Portugal has long been on my travel wish list and I finally got the chance to visit and spend a long weekend discovering Lisbon and the neighbouring town of Cascais. Lisbon was everything that I hoped it would be; colourful, charming, walkable and with incredible food. Oh, and the tiles! It’s fair to say that I came home with a lot of photos of tiled buildings. Lisbon really is a brilliant destination for families looking for a city break or as a stop on a longer holiday in Portugal.
Famously built on seven hills, walking around Lisbon requires some stamina (and don’t even think about bringing a pushchair or stroller!) but there are bright yellow and red trolleys (cable cars) to get tired legs up and down as well as colourful tuk-tuks roaming the streets. The city itself is full of beautiful streets, characterful plazas, dramatic lookout points and lots of things to do with kids. And did I mention that it’s one of the continent’s sunniest cities? Lisbon really does seem to have it all; here’s a family-friendly guide to the city to get you started on your Portuguese adventure.
Where to stay in Lisbon with kids
I visited Portugal with the Martinhal hotel group that own four family-friendly properties in Portugal; two in the Algarve one in Cascais and one in Lisbon. I spent one night at the Martinhal Chiado hotel and it really was one of the best family-friendly city hotels that I’ve visited.
Conveniently positioned in the area known as “Pombaline Baixa” where the historical old town meets the newer business area, it’s a brilliant location for exploring Lisbon. The hotel has 37 apartments (ranging from studios to two-bedrooms) that have everything you might need to make a family city break easy. Each apartment has a kitchen complete with a stove, dishwasher, washer-dryer, fridge, crockery and plastic plates and bowls for kids. As with all Martinhal properties it is very, very family-friendly; there are stair gates wherever needed, stools so younger children can reach the sink, bottle sterilising equipment, pushchairs – literally anything you think of, they have. They even have a mini kids’ climbing wall!
Best of all, however, is the complimentary kids’ club that welcomes children from the age of six months to early teens. Staff will happily keep kids engaged with age-appropriate activities while you either take some time out in your apartment or head off to explore a bit more of Lisbon (because, let’s face it, even the most city-savvy of kids will tire of sightseeing at some point!). There’s even a pyjama club, should you feel like you need a date night. And if you do decide to see some of the city’s famous nightlife, head to The Park, a really fun bar located in the top of a multi-story car park with fabulous sunset views over the city.
Things to do in Lisbon with kids
One of the truly lovely things about Portugal is the importance of family and kids are welcome almost anywhere. Here are some of the best family-friendly activities in Lisbon.
Get your bearings with a ride on one of the city’s colourful cable cars. For a tour through some of Lisbon’s most popular neighbourhoods, jump on board tram Number 28 which will thrill kids big and old as it steeply ascends and descends the city’s hilly streets. Trolley number 28 operates like a hop-on-hop-off bus meaning one ticket will get you unlimited rides throughout the day. The other trams form part of the local public transport system and you’ll need a new ticket for each ride. Keep an eye on your bags, the No. 28 is busy and has apparently become a favourite spot for pickpockets.
Praça do Comércio
Lisbon’s biggest public square sits down by the waterfront and is a great place to let kids run around (and chase pigeons!). This square was the site of Portugal’s royal palace until the Great Earthquake of 1755; the Arco da Rua Augusta – the impressive Triumphal Arch – now stands there and was built to commemorate the city’s rebirth after the earthquake. Lisbon’s main tourist office is here and it’s worth stopping by to pick up a Lisboa Card, which gives discounted or free access to a number of attractions, as well as public transport. Nearby is Livraria Bertrand, the oldest bookstore in the world that first opened its doors in 1732.
Don’t miss a day trip to Sintra, famous for its brightly hued palaces and castles. The UNESCO World Heritage town is just a 30 minute train ride from Lisbon and sits at the foothills of the Sintra mountains where cooling breezes offer respite from the Lisbon’s summer heat. This is one of the reasons why Roman, Moorish and Portuguese royalty chose to build their summer homes here.
