How to Fall in Love With Lisbon — Kids in Tow
Where to stay, eat and play while visiting Portugal's capital city with a toddler
I had already discovered that Lisbon was for lovers. A private pastel de nata baking class at Ovos Moles and an intimate fado dinner in a dark, quiet restaurant was all it took for my wife, Danielle, and I to fall in love with Lisbon four years ago. Narrow cobblestone streets, custard filled tarts, and the deeply melancholic yet seductively romantic fado music will tempt any traveler to book a surreptitious vacation behind the backs of cities like London and Paris.
Now, at 23-weeks pregnant and with our two-year-old, Avery, in tow, we discovered that Portugal’s capital city wasn’t just for lovebirds. Kid-friendly attractions, the many metro lines, and Martinhal Family Hotel & Resorts showed us that Lisbon is also enchanting for the little ones.
Below, how you, too, can plan a family trip to Lisbon.
Getting there and getting around
I’m unashamed of my penchant for discount airlines, but saving money on a flight from Orlando (where we live) to Lisbon meant layovers with an unpredictable two-year-old. Driving to Miami for a direct flight via TAP Air Portugal meant less time trying to keep said two-year-old happy in multiple airports.
The perks of their lowest-cost ticket were also worth it: Avery’s seat included a cabin bag that we filled with toys, books and other distractions, his in-flight meal meant we didn’t have to ration his snacks, and the cartoons on the seatback TV kept him occupied for a few hours.
And as pregnant parents, we made a mental note that TAP’s economy class first row faced a bulkhead outfitted to safely secure a provided bassinet. Yes, it is theoretically possible that parents can enjoy an overseas flight to Europe without an infant in their arms the whole way.
As for getting around Lisbon, the rail lines are clutch.
Four metro lines zigzag through the city, with the red line running straight to the airport, the blue line running straight to the zoo, and the green line leading into the heart of the city. The colorful trams are fun for kids and totally recommended, unless you’re keen to keep your chiropractor in business. In that case, feel free to do as I did and walk the steep, slippery limestone sidewalks with a wiggling sack of potatoes in your arms.
Surveying the area around Martinhal, you’ll be torn on whether or not to bring the stroller. Staying in the hilly Chiado district, we never used ours, then immediately regretted leaving it in the hotel when we traipsed across the flatter neighborhoods of Lisbon.
Family-friendly luxury in the heart of Lisbon
The truth? I was slightly terrified to revisit Lisbon with a toddler.
Two long travel days for a three-night stay sounded unnecessarily rough. Pregnancy meant my wife couldn’t enjoy Portugal’s wine or certain seafoods; plus, her weight-lifting restrictions meant I’d be the family sherpa.
Martinhal Family Hotels invited us to stay at their luxury apartment-style hotel in Chiado, the ever-popular neighborhood equal parts historical and hip. But unlike “family-friendly” hotel tags that might boast nothing more than kids juice boxes at the breakfast buffet and a swimming pool, Martinhal was intentionally designed with a family focus.
Our one-bedroom apartment felt more like staying at an in-law’s summer flat than at a hotel in the heart of downtown Lisbon. Murphy-style bunk beds in the living room. A full kitchen with a carton of chocolate milk in the fridge and a bottle of Old Tawny Port Wine on the countertop. Lowered toilets and tubs for the little ones, as well as a highchair and pack ‘n play at the ready. Hardwood floors and views of the River Tagus only sealed the deal.
The apartment, a mid-range offering bookended by both studio apartment suites and two-bedroom flats, had the space we needed to stay comfortable while Avery had the freedom to play safely.
The vibe was lavish yet laid-back. We weren’t the only couple chasing around a toddler, tending to a tantrum, or using screen time to get through a meal — and not a single member of the staff made any guest feel embarrassed or self-conscious about their public parenting presentations.
Making memories with the family
I learned early on in our toddler travels that familiar favorites are the best food options, so Time Out Market was a popular stop thanks to its proximity to a playground and the metro. A ten-minute walk from Martinhal Chiado, the food hall had kid-friendly stalls — in our case, Zero Zero pizza — as well as Portuguese wine, seafood and obligatory pastel de natas.
For entertainment, the Lisbon Zoo was a solid option. Footsteps away from the blue metro line, even a rainy day didn’t stop our little one from gawking at the tigers, waving to the primates and chasing peacocks around the mid-sized zoological garden.
A century younger than the zoo, the Lisbon Oceanarium was another worthy stop during a short stay in Lisbon. It’s a bit farther from the historic district, but the red metro line and a short walk brought us to an awesome two-story aquarium with everything from penguins and otters to cuttlefish, European plaice and axolotl.
Kids under three are free at both attractions and each features a McDonald’s on-site or nearby, which means full smiles and bellies without emptying our wallets.
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Making the most of the babysitter
We don’t think of traveling with a toddler as a tradeoff for a more “rewarding” trip.
Sure, most parents probably won’t stay out until 1am doing shots of oysters and medronho brandy at Impresa’s cocktail bar — though, in the interest of journalistic research, I did — but moms and dads can certainly have a terrific, and tipsy, time alone.
Martinhal’s childcare service was the hero of our last evening in Lisbon. Along with daytime daycare with other children, the hotel also offered evening babysitting services, available in either their dedicated playroom or in our room if requested.
Avery spent from 5pm to 8pm singing Baby Shark, drawing faces on balloons and giggling with Martinhal’s sweet child concierges while Danielle and I roamed the city without a dirty diaper in sight.
If you’ve got the time — and you’ve surely got the money, because their per-hour rates are probably cheaper than your at-home babysitter — I recommend hitting up Pub Lisboeta in Barrio Alto for a low-key drink, snagging some pastéis de bacalhau (fried potato and cod fritters) at Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau near the tourist-loaded San Justa Lift, then savoring a pastel de nata with matching ice cream at Fábrica da Nata — all without having to share a single sweet spoonful with a sugar-crazed toddler.
Splurging on a child-free afternoon? TravelLocal, a company which offers multi-day trips through locally-owned tour operators, introduced me to Rafaela, a guide with a degree in fine arts, for a short tuk tuk street art tour of the city. Vibrant murals by Kruella d’Enfer and huge recycled-trash installations by Bordalo II filled our journey, which also included stops at historical sites like an excavated Roman theater and great city views from public overlooks like Miradouroda da Senhora do Monte.
Or, and let’s be real, you could just chill around Martinhal and actually relax on vacation.
Their bar, 1855 Gin Garden, has a tapas menu and an assortment of standard drinks, low-alcohol cocktails, and mocktails. On the same block is a wine bar, cafe, chocolate shop and restaurant serving traditional Portuguese plates.
So, yes, you can have a full-on adult date night without venturing far from the hotel — saving your energy for other child-free extracurriculars in your bedroom before it’s time for pickup.
Falling in love with a different Lisbon
With seven family vacations under our belt, our family trip to Lisbon was the farthest from home but, surprisingly, one of the easiest to manage. We had no pressure to see or do it all yet we saw and experienced a different side of the city thanks to our son. Staying at the family-focused Martinhal significantly lowered our stress level and allowed us to enjoy our time away, even when it wasn’t time away from the hotel.
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