Give Yourself the Gift of Lisbon for Christmas

Lisbon for Christmas: Parque Eduardo VII
Why visit Lisbon in December? Christmas is an ideal time of year to visit Portugal. Lisbon is not too hot and has a festive air. Read on for ideas of how to make the most of a trip to Lisbon for Christmas.

Getting to Lisbon

Lisbon is well-served by both national and low-cost airlines. We combined our trip to Lisbon with Faro and the Algarve and decided to take the train from Faro to Lisbon. How long is the train ride from Faro to Lisbon? About 3 hours.

Where to Stay in Lisbon

We decided to rent an apartment for the week rather than stay at a hotel and we're so glad we did. We find that it's easier to pretend for a moment that we're locals when we rent a place like this rather than staying at hotels like the usual Marriott or Sheraton. We met our host from Lisbon Apartments near one of the Metro stops and he guided us up the winding pedestrian streets to our temporary home in Mouraria. Our apartment had two stories (the second floor had a seriously sloped roof so it was hard to stand up in parts of the bedroom). There was a window embedded in the slanted ceiling and we were able to pop our heads out and enjoy views of the surrounding city anytime we liked. The view from the kitchen was also nice -- we enjoyed getting some sun following a rather gray December in Dublin. Each morning, we would wind our way down the staircase and emerge with anticipation of what the winter day in Lisbon might have in store.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Portugal is one of my favorite countries to explore. Spend 3 days in Porto for a relaxing weekend break anytime of year. Head to the Algarve in winter for an off-season adventure.

Getting Our Bearings in Lisbon

We went for an evening walk through the cobbled streets of Mouraria (our new 'neighborhood') to get our bearings when we first arrived in Lisbon. We noticed a series of photos posted along the narrow and winding Beco das Farinhas. The plaque says:
A Tribute by Camilla Watson. The photographs on these walls are a tribute to the elderly who live here. They walk this beco daily and their spirit makes this corner of Mouraria special.
I thought that was simply a lovely sentiment. The Mouraria neighborhood is pretty hilly with all sorts of winding staircases and nooks and crannies. Just like elsewhere in Portugal, I love the tile work on the buildings. I felt that Lisbon derived some of its unique character from the various textures of the buildings (ornate tiles, peeling paint, soot and water spots) and graffiti.

We wandered down to the main road and caught a glimpse of Lisbon's tram. The city was already starting to remind me of San Francisco. I kept thinking back to the F-Market street car rattling around town.

Dinner from São Tomé and Príncipe

We stopped for dinner at a restaurant in our neighborhood run by a family from São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa. The place was really small and homey feeling and was actually pretty crowded for a weeknight so we had a feeling this would be a good meal. We started with some bread and cheese. In Portugal, most restaurants serve couvert which they bring automatically and charge you for it if you don't send it back. In general, we found the prices were pretty reasonable and had some tasty treats we wouldn't have ordered otherwise. They brought us a second couvert -- a type of seafood turnover; delicious! We also ordered a small pitcher of sangria. We ordered a typical stew and a lamb dish. The best part of the meal though were the plantain fries. They look like french fries but they are actually plantains (savory bananas) which we simply love. For dessert, our waitress talked us into trying a specialty from Africa. I'm still not exactly sure what it was. She brought out a picture of a giant tree and then cut up an apple to show us the seeds to give us a sense of what it was. I think it's a pudding made from seeds from the fruit of that tree. It was starchy and tasty.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: The Christmas season in Europe is a great time to travel. Here are some of my favorite Christmas travel destinations.

The Baixa

On our first full day in Lisbon, we decided to begin by exploring the Baixa or central business district. This neighborhood was designed and built after the 1755 earthquake destroyed the city. We passed by Confeitaria Nacional, a popular bakery, and stopped instead at Casa Brasileira. We couldn't resist all the goodies in the window. We enjoyed our first pastel de nata (cream custard tart) at Casa Brasileira. We continued our walk through the Baixa past the maritime logo of the Banco Nacional Ultramarino. We emerged at Praça do Comércio. We caught our first glimpse of Lisbon's own Golden Gate Bridge.


It was raining pretty hard so we sought a place where we could relax and wait out the storm. We found it at ViniPortugal, a venue that showcases Portuguese wines with free tastings. In return, all they ask is that visitors fill out a form summarizing their impressions of the wines. Each person can taste up to 4 wines and 3 different wine regions in Portugal are featured each month. We sampled wines from the Beira Interior (Quintas dos Currais, vinho blanco; Piornos, reserva tinto; Quinta dos Termos) and Tejo (Quinta do Casal Branco, vinho tinto; Quinta da Rocha; Quinta da Lagoalva; "Yes We Can" red wine from Herdade de Cadouços). The wines were hit or miss. The ones that were good were very good -- especially given the typical price point of 5-10 euros a bottle. Overall, it was a fun way to spend an hour while we waited out the rain.

