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Lisbon with the Little One

by Roberto
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Lisbon needs no introduction. It is an in-place at the moment,  near top of the list for European city breaks, blending good weather, history, fine cuisine, and proximity to the sea with immense good value. We travelled and spent a full 3 days in Lisbon in early spring, but the city was already alive. This was our Lisbon itinerary.

Lisbon, capital of Portugal has hosted a settlement for 2700 years. It formed part of the Roman Empire from 200 BC, and fell to the Moors in 714 AD. Its’s golden age was in the 15th century, when the great discoverers set sail, and brought back great wealth and affluence to the city and country.

Travelling with Nina and Beata, a happy medium of activities for all three was sought, me the intrepid explorer, Beata the intrepid shopper, and Nina the intrepid playaholic.

Arrival day in Lisbon- Weary and Wet

Arriving at 9am from Ireland, where our flight left at 6:15am, we were groggy and a little cranky. The heavens were opening so we took a taxi to our hotel. We were charged more than expected but language difficulties ensured that I was fighting a losing battle. Should have learned some Portugese. Leaving our bags with the hotel, we ventured out for the afternoon. Rain was as ever the marplot, so we took a local bus north to the Centro Columbo. I misread the stops on Google maps, we alighted too early and we arrived at the shopping mall soaked. Not a great way to start a holiday. But coming from Ireland, we are used to a little rain aren’t we.

We spent a few hours here, waiting for our room to be ready and the rain to abate. Over 300 stores are present and a sizeable play area called Colomboland. So time was well spent by my companions. We ate lunch at Pans and Company, an option within the food hall for a simple sandwich and coffee.

We took the bus back to the Neya Lisbon Hotel, a boutique hotel about 15 minutes walk north of the city centre. It is well serviced by bus routes. It was a good priced option, but the room was a bit pokey for 3 of us to share. But I don’t believe holidays are for hotel rooms. We elected to take a nap for the afternoon.

The skies cleared and in the evening we took a stroll down to the nearby Campo Martires de Patria, a peaceful park, with a pond and some very interesting looking foul. It also has a playground very convenient for our hotel.

Campo Martires de Patria
Campo Martires de Patria
Campo Martires de Patria
Lisbon
A most sinister looking bird
Campo Martires de Patria
More evil looks

Backtracking we found a simple restaurant frequented by locals called Horta dos Brunos, with very traditional food. It hit the spot exactly. We gave up on our day long struggle against fatigue, and headed to the hotel for some serious shut-eye.


Day 1 -A Brighter Outlook

Awaking refreshed, it was time for more food. Breakfast was great, enough variety to last a week on the hot and cold buffet. The weather was far more favourable for activities too. We walked to the metro stop at Parque Eduardo VII, which took us out to…

Lisbon Zoo

The stroll from the metro to the zoo is a nice one through some green areas. As with any zoo expect to leave a few pennies at the door, it isn’t cheap to keep a “pet” let alone hundreds. Entry is €21.50 for an adult and €14.50 for a child.

We got there just before 11, perfect timing to see the dolphin show. This was the highlight of the zoo, perhaps the whole trip. They were excellently trained, performed great stunts and there was a real affinity between them and their trainers. They were joined by some seals (or sea lions, alas i still don’t know the difference at my ripe age) and their trainers. Highly entertaining.

Lisbon Zoo
Lisbon Zoo
Lisbon Zoo
The dolphins were full of tricks
Lisbon Zoo
Affinity between trainer and animal

We spent most of the afternoon in the zoo, Nina marveling at the different animals. As zoos go its formulaic but with a few features that stand out. A cable car traverses the zoo, giving an elevated view of the animals in their simulated habitat. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes. The zoo also has some formal gardens which are nice to visit. The animal highlight as in many zoos were the meerkats, who were quite attracted to Nina’s umbrella. I was also particularly impressed by the bear enclosure, it had a real world feel to it.

