Lisbon, with its colourful houses, red-tiled roofs and near constant blue skies, is the loveliest of cities. It makes the perfect destination for a long weekend but I’d recommend staying even longer. You’ll want to linger for a while in its cobbled streets, to eat more cakes and seafood in the delicious restaurants and fully explore the wonderful food markets and historic neighbourhoods.
There’s so much to see and do for all the family, from riding on the trams to exploring the castle and visiting the aquarium. Here’s my guide to the best activities in the city for families.
Make getting around part of the fun
There are seven hills in Lisbon so expect steep streets and lots of steps. Public transport is relatively cheap, easy to work out – and lots of fun. The trams and elevators are a great way of travelling around the city and avoiding those steep hills. The number 28 tram goes through historic neighbourhoods so makes for a lovely tour of Lisbon on your first day. Your kids will love the excitement of the Santa Justa Lift and the Gloria Funicular. You can even get ferries across the Tagus River for great views over the city.
Get a green Viva Viagem card for each person travelling from newsagents or metro and train stations for €0.50. We found the easiest system was ‘Zapping’ where you top up your card with money.
Walk along the ramparts of the Castelo de Sao Jorge
Climbing the ramparts of the Moorish castle entertained our two boys for ages. Lisbon’s castle was built in the 11th century and the kings of Portugal lived here for several hundred years. There’s lots to explore including a moat, a keep, cannons, lots of ramparts and eleven towers. Our two had a brilliant time climbing into each and every tower and very soon abandoned us to play their own imaginary game in the castle.
I’d be wary of bringing very young children here though as there are low walls, narrow steps and some steep drops. From the top of the castle, the views over Lisbon’s red roofs are stunning. After your visit, wander through the tiny streets of the atmospheric Alfama district.
The Castelo de Sao Jorge is open daily from 9am until 9pm. Tickets, adults, €8.50; children, €5. A family ticket costs €20 for a family of four.
Eat lots of cake
There are cake shops, pastelarias, on virtually every street, all full of delicious cakes and pastries. You can’t leave Lisbon without having at least one Pastel de Nata, the delicious pastry nest filled with custard cream. People queue into the street to buy the Pastéis de Belém at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém 84-92, where they’ve been serving them since 1837. It’s no surprise they’re so popular: the tarts here are still warm from the oven and come with a sachet of cinnamon to sprinkle over.
Be warned though: one is never enough. Before you know it you’ll be convincing yourself you need one every time you pass a pastry shop. By the time we left we were eating them morning, noon and night. Thank goodness for Lisbon’s steep streets – all that exercise gave us an excuse for indulging!
Search for fantastical creatures in the cloisters of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Take your children on a hunt for some of the fantastical creatures carved in stone in the cloisters at the Monastery. Look carefully and you’ll find sea monsters, gruesome gargoyles, snakes and fountains in the shape of lions.
The monastery was commissioned to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India in the early 16th century and you can see the famous Portuguese explorer’s tomb in the church. The church is undeniably impressive but it’s the two-storey cloisters that make the monastery such a good place to visit. They are breathtakingly beautiful, with highly ornate stonework, arches and balustrades – far better than those at Hogwarts, according to my two Harry Potter fans.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am until 5.30pm (October to May) and from 10am until 6.30pm (May to September). Entrance to the church is free, tickets for the cloisters cost €10. There is no charge on the first Sunday of the month. Combined tickets for the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém cost €12.
Watch the sharks Being fed at the Oceanário de Lisboa
You can watch sharks, manta rays and penguins being fed at Lisbon’s wonderful Oceanário. It’s one of Europe’s largest aquariums but it doesn’t feel too big and the whole family agreed it was the best aquarium we’ve ever been to. The rooms and tanks represent four oceans, all positioned around a fantastic central tank which you’ll keep coming back to – and see different fish every time. Our favourites were the adorable sea otters, the graceful rays and the extraordinary-looking ocean sunfish.
