Lisbon is a city of such contrasts that although we spent a week there in two completely different neighbourhoods, I still feel like I missed so much of it! It's a city of contrasts between old and new, modern and traditional, touristy and chic. There are small shops and large malls, wide avenues and narrow lanes, steep climbs and sweeping vistas. It's impossible to take it all in over the course of a week.
We started our stay at an AirBnB in the Alfama district, which is the old part of the city that withstood the devastating earthquake the levelled most of the city in the 1700s. Starting at the water, Alfama winds its way up a steep hill with buildings perched on the side and narrow, winding lanes that connect it all together. Some roads are wide enough for cars, but many are pretty much pedestrian only, and there are several sets of stairs leading from one street to another. Dragging suitcases and two young kids along was probably my least favourite part of the whole trip.
However, the area is gorgeous, and you really get the feeling that you're in old Europe with laundry hanging out of windows, old women with aprons tied around their waists chatting with men in dress pants and hats, and kids playing soccer against church doors. It's also well positioned in relation to some of Lisbon's most famous sites, including the Castle, several churches, lookout points, and of course, the famous 28 tram.
Our AirBnB was a small two bedroom apartment with a view of the rive from the bedroom window. It had been remodelled recently, and was completely comfortable for our family of four. The only trouble we had in the Alfama was finding groceries. There are several small convenience style stores with a few shelves of staples to choose from, but it was really difficult to find everything we needed without leaving the neighbourhood.
Aside from the tram, there aren't any public transportation options in this area of the city either, so we walked quite a bit. It's not the most practical part of Lisbon to stay in, but it is worth staying in for a few days just to get the feel of the old town.
The day after we arrived we went exploring around the Alfama district. We came across the Monastery of Sao Vicente, and went inside to look around. The church itself is beautiful and free to enter, but the real treat is the monastery to the right. There is a fee to enter, but I think it's worth it. Visitors get to check out the old walls, the explore the chapels, tombs of famous Portuguese, the azulejo walls and the courtyard. Later, you can climb the tower and enjoy panoramic views over the city.
We stopped at a small cafe to have a snack before continuing. Sao Tome 48 is a small cafe that offers vegetarian and vegan meals in addition to other fare. There's not much gluten free on the menu, but they do have smoothies so we each had one to hold us over until lunch. After admiring the views from the Miradouro Santa Luzia, we hopped on the tram in the square right next to the lookout.
The 28 tram is the city's most famous one, but it's also always packed. We decided instead to take a tram tour, which is a bit more expensive but allows hop on/hop off privileges and offers commentary along the ride. The tram took us right to the waterfront, where we admired the famous elevator, then up to Graca and around before returning us back to where we boarded in the first place.
From there we walked down to the Se cathedral, before walking back to the Miradouro and having lunch in a restaurant overlooking the water. The restaurant had an extensive menu at reasonable prices and with spectacular views. We ordered a chicken kebab meal for the kids that was big enough to split, and my husband and I ordered fish. We explained my son's issue with gluten and ensured that the meal was gluten free. The staff did a great job of accommodating our needs. I think it was called Boqani, but for some reason I can't remember the exact name. Shame!
We decided to branch out a bit the next day and brave the heat wave by heading to the Oceanarium in the Parque das Nacoes. Located within walking distance of the Oriente train station and one of Lisbon's largest malls, this large waterfront park offers enough entertainment to occupy a whole day.
We started out with the Oceanarium, a large aquarium that allows visitors to get up close looks at incredible animals. Among the usual suspects of sharks and colourful fish, there are also penguins and sea otters swimming around. The kids enjoyed every minute, and I have to admit that with the exception of the one in Monaco, this was one of the best aquariums we've visited.
After a quick bite in the cafeteria, we hopped on the cable car that runs along the length of the river. The car took us all the way to the other end of the park, where we walked through some gardens on the way to the play area filled with musical instruments for kids to play.
The whole area is lined with restaurants offering every type of cuisine you can imagine, and prices are all quite reasonable. We stopped off at the mall on our way to the metro, and discovered a store called Celeiro that offers a huge selection of gluten free products, including Schar ice cream cones! We stocked up on some essentials, and then after I gawked at some gorgeous ceramic bowls in a nearby shop, we went back to our apartment.
