While Lisbon is not one of the top destinations non-Europeans have on their list, it would certainly surprise many travelers with its history and variety of amazing museums and buildings. Since we wanted to escape the freezing winter in Germany, Lisbon was our choice for its mild temperature and Christmas spirit. There are so many things to see so I will just highlight my personal top suggestions.
Since we arrived late on a Friday evening we just had time to walk around for a bit, which is really nice in Lisbon at Christmas time because every street is decorated with holiday themes. Accidentally we ended up walking towards the “elevador do carmo”, probably the most different form of transportation in Lisbon. This elevator connects the city's lower part with the higher part over an altitude of 30 meters. Established in 1901 it offers room for 25 people per ride and was the perfect spot for us since it offers a nice outlook over the city.
When you are in Lisbon you can't miss out on the Castelo de Sao Jorge which lies on a 110 meter high hill on the east side of the city and thus is visible from pretty much everywhere. The castles's foundation was laid in 205 BC but in its long history it was renovated plenty of times. For the view alone Sao Jorge is worth a visit. From the plaza at the entrance it is possible to enjoy the view over the complete city center while looking to the south-west you will see the Tejo river and Cristo Rei monument on the other side.
One of my favorite places was the Belem area. Here at the side of the Tejo river you find a very enjoyable combination of parks, water and culture. I want to especially mention two sights in this district. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is probably the most memorable building from the time of King Manuel I. A wide park area surrounds the 300 meter long monastery which is also home to the marine and archeological museum. Since 1983 this sight as well as the next highlight, the Torre de Belem, are listed as UNESCO World heritage. The Torre de Belem is probably the most well-known building and landmark of Lisbon. Originally it was a lighthouse and a stronghold to defend the city. In 1515 the tower was built on a small island with a counterpart on the other side of the river for the best possible protection. But over the years the shore was moved and now this landmark is a part of the mainland.
Certainly there are more sites to visit in Lisbon but these are my personal highlights but you should not miss out on the old city Alfama, the Rossio and the spectacular museums.
If you want to have a night out and you would like the Lisbon experience then there is just one place to go: the Bairro Alto. You can find some very nice restaurants with higher prices but also plenty of traditional diners for the budget traveler. After dinner head to the bar area where everybody is chatting in drinking out on the streets. First I thought maybe all the places are full so you have to get in a queue to get in. But then I noticed that all the people were holding plastic cups and the bars inside were completely deserted. I found out that this is the area for pre-drinks and since the bars are too hot inside, beverages are offered in plastic cups so people can take them outside. So the best thing to do is grab a beer and wander through the crowds and soak in the atmosphere and see where the night takes you. In case you want to go dancing you can just follow the crowd and it is highly likely you will find a club of your taste.
I also highly recommend to leave the city for a day and visit Sintra. Several bus companies offer trips but I would suggest to hire a car to have more flexibility. The amazing thing in Sintra is that despite being a small town it offers two completely different castle experiences. On the one side you will find the Castelo dos Mouros which is a simple medieval castle, constructed in the 8th century. Even though it was a victim to several earthquakes and destruction attempts it remains in a good shape. The counterpart is the colorful Palacio Nacional de Pena the summer residence of the royalties. Because of its shape, colors and good condition its nickname is the Portuguese Neuschwanstein, comparing it to the fairytale castle in the Bavarian Alps. You can easily spend a day exploring these two palaces. If there is time head out to the most westerly point in Europe but in my opinion this trip is just worth it if you have a look at the cliffs at the Boca do Inferno as well.