This week’s Cities for Less post comes from James, whose travel blog the Portugalist focusses on Portugal. He is perfectly placed to deliver some wisdom on saving money in Lisbon as he shares his experience of living in Lisbon, the Algarve, and the North of Portugal. So let’s find out a little more about James.
A few years ago my girlfriend and I visited Lisbon for a weekend, fell in love with it, and then decided to move there for six months. We left to spend time living in a few other places and to travel around South East Asia, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves drawn back again.
What’s not to love about it? It’s beautiful, it’s warm, the food is great, and, by European standards, it’s incredibly affordable. I’m happy to be able to call it home and am passionate about helping others experience the best of what Lisbon has to offer.
Like most places, accommodation prices in Lisbon vary. From hostel dorms for less than €10 per night to luxury hotels for several hundred Euros per night, there are plenty of options to choose from.
If you’re really on a budget, a hostel is the way to go. Lisbon now has its fair share of boutique hostels, and many of these have money-saving extras like an affordable evening meal for around €10. Oasis Hostel is one example of a hostel that does this. Of course, there are plenty of non-boutique hostels offering a bed for even cheaper.
Hotelscombined.com is a helpful hotel comparison website that compares prices from all of the hotel booking websites (such as Expedia, Hotels.com, and Booking.com). It’s a great website for finding the absolute cheapest price a hotel is offering, luxury hotels included. Combine this with a discount code, or a cashback website like Topcashback, and you could save another 5-15% of the hotel booking cost.
There’s also no shortage of Airbnb in the city, both rooms and entire apartments. Apartments start at around €30-40 per night, with the average being somewhere around €65. (Anne: read my review of Airbnb if you have not used them before and want to know more.)
For those on a strict budget Couchsurfing (staying on someone else’s couch) is another option, although during the summer months most of the hosts are usually inundated with requests. As with Couchsurfing anywhere, you’ll have a much better chance of getting a couch if you’ve built up a good profile with reviews and do your best to reciprocate when you have a couch.
Most people arrive into Lisbon by air. As Easyjet has a base here, flights to Lisbon are usually frequent and affordable. If you have a bit more time to spend on your trip to Portugal, you could consider visiting another region of Portugal and then taking the train to Lisbon. Train travel in Portugal is extremely affordable; a single from the Algarve (Portugal’s main beach region) will cost as little as €10 if booked more than 7 days in advance.
If you’re thinking about doing this, you can use Skyscanner to compare the best flight deals to Portugal (as opposed to just Lisbon) and see where the cheapest place to fly to is.
Once you arrive in Lisbon, the cheapest way to get into Lisbon is by metro. The rechargeable card costs €0.50 and a single trip costs €1.40. The card can then be used for getting around the city on the buses and also on the ferry if you’re planning on visiting the Christo Rei statue across the river in Almada.
The best way to get around Lisbon – or any city really – is by walking. Lisbon is relatively small and getting around on foot is easily doable. The only thing you might struggle with is the hills, of which there are seven of them.
Climbing Lisbon’s seven hills means you’ll definitely work up a good appetite for our recommendations in the food and drink section. If you get too tired there are funiculars; trams to go up and down the hills.
You should try and ride in a Lisbon tram at least once during your trip. These old wooden trams are part of the furniture of Lisbon and a rickety ride across the city is one of the most fun ways to experience Lisbon.
The number 28 tram which goes through Alfama and Graca is one of the most scenic tram rides, and so is usually packed with tourists. Unfortunately, it often carries one or two pickpockets as well. If you decide to take this tram, be careful with your valuables.
Tickets for the trams can be purchased on board, but at €2.85 this is the most expensive way to buy your ticket. If you use your metro card (available for €0.50 from any metro station including the airport) a single trip will cost €1.40. This can also be used on the funiculars and to cross over to the other side of the river on the ferry.
With the exception of a few airport drivers, taxis in Lisbon are very affordable. If you’re in a group of 4, it may even be cheaper to travel by taxi than by tram. Uber is also available in Lisbon. It’s generally not that much cheaper than a taxi but, depending on the time of day or location, it can be more convenient.
