Should you visit Lisbon with kids? Of course you should!
“One of life’s great pleasures is travelling with your children.”
Lisbon is a wonderful city to visit with children: Many of the main attractions are kid-friendly (St. Jorge’s Castle, Sintra, the Alfama, the Expo/Park of the Nations area…) and most of the museums are small and specialized. It’s a great city for walking and public transportation is easy to use, plentiful and inexpensive. Best of all, the Portuguese love children and will go out of their way to make them feel welcome.
What to see
The “…with kids!” section of our blog has an ever-growing list of things to see in Lisbon with children, but the suggestions below are some of our personal favorites.
Just–or mostly–for the kids
No trip to Lisbon with kids would be complete without a vist to the Oceanarium. Ranked among the best aquariums in the world, the Oceanarium is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. (And that “indoor” part can be a real Godsend on very hot or very rainy days…) The layout is interesting and there are informative, interactive displays that will keep older children engaged. Meanwhile, the giant fish in the central “Deep Ocean” tank are a treat for kids from 9 months to 99 years!
The Lisbon zoo is also popular with the younger set. In recent years, ongoing renovations have created more and more “naturalized” exhibition areas, meaning there’s lots of shade and even some hidden playgrounds. It’s a big place, so–if the little ones get tired of walking before they’ve seen everything they want to see–be sure to ride the cable car, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the entire zoo (including a fly-over of the lion enclosure, yikes!).
The city of Lisbon is also dotted with small parks and playgrounds, if your keep your eyes open.
But don’t forget the history!
Besides these kid-specific locations, Lisbon is a living history lesson. Make the most of it! Start off at the Lisboa Story Center for a multi-media summary of Portuguese history, then pick one–or more–periods to explore further. Some historical attractions that will hold the interest of children and adults include:
- St. Jorge’s Castle: Be sure to patrol the ramparts at the top of the walls, looking for attacking Moors–or Spaniards! Look for Family Sundays during your stay for extra fun…;
- Belém: See the tomb of Vasco de Gama, the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to India, at the Jerónimos Monastery. Then pretend to send off your own fleet of caravelas (the distinctive ships used by the Portuguese in the Age of Discoveries) from the Belém Tower;
- Sintra: So many castles and palaces, so little time! For those who love to run and explore, the Moorish Castle is great. For the Disney princess in your group, don’t miss Pena Palace. And if you have time, the Quinta da Regaleira is both mysterious and fascinating.
If you’d like some help making Lisbon’s history interesting for your children, talk to Little Lisbon about their walking tours and guided visits. (No affiliate link there, folks, we just think it’s a great project!)
Last but not least, museums
Most museums in Lisbon are small and specific, with means they take only a few hours to view. This is perfect when you’re travelling with kids, since that’s about all they can take. A couple of our favorites are:
- Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: This small, eclectic museum is based around the personal collection of an Armenian oil baron who retired to Lisbon and willed the city a foundation that would bear his name. Perhaps because it was a private collection, the whole thing seems to “go together” somehow, despite including art multiple periods, styles and regions. The temporary exhibits are also, in our experience, excellent. And last but not least, the Museum is surrounded by lovely gardens that include a cafe.
- Museu de Água: A museum about WATER? I know, I know, it sounds like a total yawn. But my 10 year old daughter went on a field trip the Museu de Água and she loved it. Highlights include exploring an aquaduct soaring over the city and climbing down into glittering cisterns hidden under a perfectly normal-looking park.
And for those hard-to-please teens?
We wrote a blog post all about the joys of seeing Lisbon with teens, but the highlight activities included:
- Beaches, with or without surf lessons;
- Sports: biking, skating, rock-climbing, parkour… and futbol/soccer everywhere, either as a player or a spectator;
- Shopping, especially in the Baixa, where there are plenty of alternative acitivities for non-shoppers.
What to skip
Fado. Not in general, of course–we love Fado. But it tends to happen in small, crowed restaurants, late in the evening, over long meals and lots of wine. And most importantly, the audience is supposed to maintain strict silence while Fado is sung. So unless you have a babysitter (which we’re happy to help guests find, by the way!), or your child really loves music, fado should probably be left for adult-only holidays.
Where to stay
We’re obviously biased, since we own and manage vacation rentals, but we do think that having your own house or apartment is a flexible, convenient, affordable way to stay in Lisbon with kids. Many places have child-friendly amenities, as we do, or these can be rented. We also stock our houses with books, games and art supplies, as well as providing child safety gates, ice packs (for bumps and bruises) and first aid kits. Both TripAdvisor and AirBnb allow you to search for places that have been reccommended for families by previous guests.
Beyond that, stay near the city center. Lisbon is not an easy city to drive or park in, and children can only walk so much. The closer you are to the center of town, where the main tourist attractions are, the easier your stay will be. However, be careful of the Bairro Alto, where the rousing nightlife means there may be a lot of noise in the evenings (and, honestly, through most of the night…).
How to get around
Speaking of not driving, how should you get around Lisbon with your children? For the most part, on foot, on the metro or using taxis.