Lisbon Zoo
Lisbon Zoo
Meerkat Whisperer
Lisbon Zoo
Adorable Meerkat
Lisbon Zoo
Bear enclosure

Downtown Lisbon

We caught the metro into the city centre getting out at Baixa-Chaido, for the Bairro Alta district. A maze of little streets dating from the 16th century, lined with cafes and shops, our wander took us to Praca Luis de Camoes, where we stopped into A Padaria Portuguesa bakery for some sandwiches and pastries. Nina discovered a street performer making bubbles. She would happily  have spent the day there. Amazing how children find pleasure in the smallest things.

Praca Luis de Camoes
Bubble Fun

We zigzagged our way through the streets, and down steps, got a little lost and onwards to the Santa Justa lift. Built at the turn of the 20th century to link parts of the city, as Lisbon is very much on different levels. The queue was long, the price was too high at €5, but its a very interesting structure, and the views are excellent above. It overlooks the skeleton of the Carmo Church which was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, with great vistas over the Tagus, the Baixa area, and beyond to the castle.

Santa Justa lift
Santa Justa lift
Santa Justa lift
Santa Justa lift
Views over to the Se and Tagus
Santa Justa lift
Over the rooftops to the Castelo

Evening was setting around us, as we visited Rossio Square. Built after the earthquake that razed much of the city, it’s an elegant square, with a central fountain and eye-catching wave embossed paving. The National Theatre borders the northern part of the square. We caught a bus back to our hotel from there.

Santa Justa lift
The view back at the Santa Justa Lift
Rossio Square
Rossio Square
Rossio Square

Nina gave us a moment she will cherish as an adult back in the hotel. She was playing with the little toys she took with her, and took them to the bathroom. She asked me if she could give them a bath. Much to my horror and due to her innocence she was trying to wash them in the bidet. Alas she didn’t know what it was. Queue a noooooooo moment.

That evening we dined in the hotel at the Viva Lisboa restaurant. Like a lot of hotel restaurants it lacked a bit of personality. The food was sublime though. My black pork nearly looked to good to eat. The girls had some wonderful pasta dishes. We retired with some heavy sightseeing days to come.

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Day 2 – Heavy on the sightseeing

After breakfast we set out on foot to Campo Martires da Patria, but this time with the intent of catching the Larva Funicular. This tram has been running uphill since 1884, and has a wonderful antique interior. It’s covered in graffiti on the outside. The ride doesn’t take long, but it’s worth it just to feel the tradition of the tram.

Lavra Funicular
Lavra Funicular

Arriving at the Praca de Restauradores, this Square has a few interesting buildings, in particular the facade of Rossio Station. The station was built in the 1880’s and serves the line to Sintra. It was built in the Neo-Manueline style, synonymous with the buildings of Sintra, and very popular in the early 16th century. It has two handsome horseshoe shaped entrances and significant decoration of the buildings face.

Rossio Station
Rossio Station

From here we headed up through Rua Augusta, a beautiful street with decorative paving, lined by restaurants. It leads directly to the Arco de Rua Augusta, a triumphant arch built to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake of 1755. It is a wonderful sight, crowned by the statues of Glory rewarding Valour and Genius. Entry is possible but somehow I missed this. It opens out onto the Praca de Comércio. This was the former site of the Royal Palace until it was devastated by a tsunami. I love this square, it’s a vast open space surrounded by regal government buildings on 3 sides and the Tagus river on the other. It’s the perfect selfie spot in Lisbon.

Rua Augusta
The Street and Arch of Rua Augusta
Praca de Comercio
Praca de Comercio

Pushing on after some snaps we got to Cais De Sodre Train Station to catch a train out to the coast at Estoril. The station has a reputation for having bad queues, and it lived up to its rep. We nearly missed our train so give yourself plenty of time if you plan to take this trip. The train itself was only €2.70, Lisbon as a capital city is extraordinary good value.


Estoril

Arriving in Estoril the main attraction being the sea, we headed in that direction. Inland is the famous Estoril Casino, it is Europe’s largest casino and the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, featuring one James Bond. Just off the beach sits the Forte da Cruz, a 17th century fortification now used as an exclusive venue for hire.

