Lisbon was a surprise to me. It has a reputation of being “Old Europe,” a bit stodgy and not as exciting as some of the other Western European cities on offer. Boy, is that wrong — Lisbon is thriving, with new architectural projects and arts and cultural centers giving the city a revitalized feel. It’s impossible to escape the sense of being in the middle of something new that builds on (and still honors) the very old. With the sun dazzling on the tile-paved streets and reflecting off the Tagus River, Lisbon is a bright spot in a European family itinerary.
Lisbon is really a collection of small neighborhoods, each with its own character. I first arrived in the Chiado section of town, named for a famous Portuguese poet (as many of the squares in Lisbon are). The area is undergoing a massive renovation, with several buildings being revamped at oncec. It’s filled with cultural offerings like the Chiado Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Sao Carlos Theater, Lisbon’s opera house — a gorgeous, gilt-edged building that stages free Saturday morning concerts for children.
A tram ride will give a visitor the best overview of Lisbon’s top spots (though a young child might enjoy an entire day just riding the tram!). One tram ticket will work for an all-day hop on/hop off plan. Other neighborhoods we passed through on the tram include the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter, with the narrowest streets I’ve ever seen. When I was there they were preparing for the annual sardine festival, and the labyrinthine streets were decorated with colored flags and bunting. This is also home to some of the city’s most iconic sights: Castelo de Sao Jorge, a fortress with sections that date back over a thousand years, plus a Camera Obscura where families get a virtual 360-degree tour of the city; and the National Tile Museum, a treat for anyone interested in the decorative arts.
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While it’s tempting to explore Lisbon on foot, especially because of the beautiful tiled pedestrian streets and tile-fronted buildings, it is not called the “City of Seven Hills” for nothing. Smaller trams, or funiculars, line the exceedingly steep side streets to connect neighborhoods. The Elevador da Gloria is one of the most charming, carrying passengers from Baixa to Bairro Alto.
Another fun option for traversing Lisbon’s ups and downs is the Santa Justa lift, which allows some of the most beautiful views of the city. With construction having begun in 1901, I was told by a guide that it is the oldest elevator in Europe (those with a fear of heights may want to avoid it), and a ride up or down gives the visitor a feel for the layout of this old city.
The Belem neighborhood, a quick tram ride out of the city center, is a must. One of the most exciting aspects of the Portuguese story is the Age of Discovery, when overseas exploration was at its peak, and the neighborhood immerses you in this pivotal point in history. A walk by the Tagus River is a window into the nautical mindset of the Portuguese. Kids will be wowed by the massive Age of Discovery monument; it’s worth reading up on the famous Portuguese explorers so everyone can hunt for familiar faces.
The Belem Tower is next door to the monument. Built in the 16th century to guard the harbor, it is a Lisbon icon. Parents will also be wowed by the chic little cocktail carts that dot the riverfront, good for a break while enjoying the view of the beautiful 25th of April Bridge over the river. Belem also has easy access to the Oceanarium, an architecturally interesting, very large aquarium.
To be in Lisbon is to enjoy some of the freshest seafood in the world. It’s impossible to escape the presence of the water here, and the dining options reflect the active fishing culture that still exists. Choices range from the many sidewalk cafes in the revitalized Commerce Square next the river, to tiny restaurants hidden away in the Alfama. At all of them, offerings from the local waters are ubiquitous, along with Portugal’s favorite import: bacalao (salted codfish).
Another old-meets-new touch is the Time Out Food Market (also called the Mercado da Ribeira). Where there used to be a traditional open-air market, some of the best chefs in Lisbon have set up shop, but none of them is stuffy or expensive. With the food hall format, a family can pick and choose from an array of dining options, do some shopping at the pop-up concept stores filled with artisanal Portuguese offerings, and soak up the atmosphere of the huge space.
• Plan on at least two or three days to enjoy Lisbon. It’s also a great stop on a longer trip through Portugal.
• While Lisbon has a family-centered culture, it is not a stroller-centric city, with tile and cobblestone streets. You may struggle with a stroller here, especially with the hills. However, Lisboans are friendly, and I saw locals helping to carry a stroller onto a tram.
• When deciding which area to stay in with kids, the new Martinhal Chiado Family Suites in the Chiado district is a fantastic and centrally located option, with exceedingly large units. Although I didn’t stay here, I did a walk-through and came away impressed. We’re longtime fans of the Martinhal brand at Ciao Bambino, and this is an excellent addition to their portfolio.
Our favorite family hotels in Lisbon and beyond >
Editor’s Note: Adria experienced Lisbon as part of a media trip. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Adria Carey Perez.
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