Nine Reasons You Should Visit The Lisbon Oceanário

Nine Reasons you should visit the Lisbon Oceanário

The Oceanário in Lisbon is easily the best aquarium we’ve ever been to. It’s also one of the biggest, with a fantastic variety of fish and other animals. You’ll find puffins and penguins, sharks and jellyfish as well as the more unusual creatures such as the cartoon-like sunfish and the adorable sea otters.

Here are all the reasons why you should visit.

It’s the largest indoor aquarium in Europe

© Mafalda Frade

The Oceanário is Europe’s biggest indoor aquarium, containing about 25,000 different fish, seabirds and mammals from around the world. But it’s so well designed that it doesn’t feel too big to enjoy.

What’s more, the building itself is really cool. My James Bond-obsessed 12-year-old said it looked “just like an evil villain’s hideout”. The eye-catching building appears to be floating on the water and you enter by crossing a footbridge.

It’s extremely well laid out

The aquarium is on two floors surrounding a massive central tank. The tank is seven metres deep so that visitors can look into it at different levels for close ups of the creatures living at the top and the bottom of the ocean.

The four main areas around the central tank showcase four different habitats around the world: the North Atlantic rocky coast, the Antarctic coastal line, the Temperate Pacific kelp forests and the Tropical Indian coral reefs.

As you wander in and out of the four habitats you keep coming back to the central tank and you’re guaranteed to see something new and fascinating every time. There are lots of helpful signs all over the walls so that you can find out interesting facts as you look around.

The central tank is truly incredible

The central tank is as big as four Olympic-sized swimming pools and contains 100 different species from around the world. Because it’s on two floors you can look into it from different levels which gives you the chance to observe some fish that you wouldn’t normally be able to see.

On the ground floor you can get a better look at the fish that spend most of their time at the bottom of the sea, like the zebra sharks and the guitarfish that look like something halfway between a ray and a shark. You can watch flatfish like plaice, sole and brill burying themselves in the sand and you can sometimes spot penguins diving in-between the rocks.

On the top floor we loved watching the graceful moray eels and the ‘devil fish’ Mantas whose horn-shaped fins work as giant spoons to direct small fish into its mouth.

Like most people, we were particularly taken with the numerous sharks. The sharks here are fed with ten kilos of fish twice a week. We learnt that sharks often shed their teeth and that some of the sandbar sharks have more than 20,000 teeth throughout their lives.

It’s a rare chance to see a sunfish

© Pedro A Pina

We were fascinated by the Ocean Sunfish. It looks like something a child would draw – I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It’s the largest bony fish in the world – more than three metres long and weighs over two tons. It looks exactly like a rock and often lies on its side on the surface of the water to sunbathe.

We were very lucky to see it – the Oceanário is one of very few aquariums in the world to have a sunfish because they are so difficult to care for.

You’ll fall in love with the sea otters

The sea otters, which come from the North Pacific Ocean, were some of my favourite animals in the whole aquarium. They are the only marine mammal to rely on their fur to maintain their body temperature so as a result they’ve got the densest fur in the animal kingdom and spend most of their day grooming their hair.

You can watch the otters doing just this at the Oceanário. They swim to the surface and lie on their backs, rubbing their cheeks with their paws, holding their paws over their furry tummies then rolling around in the water. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen – my youngest son and I literally had to be dragged away so that we could see everything else in the aquarium.

You can walk through a rainforest

The Tropical Indian Ocean part of the aquarium recreates the coralline beaches of the Seychelles. The rainforest and the coral reef are two of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Planet Earth. In this area you can go on a walkway through the forest listening to the sounds of birds and monkeys.

…and into the Antarctic

In the Antarctic area you’ll get to see Rockhopper Penguins and Magellanic Penguins from the Falkland Islands – always a huge favourite in any aquarium we’ve been to. Here the experience is made even better by having Inca Terns flying right above our heads.

