The Portuguese capital of Lisbon has become something of a must-visit weekend break destination. And with good weather year-round, a buzzy nightlife scene around Pink Street and affordable flights, it’s easy to see why.
But the draw of people to the city should extend beyond its relaxed vibe. In fact, there are a wealth of adventure activities – from surfing and SUP, to caving and coasteering – both in Lisbon and short distances from downtown. So whether you’re looking for a way to get your heart rate pulsing for an afternoon, or have the time to plan a longer excursion, there is something on offer for all interests.
1. Ride the waves of Europe’s only world surfing reserve
The majority of Portugal’s coastline is west-facing, and with that comes some serious waves courtesy of the Atlantic ocean. While the country is home to iconic spots that even non-surfers will have heard of (such as the world famous waves of Nazare), it is the coastal town of Ericeira where you should head for year-round fun.
A 45-minute drive from the centre of Lisbon, the town is a mecca for surfers (both locally and internationally), and has numerous different spots for all abilities. “Foz Do Lizandro is a great spot for beginners,” says Tomás Valente, whose company Lisbon Surf Connection offers lessons and surf tours from the capital.
But if you’re something of an experienced surfer, he recommends heading a bit further up the coast to the small settlement of Ribamar. Here you’ll find one of his favourite spots, Coxos (a right-hand point break), as well as one of the toughest around, Cave (a right-wave breaking in shallow reef). Both don’t have sand beaches, so tend to attract serious surfers only.
Once you’ve had your fun, be sure to head up into Ribamar for a bowl of rice and seafood amongst the fishermen and surfers at local hangout Pescador.
2. Go off-roading in Sintra-Cascais natural park
While downtown Lisbon can sometimes seem like a maze of side streets, tile-lined townhouses and leg-aching hills (particularly in the area of Alfama), you’re never more than a 45-minute journey by car from the region’s amazing natural habitat.
Head west of the city in the direction of the medieval town Sintra and you’ll soon find yourself deep in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. Swerve the coach loads of tourists that flock to see the numerous castles that populate the region and opt for exploring its network of off-the-beaten-path fire roads instead.
But before you think of undertaking this in your trusty hire car, be warned: “you need a license to do so, and there are only three companies that have them,” explains Rui Oliveira, who is a 4x4 driver for Naturway, one of the tour operators with a license. Plus, given the terrain – a mixture of deep ruts, deep puddles and bone-shaking stretches of gravel – it’s worth jumping in a trusty Land Rover just to guarantee getting your deposit back on your airport-hire hatchback.
3. Abseil into a network of caves
While the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park lies less than an hour to the west of Lisbon, venture a similar distance to the south, across the Tagus river to the Setúbal peninsula, and you’ll discover the Arrábida Natural Park – a lush section of forest that stretches from the small fishing town of Sesimbra to Setúbal. A hub of adventure possibilities both above and below ground, it is where you can find one of the most adrenaline-pumping experiences Lisbon has to offer.
“In this area there is a huge network of caves,” reveals Vertente Natural’s António Rugsa. “The longest tunnel is 2.4km, but there are smaller circular routes too.” The catch – there’s the small matter of abseiling into the caves to reach their entrances. Fortunately, Vertente Natural offers instructed tours from Cabo Espichel, meaning all you have to do is follow the trained speleologists’ leads (and, if you aren’t a fan of heights, don’t look down…).
The abseils range from 45m-100m depending on experience (it’s worth bearing in mind that you also have to ascend back up the same rope after a few hours caving), but once your feet are securely back on terra firma, it’s time to crawl, wedge and squeeze yourself through some of the narrow subterranean passages. Not for the faint-hearted (or claustrophobic), it’s certainly one of Lisbon’s more hidden adventures.
4. Experience walking with dinosaurs
Prefer things above ground? Or maybe you want to tag on a dinosaur-shaped diversion after your caving experience? Well, you’re in luck. A stone’s throw from the Cabo Espichel caving site is the start of the Maravilhas do Cabo hiking route – a 5km loop where the pensioners you passed in the car park aren't the oldest thing on the trail.