Day Four was our last day at the AirBnB apartment in the Alfama district before moving to a hotel in a more modern area of the city. Originally we had planned on going to Sintra, but as the trip wore on and the kids began getting tired of trains and long days, we decided that a few days at a hotel and at a more relaxed pace was a better idea for them. It was hard to say goodbye to Sintra, but I hope to get the chance to visit someday.
We started off the day by walking up to the Castelo Sao Jorge, the famous castle that towers over the city. The views from the outside courtyards are second to none, and the visit itself can be as relaxed or intense as you want it to be. We focused a lot on the views (and the cannons for the 6 year old) before heading to the archaeological excavations around the other side. They have found artififacts that date back to the iron age, which I found fascinating. The walk to that area of the castle has some steep steps and low walls, so it's not a great place for a stroller, and we kept hold of our kids until we were back on solid ground.
The castle took up the whole morning, and we stopped for some fresh fruit at the stand just outside the entrance. Then we walked down toward one of the city's elevators to bring us down to the Baixa area, where we stopped at a Pingo Doce grocery store to pick up something for lunch.
In the afternoon, we caved and took a tuk-tuk ride around the city. My husband and I are walkers- we like to explore as much of a place as we can on foot or by traditional public transportation because it gives us a chance to explore things that aren't found in most tourist guides. However, now that we have young kids, we've realized that we can see more and stay out longer if they're not walking for miles. Don't get me wrong, my kids are great walkers, but there comes a point when a two year old has had enough, and not all places are great for strollers. The tuk-tuk took us on a sightseeing tour of some places that regular buses can't get into, andthen dropped us off at our apartment.
We moved out of our AirBnB and into the 5 star Dom Pedro Palace Hotel. We got a deal on the room, so the price was more that of a four star than a five star, which made me very happy. We chose it because it has a pool, although we didn't realize when booking that the pool is located in the spa area and only allows children from noon to five in the afternoon. Plus, the pool is too deep for the kids, so they ended up spending their time in the jacuzzi. We probably would have booked a different hotel that was more kid-friendly if we had known.
Still, the hotel is gorgeous and it's located close to the statue of the Marques de Pombal, at the beginning of the Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon's answer to Paris's famous avenue. The best part was that the hotel was right across the street from a mall that has a fantastic food court, with several healthy, natural choices and many gluten free options. It's where we bought our meals while we stayed in the hotel.
We explored the neighbourhood a bit the first day, and then hung around in the spa before having dinner at the mall. Not much excitement, but it's good to take a day off now and then!
Our last day in Lisbon before boarding the train back to Porto to end our vacation. We started the day with a little soccer in the Parque Eduardo VII, followed by lunch at the Marques de Pombal just a few steps down the Avenida da Liberdade. They make excellent omelets and also have a great selection of fruit salads and juices. You have to walk past the pastry section to get to the restaurant. Good value and good food.
We walked down the avenue to the metro, and then headed down toward the Ribeira Market to explore the waterfront. Finally, after much begging, we relented to my son's request to take the double-decker tour bus. We chose the line that goes to Belem, so that we could get a good look at the Torre de Belem. The kids had a great time exploring the area, and the two year old loved running free in the grass at the park! Belem is also where the famous pasteis de nata were born, and the shop that made them famous is located there. We didn't brae the line-up mainly because our 6 year old can't have them, and we thought that making him wait a half hour for a pastry he can't have would be mean. Still, I admit I watched with some longing as people snaked through the never-ending line-up outside the shop only to emerge with little boxes of heaven on the other side!
The bus tour ended up being worthwhile because you get a set of headphones that allows you to listen to some narration along the way. We saw parts of the city we hadn't already visited, and my boys were thrilled to ride on the top level of an open air bus. Success all around! That evening we watched a local soccer game on tv, then packed up for our train ride to Porto the next day.
I left Lisbon still feeling as though I hadn't seen enough, which doesn't always happen. Lisbon has an area to suit every mood, and has a lot of family friendly activities. Since Sintra is still on my wish list, I hope to pass by this city again and explore all the spots I missed the first time around.
Did you miss my other articles on Portugal? We took a three week trip through the country this summer, and I've been keeping a diary of sorts of our visit. Don't miss my thoughts on our time in The Algarve, Evora, or Porto!