It’s a great place to shelter from the sun and rain

Lisbon can get really hot in the summer months and when you’ve had a few days of intense heat it can be a big relief spending a few hours in the cool, tranquil space of the indoor aquarium. It can be a blessed escape from the rain too. Despite its reputation as one of the sunniest cities in Europe, it was pouring with rain when we arrived in Lisbon in February. Spending the afternoon in the Oceanário on that first day was a great way to escape the awful weather.

Even the shop is worth a visit

I’ll usually avoid the gift shop if at all possible but I had to make an exception for this one. It’s packed with great products including soft toy penguins, puffins and sharks. I think they’re missing a trick though – we couldn’t find any soft toy sea otters. We’d have bought those for sure!

The Oceanário de Lisboa is open daily from 10am until 8pm, until 6pm during the winter months. Tickets, adults, €14; children, €9; under 4s, free. Family tickets cost €36 for a family of four.

Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to the Oceanário but all opinions are honest and my own.

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Airbnb: Is it worth the hype?

If you want to stay in an apartment or villa on your next holiday, chances are you’ll consider using Airbnb. The room-letting website has experienced a massive growth since it started in 2008, with over 40 million people all over the world using it to find a spare room or property to stay in while they’re travelling. It’s so popular it’s used in the English language as a verb: “we’re airbnbing it on the Algarve this summer.”

Staying in a rental property often works out quite a bit cheaper than a hotel, particularly if you’re doing your own cooking, so it can be a fantastic option if you’re on a city break. Paying less for accommodation sometimes means that you can afford to stay an extra night or two.

But how good is Airbnb? Does it justify all the hype? We’ve stayed in a lot of rental properties over the years, particularly in the UK as we usually book a cottage somewhere over the Easter holidays. We’ve stayed in some wonderful places, like the Cumbrian house in the Bronte sisters’ old school, the gîte in Brittany where we were invited to dinner with the owners, and the cottage in Cornwall set in parkland safe enough for the boys to go out and explore.

They haven’t all been perfect. Like that place in Devon where the kitchen roof started leaking after a heavy rain storm or the cottage on the Isle of Wight where the dust on the sitting room sofas was so thick my husband nearly had an asthma attack.

We’ve often booked through Owners Direct, a rental company where you deal directly with the owners. It usually works out cheaper than booking through a cottage rental company.

Airbnb works in a similar way so I was interested to see how it compared. We had the ideal opportunity to judge for ourselves as we’ve used it three times in the last few months, staying at three very different properties in three separate countries. Here’s what we thought.

How does Airbnb work?

Airbnb is an online home rental community, with over 2 million listings in 34,000 cities and 191 countries. You rent a room or an entire property from a local host. You can choose from treehouses and caves to boats, cottages or apartments. In some places you need only stay for a day, in others you can stay for several months.


The trip

City break for a family of four

The space

A two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a 17th-century building, with a dining room, well-equipped kitchen and light and airy sitting room with comfortable sofa and chairs.

The apartment was clean and stylishly decorated. We particularly loved the sitting room with its big windows overlooking the area. The apartment was a really good size for the four of us and made the perfect base for exploring Lisbon.

The location

A Photo Tour of LisbonGreat. On a traffic-free street in the Bairro Alto, a picturesque historic neighbourhood in the centre of the city. We could easily walk to many of Lisbon’s sights and the tram and metro stops were close by. Good restaurants and cafés were only a short walk away. Some of the bars in this area can get quite noisy at night but our bedrooms were tucked away in the back of the building so we were never disturbed by noise even on the Friday and Saturday nights.

The welcome

The hosts could not have been more helpful or welcoming. They responded very quickly to all my questions before our arrival. We were met at the apartment and given useful tips about the area and a booklet filled with recommendations of places to go and good restaurants.

When we experienced electrical problems we called the host and he explained how to sort it out straightaway. When I asked about taxi companies for our journey back to the airport they booked the taxi for us.

The cost

We paid £352 for four nights including all fees.

The verdict

The best possible first experience of Airbnb. The apartment was first rate and the hosts were wonderful. It worked out a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel and we had much more space.


