Lisbon, Portugal, is a city to suit the family

When we think about family holidays in Portugal, they rarely involve Lisbon. But it’s a child-friendly city well worth exploring, writes Noel Baker.
Lisbon, Portugal, is a city to suit the family

You know what they seldom tell you about in all those articles about dream overseas family holidays? The moments of pure terror, so petrifying that even thinking about them afterwards makes the blood drain to your feet.

Exhibit A: on a recent family trip to Portugal, we were strolling away from a fantastic and incident-free lunch and my eldest was walking along the top of a low wall. Then suddenly the wall had a footpath on one side and a 15ft drop to the beach on the other. My heart stopped, time stood still - and she just hopped down unaided to safety.

What am I getting at? Aside from outlining how I’m now the world’s biggest worrier, maybe these moments crystallise the dichotomy of a ‘family holiday’: you’ll probably return home with a few more grey hairs, but stay lucky and there’ll be memories to cherish for a lifetime.

This was my fourth trip to Portugal but my first to Lisbon and surrounding areas and it confirmed something I’ve felt for a while: our bail-out buddies live in possibly Europe’s best country.

There’s a friendliness and humility here that puts it above its euro neighbours in terms of value, and Lisbon is a knockout. With three kids in tow, all under 6, a week overseas is not without its challenges (see opening paragraphs). But being with them as they embrace new places and experiences for the first time is a pure joy.

For most of our stay we were in Cascais, some 30 minutes outside Lisbon, a Dalkey-to-Dublin-type geographical relationship. We stayed at the newly-opened Martinhal Cascais-Lisboa resort, having been blown away by the child-friendly atmosphere and attention to detail on a previous trip to Martinhal Sagres on Portugal’s southern-most tip.

Open just a matter of weeks at the time of our visit in late March, Martinhal in Cascais is similar but different. There’s no eye-popping view of the ocean but you are a short downhill stroll from the coast, plus the location is perfect for day trips to the capital or jaunts up the coastline to spots such as Sintra.

And while the fretting gets underway on those journeys, at least you can relax back at base, thanks to the range of activities for smallies of all ages, a kids club, a playground so good I went on the big slide more than once, and - praise be - supervised play areas while you eat your food in the restaurants.

Cascais itself is a delight, with the bustling atmosphere of a place many times its size, yet retaining a small town charm.

It has numerous beaches and an old citadel well worth exploring, plus more foodie options than you can shake a breadstick at. We had ice cream three times at Santini’s, an institution with such appeal it draws city folk out from Lisbon.

Mar do Inferno, the shack-style restaurant on Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), does the same for lovers of seafood. Our lunch there was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

Obviously, all this consumption has to be walked off at some stage. The five of us headed off on a hike around the forests surrounding Santuário da Peninha, the stone remains of an old chapel on top of a hill which offers amazing views up and down the coastline.

Led by Teresa of we went around a forest trail in runners and boots with little or no difficulty, marvelling at the lushness of the trees and the giant granite rocks and stones which, due to their silvery nighttime glitter, probably explains Peninha’s nickname of ‘moon mountain’ - although Teresa said there are also “mystical explanations” as to the title.

Elsewhere, in nearby Sintra, magic is everywhere. Two local buses can take you from Cascais to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, a truly dazzling town in the mountains that is said to have influenced Walt Disney.

You can see why: many towns have shopping centres, but Sintra has castles and palaces.

We managed to take in some of the beautiful Quinta da Regalaria, a fairytale estate with parks, grottos, wells and the Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire, and we also walked through the interactive ‘myths and legends’ tour in the tourism centre. Sintra is a special place.

It rained during our trip and it seemed like we were in a micro-climate, in a misty tropical forest.

We wanted to see the sweeping, Romanesque Pena National Palace, and the astonishing Moors Castle, built into the edge of the mountain, was also on our list, but there are only so many climbs you can ask three children to undertake, so they remained just out of reach. Next time.

And so to Lisbon. With its trams, buses and metro it’s easy to navigate and easier to love. Everything is close by and in our time in the capital we grabbed what we could of a city that obviously demands repeat visits.

The Lisboa Story Centre on the Praca do Comercio plaza in front of the Rua Augusta Arch gave us a great primer on the city’s history, not least a dramatic filmic depiction of the devastating earthquake of 1755 which would have wiped out a lesser capital.

We also got to the top of the Augusta Arch, recommended for the gorgeous panoramas of the city in every direction and a chance to appreciate the scale of a place that was once the centre of global discovery.

On day two we caught the metro to Oceanario de Lisboa, a fantastic and innovative oceanarium that was previously the centrepiece to the 1998 World Fair.

My three loved it, taking in the penguins, otters, frogs, octopuses and sea horses from around the world, the different sections wrapped around a massive aquarium in the centre which has a hypnotic collection of marine life, from sharks, to sting rays, to devil fish, and more.

Oceanario is just down the road from the Meo Arena, the new home of the Web Summit. You can see why the wi-fi lads thought Lisbon could take the gig. Other attractions in the same area, such as the interactive Science Museum Pavilhao do Conhecimento, come highly recommended.

Then the 728 bus all the way along Lisbon’s lengthy working docks pitched us up a short walk from the Museu da Marioneta, or Puppet Museum. It’s a nice primer into the world of puppetry and stop-motion animation, although my trio wanted to get at all the models like they were in a toy shop. And that was it.

There was so much to see but coordinating those little legs around the place meant accepting that you can’t do it all, all the time, but make no mistake, Lisbon and its surroundings offers you plenty of reasons to come back.

I’d love to, and never mind the odd scare and the grey hairs, the plaintive cries of “stop kicking the seats” on the aeroplane and the occasional dalliances with potential disaster.

After all, we’ll only remember the good bits...eventually.


Where to stay

Martinhal Cascais: This has the lot, including helpful staff, great location, lovely accommodation and a new pool area.

Offers online at include extended summer short break packages until October 25 for two, four or seven nights.

Our Air BNB was on Rua da Padaria and its location could not be topped for downtown access. Its interior is less an apartment and more a Narnia of sensory overload.

Where to eat

Cascais: Mar do Inferno - advance booking. Might just have the best grilled seafood ever -

Get your ice cream at Santini in town while the home made burgers at Os Bordallos are good and the Mercado da Vila has lovely cafes and great open air food markets.

Sintra: Saudade cafe near the train station does tasty XL scones in a lovely setting and has great coffee and sandwiches. Also a guesthouse.

Lisbon: local recommendations include Osteria, O Talho and Cafe Royal, but we had a great meal at Cantinho do Avillez reasonably-priced sister restaurant of the Michelin-starred Belcanto.

My chocolate cake with raspberry ice cream and accompanying port had me reaching for the thesaurus.

What to do

It’s a long list. Oceanario is a must, there’s the Museu do Fado in the city centre, which tells the story of the Portuguese native song form, and for a great, cheap tour of parts of the old city hop on Tram 28 for a spin.

If you can afford it go shopping along the massive Avenida da Liberdade or rummage in the vintage stores downtown.

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