Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, has much in common with other prominent European cities: neighborhoods full of charming alleyways and cafes, churches that showcase historic architecture and artwork, a convenient public transportation system, and a variety of museums to choose from on a rainy day. Of course, there are also the things that make Lisbon uniquely Portuguese — the colorful and detailed tile work found in museums and buildings across the city, the hills and viewpoints that they afford of the city and Tagus River below, the cable cars packed full of both tourists and commuters that carve their way through the city’s streets, and the nautically-themed mosaic stone sidewalks.
Exploring Lisbon with Kids
Lisbon for a First European Experience?
Yes! Lisbon is the perfect first introduction to Europe for American children; this spring I visited Lisbon with my 8-year-old daughter on her very first visit to Europe. Lisbon is an easy six-hour flight from the East Coast of the United States, which is just long enough to get some good rest on a red-eye flight, but not so long that kids will tire of watching movies mid-way through a day time flight. Also, the language barrier in Lisbon is minimal for Americans; most everyone we spoke to as tourists had good conversational English skills. I expected to need to pull out some of my high school Spanish (because I have no Portuguese language skills) — but, thankfully, this was not necessary.
Lisbon certainly feels historic and European. Yet, it is one of Europe’s easiest capital cities to explore because the historic part of town is relatively compact and walkable; Lisbon is not overwhelmingly large. That also means that it is easy to escape the city for a day trip to the beach or the mountains in only 30-45 minutes. This variety and ability to get a quick change of scenery makes the area so much more fun to explore with kids; one day can be spent appreciating the architecture at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém and the next day can be spent at the beach in Cascais. It is easy to avoid the monotony of visiting museum after museum in the city center.
While in Portugal I watched my daughter exploring the National Palace in Sintra and the Museo do Azulejo in total wonder of their intricate wood carvings and colorfully painted ceilings. She was so impressed by everything that she was seeing, and I’m sure that our quick visit made an impact that will last a lifetime.
City Sights in Lisbon
Wandering Lisbon’s streets is essential on any visit to Lisbon with kids or without. The black and white stone mosaic artwork on the city’s squares and walkways is both beautiful and uniquely Lisbon. On a walk through the Baxia, make sure to find, and maybe even take a ride on, the Santa Justa Lift that transports passengers from the lower part of town up onto one of Portugal’s seven hills. With so many hills, taking a tram or elevator up the hill and wandering back down through the city streets is a great option for families. One of the highlights of any visit to Lisbon is taking the tram up to the top of Saõ Jorge to explore the prominent 11th century Castelo de Saõ Jorge; kids can explore the ramparts and canons while mom and dad enjoy the scenic views over the city.
I have to admit that my daughter and I did not enjoy a typical day in Lisbon; we arrived to wet, stormy weather that made walking the stony streets and sidewalks a bit treacherous. Even when the clouds broke, we slipped and slid our way around the slick city sidewalks and streets from one classic Portuguese monument to another. Yet, even with ominous storm clouds looming we enjoyed walking the Rua Augusta down to the Placa do Comercio.
Public Transportation in Lisbon with Kids
My daughter and I used the Metro and the bus almost exclusively to get around Lisbon due to the stormy weather. There were a few times where we walked, and I wish that we had just made the choice to take a taxi. Sadly, we never did have the opportunity to take Lisbon’s classic trams.
While the Metro and bus system have their limits, I found them remarkably easy to use. The Metro trains are color coded and have cute little symbols to designate each line. A day pass pays for itself in 4-5 trips, which you might not need on a nice sunny day, but was the right choice for us on a rainy day.
Grab a Quick Bite to Eat for Dinner in Lisbon
As with many cultures along the Mediterranean coast, the Portuguese tend to eat later than Americans – though I did find that dining with my daughter around 6-7PM was perfectly acceptable. For dinner, we chose two quick service dining options within a ten minute walk of our hotel, Martinhal Chiado: the Palácio Chiado and the Time Out Market.
The Time Out Market is a large traditional European market converted into a sophisticated food court. There are about two dozen restaurants from which to choose around the perimeter of the market; each restaurant serves 5-6 of their specialties, and the seating is in the middle of the market. As I walked into the market, I was a bit skeptical that this arrangement would work for my daughter and me, but, once I found the restaurant serving slices of pizza, my daughter was all set. At popular times, finding a seat, especially while managing children, can be a bit of a challenge. However, if you like good food and want to try some local specialties, it’s definitely worth it.
Appropriately the Palácio Chiado is housed in a renovated 18th century palace that dates to approximately the time of the American Revolution. The model for food service is similar to the Time Out Market, though there are only five restaurants and a wait staff brings the food to you when it is ready. Some of the rooms in the Palácio are modern while other maintain features that date back hundreds of years; the staircase adorned with art is particularly spectacular. And, the food is pretty yummy too!
Portugal is known for its sunny days and sea breeze. And, Lisbon is built accordingly; it’s a beautiful place to simply stroll around outdoors. But if you do need to spend a day indoors during your visit to Lisbon, like us, there are a couple of options to consider.
Parque das Nações
When confronted with a stormy day in Lisbon, every local that I asked said that we should first go to the Oceanário at Parque das Nações, and then on to the neighboring science museum, Pavilhão do Conhecimento – Ciência Viva. They all proceeded to describe to me the elevated cable car, Telecabine Lisboa, which begins near the aquarium and runs along the river affording scenic views of the area. All of these sites in the Parque das Nações are conveniently located about a ten minute walk from the Oriente Metro station through the indoor Vasco da Gama Shopping Mall and an outdoor promenade (which would have been gorgeous in just about any other weather.)
