When it comes to summer getaway spots, Portugal is Europe’s best-kept secret. The tiny nation rarely receives the limelight that the likes of Italian Riviera towns and Greek isles are accustomed to. But one traveler’s oversight is your dream vacation. Beaches, al fresco dining and dreamy cityscapes are abundant almost every which way you look here (with the exception being the beaches — those are only abundant when you look toward the ocean). There’s no wrong way to spend a day exploring this charming summer retreat, but all the same, here are a few of our favorites to keep an eye out for the next time you visit.
Just 20 miles west of Lisbon lies the resort town of Estoril — which makes for an enchanting day trip well worth your while. This town boasts pristine beaches (Praia do Tamariz is the unofficial favorite), perfect for lying out and soaking up some sun. Directly next to Praia do Tamariz is the other major draw of Estoril: the casino.
As one of Europe’s largest, it has a long history of serving as a cultural hub for the continent; Ian Fleming was actually inspired to write his first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” when he visited! While you might forsake the tuxedo for a bathing suit, it’s hard not to say “shaken, not stirred” when ordering drinks.
For another cool afternoon adventure, “The Cold Greenhouse” makes for a delightful visit. Located within Eduardo VII Park in the city center, this oasis has continued to morph into its current iteration since the start of the 20th century, and now includes the neighboring “Hot Greenhouse” (home to cacti galore) and “Sweet Greenhouse” (named after the many tropical fruits it houses).
Legions of rare, globe-spanning plants adorn these lush biomes, making for an enchanting opportunity to explore the scope of the plant kingdom in one centralized place. Come for the arborescent ferns from Tasmania, stay for a bite to eat at the charming café overlooking the water.
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
When it comes to cooling off after a beach day — or a city stroll or an al fresco brunch — few options rival the likes of a museum. And, when it comes to Lisbon’s museums, few match the curated grandeur of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.
Originally the lifelong private collection of one oil tycoon, Mr. Calouste Gulbenkian ultimately willed his approximately 6,000 pieces of priceless art, sculptures and craftwork to the city of Lisbon.
Today, you can wander the different chapters of his collection — Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Islamic, Armenian, Far Eastern and Western art — as well as the surrounding garden (also named after Gulbenkian).
Praça do Comércio
Plazas are a uniquely metropolitan ordeal — a manifestation of community through civic planning. Each town square brings their own flavor, their own pizzazz, to the task; few in the world can match the exquisite ambiance of the Praça do Comércio.
Originally constructed in the late 1800s to serve as the symbolic entrance to Lisbon from the faraway ports of Brazil, India and Southeast Asia, today it serves as an awe-inspiring hangout spot. No matter the time of day, it’s a stunning experience: Come early and enjoy a morning picnic with a hearty helping of pastel de belém pastries (delicious Portuguese custard tarts).
Come for a midday aperitif of Portugal’s famous port wine (a sweet red wine, often served with dessert — the perfect excuse to treat yourself). Or come for dinner, where any of the fine dining establishments lining the perimeter can easily serve as the setting for an enchanting evening.
No matter the time of day, the view will be the star of the show: The cool waters of the Tagus River stretch out beyond the harbor, serenading you with the music of swells on the shore.
Festas Dos Santos Populares
For those who visit Lisbon in the first half of June, you’re in for a special treat: The largest festival and carnival of the year is the “Popular Saints Festival,” stretching across the feast days of St. Peter, St. John and (most importantly) St. Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon.
For 14 days, all of Lisbon is adorned in streamers and tinsel while open-air dances, spontaneous barbecues and lively parades are the norm. If there’s one day you should be certain you’re present for, it’s June 12 — when the Lisbon carnival parade takes place.
Each city district competes for various accolades (i.e., best decorations, best choreography) along a 1-kilometer route. Just about all of Lisbon comes out to witness, making it an all-night party you aren’t likely to forget anytime soon.