More of The Baixa and Cherry Brandy

As we emerged from ViniPortugal, a bit of blue was beginning to peek through the clouds. We stopped to have a look at Vasco da Gama's likeness sculpted into the arch framing the plaza. We walked back into the Baixa and explored the grid-like streets. We found a statue commemorating the local tile workers in the neighborhood outside Igreja Paróquia de São Nicolau. We passed through Praça da Figueira and stopped at A Ginginha, an establishment specializing in Portugal's finest cherry brandy. For about a euro, we got a shot complete with a sour cherry garnish. It was just before lunchtime, but there was a constant stream of people coming up to the counter. It was a welcome treat on a cold day December day in Lisbon.

Christmas in Lisbon: Cherry Brandy

Rossio Station and Lunch in Lisbon

From here, we walked to Rossio station, a fine example of neo-Manueline architecture. We admired a rainbow over the Rossio and wound our way down a side street nearby to conjure up lunch. We had an egg sandwich and fish cake at Ginjinha Popular, a place full of local feel and flavor. We could see Castelo São Jorge beckoning to us in the distance and that's when the inspiration struck for our afternoon walk.

Walking the Alfama

We took an extended walk to the Alfama neighborhood and detoured up the hill to see the castle (Castelo de São Jorge). Once again, the streets were narrow and winding with laundry saluting us from every terrace. We caught another glimpse of the 25 de Abril bridge (Lisbon's own Golden Gate Bridge). We finally arrived (winded from the uphill climb) to the entrance of Castelo de São Jorge. A terrace runs around the property. We wandered around the grounds. The castle itself is several hundred years old but was 'remodeled' back in the 1960s by the dictator in power at the time.

Christmas in Lisbon: Castelo de São Jorge

Supposedly, the castle looks authentic, but it's not authentic anymore. Flags waved at us from above and invited us to climb up on the turrets. We found the drawbridge and went inside. There is a flock of peacocks that live on the property! We did indeed climb the turrets and checked out the sun-drenched buildings against the backdrop of some darker storm clouds. We left the castle and wandered back down the hill getting just a little lost along the way. We were serenaded by a guitar player just outside the castle walls. Good things come in threes and I saw three adorable kitties sitting on the cobbled sidewalk.

Christmas in Lisbon

We were in Portugal over Christmas. One thing we noticed (in the Algarve and Lisbon) is that the Portuguese love to hang Santa on the outside of their apartments. We saw one example dangling from a drainpipe and there were many, many more. The sun began to set as we emerged into Jardim Julio Castilho. The garden offers sweeping views over Lisbon and more brilliant tile work. We descended a steep staircase and passed a lovely piece of street art. Christmas lights danced on the front of a local church. We arrived at Santa Apolonia station and decided to take the Metro back to our apartment from there. When we first approached the station, we thought there was a fire inside because there were a lot of people milling around and there was smoke everywhere. It turns out that a chestnut vendor was responsible for both the smoke and the commotion. We bought a cone of roasted chestnuts to enjoy. It was our first time trying them and they were delicious! Roasted chestnuts are a great winter treat in both Portugal and throughout Europe. Our final stop was the supermarket (Pingo Doce) for some supplies. Want to know one thing we passed on? -- a side of bacalhau (salt cod). We could smell it as we walked into the store -- no thanks!

See Fado

Catching a Fado performance is a 'must do' in Lisbon. We took the tram back into the Alfama neighborhood. We had reservations at Sr. Fado which was recommended by Lisbon Apartments. The decor was lovely and featured a variety of stringed instruments hanging on the wall. Duarte and Ana Marina own the place and do double duty as chefs and entertainment. We enjoyed a supper of chicken and rice followed by a creme caramel for dessert. After everyone finished their meal, Duarte and Ana Marina took off their aprons and started to play. It turns out that we were the only visitors there that night -- several others canceled because of the snow storms in Europe at the time. We felt a bit like we were crashing a private gathering of friends and family as different people picked up an instrument to join in or were called upon to belt out a tune. Each musician drew new energy from the others and the effect was magical. It's a bit hard to capture here but I tried my best. Lisbon Apartments was spot on in recommending Sr. Fado -- it's an experience we won't soon forget.