We arrived at the Oceanário just before noon on a Sunday and found out firsthand how crowded it gets on a rainy weekend in Lisbon. But, once we accepted the crowds, we enjoyed a fabulous two hours exploring one of the top aquariums in Europe. The aquarium is built around a very large central tank which houses at least a dozen varieties of fish and several species of sharks. Around the central tank are other exhibits featuring marine life from around the globe including penguins, sea otters, and tropical fish. Yes, Disney lovers will happy to know that it’s quite easy to find a whole tank of “Nemo” fish in the tropical oceans section of the aquarium.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum)
For something more uniquely Portugeuse to visit on a rainy day, consider the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, The National Tile Museum. This museum is housed in a former convent dating in part to the 16th century and features the Chapel of Saint Anthony with intricate 18th-century baroque decoration. While the museum itself is not particularly kid-friendly for little ones, my eight year old daughter loved the museum so much that she wanted to go through it a second time. There are finely painted tiles dating from the mid-15th century until the 20th century with detailed and interesting placards, designed for the blind, which visitors can touch to feel the patterns of the tiles on display. The paintings and carvings in the chapel portion of the museum are the same sort of artwork that is displayed in the most beautiful and historic chapels across Europe.
Martinhal Chiado Family Suites
During our time in Lisbon, my daughter and I stayed in a one bedroom apartment at the Martinhal Chiado Family Suites. I can’t imagine a more perfect hotel for a family city break!
Due to the nature of the building, every apartment at Martinhal Chiado has a unique layout and features, but each room has a fully equipped kitchen featuring a stove, dishwasher, washer-dryer, fridge, basic dishes, cutlery, pots and pans. I loved getting up early, making myself a coffee with the in-room Nespresso machine and snacking on the cookies from the complimentary food starter package provided in every room while letting my daughter catch up on her sleep. (The starter package also includes milk, water, and orange juice.) My daughter slept soundly in her bunk bed in an alcove in the hall while I read for a bit on the couch and then worked for a time at the kitchen table – all without disturbing my daughter down the hall. Each room also comes with one of the cutest high chairs that I have ever seen, but, of course, parents bringing a baby along should make sure to prearrange all necessities through Martinhal’s baby concierge.
Admittedly, I did not try out any of the kitchen appliances; as I prefer not to cook when I travel. So, my daughter and I got our breakfast at the M Bar downstairs which offers a classic breakfast of eggs cooked to order, coffee or tea, fresh squeezed juice, pastries, cereal and fruit. This little eatery also serves a light lunch and snacks throughout the day to hungry families.
Like the other Martinhal hotels, the Martinhal Chiado offers a Kid’s Club for children ages six months and up. There are regularly programmed themed activities for ages 2-5 and 6-9 on a daily basis whenever children of those ages are present at the hotel; the schedule for activities is posted both the hotel reception area and online at mymartinhal.com. (Depending on the season and age of child, these services my require a reservation and/or a fee.) A Pyjama Club is offered in the evening for dinner-time child care and is available nightly from 5:30-9:30PM; dinner is available for children staying in the pyjama club.
Martinhal Chiado has a great location, just a few blocks up from the river in Lisbon’s Chiado district about a 5-7 minute walk from the Baxia-Chiado Metro stop.
Take a Trip out to Belém
Belém, a district of Lisbon located along the Tagus River a 20 minute tram ride outside of the city center, is a favorite of tourists and families. On the bank of the river are two of Portugal’s most recognizable monuments: the Belem Tower, constructed in the early 16th century to defend Portugal during the Age of Discovery, and the Monument to the Discoveries built in 1960 to remember the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death. Just about a kilometer or two upriver from these two monuments is the 25 de Abril Bridge, which will look strikingly familiar to many Americans as its placement and color mirror San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate. Also in Belém, across the street from the Monument to the Discoveries, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Jeronimos Monastery, famous for its distinctive Manueline architecture, a combination of European Gothic and Renaissance style as well as African Moorish themes.
Day Trips: Sintra and Cascais
On our visit to Lisbon, my daughter and I also stayed at Martinhal’s hotel in Cascais and took a day trip to Sintra. Families planning a visit to Lisbon, should definitely plan a a day trip to Sintra to see it’s colorful castles and Cascais to enjoy it’s more laid-back atmosphere, seaside promenades and beaches.
For more details about our stay in Cascais and the day trips available in that region, check out A Relaxing Family Vacation on Portugal’s Scenic Coastline at Martinhal CascaisA Relaxing Family Vacation on Portugal’s Scenic Coastline at Martinhal Cascais.
TAP flies non-stop to Lisbon from New York (JFK), Newark, Boston and Miami from $655 round trip (subject to availability) . All of TAP’s fares beyond Portugal (to Africa, Europe and even South America) include a Stopover in Lisbon for up to 3 nights with no additional airfare.
Disclosure: The author was invited to Martinhal Chiado Family Suites as part of a press trip in conjunction with the first Martinhal Luxury Family Brand Event. All opinions are her own.
All photos are by Melissa Moore unless otherwise credited