Wow, a lot has happened since I wrote Portugal Part 1: Pretty Porto (Without Kids). I feel very lucky I got a couple trips in over the winter, before the disaster that is 2020 (henceforth to be known as “The Devil’s Year”) really kicked off. Obviously, you won’t be reading about our family’s European travels for the rest of the year, as all the trips we had planned have been cancelled, but I can take you on a virtual trip to Portugal, as I recap our family holiday there back in February.
So let’s mentally hop out of the handbasket headed to hell, and follow me back to those carefree, pre-pandemic times… a whole five months ago… feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?…
M and I had booked four nights at a family-friendly hotel in the city of Lisbon over the kids’ half-term break. Then M’s brother and sister-in-law, who live in New Jersey, decided to come meet us there, bringing along their girls (ages 2 and 4).
The four cousins were thrilled to get to be together, especially on a fun vacation! And we, the adults, were thrilled with the kids club at this amazing hotel, the Martinhal Chiado. I could not recommend this place highly enough for families with young children. The apartments are huge and fully stocked, the kids club hours go from right after breakfast until 10 p.m., and there are additional kids’ play areas you can use outside the supervised kids club, as well.
They give each child a gift at check-in, the breakfast is great, and, amazingly, the hotel is right in the city center. The only things missing are the pool, spa, and fitness room. (I’m not getting paid to sell you on this place. This is truly just my own review.)
Our first night (Saturday) was on our own, as the NJ crew weren’t arriving till the next day. After we were checked in and unpacked, we walked downhill a few minutes to the Time Out Market food hall (our first of many visits there over the next several days), and enjoyed the playground that is right outside it.
There’s a kiosk next to the little playground selling drinks, so you could have a drink while the kids played, one of those delightful features of European cities that just doesn’t exist in America.
We ate dinner at the Time Out Market, which has something (many things) for everyone.
It’s a really nice food hall featuring quite a few outposts of the best restaurants and shops in Lisbon. I had pumpkin risotto, M had black risotto with scallops and seaweed, the girls got pizza. M and I finished with pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) from the same bakery (Manteigaria) I fell in love with in Porto, and then bought a bottle of wine to take back with us and enjoy after the girls were asnooze in their bunk beds.
On Sunday morning, we sampled the delicious breakfast offerings in the cute but chaotic breakfast room. The kids loved the little car they could play in.
After that, we did a little play time with them in the play room, before dropping them off in the supervised kids club.
Then M and I were free to do some sightseeing in Lisbon on our own!
We bought two Viva Viagem transit cards we could use on the streetcars and other public transit in the city. (And our trusty CityMapper app works for Lisbon.) We headed first to the LX Factory for the Sunday market there.
The market was lined with stalls selling all kinds of artistic creations, like pottery, jewelry, and other handmade goods. I bought some jewelry for myself and my MIL, and some Christmas ornaments for the girls.
After the market, we explored Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood. A major stop on the tourist trail is Pasteis de Belem.
All the other Portuguese custard tarts are called pastel de nata, but these are known as pastel de Belem because they’re said to be the original. The bakery is next door to a large monastery, where monks invented the now-famous pastry, then sold the recipe to a wealthy man who owned a sugar plantation in Brazil.
Apparently, only three people in the world know the exact recipe, and they are not allowed to travel together in case of a plane crash or something, meaning the recipe would be lost forever. I’m still unclear on how the bakery workers make thousands of these every day without knowing the recipe…?
After our pastel de Belems, we did the self-guided Belem walk in our guidebook. The weather was kind of gray and cloudy, but it was still a beautiful area there by the water.
I realize now that on my recent trips, I was much more into searching out the local street art than going to art museums. After discovering Lisbon-based street artist Bordalo II on my Porto trip (his giant trash rabbit), I wanted to hunt down some more Bordalo trash animals in Lisbon. You can actually find their locations really easily on Google Maps. I wasn’t disappointed—his repurposed-rubbish artwork is amazing.
Also, the tiles. I’m obsessed with Lisbon’s tiles. I’ll spare you the dozens (hundreds?) of pictures I took of the tiled buildings and just include this mosaic I put together of some of them.
In the middle of the afternoon, we enjoyed a fabulous finale to our rare day-date at the “By the Wine” wine bar directly across the street from our hotel.
Wine, cheese, bread, olives, and a cool atmosphere—we became very good customers at that place over the next few days.
We reunited with our family that afternoon, once they arrived from their transatlantic journey, and did a repeat of the Time Out Market + adjacent playground with them to get the kids some food and outside run-around time.
That evening, we dropped the four girls off at “pyjama club,” where they wear their pajamas to kids club and watch movies (or fall asleep), while the mommies and daddies go out to dinner.