Mercado da Ribeira
The Mercado da Ribeira first opened its doors in 1892 selling fresh fruit and veg, fish and flowers. These days it’s been transformed by Time Out Lisboa Magazine and it called, not surprisingly, the Time Out Market. It’s a fantastic gourmet food hall home to everything from custard tarts to Michelin-star chef creations. One half of the building still functions as a produce market and the other is a bustling communal dining area. It’s a vibrant and fun place to visit and the food options are sublime.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
It is definitely worth visiting the Jeronimos Monastery (also called the Hieronymites Monastery) in Belem while you are in Lisbon. It’s one of the most visited sites in the capital and for good reason, it’s absolutely stunning. It was built to commemorate the return of Vasco de Gama, a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. Construction began on January 6, 1501 and wasn’t completed until nearly 100 years later as designs for the monastery became more and more elaborate and ornate as the country’s wealth grew. If you do visit make sure you get there early as there is always a long line. To try and avoid standing in line for too long, buy your ticket from the Archaeology Museum instead of the main monastery entrance, your wait time will be much shorter. You can’t buy tickets online.
Pastéis de Belém
There’s a lot to love about Portugal but there’s one thing that you’ll probably love a little bit more than anything else and that’s the pasteis de nata, custard tarts. You can find pasteis de nata almost anywhere in Lisbon but for the real deal, head to the world-famous Pastéis de Belém pastry shop located very near the Jeronimos Monastery. The pasteis de nata actually originated from the monastery itself; the story goes that a monk sold the recipe to a bakery in the Belém district in 1834, after the monasteries were closed by the state. The family went on to found the famous bakery in Belem where the original tarts are still made – and the exact recipe remains a closely guarded secret!
Torre de Belém and Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Near the monastery are two landmarks commissioned to celebrate Portugal’s significant role in the Age of the Discoveries. Immediately opposite the monastery, on the riverfront, is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is a monument that pays tribute to the 33 prominent figures in the country’s age of exploration. Further along the riverside is the Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) that was commissioned by King John II to defend the coast from foreign invaders. Both are very impressive but younger children in particular will probably prefer the gargoyles, dungeons and cannons of the Belém Tower. They can also look out for the rhino carved in stone on the tower’s rampart. It is possible to climb to the top of the tower but the stairs are narrow so be careful with little kids.
Oceanário De Lisboa
Lisbon is home to the largest aquarium in Europe and it’s sure to delight kids of all ages. This enormous underwater world is home to sharks, giant squid, mammoth rays, sea otters and more. Particularly mind-boggling is the huge main aquarium that holds five million litres of seawater (yes, really!). It’s divided into four marine habitats where all manner of colourful sea creatures swim about. The aquarium holds classical music concerts for babies on Saturday mornings and overnight Sleeping with the Sharks experiences for older kids.
Elevador de Santa Justa
Originally constructed to transport passengers up the steep Carmo Hill, the Elevador de Santa Justa first opened in 1902. Today, it’s primarily a tourist attraction and lines to ride up the elevator can be very long. Even if you don’t take a ride, however, it’s worth visiting to see the structure, which is constructed from wrought iron and is quite beautiful. If you do wait your turn, you’ll be rewarded with a ride inside one of the two polished wood carriages up to a viewing platform, which affords wonderful panoramic views over the city.
Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood is also its most charming; each narrow, windy street has a story to tell and you can simply wander along getting pleasantly lost. This is the neighbourhood to visit if you want to eat a traditional meal and listen to some equally traditional fado music (you can also enjoy fado performances in other parts of town including Bairro Alto where nightly fado performances are held at Laia Fado. You will need to reserve and there’s a minimum 50 Euro order per customer). If you want to learn more about this traditional Portuguese music genre, there’s the Museo de Fado in Alfama.
Jardim da Estrela
This large landscaped park sits in front of the Baroque Basilica da Estrela. It’s one of Lisbons biggest and best parks, home to duck ponds and a kid-pleasing playground. There’s a cafe in the middle that has a kids’ area which, in the summer months, is staffed with regular child-friendly activities. Summer weekends also see craft fairs spring up in the park and live music performances.
Lisbon Story Centre
Learn the history of Lisbon in an interactive, child-friendly way at the Lisbon Story Centre. A 60-minute audio guide takes you through the capital’s past from its early foundation to modern times. The story is divided up into chapters that kids can follow and enjoy and is detailed enough that parents can really get a feel for how Lisbon was built and shaped.
When to visit Lisbon with kids
Lisbon is one of the sunniest cities in Europe and is pretty fabulous at any time of year. However, summer gets very busy so if you can time your visit between March and May or September to October, you’ll enjoy great weather but less people.
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Disclosure: I was a guest of Martinhal Chiado during my stay; all opinions are, as always, entirely my own.