How to plan a trip to Paris with a childThe trip

Long weekend stay for a couple

The space

Apartments in Paris all seemed to be a lot more expensive than those in Lisbon. For almost the same price as our large two-bedroom apartment in Portugal, I booked a small mezzanine apartment on a quiet, residential street in the Latin Quarter.

It was a small room with a kitchen counter on one side, a sofa, small table and stairs leading up to the mezzanine where the bedroom was located. Your head touched the ceiling two-thirds of the way up the stairs and once in the bedroom it was only one metre from floor to ceiling so you had to crawl in and out of the bed. The sofa wasn’t very comfortable so we never felt like lingering there.

On the plus side, the apartment was clean, relatively stylish and had a particularly nice bathroom. We were really impressed that we could make free international phone calls.

The location

Near Les Gobelins metro station on the southern edge of the 5th arrondissement. We were near good bakeries and a couple of fantastic local bistros and only a short walk away from the rue Mouffetard where you could find great foodie treats in the market.

I love walking around when I’m visiting cities so I would have preferred a more central location. It was a 40-minute walk from Notre Dame so we needed to use public transport more often than we have been used to when staying in Paris.

The welcome

The host emailed us a really useful list of personal recommendations for restaurants, museums etc after we’d booked. I’d have loved a copy of this in the apartment too. We never met the host. The key was left in a safe box. We tried contacting the host on her mobile during our stay because the TV wasn’t working but she didn’t call us back.

The cost

We paid £257 for three nights including all fees.

The verdict

Compared to our experience in Lisbon, this was a disappointment.


The trip

A week beside the sea with a family of four plus dog

The space

We often book a week in a cottage in the UK but this was our first time with Airbnb. We needed a cottage nice enough for us to want to spend a reasonable amount of time in as we would be eating most of our meals there and spending our evenings curled up in front of the fire.

This was a lovely cottage, with two good-sized bedrooms, a sitting room with sofas and log fire and a large well-equipped kitchen diner including a cupboard filled with board games. It was all beautifully decorated. There was a small garden, with garden furniture and a shed full of crabbing gear.

The location

Perfect. In the centre of the delightful village of Walberswick, near the excellent pubs, cafés and playground on the village green. Even better, we were only a short walk from the beach.

The welcome

The host was very quick to respond to our queries and allowed us to bring our dog with us. We didn’t meet her because she lives abroad. The key was left in a safe for our arrival. In the cottage there was a useful booklet filled with details of local attractions.

Not having the owner around was a disadvantage. The host responded quickly when I reported a couple of small problems but the company managing the cottage never turned up to resolve the issues despite us leaving phone messages.

The cost

We paid £781 for seven nights including all fees.

The verdict

Mixed. This was the most we’ve ever paid for a week in the UK in April and usually we stay in a three-bedroom property. We did love the cottage. Its seaside location was the best we’ve ever had but another time I would look at properties with different companies as well as seeing what Airbnb can offer.

In all our UK cottage holidays, this was the only time we’ve not been greeted on arrival or had problems dealt with straightaway.


The good

  • The impressive website. It’s easy to use, there are lots of good quality photos of each property and you can see where the various places are located on a map – particularly helpful when you’re deciding where to stay in a city.
  • The smart messaging system which you can use on your phone makes it easy to contact the host before and during your stay.
  • The choice: with over 2 million listings, there’s a vast amount of properties to choose from.
  • The flexibility: you can rent a whole house or just a room, for a day or for several months.
  • The connections with locals: I loved the idea of getting to know your hosts and living like a local.
  • The reviews: Guests and hosts alike are encouraged to write reviews and these can be useful when deciding where to stay, especially if they’re detailed.

