The capital of Portugal is a vibrant, historic city with beaches on its doorstep. Freya and family visit regularly: here’s their round up of the best of Lisbon for children, favourite Lisbon beaches, plus things to do in Cascais and Sintra, two great day trips from Lisbon.
Why choose a family holiday in Lisbon?
- Powder-soft sandy beaches
- Year round sunshine
- A colourful historic city
- Day trips to fairytale castles and palaces
Who went: Freya, Pete and their sons Benedict and Alexander. Freya says: My father lives in Portugal so we spend family holidays in Lisbon nearly every year, either at Easter, summer or Christmas time. The flight is around two and a half hours from London. Lisbon airport is close to the city centre so the transfer is very easy.
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Family Holidays in Lisbon
What makes Lisbon special? Freya: You can have a city break and a beach holiday at the same time. There are lots of things to keep children of every age amused: safe sandy bays, castles and palaces, walks and bike rides, vintage trams and funiculars that carry you up and down the hills around Lisbon, a zoo and oceanarium… The list goes on and on.
Hotel or self-catering? Freya: We generally stay in a villa or apartment. Sometimes we’ll base ourselves in Lisbon or, for a change, we might stay in Cascais or Sintra which are both nearby. On our latest trip we tried out three different hotels, with two or three nights at each, which made the holiday feel longer. Now the boys are teenagers it’s easier to move around and we chose design-orientated places that were interesting to visit. Scroll down for hotel tips and recommendations.
What’s the weather like in Lisbon? Freya: Lots of blue sky! It’s pretty good all year round. Last year we went in April when the weather isn’t guaranteed and we had some grey days but sunny ones too. In the summer it can be very hot although there’s often a cooling breeze on the coast. The weather can change over the course of a week or two. We’ve had mixed weather in October but we’ve also eaten outside on Boxing Day.
Getting around Lisbon
Freya: Lisbon is set on a range of hills. However it’s surprisingly easy to get around using the vintage trams, the iron funiculars and a Victorian elevator that lifts you up and down between districts. There’s also the Metro system which is modern and air conditioned.
10 Things to do in Lisbon with children
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe, it’s a colourful mix of grand squares, winding side streets, medieval neighbourhoods, picturesque corners and lots of views. Here’s Freya’s round up of the best things to do in Lisbon for kids.
Visit the medieval Torre de Belem
The Belem waterfront is a good place to start family sightseeing. It’s south west of central Lisbon, overlooking the Tagus river and has lots of interesting things to see. The medieval tower Torre de Belem was built as a fortress to guard the estuary and many Portuguese explorers including Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus passed through its harbour during the Golden Age of Portuguese exploration . It’s a stunning mini fortress with dungeons, cannon and steep spiral stairs. Don’t miss the balcony with a view of the river and the viewing platform at the top. Book fast track entrance tickets to Belem Tower and skip the line here.
… and the Monument to the Discoveries
Further along the waterfront, a short walk away, is the Monument to the Discoveries. It was built in 1940 to celebrate the achievements of the explorers. You can take an elevator to the top for a 360° view of Lisbon, the suspension bridge and the Cristo Rei on the opposite bank.
It also gives you a bird’s eye view of a decorative world map set into the walkway that shows the places that were visited by the Portuguese explorers.
Don’t miss the Jeronimos Monastery
Just across the street from the Monument is the fabulously ornate monastery. Children might not want an extensive tour but the cloisters are fun.
Make sure you try the famous Pastéis de Belém
A little café nearby holds a famous secret recipe that originated from the monastery. It’s for the monks’ traditional version of pasteis de nata, which are delicious creamy custard tarts. There’s always a queue for takeaways but they are so special it’s worth the wait. We take them to the little park alongside where children can have a run around. Pastéis de Belém, 84 to 92 Rua de Belém.
Visit the Zoo and Oceanarium
The zoo is right in the centre of Lisbon and can be viewed by foot, from a little train or – the best way! – by cable car for a bird’s eye view.
The Oceanarium is one of the largest in the world. It’s centred around a huge tank that makes you feel like a deep sea diver. There are sharks – lots of sharks! Click here for Oceanarium tickets.
Cross the bridge to Cristo Rei
There’s more to see on the south bank of the Tagus: our children loved the trip over to see Cristo Rei, the 28m statue which stands on a hillside in Almada. There are two bridges which span the river or you can catch a ferry across.
A lift takes visitors to the observation deck at the top of the pedestal beneath the statue. There are views of the river, bridge and across the city on a clear day.
Visit the Lisbon Beaches
A family holiday in Lisbon isn’t complete without going to the beach! For families the best beaches with the calmest water are on the Lisbon to Cascais coastline. You can reach them by car or the coastal train, see below.
