I recently spent some time in Portugal and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a few days in the capital, Lisbon. It happens to be a very up-and-coming city and only has a short amount of time on the “hidden gems” list before it becomes inundated with mass travelers. Lisbon has a rich history and a fun mix of museums, historic buildings, excellent food, and legendary nightlife. Although it’s the most populous city in Portugal it has that gritty, undiscovered feeling that gives it tons of character.
While there I took advantage of a free walking tour (which are almost always excellent in any city, though not reliably accessible) and was so pleasantly surprised. To give you a picture of the type of tourists visiting I took note of the places where each of the individuals in our group were from. We made friends from, Holland, Australia, Ireland, Venezuela, South Korea, Canada, and Hawaii.
Sightseeing and Attractions
Love it or leave it?
Praça do Comércio – Lisbon’s largest and most emblematic plaza located on the edge of the Tagus estuary. It feels like you are at the gates to Lisbon, ships coming in from around the world would arrive here and Portuguese explorers would head out to the unknown from this port. The massive and dashing statue of King José I dominates the square while the Arco da Rua Augusta secures the Plaza. It is also so flat! You can wheel as fast as your heart delights here and when you tire, sit outside at a café and enjoy the people watching.
Discoveries Monument – This monument was inaugurated on the 500-year anniversary of the death of Henry the navigator. It’s an excellent representation of Portugal’s reputation as masters of the sea in the age of discovery. Inside it hosts small temporary exhibitions and has an elevator going up to the top where there is a breathtaking view of the Atlantic. It comes equipped with a beautiful view, flat and spacious landscaping, and a few excellent cafés if you feel peckish.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – This 500-year-old former monastery began construction in the early 16th century and is an example of Manueline architecture (Portuguese Gothic). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes some rotating exhibits, history of the building, and occasionally local musicians. Enter via the south entrance and employees will guide you towards the lifts – fully ADA accessible, including bathrooms! Don’t forget to ask for that disability discount!
Principe Real Gardens – A charming place to relax, get some pictures, and really take in the laid-back vibe of Lisbon. The centuries old cedar tree, which has a diameter of over 20 meters, provides much-needed shade in those summer months. To get the full experience come on a Saturday and enjoy the local organic farmers market. There are plenty of benches to stop and rest, have a picnic, or play chess with some of the locals. If you feel up for it head just down the hill to Praça das Flores. It is quaint square off the beaten path where locals tend to congregate. Not all businesses are accessible, but it has the variety of inviting outdoor cafés and restaurants.
Jardim Botanico – This 10 acre botanical garden is a sweet little respite from the busyness of your day. Although it is showing a few signs of neglect it still hosts over 18,000 species of vegetation from all over the world. Most of them clearly labeled! The garden sits right in the heart the Real districts but feels hidden because it’s almost invisible to the surrounding streets.
See a Fado show – Lisbon is particularly proud of their local music, Fado. Some think that Fado came from the songs of the Muslim people, strongly nostalgic and melancholic, others believe it’s the tales of medieval Portuguese troubadours singing about friends, deep love, and lots of cursing. There are a few other theories of thought on Fado’s origin but we can all agree that the most recurring themes are about love and love of the city – “saudade.” Make reservations in Alfama but make sure to ask if they have an accessible entrance when you book. Not all of them will, but you will find excellent Fado all over the city. Order that full bottle of wine, sit back and relax, and remember – no talking during the performance.
Timeout Market – Food, glorious food! This exquisite food market is relatively new to Lisbon but in the last year it received 3.1 million visitors. Excellent restaurants and bars all under one roof. Something to consider, about half the tables are high top tables so if you see a low top make sure to snag it.
