Lisbon in December is a city of contrasts, from the busy last-minute Christmas shopping to almost-empty streets in the days that follow the holidays.
With two national holidays on the 1st and the 8th, and kids off school during the last two weeks of the month, Lisbon in December is all about celebration, shopping for gifts and deals, preparing for Christmas Eve dinner and New Year’s, and enjoying the not-so-cold weather (temperatures rarely drop under 9°C/48°F in Lisbon).
1. Stroll in the Baixa neighborhood to see the Christmas lights
Christmas is probably the only time of year that some Lisboetas don’t mind being stuck in traffic. Days are shorter in December which means it’s dark by 6 p.m. and the end-of-the-day commute home is made under Christmas lights. The Christmas decorations were lit at the end of November and will be turned on every evening until January 6th.
Christmas lights and decorations take over the streets from Marquês de Pombal, down Avenida da Liberdade to all the streets in Baixa. The favorite of kids and grownups, though, is the Christmas tree at Praça do Comércio.
2. Discover the Best Bolo Rei in the City
Bolo Rei (King Cake) is the official cake of Christmas in Portugal. Shaped like a crown, its consistency and flavor is more of a sweet bread than an actual cake. It’s baked with dry fruits, raisins, and some candied fruit. More candied fruit, large chunks of it, and powder sugar go on top. Traditionally, the person who got the slice with the fava bean had to buy or bake next year’s Bolo Rei. As food laws in the EU have changed over the years, it’s unlikely you’ll find an uncooked fava bean in your cake. However, if you do, keep up your end of the deal next year.
Lisboetas will swear that the best Bolo Rei in town is the one from Confeitaria Nacional. They sell it by the slice so taste it for yourself with a cup of tea or coffee while admiring the original and quite spectacular 1800s interior décor.
3. Find Original Gifts at Christmas Markets
The Christmas markets tradition in Lisbon isn’t as big as in other European capitals, but it’s been garnering the attention and enthusiasm of locals in recent years. It’s a great alternative to overcrowded shopping malls and brings back life to the old shopping streets of Lisbon. As a bonus, it’s an opportunity to find Lisbon souvenirs that make up the perfect Christmas gifts.
The most famous Christmas markets happen in Rossio square (also known as Praça Dom Pedro IV) and in Praça do Município (the City Council square), both in the Baixa neighborhood. A bit further uptown but reachable via Metro (green line), the Mercado de Natal de Alvalade takes over Avenida da Igreja with local small businesses, artisans, food and music during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of December.
4. Explore a Sleepy City on December 25th
On the 24th it’s not unusual to see Lisboetas busy buying last minute gifts or bacalhau (the traditional dish of Christmas Eve). Shops and pastelarias are open until later that day although if you haven’t pre-ordered your sweets, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever is left.
Then, on Christmas Day, everything almost goes silent. Public offices and most shops, cafés and restaurants are closed all day. Weather permitting, local families go out on leisurely strolls while kids proudly show off their Christmas presents from the evening before.
5. Ring in the New Year with Free Concerts and Fireworks
Advertising for special New Year Eve’s parties in nightclubs, restaurants or hotels starts as early as October. But locals’ favorite place to ring in the New Year still is Praça do Comércio, where the dress code is not a requirement. Like December 25th, January 1st is also a public holiday. Therefore, no matter how late the party ends, most people don’t have to work the next day.
Bring your own bottle of espumante (the Portuguese version of champagne) and don’t forget the 12 raisins, you must eat one for each strike of the clock while making your wishes. According to local tradition, wearing blue underpants also guarantees a prosperous year ahead. Success is, of course, what you make of it so embrace the moment and the free show of fireworks on both banks of the River Tagus.
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Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.