The not so good

  • Too much choice: There are often so many properties available that it can take ages  deciding on the right one for your trip.
  • Payment: You have to pay the full amount when you book, even if you’re not travelling for several months. With other companies we have always paid a deposit and then paid in full four weeks before our trip.
  • The extra fees: You’ll need to pay cleaning fees (from £24 for Lisbon to £70 for Suffolk) and Airbnb’s service fees on top of the rental price for each property.
  • Don’t assume that Airbnb will be any cheaper than other rental companies. It’s best to shop around for the best deals.
  • Not all hosts will be able or willing to give you that personal touch Airbnb prides itself on. We only had connections with local hosts on one out of three of our experiences.
  • The lack of arrival treats: I’ve read other reviews where guests have been left wine or other goodies on arrival at the property but this wasn’t the case for any of our three stays. This was the first time we’ve not received anything when we’ve rented a property. In the past we’ve had teabags, biscuits or local chutneys and cheeses left for us. In one cottage we arrived to find the table laid with everything we needed for a cream tea. That made us feel really special and we were disappointed not to have anything similar through Airbnb.

So after three separate stays, do I think that Airbnb is worth all the hype it gets? To be honest, I’m still undecided. I think it’s a brilliant option for people looking to rent a room in someone’s house, providing great opportunities to meet locals if you’re actually staying with them.

As a family or even when travelling as a couple, I’d be more likely to book the whole property rather than just a room. We had a fantastic experience in Lisbon and despite our disappointing stay in Paris I’d definitely consider Airbnb again for a city break. It worked out as a much more affordable way to stay in a city and we had a lot more space for our family. But I don’t think that Airbnb is so good that you should ignore what other companies have to offer. Next time I’ll be looking at other property rental websites too.

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Airbnb: Is it worth the hype?



A Guide to the Palaces of Sintra

A Guide to the Palaces of SintraImagine a day where you discover the most extraordinary palace of your life and then on the very same day you explore the most wonderful, magical gardens you’ve ever seen. That was what visiting Sintra was like for our family. Our visit here was the highlight of our recent trip to Lisbon.

The palaces of Sintra are a World Heritage Site. They are perched on hills amid lush forests and gardens and were once the royal family’s summer retreat. On one hill, you’ll see the 8th century Moorish Castle perched dramatically on the rocks and on another the brightly coloured fantasy which is Pena Palace.

You could easily spend a couple of days in Sintra but if you’ve only got a day, here are the highlights.

The Palace of Pena

“Today is the happiest day of my life. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.”

Richard Strauss, composer, on visiting Pena Palace.

The Palace of Pena is like nothing else on earth. It’s a fairytale palace with turrets and watchtowers, fantastical creatures and outlandish decorations. Its candy-coloured walls, spires and towers look as if they belong in The Land of Sweets from the Nutcracker ballet.

“It’s so beautiful it should be one of the seven wonders of the world,” my 10-year-old declared as we wandered around. We weren’t at all surprised to discover that it was Pena Palace that inspired Walt Disney to create his own fairytale castle.

The palace was built by Doma Maria II and Don Fernando II on the grounds of a ruined monastery as a summer retreat for the royal family in the 19th century. It’s considered to be the finest example of Portuguese Romanticism, combining some of the best elements of medieval, gothic and Islamic architecture.

There’s an impressive portcullis as you enter and on the Wall Walk you’ll find a huge stone triton holding up the bay window. Half man, half fish, his gruesome face glares down at you from a stone archway studded with coral.

There are lots more hideous gargoyles to be found as you wander around the outside of the palace, towers to climb into and intricately carved stonework everywhere you look.

Inside the palace there’s exquisite detail too. The Manueline Cloisters, which were part of the 16th-century monastery, are decorated with Moorish tiles, and the upstairs bedrooms have ornate vaulted ceilings, canopied beds and stunning views. Even the bathrooms are a work of art.

Get children to look out for the snakes in the ceiling of the Arabic Room and see what they think of some of the over-the-top decorations, like the life-sized turbaned torchbearers holding up gigantic candelabra in the Ballroom.

If you have time, take a picnic and explore the gardens with its lakes, temples and the Châlet built for the Condessa d’Edler.