This area and Cascais have been the playground of Lisbon’s rich and famous for centuries, and numerous mansions line the headlands above the sea. We gave Nina some time to enjoy the beach, I usually prefer to view not interact with beaches. However soon the familiar black clouds of this holiday started to amass. March is too early to visit Lisbon, it’s still at the mercy of the Atlantic’s tantrums. We ducked into Opiparo Restaurant, to get out of the impending torrent. Sharing a few Pizza Parma’s with some wine, we chilled out here for an hour. Pizzas were delicious, surprisingly good food for a seaside location.

Estoril Beach
Estoril Beach before the clouds rolled in. Nina wasn’t phased.

Belém

The clouds receded so we retreated alighting at Belém train station. Belém is the jewel in Lisbon’s crown, a glittering array of monuments and majestic buildings. Given the opportunity to come back to Lisbon (I hope I will) my preference would be to stay here.

Jerónimos Monastery

It was already well into the afternoon so I had to be selective in what we would go to see. So I dragged the girls through the Jardim de Belém to the Jerónimos Monastery. Probably the most visually stunning building in Lisbon, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the Manueline style, it took 100 years to complete in the 16th Century. It far exceeded budget, but at that time such riches were flowing from the colonies it wasn’t heeded. A local limestone was used and the detail is astounding. The South Portal, is not the main entrance but it is the most significant, a 32 meter high shrine shrouded in detail.

The ladies opted to relax outside, the sun was now shining, so I did some power sightseeing alone (its like power walking). Entry is €10 to just visit the monastery. If you want to visit the museums there is a higher charge. The interior of the church of Saint Maria, is cruciform, and has elegant vaulted ceilings. The tomb of Vasco De Gama the great explorer can be found within. I toured the church and then headed out to see the cloister. Its a rare cloister, double leveled with a lovely garden area within. There are strong Moorish influences in the ceiling of the cloister. Not wanting to leave the girls waiting and with plenty more to see in Belem I cut my visit short.

Jeronimos Monastery
Exterior of the Jeronimos Monastery

Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Next stop on our whirlwind walking tour of Belem was Padrao dos Descobrimentos. It is a 20th century monument to the explorers who traversed the earth, and ws built on the 500th annioversary of Henry the explorers death. It is a bit strange looking and you can climb to the top. We didn’t. The statues facing out to the Tagus are excellently sculpted and a testament to the men they honour.

Padrao dos Descobrimentos
Padrao dos Descobrimentos looking out on the Tagus
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
Statues of Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Torre de Belém

Our last stop was to the Belem Tower, built in the early 16th century, as a defensive fortification but also as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon, for returning explorers. It is built in the Manueline style and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly I spent too long getting here, when I got to the walkway, I was informed they had just closed. A lot of walking for nothing. Except a chance to take a few photos of the outside. Which is beautiful.

Torre de Belem
Torre de Belem

We made our way to find some buses to get us home, all of us a little jaded. I have an insatiable thirst to keep looking for one more attraction to see. It doesn’t always make me popular. That evening we went to Portugalia Cervejaria Almirante Reis a famous local restaurant. Its known for its beer and meats. Our burgers and cod were nice, but the biggest shock came when we got the bill. The bread and butter are all priced individually, Nina had 4 slices and her food cost more than ours. Beware the hidden extras on Portugese menus.

Day 3 – Castelo de Sao Jorge

We took a bus into the city in the morning and started up the flights of steps to reach the Castelo. The walls up the steps are decorated with cartoonish graffiti, and some of it was very artistic. Our legs were still sore from the day before, and the steps were laborious. Eventually we reached the top and it seemed half of Lisbon had the same plan as us.

The Castle has sat in this position since Moorish rule, when the original citadel was built. It fell in 1147, from when it became the home of the Portuguese Royalty. It was expanded significantly in the 14th Century, with the building of the Royal Palace and its 5km perimeter of walls. It later assumed a more military role under Spanish rule. Sadly it was also the victim of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only ruins of the Palace are to be found. What remains are the Castelos indomitable exterior walls, and the interior castle.

After surmounting the queue, entry is €8.50. Upon entering the first sight you come across is the Miradouro do Castelo. These are the best views I came across in Lisbon, stretching across the city and the Tagus, to Belém and to the Cristo Rei Statue. Great panoramic opportunities.

miradouro do Castelo
Beata standing at the Miradouro do Castelo overlooking Lisbon

It’s pleasant to stroll through the grounds and gardens of the castle, peacocks lounge around and perch in the trees and significant ruins exist from the different residents of the fortification. There is a camera obscura with views of various Lisbon monuments and an archaeological museum with artefacts uncovered on the site. But we come to a castle to see a castle. It’s in ruins besides the substantial walls and towers. These can be climbed and there are eleven towers still standing. Amazing views exist around each turn, and the castle windows frame Lisbon below. It saddened me to think what might have been without the onset of Mother Nature and decay. But I wholly enjoyed the visit.

Castelo de Sao Jorge
Entrance to the castle and view from castle window

Descending from the Castle we came across the Miradoura de Santa Luzia. It’s a nice little green area with a long pergola and some smashing views down over the Alfama District. We kept going downwards passing the Sé, the main church of Lisbon. It has a simplicity to it, it’s large and stark, with the only notable exterior decoration being the rose window. The cathedral has been rebuilt a few times, the victim of earthquakes over the years since 1147. We didn’t go inside as we were intending to catch a bus to the Oceanarium.

Miradoura de Santa Luzia
View over Alfama from the Miradoura de Santa Luzia
Se, Lisbon
The Se, Lisbon’s principal church ans seat of the bishop

Lisbon Oceanarium

We caught bus number 728 which ran out along the river to the Oceanarium. The Oceanarium is the centrepiece of the Parque das Nacoes, an urban renewal scheme which has transformed this part of the city. The area is dominated by the Torre Vasco de Gama, Lisbon’s tallest building and looks out onto the Vasco de Gama Bridge which runs for 17Km, the longest in Europe. You can take a cable car to the top of the tower.

The Oceanarium is the largest in Europe (bit of a trend going on here) and looks like an aircraft carrier. We had gotten our tickets online, an adult ticket costs €16.20. The aquarium is divided into subsections according the different oceans. There is a huge collection of exotic fish as one would expect.

I would advise to seek out the following:

  • The invertebrates. From Anemones to Starfish and Sea Urchins they are weird and wonderful. The White Spotted Jellyfish have a certain passiveness to them as they float around;
  • The penguins and puffins were perfect in their particlar habitat;
  • The Sea Otters. They don’t do much except swim around but they do it in such style. And all the time with what looks like a smile on their face. We all want to be around positive people and the same applies to positive animals. The crowds swarmed to their display;
  • The enormous central tank where hundreds of fish swim peacefully with sharks and rays. It’s a huge tank and there are innumerable angles to catch glimpses of the fishes circumnavigate the waters.
Lisbon Aquarium
Lisbon Aquarium
Jellyfish and Anemones
Lisbon Aquarium
Lisbon Aquarium
The saddest fish
Lisbon Aquarium
The creatures of the central tank
Lisbon Aquarium
The sea otters

Nina needless the say enjoyed every second of the visit and its the ideal way to entertain little people on an afternoon in Lisbon. We left to discover the spring showers had returned. We took the VM subway line back to our hotel and had another night of fine family dining in Pizza Hut.

We spent our fifth day in Lisbon exploring the magical Sintra. 

For our final night we had dinner in an Italian restaurant called Italy Caffe Ristorante. The omens were good, it was a large restaurant and very busy on that Monday and had glowing reviews. Sadly the pasta that appeared was only passable and my entrecôte of beef was barely edible. Disappointing when so much seemed to be going for it.

Our Lisbon Adventure was drawing to a close. The new day brought with it an early taxi ride to the airport and a flight back to Dublin.

Lisbon justifiably lives up to its rep as one of Europe’s most interesting capital cities. It’s friendly populace endeared themselves to us, and it’s history broadened our minds. It’s diversity attracts solo travelers, couples and families. I foresee a future return.

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