Portal to Portugal

Local New England writer Robert Cocuzzo shares his tips for a fun-filled family vacation to Lisbon.
Featured Image by Fernando Guerra

Sail due east from just about any port on the New England coastline, and you’ll eventually arrive on the shores of Portugal. The westernmost point in Europe, Portugal has recently emerged as a top destination for New Englanders who are eager to rejoin the ranks of world travelers. Thanks to numerous direct flights from Boston, you can be eating fresh fish and sipping Vinho Verde on the Cascais coast and basking in the warm welcome of the Portuguese people within six hours.

Superlative hospitality emanates from Lisbon’s many hotels. A perfect family accommodation is Martinhal Chiado Luxury Suites, located on a steep cobblestone street just up from where the River Tagus meets the Atlantic Ocean.  Martinhal has spacious suites, a lobby adjacent playroom that offers full-time babysitters, and a kid’s club, all marvelous amenities for parents traveling with children.

Your entire family will want to explore the neighborhoods and parks of the capital city but be advised that Lisbon is a city of steep hills. The more athletic members of your party might consult Rui Alves at Portugal Running Tours and jog into the heart of the city to explore the 16 distinct neighborhoods that, as Alves explains, operated for generations like quasi-nation-states with their own dialects and traditions.

Photos by Fernando Guerra

Everyone can also opt to travel on the city’s iconic yellow trams or jump on a tuk-tuk—a motorcycle-chariot hybrid—that will putter you along to the city’s many historic sites.  Kids will definitely enjoy spending some time at the Castelo de São Jorge, a real-life Magic Kingdom where wild peacocks parade around the historic castle’s ruins, and you can take in the most extraordinary view of the city’s terracotta rooftops.

Photos Courtesy of Mesón Andaluz Restaurant

Dining in Lisbon is an adventurous delight. The whole family will find something to nibble at the large food halls, such as Mercado da Ribeira, also known as Time Out Market, while the snug, old-world restaurant Mesón Andaluz offers a tapas-style menu in an enchanting cavernous space reminiscent of a brick wine cellar. Not unlike New England menus, traditional Portuguese cuisine includes many varieties of cod dishes such as salty codfish cakes known as pastéis de bacalhau and bacalhau com Natas, which is baked codfish with potatoes and cream. Those with a sweet tooth won’t want to skip tasting some of Portugal’s famous pastries, like pastéis de nata (egg custard pastry) pão de Deus (sweet buns with coconut), and pão de ló (sponge cake).

Photo Courtesy of Oceanário de Lisboa

Be sure to set aside a day at the city’s renowned aquarium,  Oceanário de Lisboa, widely considered the best aquatic exhibit center in Europe, if not the world. Following the multistory spiral design, the Oceanario leads you through different climates—from a muggy tropical oasis to a chilly arctic tundra—revealing mesmerizing fish and vibrant bird life.  If time permits, commune with more wildlife at the conservation minded Jardim Zoológico in Lisbon’s city center. The zoo features over 2,000 animals, a miniature train, a petting zoo, and botanical gardens.

If your little ones still have energy to burn, head to Parque Recreativo do Alto da Serafina, a super-sized playground located inside a majestic park just outside the city. Parque Serafina is what play-date dreams are made of, with bottomless ball pits, obstacle courses, games, and a bouncy house fit for a junior king or queen.

If you’re looking for sand and surf, head to Cais do Sodre Station in the city center and take a quick 30-minute train ride along the dazzling coastline to Cascais. A quaint seaside town home to the medieval Nossa Senhora da Luz Fort and the Citadel Palace, Cascais has ocean-side dining, open-air markets, and pristine sandy beaches.

The real reward of bringing your family across the pond is simply being in the embrace of old-world Europe. Lisbon is an ideal introduction to traveling overseas for children. Like Boston or Portland, it’s a city made up of bite-size neighborhoods that are walkable, approachable, and truly unforgettable. From the ancient ornate tiles that adorn the buildings to delicious local foods to the narrow cobblestone streets lined with brilliantly colored houses, Portugal provides a real-life education that will give your kids a first-hand look at the big, beautiful world awaiting them.

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