on your destination
Train – between €1.25 and €3.40 depending on your destination zone

24h tickets (Metro, Tram, and Bus only) – €6.00

Best Value: if you are planning to use public transport a lot while you’re visiting, purchase the Lisboa Viva card for €0.50 on any Metro station booth or machine and calculate how much money you will need for traveling around for the time of your stay. Make sure you charge the card with money instead of travels, that way you can use as many different public means of transport as you want. If you buy travels instead, keep in mind they will only be valid for the transport you chose. It means you can use it for the bus or tram, but you can’t use it on the boat to go visit the Cristo Rei in Almada or on the train to see the Atlantic ocean in Cascais.

There is a chance the driver won’t have enough change to give you back and that the ticket machines inside the more modern trams don’t work. The doors of Metros are automatic, the entrance on buses is always done from the front of the bus and on trains and trams you must push the button to open the door (both inside and outside).

On weekends and National Holidays the frequency of transportation is reduced (or suppressed depending on the route) and Metro trains circulate with three cars only (usually it’s announced on the platform screens).

Note: Prices may vary so make sure to confirm the updated rates.

6. Museums

Admission is free on first Sundays of the month for individual visitors and small groups under 12 people and in any other day ticket prices vary between €2 and €10 for an individual adult entry. The following museums are always free: MUDE (Design Museum), Electricity Museum, Cinemateca (Film Museum).

Most museums are closed on Mondays (and some Holidays like Christmas day on the 25th December, Easter Sunday, January 1st and Labor Day on May 1st), except the National Museum of Ancient Art, Carris Museum, Water Museum, Berardo Collection Museum, Cinemateca (Film Museum) and Ajuda National Palace.

Read our post with suggestions for three art museums in Lisbon

7. Shopping

If you can’t leave a place without buying a souvenir to collect or to gift friends and family, we advise you to look for the authentic local products instead of the same old fridge magnet that, frankly, you can buy anywhere.

On downtown Lisbon avoid the gift shops on the busy streets — they all sell the exact same things, but prices fluctuate from store to store. On the flea markets avoid buying tiles — most of them are carved off (literally) from historical buildings and many others were destroyed in the process. The best way to admire these historical tiles is to photograph them and visit the National Tile Museum.

Some suggestions of shops to buy souvenirs from (and that support the local producers, artisans and designers): Lisbonlovers (typical Lisbon with a twist), Portugal Gifts (a new take on Portuguese souvenirs), Lisbon Shop (the official Tourism Information shop). If you like to gift food: Conserveira de Lisboa (Portuguese canned goods), Mercearia Criativa (Portuguese products), Espaço Acores (products from the Azores), A Vida Portuguesa (they brought back brands and products that used to be part of our Portuguese childhood culture).

Read our post with suggestions for alternative shopping in Lisbon.

8. Mind the “typical”

The more you travel, the more you suspect the adjective typical. Especially when you have that deja vu feeling. If they need to announce that it’s typical to convince you to buy/eat/drink, then maybe it’s not that authentic.

When looking for a restaurant you want to dodge the ones who have waiters outside begging for a minute of your attention. The food will be overpriced and not that great in quality. Look for places where the locals hang out and search for reviews online. And most importantly, don’t search for a restaurant when you are already hungry — your instinct will kick in and basically, your brain will tell you to stop at the first place that serves food.

Also, not all the restaurants that advertise live Fado have actually a magic combination of great live music, great wine, and great food.

9. The scams

Apart from the mind your belongings advice, mind the charity scams. When you are downtown (usually at Praça do Comércio where a lot of people go to for pictures, by the river relaxation and lounging in cafes) you will likely be approached by a young man or woman, stating they are from a charity organization (usually it’s an organization you never heard about) and that they are collecting donations for their latest fundraising.

Choose to donate money to beggars in the street if you want to, but always suspect when they seem to handle it as a daily job with a schedule: on the steps of a busy church, near a popular tourist attraction… True story, I have seen women change shifts… One is sitting and wailing while begging for money, the other one comes, they chat for a while (about the kids, the latest soap opera episode and what they’re cooking for dinner), she gets up and leaves, the other one takes her place and (on queue) the wailing restarts.

10. Stay connected

Above all, we want you to explore this beautiful city but we know that staying connected is also important. If you can’t wait to go back to your WiFi hotel/hostel/apartment, most cafes and restaurants will have an available connection for customers (and usually will state so on the window).

WiFi is also available at all the Metro stations (except Baixa – Chiado)* and in some Carris buses and trams.

If you prefer to buy a local prepaid SIM card look for a store from one of the Portuguese mobile operators: Vodafone, MEO, and NOS.

*UPDATE Dec 8th, 2015: Recently the free WiFi in Metro stations was disabled without warning. As of now, there is no information if the service will ever be restored.

*UPDATE May 12th, 2017: Some lines have free WiFi available, via brand sponsorships. They’ll be identified along the platform.

If you have anything to add to this list please do so in the comments below. Anything else you’d like to know? Ask away! Do share this information with your friends and family via Facebook or Twitter.

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