Take a day trip from Lisbon
Cascais and Sintra are two fascinating Portuguese towns and both are an easy, inexpensive train ride from central Lisbon. The seaside town of Cascais is linked to Lisbon by the urban coastal railway which stops at beaches along the route, perfect for a day by the sea. Sintra, up in the hills of Serra de Sintra, is famous for its historic palaces. The train takes around 40 minutes from Lisbon. Regular buses carry visitors from the train station into the historic centre of Sintra or up to the hillside palace and castle.
Things to do in Lisbon with teens
Freya’s boys have visited Lisbon regularly since they were toddlers. First-time teen visitors might enjoy trying out some of these activities. Click the links for more info:
Take a hop-on, hop-off tram tour with entrance to a Fado show too.
Explore the city on a tuk-tuk tour – and make light of the hills!
Tour the Luz football stadium, home of SL Benefica then visit the onsite museum to learn about their all-time star players.
Take a 2 hour surf lesson on one of Portugal’s best beaches with all equipment provided and convenient pick up from Lisbon.
Things to do in Cascais with children
Freya: In the 1800s the little fishing village of Cascais became a Royal holiday hotspot and after that it has never looked back. More recently an investment of European Union money has helped improve the beaches and build a walkway between the railway line and the sea. There are lots of Blue flag beaches here.
An urban train service links Lisbon to Cascais. It runs alongside the river Tagus, passing beaches all along the way. It’s a great journey with children because it’s a train and there’s also plenty to see. The journey from Lisbon to Cascais takes between 30 to 40 minutes and most of the trains stop at each of the beaches. You can check the train timetable here.
On the way to Cascais a small automobile club museum at Oeiras is worth a detour if your children are interested in cars. It has a wonderful collection of old and new vehicles from motorbikes to F1 cars. It has been a popular pitstop for our children and it’s easy to get to it from the train station.
For a dash of culture in Cascais the Museo do Mar, museum of the sea, is definitely worth a visit. Get to grips with Lisbon’s maritime history and way of life: there’s a whole room devoted to fish. It’s a good way to pass half an hour in the shade and entry is free.
Beaches in Lisbon
There are three lovely family-friendly sandy beaches in Cascais itself, just half an hour from Lisbon. Our favourites are Praia da Rainha in the centre of Cascais and Praia do Tamariz, which is further along the promenade in Estoril. The train stops there before it reaches Cascais. They are both gentle beaches for children and easy to access from the promenade.
Carcavelos beach is about 20 minutes from Lisbon by car and is the biggest stretch of sand in the area. It’s popular for watersports, including surfing.
Heading north of Cascais the beaches face the Atlantic ocean and are very different. We sometimes hire the free bikes from near the station and follow the flat cycle lanes and trails along the Atlantic coast road. First stop is the clifftop view at Boca do Inferno. There’s a snack bar here too if you need a break.
Further on is the surf beach of Guincho. The waves can be enormous here so it’s not suitable for swimming although you’ll sometimes spot pro surfers bobbing in the waves. It’s famous for its windsurfing world championships. You might recognise Guincho from the Renault Captur advert in which a goldfish follows a car down to the beach!
Cresmina beach is next door. This has cliffs so is a little more sheltered for sitting on although the waves are still very big.
Behind the beaches there’s a huge dune system with boardwalks which is fun to explore.
READ THIS NEXT to discover 21 Things to Do in Cascais Portugal.
Things to do in Sintra with children
Freya: Sintra is a great day out for the family because it has some spectacular palaces to visit. It nestles in the foothills of the mountains north west of Lisbon and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As it’s a little cooler than Lisbon in the summer it’s been a popular retreat for hundreds of years. In the past wealthy visitors built palaces and gardens and many of them are now open to the public.
Visit a Palace or two
The medieval Royal Palace in the centre of the town is a good place to start. Ancient hand-painted tiles decorate the lavish interiors. Look out for the beautiful ceiling covered in painted swans…
…and another with a fresco of magpies. But don’t spend too long there because there’s a castle to visit!
If you can’t face hiking up to Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish castle, you can take a bus or even a horse and trap to the top. From your mountainside lookout there are spectacular views of the coastline and river. Close by are huge granite boulders which make a great place for a picnic. Ice Age flood waters deposited them here apparently.
The Disney-esque Pena Palace is high on the hillside and has fabulous views. You can wander in its forest park as well as the flamboyant state rooms. It’s very popular and can be crowded in summer.
The tiny Capuchos Convent is a complete contrast to the extravagant palaces of Sintra. It’s isolated so you need a car to get there and it is very simple but it’s a special place and the boys enjoyed it too.