The Palace of Pena is open every day from 9.45am until 7pm. Adults, €14; children, €12.50; under 6s, free.

The National Palace of Sintra

The trouble with Pena Palace is that after seeing it, everything else you see seems drab and ordinary. Apart from its two massive conical chimneys, the exterior of the Palace of Sintra isn’t as impressive as that of Pena Palace, but look inside and you’ll find stunning examples of azulejos, the ceramic tiles from the 14th to the 18th century that Portugal is famous for.

The Palace of Sintra was the residence of the Portuguese royal family from as early as the 12th century. In the middle ages it was used as the court’s summer retreat for hunting.

The rooms are named after the pictures painted on the ceilings. The ceiling of the Swan Room, the grand hall you first walk into, is covered with paintings of swans. Soon afterwards you’ll find yourself in the Magpie Room, so called since the 15th century because of the 136 pictures of magpies holding a rose painted on the ceiling. The story goes that King John I gave a rose to one of his queen’s ladies-in-waiting. A magpie snatched the rose and the king excused himself with the words, “Por Bem”, meaning ‘for the good’. He then had the room decorated with a painting of a magpie for every lady-in-waiting at the court.

The Galleon Room is a long, narrow hall built in the 17th century. Its rounded ceiling is illustrated with paintings of ships in full sail. Blazons Hall or the Coats of Arms Room has a hexagonal roof painted with deer and the coats of arms of 72 noble families. The walls of this room are decorated with stunning blue and white azulejos depicting hunting scenes.

Other highlights include the Arab Room with its moorish fountain. This was used as a bedchamber by King John I in the 14th century. We also liked the tiny Room of the Mermaids which was originally used as a wardrobe. Its wooden ceiling is painted with mermaids playing musical instruments.

One of the most interesting rooms in the palace is the bedchamber prison of King Afonso VI. It’s the only room in the palace to have iron bars. The king was stricken with madness and shut up here for nine years until he died in 1683.

The National Palace of Sintra is open daily from 9.30am until 7pm. Adults, €10; children, €8.50; under 6s, free.

Quinta da Regaleira

These lush gardens are an utter delight and not to be missed. The house was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family and the gardens were designed at the beginning of the 20th century by Luigi Manini, the Italian architect and set designer who worked at La Scala in Milan. They were intended to represent the cosmos and include references from the world of mythology and great literary classics like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Statues of classical gods and goddesses line the Promenade of the Gods and there are underground tunnels lit with a string of fairy lights like the thread that Ariadne gave Theseus to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

For us, the gardens were like something out of  Grimm’s Fairy Tales or The Lord of the Rings. There were stone doors, fountains, Rapunzel Towers to climb up, underground tunnels leading you into the dark and stepping stones across the water.

The gardens are full of mysterious places like the Initiatic Well, a 27-metre deep tunnel, accessed by a spiral staircase, and the Portal of the Guardians, twin towers either side of a central pavilion under which is hidden one of the entrances to the well.

These are truly magical gardens where children can let their imaginations run wild. Mine loved climbing up all the towers and turrets and whooped with delight at the joy of exploring the secret tunnels, grottos and underground passages.

You can do guided tours of the gardens. Numbers are limited so you should book well in advance. Children might find it more fun though, like ours, to discover the gardens on their own and make up their own stories as they explore.

Quinta da Regaleira is open every day from 10.30am until 8pm (it closes earlier in the winter months). Adults, €6; children, €4; under 9s, free.

Getting There

Sintra is a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. You can walk to the Palace of Sintra and the Quinta da Regaleira from the railway station but it’s better to take a shuttle bus to the Palace of Pena. Buses number 434 and 435 go from the station up to the Palace of Pena and back down the hill to the Palace of Sintra.

For more information about visiting Sintra, take a look at the Visit Lisbon website.

Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to the sights mentioned but all opinions are honest and my own.

I am linking up this post to #Wanderful Wednesday with Marcella from What a Wonderful World, Lauren from Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso and Isabel from The Sunny Side of This.

