Lisbon, capital of Portugal, is a vibrant, historic city with beaches on its doorstep – ideal for a family holiday. Freya gives us the lowdown on what to see and where to stay
- Powder soft sandy beaches
- Year round sunshine
- Fairytale palaces and a Moorish castle
- Colourful, historic city
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Who went: Freya, Pete and their sons Benedict and Alexander
When did you go and how did you get there? Freya: My father lives in Lisbon so we visit nearly every year either for Easter, summer or at 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.
What makes Lisbon special? 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? 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. See below for Freya’s hotel and self-catering tips
What’s the weather like? 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!
Things to do in Lisbon with children
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.
Torre de Belem
The Belem waterfront is a good place to start family sightseeing. The medieval tower Torre de Belem is a must see. It was built as a fortress to guard the estuary and many Portuguese explorers including Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus passed through its harbour. A stunning mini fortress with dungeons, cannon and steep spiral stairs, it has a balcony with a view of the river and a viewing platform at the top.
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.
Just across the street from the Monument is the fabulously ornate monastery. Children might not want an extensive tour but the cloisters are fun.
Pasteis de Belem
A little café nearby holds a famous secret recipe that originated from the monastery. It’s for 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.
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.
We all enjoyed the sea lion and dolphin shows. A sealion came into the audience to give a child a kiss whilst the dolphins flip the handlers into the air. It was entertaining and the animals seemed happy.
Continuing the animal theme the Oceanarium is one of the largest in the world. It is centred around a huge tank that makes you feel like a deep sea diver. There are sharks – lots of sharks!
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 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, see below.
Cascais: beaches and bike rides
Things to do in Cascais with children
Freya: Lisbon is linked to the little beach town of Cascais by a train track. It runs alongside the river Tagus, passing beaches all along the way. European Union money has been invested in improving the beaches and building a walkway between the train track and the sea. There are lots of Blue flag beaches here.
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 around 30 minutes. You can stop off at any of the beaches: Carcavelos is popular for its surf schools and bars but there are lots to choose from.
On the way to Cascais there’s a small automobile club museum at Oeiras which is worth a detour if your children are interested. It has a wonderful collection of old and new vehicles from motorbikes to F1 cars.
In the 1800s the little fishing village of Cascais became a Royal holiday hotspot, after that it has never looked back.
There are three lovely family-friendly sandy beaches in Cascais. Our favourites are Praia da Rainha and Praia do Tamariz which are gentle easy beaches for children and easy to access from the promenade.
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 is backed by 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.
For a dash of culture the Museo do Mar (museum of the sea) in Cascais 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.
Sintra: battlements, palaces, grottoes
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.
The medieval Royal Palace in the centre of the town is a good place to start. The interiors are lavish with ancient hand-painted tiles. 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 brought by the Ice Age flood waters which make a great place for a picnic.
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 – you need a car to get there – and very simple but it’s a special place which the boys enjoyed.
First built in 1560 it was home to no more than a dozen monks who lived a reclusive and spartan life. It was eventually closed 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.
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 village has traditional whitewashed houses and is worth a look too.
Family Holidays in Lisbon
Favourite places to eat
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: this was recommended by two different hotels – 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 is 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 were entertained. Eva tailor-makes tours around Lisbon, Cascais and Sintra. We’ve have recommended her to other friends and they’ve all enjoyed their outings with her.
For more details: http://www.greatdayout.eu/ Tours last for 3 – 4 hours depending on coffee and photo stops and cost around €12.50 per head with a minimum charge of €50 (at the time of writing).
Favourite places to stay
Hotel Memmo Alfama wonderful contemporary boutique hotel in Lisbon, memorable for its yellow loo paper and red tiled pool!
Pousada de Cascais Cidadela Historic Hotel is 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 it’s a government-run hotel. You can walk around the battlements and it has spectacular views of the sea, the lighthouse and the marina
Fortaletza do Guincho is a converted 17th century fort, now a luxury hotel. Fabulous views over Guincho beach and the ocean plus the restaurant has a Michelin star
Palacio Belmonte is a superb hotel. We stayed here once in the beautiful Egas Moniz family suite. It’s named after the Portuguese neurologist who invented lobotomies!
All photos by Freya and family. All rights reserved, photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent.