From sky-high historic elevators to inflatable boat tours on the River Tagus, uncovering the dark secrets of the Age of Discoveries and nurturing a taste for custard tarts and colourful festivals, Lisbon steals little hearts instantly and usually turns out to be a lifelong passion. It may be one of the oldest and most romantic cities in Europe, but the Portuguese capital loves kids and has a great talent for unforgettable family holidays.
Direct flights from the UK to Lisbon, year round, take less than three hours.
Lisbon is crisp and frosty for Christmas Markets and sunny with temperatures between 25 and 30˚ from May to September.
Atlantic beach resorts on the sunny Costa da Caparica are less than 30 minutes from Lisbon city centre.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Torre de Belém are two of Lisbon’s most famous monuments and both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Lisbon has six restaurants with a Michelin Star and it’s home to extraordinary Bel Canto which has two stars and lists as one of the world’s best 100 restaurants.
Hotels in Lisbon range from cool boutique independents in Bairro Alto to heritage five star guesthouses in Alfama, Atlantic beach resorts, international luxury hotels in the city centre and funky new brands on the waterfront at Cais do Sodré.
Where to go and stay in Lisbon
The oldest city in Europe, Lisbon’s been partially destroyed by earthquake twice in the past 500 years. But somehow, the historic Alfama district has always remained relatively unscathed. Predominantly medieval with traces of ancient Rome here and there, it’s instantly recognisable from narrow alleys, steep staircases and tall, skinny buildings colourfully cluttered around cobbled streets.
Best for heritage boutique hotels with gorgeous roof terraces and their own Instagram accounts.
Apart from unmissable Castelo São Jorge, atmosphere’s the biggest attraction here: wander around and let Alfama work the charm.
Don’t miss: Lisbon Cathedral; Tram 28; National Azulejo Museum; Fado Museum; Caso dos Bicos.
The history of Lisbon over the past 1000 years is inextricably linked to the Age of Discoveries and nowhere in the city has more connections to the era than Belém. The waterfront district with wide open views over the River Tagus is a must-visit. Not only is it home to two of Portugal’s most famous World Heritage monuments, it’s where to buy the city’s best custard tarts, bar none.
Look for long, snaking queues in Belém at any time and you’ve found Pastéis de Belém. The historic custard tart (pastéis) baker is a city legend and you can’t leave Lisbon without visiting at least once.
Don’t miss: Torre de Belém; Mosteiro dos Jerónimos; Padrao dos Descobrimentos; the tomb of Vasco de Gama; Plaza Alfonso de Albuquerque.
The extraordinary ‘upper’ district can seem a little sleepy by day, head over in the early evening and it’s the Lisbon you always imagined: balconied 18th and 19th century homes lining romantic cobbled streets; tiny shops and pretty restaurants tucked into historic buildings; old fashioned street lights; and narrow alleys steep enough for handrails. Even younger kids find the fairy tale of Bairro Alto enchanting at night.
Good for indie hotels and cool European brands. This is the young barrio where you’ll find rising star restaurants; pop-up bars; rooftop swimming pools and new-name local designers.
The city centre was almost completely destroyed by earthquake in the late 18th century and Baixa Pombalina was designed after-the-fact to withstand anything. The sturdy, grid street plan and conservative architecture have managed well to date. Not the district for charmingly quaint Lisbon, but good for practicalities like tourist information, international hotels and shopping.
Enormous Avenida de Liberdade is where to look for designer stores and luxury hotels – not the cheapest place to stay in Lisbon but scores high on glamour.
Palácio Foz is the city’s Tourist Information Centre, and if there’s a grander one in Europe, it’s well hidden.
Don’t miss: Praça dos Restauradores; Elevador de Santa Justa; Rossio Station; São Pedro de Alcântra Gardens; Praça dom Pedro IV and Praça do Comercio; Teatro da Trinidade.
Lisbon’s chic shopping district doesn’t work a budget but the enchantment is entirely free. Several historic 18th and 19th century buildings were damaged by fire in 1988 but the restoration work’s flawless and nothing about Chiado says inauthentic. Largely pedestrianised, walking around here’s easy with kids and some of the city’s prettiest and best loved cafés are a constant excuse to rest up for a little.
Drop into Armazéns do Chiado: Lisbon’s venerable department store was reimagined as a slick mall post-1988. The shops are good but it’s the architecture you want to see: work of Álvaro Siza Vieira designer of Boa Nova Teahouse near Porto.
Visit Livraria Bertrand on Rua Garret (opened in 1732, it’s the world’s oldest bookshop) and stop at Casa Pereira for exquisite heritage chocolate.