The Oceanário de Lisboa is open daily from 10am until 7pm. Tickets, adults, €14; children, €9; under 4s, free. Family tickets cost €36 for a family of four.
Visit the Puppet Museum
Children can stage their own puppet shows at the little Museu da Marioneta in an 18th-century former convent. They can have a go at manipulating puppets on a string, hand puppets and even try and do a virtual puppet show where you can move the puppets around on a large screen just by moving your hands.
There are over 1,000 puppets and masks on display from all over the world, with short films showing the puppets in use. Our favourites were the puppets that walked through water in Vietnam – there was even a fire-breathing dragon!
The Museu da Marioneta is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm, 2pm until 6pm. Tickets, €5; free on Sunday mornings.
Watch a Fado show
Fado music has been part of Lisbon’s identity since the early 19th century. Singers are usually accompanied by guitars and the music is often mournful and full of longing. It’s a great experience watching a Fado show or going to one of the Casas de Fado, a restaurant where the musicians perform while you’re eating, but these aren’t usually ideal for children as they tend to be quite strict and insist on silence while the performers sing.
A much better option for families is Adega do Ribatejo, Rua do Diário de Noticias, 23, a much more laid-back restaurant where the waiters are as likely to burst into song as one of the cooks from the kitchen. It’s all great fun – and the food is good too. Be prepared to pay a cover charge on top of what you eat.
Visit the Palaces of Sintra
If you’re in Lisbon for more than a couple of days you must visit Sintra, an easy 40-minute train ride away. The palaces on the hills amid green forests were once the royal family’s summer retreat and are like something out of a fairytale.
Pena Palace in particular, with its bright candy-coloured turrets, towers, cloisters and spires, is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve every been to and all four of us considered our visit here the highlight of our trip to Lisbon. We also loved the magical gardens at the Quinta da Regaleira. The boys were in heaven exploring the grottos, secret passages, towers and tunnels.
Read my Guide to the Palaces of Sintra for more photos and stories.
The National Palace of Pena is open every day from 10am until 6pm. Tickets cost from €13.30, adults; €11.88, children; under 6s, free. The Quinta da Regaleira is open daily from 10am until 5.30pm (November to February), until 6.30pm (February, March and October) and until 8pm at other times. Tickets, adults, €6; children, €4; under 9s, free. Family tickets cost €18.
Let them run off steam in the park
Lisbon has lots of lovely parks and gardens where children can feed the ducks and play in the playgrounds. We loved the Jardim da Estrela, a very pleasant park with a couple of duck ponds and a good playground. It’s close to the wonderful food market at Campo de Ourique so a good place for a picnic. The Parque Eduardo VII has playgrounds and great views over Lisbon and the Botanical Gardens at the university are another good bet – the butterfly house is well worth a visit.
Climb into the towers of the Torre de Belém
The tower at Belém is one of Lisbon’s most recognisable landmarks and our two loved everything about it: its position overlooking the Tagus River, the 17 cannons, the winding staircases, prison cells, watchtowers and balconies.
The four-storey fortified tower was built in the 16th century to guard the river entrance into Lisbon harbour and was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery. See if your kids can spot the stone rhinoceros by peering out of one of the windows. Our two particularly enjoyed climbing in and out of the cylindrical turrets on the Tower Terrace.
The Torre de Bélem is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am until 5.30pm (October to May) and until 6.30pm (May to September). Tickets cost €6. Admission is free on the first Sunday of the month. Combined tickets with the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos cost €12.
Need to Know
It’s worth considering getting a Lisbon Card. Lisbon’s tourist pass gives you free public transport, free admission to sights like the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém and discounts off others. A 24-hour card costs €18.50 for adults and €11.50 for children.
For more information on visiting Lisbon, take a look at the Visit Lisbon website.
Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to some of the sights mentioned but all opinions are honest and my own.