Lisbon’s taxi drivers have protested the arrival of Uber, and there is an ongoing rivalry between Uber drivers and traditional taxi drivers so if you decide to use Uber, be safe. For example: don’t book a taxi in front of a traditional taxi driver as you might find yourself in a heated argument between the two drivers.
Food & Drink
Portugal runs on coffee, and you’ll never be more than a few meters from a coffee shop anywhere in Lisbon. A bica (espresso) will cost an average of €0.85, although it’s possible to get them for as little as €0.50 outside of the touristy areas.
As well as that essential caffeine kick, a bica is also an excuse to have a pastel de nata. This is one of Portugal’s most famous gifts to the world: the custard tart.
Every café in Lisbon will serve these, but the quality will vary. For the best, you’ll need to plan a pilgrimage to either Pasteis de Belem (the original café), Aloma, or Manteigaria. Expect to pay between €0.75 and €1 per pastel in one of these cafes.
Other essential dishes to try include Bacalhau (salted cod), sardines (seasonal), Caldo Verde (kale soup), Cataplana à Alentejana (a pork and clams stew), and Frango Assado (piri-piri chicken). Then there are all of the fish and seafood dishes, which are mostly grilled and are too numerous to list.
British TV chef Rick Stein recently did a TV show about Lisbon’s food scene, and we’ve listed all of the places he visited. One of these, the Time Out food hall in the Mercado da Ribeira market, is an absolute must for foodies. Here, you’ll find stalls from the best restaurants in the city including Sea Me (famous for seafood), Confraria (famous for sushi), and Arcádia (famous for chocolates). Prices are more expensive than average, but it’s a good opportunity to sample an expensive restaurant before going in and ordering a full meal.
Street food as a concept doesn’t really exist in Portugal. Instead, there is a big café culture and you’ll find the best value for money inside the cafes that serve food. A bifana (pork sandwich) will typically set you back between €1.50 and €2, a small beer (imperial) should be less than a Euro, and you’ll often get a main meal for somewhere between €5 and €7.
Things to do
Personally, I like to start every new city with a walking tour as it helps you to get your bearings. There are several free walking tours in Lisbon, including one by Sandemans, and these tend to be better than the paid tours as the guide is paid in tips (and so has to be good). At the end, you tip your tour guide what you think it was worth (most people tip between €5 and €10).
If you’re visiting Lisbon over a weekend, I would recommend leaving attractions like the Explorer’s Tower, the Belem Tower, and Jeronimo’s Monastery until Sunday when they’re free. It’s also worth pointing out that most museums are closed on a Monday, so be sure to factor that into your itinerary.
Lisbon’s Bairro Alto is the city’s going out area. Here, amongst a maze of streets, are hundreds of little bars that serve Caipirinhas for as little as €2 (although it’s often worth paying a Euro or two more) and pints of beer for as little as €1 (Anne: OMG I am so in. I discovered Caipirinhas in Brazil and LOVE them!). Drinks are served in a plastic cup, allowing you to walk around outside and enjoy the atmosphere. As the night wears on, the party will start to move down the hill towards Cais do Sodré. Most of the city’s nightclubs are located here and, if you’re young enough to keep going, this is your next destination. Alternatively you can call it a night, but not without first grabbing a bifana
Hearing Fado (Portugal’s soul music) is another experience not to be missed and the best place to experience this is the city’s old town in Alfama. While there are a lot of ‘meal and a fado show’ deals on offer, the cheapest and most authentic way to experience it is to head into one of the many bars in Alfama.
The best splurge money can buy in Lisbon is probably a trip to one of the city’s many cervejaria’s (seafood restaurants) such as Cervejaria Ramiro or Cervejaria Baleal. Enjoy seafood delicacies like lobster and tiger prawns, washed down with a bottle of one of Portugal’s best white wines. Traditionally, it’s typical to end the meal with a Prego; a steak and mustard sandwich. I don’t know where this tradition came from, but it’s a lot of fun.