Oh, the city of light! It’s true that Lisbon gets more sun than any other European capital. You’ll likely get a tan even if you visit in the fall or spring.
Don’t fly in just with your flip-flops, though.
From June through August, it rained twice in the five years we’ve been in Lisbon. Both instances were freak storms. Most of the time, it’s nice and cool before 10am, necessitating a sweater if you’re close to the water, and then gets progressively hotter, typically reaching no more than 26°C (79°F).
But there are days where the thermometer keeps rising, and then rising some more, and then, just when you think it couldn’t possibly be any worse, because this isn’t Dubai, after all, it crosses 35° and all you want is to be deposited in a bathtub full of ice and given a tray of painkillers. Not to worry, however: even in the worst of Lisbon’s heat waves, it’s almost always dry. That means that if you seek shade, you’ll be able to regain your composure.
Stay away from dark alcohol and you should be good to go for the 18 hours of sunshine. And remember that if they have air conditioning, everything costs more. But sometimes it’s oh so worth it.
What to pack
Dudes: Sure, you could walk around in flip-flops without your shirt on. Don’t expect much love from the locals, though. Natural fibers like wool and cotton, especially linen, do the trick keeping you cool, and long sleeves on your legs and arms mean less sunscreen. The locals stop wearing shorts after they turn 16 unless they’re professional surfers, for your information, but you be you.
A Panama hat — a real one, not the knockoff, and yes, they are expensive — goes a long way if you plan to be mostly outdoors. Also, loose clothes feel far better and leave less stains under your massive pectorals. And if you don’t want to pop by home and change before dinner, opt for light slip-on shoes instead of flip flops. A light sweater is all you’ll need for a romantic stroll at night.
Ladies: Dresses. The looser the dress the better: form-fitting might look nice, but it will stick to you. You need air-flow and you need it badly. Long skirts are great for protecting your legs from the sun, but above-the-knee is best. Up top, going sleeveless is the obvious choice to avoid sweat marks. If you’re more of a pants person, wide-leg linen or linen-like weight is a must. If you’re attached to wearing jeans, especially of the skinny variety, you’ll regret it. The peeling off process at night will not be a pleasant one.
Footwear should be rubber-soled whatever they are because the sidewalks are slick. Flip-flops like the Havaiana flash have excellent traction and a heel strap that make them perfect for touring. Espadrilles are a close second. For fancy nights out, go with wedges with good rubber soles, otherwise you’ll slip on the polished cobblestones.
Most importantly, bring a wide lightweight scarf along with you to give your shoulders a break from the sun and as an emergency blanket should the sun disappear behind the clouds. You’ll be shocked how handy it will be: especially for an impromptu picnic along the Tejo or a makeshift tote should you find a treasure or two along your way.
In practice, we don’t get fall and spring here, we just have summer and winter. All through September, Lisbon is still very much in summer mode, but come mid-October things tend to cool off and get a bit more humid, with the occasional rain. By November, expect regular showers, sometimes lasting forever, penetrating the roofs of anything built further than 10 years back. But there’s still plenty of days to walk around in a t-shirt, and many locals make it out to the beach for a refresher tan and a brisk swim all the way to Halloween.
But autumn is when things start getting really interesting atmosphere-wise. Catch Lisbon waking up in a heavy fog, or find yourself after dusk on a street devoid of anyone but you and the halos of the street lamps, and you’ll understand why we get so melancholic and veer toward poetry and moody films. November is probably the sexiest time to be in Portugal’s capital: you can look good at all times, the sandal-clad tourists are gone, and everyone’s having dinner parties. Alternatively, you can often have the café or bar to yourself and your companion if you’d rather avoid the crowd.
What to pack
Dudes: You can get away with summer wear until early October. After that, you’ll want comfortable walking shoes, a pair of real pants, and a warm sweater. Carry an umbrella, and if you like to walk around a lot, bring a rain jacket. A scarf will fix you up in a cinch if it gets much cooler. By late November, you’ll want a medium-weight jacket.
Ladies: After September, don’t even think of setting foot out the door without a warm scarf or a cardigan. No matter how hot it might be during the day, the nights get chilly so be prepared. For me, this is lightweight pants and long dresses season. You can also opt to go with a short hemline, but tuck away a pair of tights or leggings just in case.
Fall is all about boots, so go ahead and let your inner Nancy Sinatra out. Just leave the stilettos at home or you’ll come back with heels that have been torn to bits (unless you plan to take taxis everywhere).
One hundred years of solitude comes up a lot among people experiencing their first winter in Lisbon. Sometimes it really feels like the rain will never, ever, end. The winds running up and down the canyons of the city help ensure that whatever rain protection you arm yourself with is powerless to keep you dry. It’s wet above, it’s wet below, and it’s wet inside buildings. Get used to it and seek places with fireplaces.
But then you’ll get a sunny day and it’s like Jesus comes back down to wash away your sins and the angels float on perfectly formed clouds singing along to whatever soundtrack’s in your head. All of Portugal goes outside on days like these, which are actually quite frequent, and all the parks and beaches are packed with people huddling around picnic tables and grills taking advantage of the few hours of light.
And whatever the reason — maybe because Portugal is still a very religious country — it almost never rains on Christmas, and rarely on the days leading up to it. The smell of roasting castanhas (chestnuts) drives away the smell of mold, and having a glass of wine outside becomes a celebration in and of itself. On New Year’s, people still make it out to the beach. With the fog almost always hiding the horizon, meanwhile, you’ll feel in your bones that Portugal sits at the end of Western civilization and whatever’s beyond is a whole different world. It’s a trip.
What to pack
Dudes: It’s wet, but it’s still not Scotland. Wear reasonable shoes that won’t soak up the rain too much, embrace wool socks (the Portuguese make excellent thin ones), throw on a coat, and finish off your ensemble with a decent scarf. Unless you live in the Caribbean, no need for down jackets or wool hats, this ain’t the mountains. But carry an umbrella. Always.
Ladies: Walking boots, tights (or leggings), and elbow-sleeve dresses are the combo for winter. If it rains, you won’t be taking forever to dry out, and you’ll still look nice enough to get in anywhere. A decently warm thigh-length trench coat, a light sweater, and a warm scarf will protect you from the wet winds. Don’t bother with a hat and gloves unless you run really cold. They’ll only end up taking up room in your handbag, and you’ll need to save room for your umbrella.
Hint: Always bring an empty plastic bag with you so you can stash a wet umbrella away inside your purse to avoid leaving it in random places.
This particular season tends to sneak up on us. One day it’s freezing rain and howling winds and the next you’re walking barefoot on a green meadow covered with flowers, and you haven’t even left the city limits. It starts really warming up and drying out right around the end of March typically, but then the weather gods smack you one more time before letting you laze your way toward the hot days of summer. Abril, águas mil, the proverb goes (literally, “April, thousand waters”). It’ll cease eventually. Just keep telling yourself that. Come May, you’ll forget you ever put on a jacket or carried around an umbrella for the past 180 days.
What to pack:
Dudes: It’s getting warmer, so ditch the heavier coat for a light-weight but water-resistant jacket and a lighter sweater. By May, be prepared to strip down, but see note above concerning flip flops and shorts.
Ladies: Spring is a strange time of year, because it’s either hot or cold: there isn’t much in the middle. Check the weather report and dress according to summer or autumn rules, but always have a small packable sweater and a pair of emergency leggings in your purse. These two items have saved my life a million times over, no matter the season!