Lisbon in winter: day trip to Sintra and Castelo dos Mouros

Day Trip to Sintra

Sintra is a 30 minute ride on the commuter rail outside of Lisbon. We hopped on the train and were whisked away to another time. We walked past Câmara Municipal de Sintra. We could see Palácio Nacional de Sintra in the distance. The path from the train station into town is dotted with provocative sculptures. We passed Parque da Liberdade and were surprised and delighted by the colorful animals. We saw the Moorish influenced architecture first hand. We took the public bus up a steep incline to Palácio da Pena, a whimsical castle on the hillside. We walked downhill to Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). The wind whistled in our ears as we walked along the ruined walls of the fortress. We were feeling ambitious so we decided to walk down the hill back to town on the forested trail that began at Castelo dos Mouros. We saw people fetching water at a shabby blue well along the way. The trail was well marked with red and yellow paint. Before we knew it, darkness had fallen on Sintra. We passed the same buildings again on our way back to the train station and they were outlined in Christmas lights to dramatic effect. We arrived back at Lisbon's Rossio station hungry from our day of exploration. Time to find some dinner.
Lisbon for Christmas: Palácio da Pena in Sintra

Dinner in Bairro Alto

Rossio Station in Lisbon is at the base of Bairro Alto so that's where we decided to find dinner upon our return from Sintra. We took a quick wander around after a steep climb up several flights of stairs. We indulged in Moroccan tagines accompanied by warm bread at Ali-A-Papa. We walked back to our apartment via the tony Baixa-Chiado neighborhood which was also bathed in holiday lights.

Explore Lisbon by Tram

Tram 28E is the perfect way to sample all that Lisbon has to offer. For 3.00 EUR, you can ride through the Alfama, Bairro Alto and beyond. We queued up to board near Praça Martim Moniz and managed to snag a prime standing space near the back window. We looked out at more tile buildings and locals going about their business. The trams run pretty regularly so we snapped a picture of another car approaching from behind. We saw an older lady disembark and walk right in front of the tram behind us without a second glance. The driver hit the brakes and somehow neither seemed fazed by this occurrence. We debarked in Bairro Alto and walked home again through Baixa-Chiado satisfied with our economical tour of the city on Christmas Eve.

Celebrate Christmas Eve Dinner in Lisbon

In Portugal, the traditional Christmas dinner takes place on Christmas Eve. Most people spend time at home with family, but select restaurants are open. We dined at Hotel Inspira. We were treated to four gourmet courses including chestnut and pumpkin soup (the highlight of the meal), a modern take on bacalhau com todos, and goat with potatoes. For dessert, we enjoyed a glass of port 'on the house' and three typical Portuguese sweets including a chickpea turnover, french toast, and pumpkin fritter. All were sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar -- Yum! The service was excellent and we definitely felt the Portuguese Christmas cheer.

Lisbon on Christmas Day

One of the challenges of being on vacation over Christmas is that many things are closed on Christmas Day. In Lisbon, we discovered that their aquarium (Oceanário de Lisboa) was actually open on December 25th in the afternoon. We took the Metro to Oriente Station and could already feel the 'under the sea' vibe in the station artwork. It was blustery, cold, and rainy that day. We could see the Oceanário in the distance and walked very briskly to get there and take refuge from the elements. A giant whale skeleton constructed entirely of crushed soda cans was an impressive display near the ticket office. We paid our admission and went inside. We were excited to see puffins for the first time. We saw a cool looking bird chilling out near the penguin tank. We saw Mama and Papa penguins watching over their brood from among the rocks. We saw the penguins swimming frantically around the tank during feeding time -- so cool! My favorite specimen was a giant octopus. It was amazing to see the soft head, tentacles, and his/her (I'm not sure how to tell the sex of an octopus...) graceful fluid movements from such a close vantage point. We finished our tour of the Oceanário and made our way back to the train station. We were tempted to hop on the local skytram but decided against it given the bad weather. We were amused and slightly appalled that Vasco da Gama, one of the most revered figures in Portuguese history, had been reduced to the name of a shopping center in Lisbon.

Lisbon for Christmas: giant whale made from crushed soda cans at Oceanário de Lisboa

Day Trip from Lisbon to Belém

Another quintessential experience in Lisbon is taking a day trip to Belém. The sun was shining so we hopped on Tram 15 at Praça do Comércio. We arrived in Belém and took a stroll around since the sun was shining. We passed Praça Afonso de Albuquerque. We walked along the Tagus River and caught a glimpse of the beautiful 25 de Abril bridge. We soon spotted the Monument to the Discoveries with Prince Henry the Navigator at the helm. The monument commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. We paid a small entrance fee and climbed up the inside of the monument to enjoy panoramic views of Belém and the surrounding area.

We could see the Torre de Belém in the distance. I liked the view of Prince Henry from above looking out over the water. The plaza in front of the Monument to the Discoveries is also impressive when viewed from above. We continued along the river to the Torre de Belém which was built in the 16th century for both defense and as a symbolic gateway to Lisbon. We walked into town and detoured into the grounds of the Centro Cultural de Belém. We found a 'house' sculpted entirely from cork as a concept piece. Of course, we had to walk inside. Again, good things come in threes. This time, we saw three golden retrievers lounging on the grounds of the Cultural Center.
Lisbon in winter: Torre de Belém

Our next stop was the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a fine example of Manueline architecture. On Sunday mornings, entrance to the cloister is free. We took a walk around the ground level gardens and 2nd story. Sunday services were being held so entrance into the church itself was limited. We waited our turn and went in to see the final resting place of Vasco da Gama.

Our next stop was of the tastier variety. We stopped at Pasteis de Belém to try the famous egg custard tarts. We enjoyed our treat while steeping in the neighborhood views. To be honest, I liked the pasteis de nata from Quinta do Caracol in the Algarve (served with breakfast) and Casa Brasileira better but it was fun to try the famous pastry warm out of the oven.

We ate lunch at Queijadas de Belém, a local cafe. We enjoyed the dish of the day (turkey with rice and salad) and a glass of wine on the cheap. It's a nice economical option for lunch and the service was very good.

We passed the Palácio Nacional de Belém, the official residence of the president of Portugal. We even witnessed the changing of the guard. We decided to check out the National Coach Museum. We got there at 2:02 pm so we just missed out on the free Sunday morning museum entrance policy (runs from 10 am - 2 pm). It was worth the entrance fee though. We were transported in time to the days when royalty and other dignitaries bounced down the road on ornate horse-drawn coaches. The museum itself also had an impressive interior. As we were walking along the second story, I noticed that there were faces in the wallpaper on the ceiling. I'm not sure who they were, but I found it to be a little creepy. The museum also had the coach on display in which the king and his eldest heir were shot and assassinated in Lisbon on 1908. You can see the bullet holes in the carriage door.
Lisbon for Christmas: National Coach Museum at Palácio Nacional de Belém
Our final stop in Belém was the Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha). We especially enjoyed the maps and artifacts from the Age of Discovery. There was a section of the museum dedicated to royal barges and other seafaring transportation. I liked the colorful boat on display.

We took the tram back to Lisbon and decided to head to Parque Eduardo VII. After a steep uphill climb from Praça do Marquês de Pombal, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the park and bay. We had walked a long way exploring Belém and beyond (more than 5 miles), so we decided to head back to our apartment to eat the last of the pasteis de Belém that we bought. This time, we made sure to try them the proper way -- drenched in cinnamon and sugar.

Lisbon’s Elevadors

On our last day in Lisbon, we realized that we hadn't taken some of the modes of transportation for which the city is famous. We set out to correct that by taking Elevador da Glória from Rossio to Bairro Alto. The funicular covers a pretty steep track. It's a rather expensive ride (€2.90) for about a 2 minute trip up the hill. We walked around the park at the top of the hill.

We reflected on our trip while enjoying sweeping views. We walked back down the hill following the same track at the elevador. Displays of street art line the path. Even the local stray kitties seemed to be appraising the art.

Our next stop was Elevador Santa Justa. Tourists apparently come out of the woodwork after Christmas in Lisbon. The queue was simply too long to justify the ride. I took a picture but we decided to forgo the trip up in the interest of time.

We wound our way through the streets of the Baixa to the waterfront past buildings still decked out in holiday decorations. We also passed some cool modern art sculptures along the way. On a whim, we stopped into Sommer for lunch. The service was excellent and we enjoyed two very healthy and creatively prepared salads -- something we'd been missing a bit on this winter trip to Portugal. Our next stop was Ascensor da Bica. We rode up the hill again to Bairro Alto. Why? Because it's fun. We walked through Bairro Alto toward Jardim da Estrela. We passed a beautiful sky blue building along the way. We also passed the Portuguese Parliament Building which features a gorgeous (and inaccessible) garden in the back. We stopped to admire Basilica da Estrela and then walked across the street into the park. There was a lovely duck pond so we sat for a while watching the birds and reflecting on our trip.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport. We hopped on the infamous Tram 28E one last time and returned to our apartment to pick up our luggage and say goodbye to Portugal. We had a fantastic time and hope we'll be able to visit again soon!

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: Give Yourself the Gift of Lisbon for Christmas
Give Yourself the Gift of Lisbon for Christmas
Discover Lisbon for Christmas. Visit Lisbon in December on a Christmas trip to Europe. Explore things to do in Lisbon in December. Experience Portugal in winter by spending Christmas in Lisbon.
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog
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