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 things to do on a Lisbon family holiday. It includes top sights, their favourite beaches, plus two great day trips from Lisbon to Cascais and Sintra.
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
My friends Freya, Pete and their sons Benedict and Alexander have been spending family holidays in Lisbon nearly every year since the children were toddlers. Freya has lots of tips on the best things to do on a Lisbon family holiday and she’s sharing them in this post. It includes two great day trips from Lisbon as well as lovely places to stay and to eat. Post updated February 2020.
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Things to do on a Lisbon Family Holiday
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. My father lives in Portugal so we visit often. For us the flight is an easy two and a half hours from London. Lisbon airport is close to the city centre so the transfer is very straightforward too.
What’s the weather like in Lisbon?
Freya: “Lots of blue sky! It’s pretty good all year round. We’ve visited in Easter, summer and at Christmas time. One 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.” Click here to check monthly weather averages for Lisbon.
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.”
The Santa Justa elevator, below, was built in 1901 to link the Baixa neighbourhood by the river with the Bairro Alto district, 40 metres up the hill. It has great views from the top and is a popular tourist attraction so queues to use the lift can be long! But you can also reach the viewing platform from Largo do Carmo.
10 things to do in Lisbon with children
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe. Its colourful mix of grand squares, winding side streets, medieval neighbourhoods, picturesque corners and lots of views make it a fascinating city to explore. Here’s Freya’s round up of the best things to do in Lisbon with children.
What to see in Belem
Belem used to be Lisbon’s docks and shipbuilding neighbourhood and is now home to some of the city’s most important monuments celebrating its history of seagoing and exploration. Although Belem lies 6 miles south west of central Lisbon, it has lots of interesting things to see and its flat wide open spaces are a break from the steep, crowded streets of the centre. You could easily spend half a day here.
Freya says: “The Belem waterfront is a great place to do some family sightseeing. The medieval tower, Torre de Belem, was built as a fortress to guard the estuary and is surrounded by water. Many Portuguese explorers, including Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, will have passed by during the Golden Age of Portuguese exploration.
The tower is a stunning mini fortress with dungeons, cannon and steep spiral stairs. The balcony has a great view of the river as does the viewing platform at the top. You can also have fun spotting the exotic beasts carved into the limestone turrets – look out for the rhinoceros!”
Get here early if you want to go inside Belem Tower as the queues get very long. If you know you’d like to explore inside then it is worth booking: fast track entrance tickets to Belem Tower to skip the line here.
Just a short walk away, along the waterfront, the enormous Monument to the Discoveries juts out towards the estuary. It was erected in 1940 to celebrate the achievements of the explorers and represents a ship about to set sail carrying 33 figures from Lisbon’s seafaring past. You can take an elevator to the top for a 360° view of Lisbon, the mighty 25 de Abril suspension bridge and the Cristo Rei on the opposite bank.
It also gives you a bird’s eye view of the intricate compass rose at the foot of the monument. This decorative world map set into the walkway shows the places that were visited by the Portuguese explorers.
Just across the street from the Monument, beyond the compass rose, is the fabulously ornate Jeronimos monastery.
The Jeronimos monastery was funded by the wealth brought to Portugal by the explorers in the 1500s. Fittingly, Vasco da Gama the Portuguese navigator who discovered a route by sea from Europe to India is buried here. In fact the monastery was built on the site of a chapel where da Gama and his crew prayed before they set out on their epic journey to the East.
Freya says: “Children might not want an extensive tour but the cloisters are fun and easy to access for a quick look – that’s a cannon in the corner of the photo!
Whilst you’re in the neighbourhood be sure you try the famous Pastéis de Belém, baked at a little cafe close to the monastery. Although the creamy custard tarts called pasteis de nata are served in cafes all over Lisbon, these are special. The cafe holds a famously secret recipe for the traditional version of the tarts once baked at the monastery. 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.
How to get to Belem from central Lisbon. As an added incentive for families, one of the best ways to get to Belem is by tram from Praca da Figueira or Praca do Comercio. The journey takes about 20 minutes. Alternatively you can catch a suburban train from Cais do Sodre which stops at Belem station. From here it’s a 10 minute walk to the monastery and another 10 minutes to Belem Tower.
Visit the Zoo and Oceanarium
Freya says: “Lisbon 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 zoo is divided into themed habitats such as rainforest and savannah and is very focused on conservation of endangered species. You can read more about Lisbon zoo, here.