Although not the hardest of hikes – the dusty track is wide enough for cars and can be done in any pair of shoes that you’ve managed to squeeze into your hand luggage – it’s the features along the route that will make it last long in the memory.
On reaching the cliff face, you’re presented with a site straight out of Jurassic Park, as a row of dinosaur footprints stretch their way between the shrubbery on the limestone. But don’t just look from afar. Leave the well-trodden path and clamber down to see the 150-120 million year old imprints up close.
Back on the trail, the loop continues along the craggy cliff face before turning back inland and through the dense undergrowth to the starting point.
5. Mountain bike Lisbon's hidden trails
Like most major European hubs, Lisbon’s streets are festooned with hire bikes. While there is a certain novelty to exploring a new city on two wheels, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re still a tourist, just with a bike in tow.
Fortunately, there’s an option if you fancied getting some serious cycling on though. Monsanto Park in the city’s western reaches is the place to head as there's something on offer for everyone. “The nice thing about it is that it’s great for all sorts of cycling – be it mountain biking, gravel, road or just leisure,” says Bike Iberia’s Tania Caldas. “There are MTB trails for all levels and it’s easy to do 20-30km without going over the same ground."
Bike Iberia’s downtown shop has a selection of hardtail, full-suspension and even e-MTBs available that will gobble up the area’s singletrack, punchy climbs and short, sharp descents. What’s more, with the entrance to the park an easy 6km spin along roads and bike lanes from downtown, you’ll be suitably warmed up when you arrive.
6. Go coasteering in Arrábida natural park
Clambering up a cliff face, plunging into the sea, swimming to the next rock and repeating it all again is only the sort of thing a British person could think off – hence why coasteering originated in Pembrokeshire. But, without realising it, the people of Portugal had cottoned onto the idea too.
“Although we had our own name for it to begin with, we started calling it coasteering once we realised people were already doing it in the UK,” explains Vertente Natural’s António Rugsa. The company now has four different courses that run along the coastline from its Sesimbra hub. Each vary in difficulty (from beginner to experienced) but all offer an array of steep leaps, climbs, zip wires and caves to explore.
While it is an activity that can be done year-round thanks to the mild sea temperature – which doesn’t tend to drop lower than 15°C, even in the depths of winter – courses require a minimum of eight people so generally only run in spring and summer.
7. Spot dolphins in Setúbal
While the port town of Setúbal 45-minutes south of Lisbon is famous for one of its exports (a young Jose Mourinho called the area home and even has a road named after him), it’s a few of its current residents that will make any visit a special one (sorry).
Out in the Sado Estuary, between the Setúbal and Troia peninsulas, lives a 27-strong pod of bottlenose dolphins. The only group to reside in a river in mainland Europe (and a fraction of the size of those found in the Moray Firth in Scotland and the Shannon in Ireland), they live in the estuary year-round because of its rich biodiversity.
The best way to see them is by joining a boat tour, and Vertigem Azul is one of the most knowledgeable operators around, having been observing the dolphins since 1998. “We have around a 97% of success in the summer,” says the company’s co-founder, Maria João Fonseca. But that’s not to say it can’t find them in the winter (as this writer can attest to) – it’s just they don’t run tours as frequently because there isn’t the demand. Plus, with the crew’s amazing ability to identify each dolphin from their fin alone, you know you’re in good hands and have a high chance of success.
8. Explore the caves of the Sado estuary by kayak
If you’re looking for a way of escaping the heat in the city come summer, then there aren’t many better places to head to than the sea. But rather than cram yourself onto a beach with everyone else, why not go and discover a cove of your own by kayak?
A 45-minute journey south of the downtown area by car, it’s possible to pick up a vessel for the day from Vertente Natural (€40 for a double) and head out onto the open seas. Hugging the coast in an easterly direction, you’ll soon enter Arrábia natural park’s protected marine life area – a conservation zone that is home to countless rare species of wild - as well as plantlife that stretches all the way to Setúbal.
Enjoy delving into the countless caves that hug the coastline and, once you’ve finished exploring, find yourself an solitary stretch of untouched sand to relax on.
