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Four Hours in Lisbon

The Portuguese capital is off-limits to US tourists, but essential travelers can still hop a tram to take in the city’s charms

1. Mosteiro Sao Vicente de Fora 

Through at least Oct. 15, Lisbon and all of Portugal are under what the government calls “a state of contingency.” Arrivals are permitted from a number of countries, but will be subject to temperature screening at airports and ports. Those from outside those designated countries are only permitted to travel to Portugal for essential purposes and require proof of a negative COVID-19 test carried out 72 hours prior to departure. Further information is available at

Lisbon isn’t large – counting suburbs, the population is only 600,000 – but the city’s center is hilly, and with crowds of visitors, social distancing gets harder.

Use public transport to save your feet – the metro is excellent but the trams are best, taking you to Belem (your third stop), or from Baixa all the way to Campo de Ourique, passing through the historic districts of Graca and Alfama and making light of the hills (tram 28). If you are staying longer, the 24 hour Lisbon card offers discounts on attractions as well as covering your travels around the city for €19 ($22.50).

You can catch the 28 tram after your first stop, the Mosteiro Sao Vicente de Fora. Founded in 1147, this monastery houses the remains of several Portuguese kings, as well as beautiful frescoed rooms, chapels and galleries. It also has a rooftop with a stunning view over the Tagus River and the city. Largo de Sao Vicente; admission €5 ($6).

2. Praco do Comercio 

Every visitor to Lisbon heads for the Praco do Comercio (Commerce Square). Built after the earthquake and flood of 1755 that devastated the city, it has been renovated over the past decade so that the yellow stucco buildings and heroic statues can stand proud against the onslaught of tourists and selfie sticks. Running north is the pedestrianized Rua Augusta with its sidewalk cafes, old world shops and luxury stores.

You can pick up the metro here, but for a more scenic route take the 15E tram west to Belem – a 15-minute ride with good views to the Tagus and along the waterfront. Before you do, stop for a drink under the arcade at Martinho da Arcada (Praca do Comercio 3), dating from 1782 and once the favorite haunt of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. Depending on the time of day, or your constitution, have a coffee or a Ginjinha – the local cherry brandy, served chilled.

3. Belem

You could spend four hours in Belem alone, taking in attractions such as the 16th-century Belem Tower, the outstanding UNESCO site of the Jeronimos Monastery, and the Discoveries Monument, built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, promoter of the Discoveries. Take time to check out the art in the Museu Colecao Berardo (open 10:00 AM – 6:30 PM, but COVID hours may vary; free entry; Exhibitions change regularly, but the permanent collection includes works by Bacon, Duchamp, Miro, Mondrian, Picasso and Warhol.

4. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Lisbon has more than 50 museums, and most have earned the Clean & Safe seal from Tourismo de Portugal. But one of the best of them is the Nacional Museum, easily reached by hopping off one of the trams that run between Belem and the city center. Housed in a 17th-century palace overlooking the modern container harbor, its paintings, sculptures, gold and jewelry span the 12th to 19th centuries and include Portuguese, European, African and Oriental works.

Highlights are the Panels of Saint Vincent by Nuno Goncalves, and the Belem Monstrance, which dates to the early 16th century. Fashioned for King Manuel I, it is made from the gold brought by explorer Vasco da Gama from India. There is also a beautiful garden with a restaurant. Open Tues-Sun 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM; €6 ($7) or free with Lisbon card.

5. Mercado da Ribeira velha

Time to eat – and while Lisbon has thousands of great restaurants, you will be spoiled for choice at your final stop. Built in 1882, this market reopened as a foodie destination in 2014 with 24 restaurants, eight bars, shops and a music venue in the evening. The options go way beyond Portuguese cuisine, but be sure to make a point to try some local specialties – pasteis de bacalhau (salt cod fishcakes), Portuguese wines, and delicious desserts such as Fios de Ovos (angel hair).

There are also stores for buying gifts, including Arcadia for artisanal chocolates and Conserveira de Lisboa for colorful tins of sardines. Open 10:00 AM – 12:00 AM (2:00 AM Thurs-Sat).