Our dinner that night was at Teatro Mini Bar, which is one of the restaurants by Lisbon’s well-known chef-restaurateur José Avillez.
We ordered the “Epic” tasting menu, which three of the four of us were fully psyched about (I’m the wary, less-adventurous fourth palate). The first course was particularly memorable: an edible margarita, which was an apple slice soaked in tequila with some chili-lime salt; an olive, which looked like a real olive but was some form of molecular gastronomy wherein it was actually an olive-flavored emulsion that sort of popped and dissolved in your mouth; and a “Ferrero Rocher” that looked and smelled exactly like the chocolate-hazelnut truffle, with gold leaf-homage to the wrapper, but tasted not at all like chocolate, and was revealed by our waiter to be…spoiler alert… fois gras. I mean, really.
We finished the evening with a second visit to By the Wine, for an after-dinner drink and what qualifies as dessert for M’s brother, the cheese and charcuterie board.
On Monday, we gave the kids the day off from being stuck in the hotel, and we all took the famously scenic 28 tram up to the Jardin de Estrela park.
After some time spent at the playground in the lovely Jardim de Estrela, we took the kids to the aquarium, Oceanaria.
We finished up there with ice cream in the cafe, and then let the kids run and tumble off the sugar high on the big rippling lawn right outside.
We were also right by the Telecabine cable car, which was a HUGE hit with our 2–6-year-olds.
If you take kids to Lisbon, I definitely recommend this combo of attractions for an entertaining day out: ride on the 28 tram, playground in Jardim de Estrela, aquarium, and cable car.
We even found another playground a little ways past the other end of the cable car, so we did that for a bit before getting back on for our return ride.
That evening, we dropped the kids off at pyjama club again, and had dinner at Palacio Chiado, which is a former palace in the same neighbourhood as our hotel. The food wasn’t as memorable as the night before, but the setting was spectacular.
On Tuesday, we put our little darlings in kids club for the bulk of the day, and we grownups took the “Taste of Lisboa” food tour.
Our guide was Miguel, and he was wonderful. As was the food, naturally. We made seven (I think? I lost track—the tour includes alcohol) stops over four hours.
Even though it was mid-morning, we started at a little place that bills itself as serving the “best chocolate cake in the world.”
Then it was on to a food hall (Mercado de Campo Ourique), where we tried several fish dishes; a couple more little hole-in-the-wall restaurants we would never have found on our own; and we ended at Moules & Co. for mussels and beer. Oh, and of course, one last stop for pastel de nata.
Afterwards, we walked off our food coma by doing the Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhood walks in our guidebook.
We also checked out the wine and port shop/museum Miguel had recommended, Garrafeira Nacional.
We marveled at the striking Elevador de Santa Justa, but the queue to ride up in it was 2 hours long, so we just climbed the stairs to the rooftop lookout instead.
And the view was definitely worth it.
Later that night, I really wanted to go to one of the fado music clubs to hear some traditional music, so the dads stayed home with the sleeping kids, while my sister-in-law and I went to Povo Lisboa on the “pink street” just down the hill from our hotel.
We were able to stand in the bar area and listen to the performers, a young man singing with two guitarists.
I learned about fado music just a couple weeks earlier, at—of all places—a Madonna concert in London. It helped me to “get into the groove” (if you will) of Lisbon, since her move to Lisbon was the inspiration for her Madame X album, and she included fado musicians and singers in her concert.
Wednesday was our last day, and the kids were kind of over going to kids club by that point. But hey, no regrets that we took this childcare opportunity when we had it, given the lockdown that happened a month later!
So we ditched the kids one last time, just for the morning, and took the 28 tram up to São Jorge castle.
From there, we walked downhill, loosely following our guidebook’s Alfama neighborhood stroll, which offered many more stunning views, colorful tiles, and street art photo opportunities.
We ended our walk in the large Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) and then did some souvenir and gift shopping around the area.
In between the “Made in Portugal” shops and stopping for M to get “just one more” pastel de nata (he’d been to five or six different bakeries by that point, but clearly needed to compare them all), we came across the tiny but famous A Ginjinha bar. We had to try a traditional shot of ginja cherry liqueur, which you can have with or without cherries in it.
And because I needed to know who was right about the best chocolate cake in Lisbon, Miguel our food tour guide or our guidebook, I made my last treat in Lisbon the chocolate cake from Landeau. There was a Landeau location right next to our hotel, so I could indulge right before we got a taxi to the airport. They were very different, but my personal vote goes to Landeau.
We all loved Lisbon, and would definitely recommend it as a city you can enjoy both with and without children.