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Seven Foodie Treats to Try in Lisbon

Seven Foodie Treats to try in LisbonFor me, trying lots of different foods and flavours is one of the joys of travel. Lisbon’s a great city for foodies of all ages whether you’re interested in wandering around the food markets, eating lots of cake and ice-cream (always a hit with my boys) or trying the local fish dishes. Here are seven of the best things to look out for when you’re in the city.

Eat bacalhau in a local restaurant

Seven Foodie Treats to try in LisbonBacalhau is the Portuguese word for cod, and salted or dried cod dishes are so popular that they’re the traditional Christmas dinner in some parts of the country. There are said to be over 1,000 recipes in Portugal alone.

One of the best places to try it is at a small, local restaurant like A Primavera do Jerónimo, which is hidden down one of the narrow streets of the Bairro Alto. You’ll find plenty of bacalhau dishes here alongside clams, squid, swordfish, ray, pork tenderloin and the wonderfully named ‘grilled secret black pig’.

The food isn’t fancy but good, traditional Portuguese fare. Service is very welcoming, especially to children and the setting is relaxed and low-key – there’s only room for a few tables and the tiles on the wall are decorated with Portuguese proverbs.

A Primavera do Jerónimo, Travessa da Espera 34.

Taste gourmet treats at the Mercado da Ribeira

The Time Out Mercado da Ribeira is the place to go if you want to try a selection of different foods from some of Lisbon’s top chefs. The gourmet food hall has only been open for two years but it’s rapidly become one of the city’s most popular places to eat. It’s a great way to taste all kinds of foodie flavours, from gourmet burgers, fish and chips and sushi to fabulous salads, steaks and cheeses.

You can order wine by the glass or have one of the fantastic fruit juices. It’s a massive area and it can get really busy at peak times so come early or be prepared to wait for a table.

Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, Avenida 24 de Julho 50.

Drink port in a palace

Port is a Portuguese fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. I’d only ever drunk the heavy, sweet red wine as an after dinner tipple before my trip to Lisbon so it was a revelation trying the delicious white port. It’s much less heavy than the red and makes the perfect before dinner drink.

The ideal place to try it is Solar do Vinho do Porto, a cavernous bar with the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club, in an 18th-century palace with vaulted ceilings and white leather sofas. You choose your port from a 20-page menu and are served by waiters who are either very grumpy or take their port extremely seriously. For a couple of euros, you can order a glass from a selection of every kind of port, from vintage to the more everyday. You can also buy bottles to take home.

Solar do Vinho do Porto, Rua Sao Pedro de Alcântara 45.

Have an ice cream from Santini’s

Seven Foodie Treats to try in Lisbon


A holiday is a good excuse to eat ice cream every day, right? Some people consider Santini’s to be the best ice cream in the world. See if you agree by joining the queue outside the shop on Rua do Carmo in the Chiado area, one of Lisbon’s main shopping streets.




Buy the goodies for a picnic from a food market

Mixing with the locals at the food markets is one of my favourite pastimes when I’m travelling. The covered market at Campo de Ourique is a great place to browse a range of food stalls from fresh fish, hams, cheeses and breads to freshly prepared pasta, tapas and sushi.

We like to buy all the things we need for a gourmet picnic and take it to the nearest park for a feast. The nearby Jardim da Estrela is a particularly good choice but if you want to eat straightaway, there’s a lovely seating area in the middle of the market. The Campo de Ourique is a much smaller and less crowded option than the vast Mercado da Ribeira.

Indulge on pastries

You’ll find pastry shops, pastelarias, on every street corner in Lisbon but the one cake you mustn’t leave without trying is the pastel de nata, the famous puff pastry tart filled with custard cream.

These pastries were first created before the 19th century by the monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém. At that time, convents and monasteries used large amounts of egg whites to starch clothes so it was quite common to use the leftover yolks to make cakes and pastries.

