Lisbon: Authentic, Affordable, Family-Friendly

By Eric D. Goodman

Lisbon, Portugal, is an affordable, safe and family-friendly way to introduce or reintroduce your kids to European travel. We’ve taken our children there twice—pre- and post-pandemic—and whether age 9 or 19, they found exciting adventures in one of Europe’s oldest nations.

(Eric D. Goodman)

Flights from Baltimore or Washington, D.C. to Lisbon are consistently among the most affordable options for traveling abroad over the past few years, and once there, accommodations, food and attractions are inexpensive. Plus, Portugal is one of the most COVID-vaccinated countries in Europe.

Part of the joy of international travel—for kids and adults alike—is experiencing an alternate reality. If you can get your kids into an “Indiana Jones” or “Dora the Explorer” frame of mind, they’ll enjoy the adventure.

Over the years, we’ve found that traveling with children does not need to mean kids’ museums and theme parks. Palaces, architecture, art, music, parks and ruins are fun for children to explore—and a
wonderful way to expose them to another culture.

A+ Neighborhood
In Lisbon, our favorite neighborhood is Alfama. Founded in 1200 BCE, it’s the oldest area in the city and looks like something out of a sketch from centuries ago: historic buildings with red-clay roofs, cobblestone side streets twisting through the hillsides and connecting little squares where decorative tiles—and drying laundry—mark residential doorways and windows. Not to mention the antique trolleys clanging by like clockwork.

(Eric D. Goodman)

Looking at the area today, it’s hard to believe that Alfama was once the wealthiest part of Lisbon. Fear of earthquakes motivated the wealthy residents to flee to other areas—ironic since Alfama was the only neighborhood in Lisbon to survive the big earthquake of 1755.

Let the Kids Storm the Castle
In the middle of Alfama stands the Castelo de São Jorge — more fortress than palace. (Think Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.) After retaking this mountaintop from the Moors in 1147, the Portuguese king transformed the citadel into a royal residence. Little remains of the original castle, restored in the early 1900s to its medieval likeness.

We walked along the battlements, climbing the towers for great views. Gardens populated with trees and peacocks made for a fun, lazy afternoon.

Lisbon’s “Modern” Center
One of Lisbon’s most recognizable meeting places is Praça do Comércio, commonly known as Commercial Square or Palace Square. In 1755, the palace and its library of 70,000 books were destroyed in the earthquake-resulting tsunami.

(Eric D. Goodman)

The city and square were rebuilt in Manueline style: wide roads and sturdy houses to withstand subsequent disasters. Today, the square is lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, the Tejo River and Rua Augusta Arch. You may recognize the enormous arch, which was featured in the 1996 miniseries “Gulliver’s Travels.”

The main pedestrian street, Rua Augusta, is filled with cafes, restaurants, shops, local department stores and international retailers like Zara and H&M. Ten minutes up the street from the Arch and Square, we sampled pastel de nata (egg custards) at Manteigaria, where they make the pastries by hand—right in front of you—as they have for more than a hundred years.

Just a few minutes further stands one of Lisbon’s most iconic tourist attractions: Elevador de Santa Justa. At the top of the Elevador, you’ll find some beautiful views of Lisbon—safely behind decorative iron gates.

Next to the Elevador and panoramic view are the gothic ruins of Igreja do Carmo, a church that was partially destroyed during the big earthquake. Today, graceful arches stretch over the ruins like the rib bones. This was once the largest church in Lisbon. Kids will feel like adventurers exploring these ruins.

(Eric D. Goodman)

An Ocean of Fun
Lisbon Oceanarium is one of the largest aquariums in Europe, home to 8,000 marine animals from the world over. It is located in the Parque das Nações, a modern waterfront district built for the 1998 World Expo.

The aquarium is divided into five different zones, each representing a different ocean. Residents include sharks, rays, colorful fish, coral reefs, sea otters, penguins and even piranhas.

Bélem’s Beautiful Monastery, Monument and More
One of the highlights of Portugal is Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Bélem area. It’s easy to get lost for hours in the two-story cloister—perhaps the best in Europe—with its richly carved images and decorative arches. Look closely—the kids will see faces carved in nooks and crannies throughout these outdoor walkways: people, animals and mythical creatures.

Next to the monastery is the National Archeology Museum, featuring sculptures, fragments and artifacts from the ancient world.

Exploring the courtyards of Lisbon’s Alfama (Eric D. Goodman)

Across from the monastery is the iconic Monument to the Discoveries with Henry the Navigator standing at the front, facing the water, ship in hand and flanked by other explorers like Vasco da Gama.

Nearby, Bélem Tower erupts from the water. Built in the 16th century, this was a starting point for navigators setting out to discover new trades routes. The massive tower became a symbol of Portugal’s expansion and wealth.

A Lesson in Portuguese Music
No stay in Portugal is complete without experiencing fado—the Portuguese version of the blues. The songs originate from a time when women sang of sailor husbands who never returned from sea.

The Fado Museum offers a glimpse of fado’s history. However, the best way to learn about fado is to experience it in the air around you, in an authentic setting.

Be wary of unsolicited invitations to step into a fado establishment without looking it over first, or you may find yourself wailing a fado-esque tune about the loss of your money. For a rustic, folksy experience, we enjoyed Tasca do Chico. For a pricier, glitzier show-club experience, Clube de Fado is a good choice.

Coax the Kids into These Museums
Trying to include all of the marvels of Lisbon in one short article (or visit) is like trying to discover a new spice route. Here are a few museums worth navigating.

(Eric D. Goodman)

The National Tile Museum, or Museu Nacional do Azulejo, contains one of the largest collections of ceramics in the world.

Alfama’s Museum of Decorative Arts has been preserving the traditions of Portuguese decorative arts since the 1950s. Here, we took in ceramics, textiles, porcelain and tile panels, and enjoyed a demonstration of how to apply gold leaf to woodwork.

Portugal’s National Museum of Ancient Art, one of the most visited museums in Portugal, includes forty thousand items, including paintings, sculptures, gold, furniture, textiles, tapestries, ceramics and prints.

Lisbon’s Military Museum showcases cannons, weapons and military items from throughout the ages. The building, a 16th century cannon foundry and weapons storehouse, is beautifully embellished with coats of arms and crests.

The Maritime Museum explores the history of the Portuguese Navy and sea explorers, with countless model ships and nautical paraphernalia.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is the most impressive art museum in Portugal and one of the best private art collections in Europe.

The National Coach Museum houses the most impressive collection of carriages in all of Europe. The opulence of some of these gilded carriages puts today’s luxury vehicles to shame.

Walking the walls of Alfama’s Castelo de São Jorge. (Eric D. Goodman)

Okay Kids, What Was Your Favorite Part of Portugal?
No doubt, the best part of a trip to Lisbon is the trip itself. But there can also be a lot of fun in anticipation and reflection. Prepare the kids by sharing pictures and travel stories (like this one) so they can anticipate some of the adventures ahead. On your return flight, or back home, spend a little fun time reflecting with the kids. What was each person’s favorite parts of the voyage? It may be something discussed during your planning, or something completely unexpected.

In more ways than just the sights you see, that’s the wonder of travel: not the things you expect to find, but discovery of the unexpected.

Eric D. Goodman is author of six books and more than 100 published travel stories and other stories. Learn more about his travels and his writing at EricDGoodman.com

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