Public transportation in Lisbon–especially the metro–is easy to use, inexpensive, and covers most of the city. The trams are charming and very much an adventure for kids, as they shudder up and down the hills. Children under 4 ride for free. If you’re tired or want to go somewhere not on a metro line, just hop in a taxi. Child seats are not required in taxis and there is no charge for putting a stroller (or wheelchair) in the trunk/boot.
To stroller or not to stroller…
Lisbon is a very walkable city, but it is not a stroller-friendly city. Hills are steep. Sidewalks are narrow, twisting and often cobbled. Stairways abound. Consider babywearing, not as a lifestyle statement, but simply as a practical alternative to wheels. If you don’t babywear at home, you can rent (or borrow, if you’re a guest) an ergonomic carrier from us.
If you choose to use a stroller, bring the lightest one you can. Something one step up from an umbrella stroller (with slightly larger wheels and some suspension for those cobbles, but that still folds up into almost nothing) is perfect. I’ve used Chicco Liteway and London strollers with good results. An added benefit: they fit through the normal doors in the metro, so you don’t have to wait for someone to open the special, larger door.
Where to eat
All but the fanciest restaurants will happily accommodate children. Most will have highchairs or booster seats, and very few will complain if your one-year-old makes something of a mess (go ahead, ask me how I know this…).
However, food service is not snappy (this is cultural–rushing through meals is believed to be bad for you). Bring something for the kids to do while you wait for your meal. Drawing on the paper tablecloth covers is acceptable, as long as the pens don’t bleed through, so a box of crayons may be enough. If you know your children tend to get antsy, try to sit near the door or in the esplanada (outdoor seating area) so that one adult can take the kids outside while you wait for your food to arrive.
How to feed picky eaters
Many larger places will have a children’s menu, but almost any restaurant will be able to make you one the following:
- Omlete, made simple, with cheese or misto (cheese and ham), and normally served with rice and/or French fries;
- Bife com batatas fritas, a thin slice of meat–normally turkey breast or pork leg–served with French fries;
- Tosta mista, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich: melting, buttery and delicious. Mostly available at places that call themselves “Café – Restaurant”, meaning they function as a coffee shop outside of mealtimes.
There is a cafe selling Olá ice cream on almost every corner. Indulging often (even every day!) in just a little ice cream is a very Portuguese way to celebrate your vacation. Because, who doesn’t love ice cream? It bightens any day.
Where to find a potty
Almost anywhere. Did we mention that the Portuguese love children? Cafés and Restaurants have restrooms (WC) that are customers-only, but if it’s urgent, ask to go first and buy a juice or a coffee (0,60€-0,80€) on your way out. In a real emergency, some shops will even let a desperate kid use the employee bathroom. And if all else fails, it is culturally acceptable (if not super good-smelling) to let kids of potty training age “water a tree” or a bush in a discrete corner of any green space.
When to go
We have a blog post in the works about the best time of year to visit Lisbon. But the short version is: anytime! (Except maybe January or November, for a first visit, because the rain can spoil some of the sights.) Obviously, if you can avoid school vacations, there will be fewer crowds. Yet even in the busiest months, Lisbon is charming.
What else you should know when visiting Lisbon with kids…
…about the touching
Remember how the Portuguese love children? Well, they really, really love children. Total strangers may talk to your child, touch your child, even try to pick up your child. All of these things are perfectly normal in Portuguese culture, where people still honestly believe it takes a village to raise a child. But they can feel a little scary for a kid who isn’t used to so much attention.
…about the hats
Portuguese children wear hats when it’s sunny. It’s a big deal. Consider getting a hat for your child, just so people will stop telling you they need one.
…about the little old ladies
Oh, the adorable little old Portuguese ladies. Who think it will be so helpful if they just give you this one piece of advice about raising your children… Like telling you that your child should be wearing a hat. Or another sweater. Or not playing in the rain. I’ve found it’s best to just smile, nod, even thank them. And to remember that they do it out of love. …Aaaand that we’ll all be old one day, and will still want people to be kind to us…
…about Atendimento Prioritário
The elderly, disabled, pregnant women and people with children under two have the right to atendimento prioritário, meaning they get served first, or at least bumped to the head of the line. This is not just politeness, it is actually the law. So don’t feel you need to demure or wave off offers to let you “cut” in line at the supermarket, at ticket counters and even busy cafés or padarias (bread shops). Just smile, say obrigado in a general way to everyone, and go ahead…
- If no one offers to let you go first, but there are more than 3-4 people ahead of you and the baby’s about to lose it, you can say “posso?” (“may I?” pronounced “POH-ssoo?”)–while holding the baby–and gesture to the front of the line.
- In official settings (the airport, tickets for museums, etc.) there may be a specific line for atendimento prioritário. Ask a security guard or other employee for more information.
- On the metro and trams there are reserved seats –usually upholstered in red–next to a sign on the window. Don’t be shy about asking someone to get up if you need to (do use your “por favor“s, “obrigado“s and grateful smiles, of course).
Sea lion kisses at the zoo – for the young and young at heart!
Other Online Resources for Traveling with Children
Photo Credits: Allie Struzyna & Drex Kleber. Thanks again for the fun day, tios!