9. Try sea SUP 20 minutes from the centre
If your only experience of stand-up paddleboarding is on a calm canal or the still waters of a harbour in the UK, then it’s time to take things up a notch, courtesy of a class with Lisbon Surf Connection. Its tutorials take place a short train ride from the city’s downtown in the suburb of Caxais – home to a golden beach that oozes a Californian vibe.
After familiarising yourself with the equipment, it’s time to hit the water (something you’ll be doing a lot at first). The addition of waves into the equation throws you off-balance at every turn, while their unpredictability can easily catch you off guard – especially when side on or with your face to the shore.
“I find this harder than surfing,” explains Lisbon Surf Connection co-founder and teacher for the day António Ribeiro, who has been riding the waves since he was eight years old.
Once mastered though (well, as much as you can in an hour), he recommends venturing further afield, with the Sado estuary and the bright blue coastline and caves of Arrábida natural park mentioned above fit for exploration by paddleboard.
10. Discover your own private beach
If the sun is shining, which is likely year-round Lisbon, and all of the adventures listed here have got you craving a beach day, it’s likely you’ll want to find one that isn’t your standard sunbathing spot.
Enter the Troia peninsula. Located opposite Setúbal and reachable by a short ferry across the Sado estuary, it is home to a 60km stretch of beach that runs all the way Sines – in fact, a marathon here is run in its entirety on the sand if you’re looking to stretch the legs during a summer visit.
“While the area where the ferry lands is very busy, if you just keep walking south, you’ll soon find a stretch of beach all to yourself,” says Vertigem Azul’s Maria João Fonseca. And with its white sand and shallow sea, you could be forgiven for feeling like you’re in the Caribbean, rather than sat facing the Atlantic Ocean.
Sure, it’s a bit more effort than squeezing yourself onto a train and making the short journey along the Tagus from the centre of Lisbon, but the reward is more than worth it.
WHERE TO STAY
After a long day of adventuring, you want somewhere relaxing to retire to, and AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado is it. A boutique hotel without the hang-ups, the spot is a calming oasis as soon as you enter. The extras are a nice added touch too – with a slice of chocolate cake waiting in the bedroom and a complimentary drink at the hotel’s on-site restaurant very welcome after an afternoon of exploring.
It’s also perfectly located in a central spot, meaning most of the city-based activities are just a short journey, while the Cais do Sodre train station and ferry port is a five minute walk from your bedroom. And, if you’re scratching your head looking for even more things to do, the hotel’s friendly concierge is on hand to offer up all sorts of advice – be that on walking tours of the city’s meandering streets or tastings of the local produce.
Praça do Município 21, 1100-365 Lisbon; almalusahotels.com/
EXTRA LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Eat like a local
Like most big cities, you have to know where to look if you want to avoid falling into a tourist trap when it comes to food. Surfer Tomás Valente’s recommendation? O Cardoso do Estrela de Ouro. The hard-to-find restaurant is jammed with locals at lunch and dinner time, and its servings of hearty traditional food (deep fried sprats and amazing stews) will turn you into a regular too. Cash only.
Get the most out of your hire bike
Given that no trip to Lisbon is complete without a sampling a custard tart from where it all started (Pasteis de Belem; 84-92 Rua de Belém), tag a pilgrimage there onto any day you hire a bike in the city. An 8km cycle path runs the entire way from downtown Lisbon along the riverfront to Belem, and it’s a much nicer way to get there than the bus – plus, you can reward yourself with an extra pastel for your efforts. Talk about a sweet ride.
Beat the crowds for panoramic views
While most visitors head in the direction of the Castelo de S. Jorge to get their panoramic pics of the city for Instagram, there’s a better (and free) alternative. As well as being a mouthful, Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte is the tallest point in Lisbon and provides amazing views across the Portuguese capital.
TAP Air Portugal is Portugal’s leading airline and a member of Star Alliance. As Europe's most frequent flyer from the UK to Portugal, TAP operates up to 77 direct weekly flights from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon and Porto.