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
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
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.