Castle of St. Jorge – Certainly one of the most high profile attractions in Lisbon; it sits high on a hill and the oldest parts of the castle date from the 2nd-century. The bus that goes up there is not wheelchair accessible, however, if you make your way up the hill on “foot” there is a lift fairly close to the castle. Looking back, if I were to do this again, I would pay for the 5-euro taxi ride that takes you to the top. The castle itself is old and was not designed with wheelchair users or other people with limited mobility in mind. The castle itself is not wholly accessible but there is a discount for people with disabilities. Although beautiful and historic, this castle may be more trouble than it’s worth. If you’re interested in an accessible lookout point in the area head towards Miradouro da Graca and you will be rewarded with a view of the entire city.
Arco Triunfal da Rua Augusta – It symbolizes the rebirth of a new Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of the city. This is a huge, monumental moment in history that you will no doubt here a lot about while you are in Lisbon. On the front, in Latin, is written “The Virtues of the Greatest”: the strength, resilience, and achievements of the Portuguese people. It boasts an excellent view from the ground but unfortunately they do not offer access to the top for those with mobility limitations. Boo!
Belem Tower – Lisbon’s most well known symbol was originally a lighthouse built in the 16th century. So you can imagine just how accessible it is…or is not. It’s essentially a four-story tower that contains many Gothic relics and artwork. Beautiful, but potentially a lot of work to get to the top.
Tips to save a few pennies
Send it back – Every meal will be served with bread and a dainty selection of olives – it’s not free! Even if you don’t touch it they will charge you for it. If you don’t want to nibble, just ask them politely to remove it when they bring it to the table.
Free attractions – Sundays are free for everyone! On any other day simply ask for a disability discount. Often this is free for you and one other person.
Uber – Taxis in the city can be expensive and will charge you for every bag (including wheelchair/walker/mobility device). Consider an alternative, especially if you’re going to the airport.
I have yet to figure out if the reason that many of these older European cities are built with cobblestones is for aesthetic purposes or for penny-pinching purposes but they do make getting around “wheely” difficult. A positive note is nearly all of the sidewalks have curb cuts which makes getting up on them much easier but once you’re there strap in for a little turbulence. Lisbon has the nickname of “the city of seven mountains.” It is very steep and has many hills. If you’re using a manual chair make sure to have firm wheels, and possibly a buddy that could give you a push.
A couple tips to make this easier
- Hire a tour guide that navigates the easiest route possible. Call or email ahead of time and occasionally the guide will adjust their normal tour to have no steps. This includes free walking tours.
- Take a taxi up to the top and then take your time going down by yourself.
In Portugal public offices and agencies must follow similar guidelines to the ADA, however private businesses are not required to do so. This generally means that most of the places you will visit may have limited awareness of disability needs. It is certainly not impossible and many larger businesses will easily accommodate any disability. Hotels and restaurants may require a little bit of preparation and effort to make sure that your needs are met.
I stayed at Pestana CR7 Lisboa, which is a collaboration between Cristiano Ronaldo and the Pestana hotel group. It had a fully accessible bathroom, elevator, just enough space for my wheelchair, and the best part is that it was very reasonably priced. It is also located in an excellent neighborhood, Baixa Pombalina. Five-minute walk to the waterfront, Chiado shopping area, Praça do Comércio, the tram line, and is located in a very flat part of the city.
Pro tip: The sights at Parque das Nações are accessible and Baixa’s and Belém neighborhoods are relatively flat. When looking for a place to stay, look here first.
A company that specializes in adapted tours. They have specialized equipment designed for wheelchairs, walkers, or those with low mobility. Reasonably priced and willing to accommodate anyone.
Have a hankering to sky dive? These guys can help make it happen. This Lisbon-based agency will help arrange transfers, overnight trips, outdoor activities, and a wide range of other things to do.
Need to rent a wheelchair, raised toilet seat, bed equipment, or a scooter while you are here? Check these guys out. It can make traveling a lot easier when you don’t have to carry it all with you.
Fair warning this is published in Portuguese. However, this is the website to the government organization that represents people with disabilities. You will find information about supplies, the law, a few guides, and helpful links when thinking about accommodations, transportation sights, re