The monks started selling the pastries to make some money and the recipe was eventually sold to a sugar refinery who opened up the Fabrica de Pastéis de Belém in 1837. This is still the best place to buy the tarts, warm from the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon. There’s always a queue for takeaways but you can bypass the queue if you eat at one of the many tables inside.

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua Belém 84-92

Try a prego made out of fish

In Portuguese cuisine, a prego is a steak sandwich, a bit like a burger. The traditional prego has been given a delicious twist at O Prego da Peixaria, a restaurant near the university’s botanical gardens. Here you can try pregos with soft shell crab, salmon and cuttlefish, tuna steak, cod or shrimp. They’re all gorgeous and come sandwiched between a variety of unusual home-made breads like carob or black bread. Don’t miss the sweet potato skinny fries on the side.

The restaurant itself is really lively, with walls covered with potted herbs and colourful graffiti. It can get really busy so come early, particularly if you’ve got kids. Mine loved the fresh juices with their fish burgers.

O Prego da Peixaria, Rua da Escola Politécnica 40.

For more information about visiting Lisbon, take a look at the Visit Lisbon website.

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Linking up with Wanderful Wednesday

A Photo Tour of Sintra

A Photo Tour ofSINTRAVisiting the town of Sintra was the highlight of our recent trip to Portugal. It’s an easy 40-minute train ride from Lisbon and well worth the visit if you’re staying in the city for more than a couple of days.

The palaces and gardens of Sintra, perched on hills amid lush green forests, were once the royal family’s summer retreat. They feel as if they belong in another world, a world full of colour and magic.

For a more detailed look at the palaces, read my guide. In the meantime I thought I’d share some of my photos of this extraordinary place.

We all fell in love with the Palace of Pena, which was like something out of a fairytale or the Kingdom of Sweets from ‘The Nutcracker’. We loved the bright colours of its walls

and all the details in its design, from the red clock tower to the beautiful tiles and the intricately carved stonework and turrets.

The boys spent ages climbing in and out of the towers.

There were images of knights in the tiles and carved into the stone.

We really liked the Triton carved under the big bay window, glaring down at us with his gruesome face, long elf-like ears and fishy feet.A Photo Tour of SintraBut the trouble with Pena Palace is that after seeing it, everything else seems a little drab and ordinary.

The National Palace of Sintra isn’t nearly as colourful on the outside but venture inside and you’ll find stunning painted ceilings and beautiful tiled walls.

The other highlight of our trip to Sintra were the magical gardens at the Quinta da Regaleira, a wonderland filled with fountains and stone doors.

There were Rapunzel Towers to climb up and carvings of strange creatures everywhere we looked.

There were deep wells and stepping stones across the water.

But best of all were the secret underground tunnels, so dark that you couldn’t explore them without a torch.

The Palaces of Sintra are open daily. Take a look at the Visit Lisbon website for more information about visiting Sintra.

Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to the sights mentioned but all opinions are honest and my own.

Pin It!A Photo Tour ofSINTRA

City Breaks With Kids: Lisbon

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.

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City Breaks With Kids




A Photo Tour of Lisbon


We’ve just got back from four days in Lisbon. It’s a truly beautiful city and makes a great choice for a family break once your children are old enough to walk up lots of steep steps and clamber around old towers and turrets. I’ll be posting my guide to the best things for families to see and do over the next couple of weeks but in the meantime I thought I’d share some of the photos of our adventures.

We all fell in love with Lisbon from the red-tiled roofsCity Breaks With Kids: Lisbon

to the colourful walls of virtually every building we passed.

Getting around was definitely part of the fun.City Breaks With Kids: Lisbon

We wandered around the wonderful food markets at the Campo de Ourique and the Mercado da Ribeira

and found music in the squares.A Photo Tour of Lisbon

We explored the Castelo de São JorgeLisbon Castle

and the Torre de Belém.

We were all blown away by the magnificence of the cloisters at the Jerónimos Monastery.

And I found it very hard to resist all the beautifully-packaged goodies in the shops…