Why Lisbon in winter is a perfect destination
If you’re looking for the perfect destination to break up the monotony of winter, Lisbon in Portugal hits the mark.
Lisbon lies in the extreme southwest of mainland Europe, in hills that face south. Winters here are mild, and the light is worth writing home about. The sunlight in Lisbon is full-bodied and blazing, even in the middle of winter.
By visiting Lisbon in winter you’ll also avoid the crowds that throng to southern Portugal in the summer. You can explore the sights of this beautiful and historic city in peace and quiet, and have the iconic viewpoints all to yourself.
Lisbon’s transport network includes traditional yellow trams, funicular railways, and even historic outdoor elevators. They all have a role to play in navigating the city’s narrow and hilly cobbled streets.
So what is there to do in Lisbon during the winter?
Day trip to Sintra
The splendid town of Sintra sits nestled in the hills west of Lisbon and is only a 40-minute train ride away from the capital. This town is truly gorgeous and has been popular with travelers since the romantic poet Lord Byron made his way through the Iberian peninsula.
The beauty of visiting Sintra during the winter months is that the place isn’t crowded with tourists.
Quinta da Regaleira
It can be hard to take in the ingenious splendor of Quinta da Regaleira when there’s no space to climb the turrets, or you have to wait behind 15 people before entering the grotto. Or when you can’t hear the fairy glade waterfall above the noise of people shouting to their friends, and can’t take a photo of the Well of Initiation without capturing others taking selfies. It’s far better to explore this magical place in the low season, when you can discover it at a leisurely pace. Without the peak season crowds, you can discover Quinta da Regaleira as it was meant to be appreciated – and participate in the childlike wonder it evokes in visitors as you explore its fairytale landscape.
This iconic hilltop palace is another dreamscape in Sintra, and an unmissable sight in the truest sense of the word. Perched on one of the highest peaks, the colorful Pena Palace is visible for miles around, and can be seen from the train when approaching from Lisbon. At Pena Palace the feeling of wonder and spirit of discovery comes from the building itself rather than the landscaping, as at Quinta da Regaleira.
The strong sunlight in Portugal means you can enjoy the vivid colors of Pena Palace just as much in the winter as in the summer. The magnificent views out over the coast beyond are just as awesome during winter, thanks to the perfectly clear light and air.
The only downside to winter in Sintra is that it can get chilly. Particularly up in the hills, taking in the views from Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors, the position is exposed and prone to cold winds. However this is easy enough to deal with as long as you’ve remembered to bring layers and a warm coat. The seaward-facing sides are the most exposed so makes sense to just limit your time there on a windy day.
Sintra’s town center lies downhill from most of the major sights. It offers cafes and restaurants where you can warm up and enjoy good food and the local ambiance.
The old town and castle
Lisbon itself offers plenty of attractions to fill your time on a winter break. The cobbled streets of the old town around the Castelo de São Jorge are wonderful to explore in any season. In winter you can explore the characterful streets of the Mouraria (old Moorish quarter) and the Alfama (historic castle district) at your leisure. Handfuls of travelers make their way up and down the main thoroughfare of Rua de São Tomé throughout the day and evening, so you won’t be alone.
Portas do Sol
Portas do Sol offers a beautiful view over the city and the sea. It’s fantastic at any time of year, but really comes into its own in winter. It’s a gathering point for travelers in Lisbon, and has highly picturesque surroundings. As its name suggests, Portas do Sol is a suntrap. Even in midwinter, the sunlight is strong enough here for the weather to feel balmy and warm. You can enjoy sitting in the beautiful garden of Miradouro de Santa Luzia nearby, with bougainvillea and roses.
Pastéis de Nata
The iconic Portuguese pastry is especially tasty as a warm snack in cold weather. Tuck into delicious and authentic pastéis de nata at any of the bakeries around the city, such as Pastelaria Casa Brasileira near Rossio station. You can opt to eat in or take away.
Ruined convents, Christmas markets, historic trams and more…
There’s plenty more to enjoy in Lisbon in winter. Around Rossio station there’s a Christmas market, and the impressive Convento do Carmo on the hill. It’s an evocative ruined convent and accessed by a historic elevator, the Elevador de Santa Justa. Trains to Sintra run from Rossio station.
The Elevador da Bica is perhaps Lisbon’s most famous and iconic sight. It’s a funicular railway that runs an old tram car up and down a very steep street. One of the interesting things about the Elevador da Bica is that it’s surrounded by fantastically hilly streets that are all equally steep. There’s a good cocktail bar near the end of the funicular line, on the road below.
If you’re thinking of a short getaway this winter, Lisbon, with its castles, bakeries, markets, and sunshine, could be just what you’ve been looking for.