Don’t miss: Chiado Museum; Convento do Carma; Basilica dos Mártires; Largo do Chiado.
Costa da Caparica
Just over half an hour from the city, Costa da Caparica is where Lisbon hangs out on big, sandy Atlantic beaches in summer. Families and kids are king here and the friendly, fun atmosphere is more Algarve than major European capital.
Good for all-inclusive resort hotels, beach apartments and day’s out from Lisbon.
Parque Natural da Arrábida is fascinating to explore with kids and less than half an hour south of Costa da Caparica.
What to do and see with kids in Lisbon
Torre de Belém, Belém District
Portugal’s most recognisable monument was completed in the 16th century, overlooks the River Tagus and is spectacular inside and out.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Belém District This magnificent late 15th century monastery was commissioned by Manual I to celebrate Vasco de Gama’s discovery of India’s Spice Routes.
Sintra UNESCO World Heritage Sintra is Portugal’s most visited attraction. It’s a magical, fairy tale of a town and just 30km from the centre of Lisbon.
Castelo de São Jorge, Alfama Lisbon’s most visited site is made for kids. The interactive exhibits, regular re-enactments and soaring battlements are great fun and the walk back down through Alfama’s enchanting.
Museu Chiado, Chiado District Lisbon’s exciting modern art gallery contains a fine collection of 19th and 20th century Portuguese paintings and sculpture, several important European works and hosts interesting temporary exhibitions in autumn and winter.
Lisbon Oceanarium, River Tagus
TripAdvisor voted Lisbon Oceanarium the ‘Best Aquarium in the World’. It has everything from octopus to otters and is just as mesmerising as its reputation suggests.
Pavilhão do Conhecimento, River Tagus
Another great kids museum on the River Tagus, this time the theme’s science and just about everything’s interactive and fantastically exciting.
Kidzania, Amadora The huge little world that’s sweeping the planet and letting kids pretend anything and everything they want is just as much of an adventure in Lisbon as it is in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur.
Museu da Marioneta, Baixa Pombalina One of Europe’s most captivating museums and definitely not just for kids. Set in historic Convento das Bernardas, look out for performances and family days.
Monsanto Forest Park The city’s largest green space spread across its famous hills, this 1000ha park is filled with stuff to see and do. It’s also one of the best places for just running around and being a bit wild with younger kids.
Educational value for kids
Visit Lisbon in mid-June for the annual Sardine Festival. Technically it’s the Festival of Saint Anthony, but marked by citywide fish grilling, barbecuing and feasting. Expect fantastic parades, street parties, soulful Fado 24/7, and the sight of upended saints in flower pots: Saint Anthony’s the saint of matchmaking and young Lisbon locals traditionally bury his effigy in soil as a love charm.
Take teens to Mercado de Ribeira in Lisbon’s port district on a Friday or Saturday evening. The original 19th century market was almost demolished until Time Out stepped in, bought it over and restored it as one of the coolest places in the city for pop-up restaurants, new music, mini-festivals and hanging out. Also good for lunch.
Monsanto Forest Park is Lisbon’s largest, covers over 1000ha and showcases the city’s fabulous mountains. Walk or cycle the Monsanto Green Lane with kids, the views of the River Tagus are amazing.
Indielisboa in May is one of Europe’s most exciting independent movie festivals and shows a fantastic selection of interesting animation.
According to people who know these things, Café Luso in Bairro Alto is the only place to hear authentic Fado in Lisbon. The atmosphere’s warm and friendly and the food’s excellent.
Most of Lisbon’s trams are sleek and modern these days, with one exception. Historic Tram 28 runs the scenic route from Alfama to Chiado. It’s bright yellow with a tinkly bell, wooden seats and a charming rattle ‘n’ roll pace: hard to miss. Hop on anywhere, but jump off at Rua Garrett to browse Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookshop.
47m high Elevador de Santa Justa is the city’s most famous district lift. It links Baixo Pombalina and Bairro Alto and is still in original and opulent 19th century condition. It’s actually one of four historic elevators for kids to ride in Lisbon centre, and when they get tired of those, soaring cable cars pick up the slack.
Getting about with kids in Lisbon
Unless you’ve nerves of steel and a firm grasp of Portuguese, don’t drive in Lisbon. The city style is defensive in the extreme and takes the type of skills you probably aren’t planning to pick up on holiday. Use the Metro, it goes everywhere and keeps late hours. The trams are excellent, plus they take priority over all other transport. And if you’re working barrio by barrio, Lisbon’s not too difficult to walk around with kids.