First built in 1560 it was home to no more than a dozen monks who lived a reclusive and spartan life. It closed eventually in the 1830s. The individual monks’ cells are lined in cork and are so small you have to duck to squeeze in to them. The furniture, including beds and toilets (particularly fascinating to children) are formed from rock. A hermit, one of the founders of the order, lived there for 36 years and you can see the rock that formed his outdoor home.
The Quinta da Regaleira is about five minutes walk from the town. Although the house is huge it’s the gardens which are most interesting.
The grounds and structures are said to hold mystical and symbolic meanings. It’s a magical park of grottoes, caves, wells and eerie tunnels which will keep teens, as well as younger children, amused for literally hours. Bring a torch!
Finally Monserrate, a romantic park and palace, is another good picnic spot. Its botanical gardens have plants from all over the world.
Just outside Sintra on the Atlantic coast is the fishing village of Azenhas do Mar. There’s a famous seafood restaurant here with a stunning natural swimming pool. The fishing village clings to the cliffside. It’s worth a visit for the amazing views and sunsets as well as its traditional whitewashed houses.
Book a tour to Sintra from Lisbon. Click here for more information on tours and to pre-book entrance tickets to the palaces. For instance, one small group tour from Lisbon includes Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, a visit to Cabo da Roca the western most point of Europe and a stop in Cascais. Click for more details.
Favourite places to stay in Lisbon
These are the hotels that Freya and family have stayed in and liked with Freya’s comments:
HOTELS IN LISBON:
Hotel Memmo Alfama “A wonderful contemporary boutique hotel in Lisbon, memorable for its yellow loo paper and red tiled pool!”
Palacio Belmonte “A superb hotel. We stayed in the beautiful Egas Moniz family suite (named after the Portuguese neurologist who invented lobotomies)!”
HOTELS IN CASCAIS:
Pestana Cidadela Cascais Pousada and Art District “A converted fort in Cascais. When I was a child living in Lisbon I remember it as a working barracks, with soldiers training in the grounds. Now that it’s a hotel you can walk around the battlements for spectacular views of the sea, the lighthouse and the marina.”
Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho “Another converted 17th century fort, now a luxury hotel. Fabulous views over Guincho beach and the ocean plus the restaurant has a Michelin star.”
HERE ARE MORE HOTELS IN LISBON that are well-reviewed on Booking.com. Just click the links for info:
Martinhal Lisbon Chiado – an aparthotel with kids club in the Chiado district of Lisbon. Six minutes from the Cais do Sodré station for trains to the beaches of the Cascais coastline.
Altis Prime – another modern aparthotel with self-catering suites, a roof terrace and access to an indoor pool close by.
BessaHotel Liberdade – contemporary hotel in the centre with triple and family rooms and an indoor swimming pool.
Pestana CR7 Lisboa – I had to include this simply because it’s a 4 star, football-themed hotel, resulting from a partnership between the Pestana group and Cristiano Ronaldo. Free wi-fi-to-go too. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s your family’s dream getaway or not!
Tivoli Avenida Liberdade The Leading Hotels of the World – 5 star classic luxury with roof top bar and pool.
Favourite places to eat
Freya’s favourites in Lisbon, Cascais and Sintra:
O Pucaro, Estrada do Guincho, Cascais. “We had a delicious lunch here this summer, it’s just behind Guincho beach.”
Resto do Chapito, Costa do Castello, Lisbon. “Two different hotels we’ve stayed at have recommended a meal here. We’ve eaten on the terrace and upstairs where there’s a fantastic view.”
Jardim dos Frangos, Cascais. “One of our favourite places for frango no churrasco – chicken cooked on huge spits and served with piri piri sauce, chips and salad.”
Cafe Paris in Sintra. “A little touristy restaurant that we love. It’s in the main square by the royal palace.”
Hot Dog Cascais “Look out for the famous hot dog van by the cycle path behind Guincho beach. Delicious fast food with a view of the Atlantic ocean.”
Freya: Last Spring we decided to take a couple of walking tours to find out more about this city that we’ve been visiting for years. Eva Sanches was recommended to us: she is Scottish and has lived in Cascais for over 40 years with her Portuguese husband. In a two hour stroll around Lisbon she revealed sight after sight that we had never known existed, some weren’t even in our guide books. Even the teenagers found it entertaining. Eva tailor-makes tours around Lisbon, Cascais and Sintra. We’ve recommended her to other friends and they’ve all enjoyed their outings with her.
For more details: http://www.greatdayout.eu/ . Please mention Map and Family!
NB all visitor information here is for guidance only. Do check the venues’ websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
All photos by Freya and family. All rights reserved, photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent.