Thursday, January 30, 2014

Three Days in Lisbon with Kids

As I sat down to write about our time in Lisbon, I was trying to put into words why I enjoyed the city so much, what made our time there special and different from other cities we have visited. And upon reflection, one observation stood out to me.

We didn't go to a single park or playground. Not one.

I'm not really bragging about this... we love parks, especially ones in big cities. I'm a huge believer in the importance of some playground time when traveling with kids. It wasn't because we had lousy weather. It was quite beautiful for most of our stay, aside from the stray rain shower. And it certainly wasn't because Lisbon didn't have any parks to offer us. I had researched several in advance of our trip and I'm bummed we never made it to any of them.

So how did we fill our time? I'm outlining our itinerary below, and providing some tips and tricks to help you if you're planning your own trip to Lisbon with kids. (You can also see our week-long Portugal itinerary here.)

Day 1: Our arrival day. After a 4 a.m. wakeup time for our flight out of London's Luton airport, we got settled into our Altis Prime apartment (a full review at Ciao Bambino to come!) and let Little Arrow take a well-earned nap. Once he woke up, we took the tram to the Belem parish, an area of the city that celebrates the Age of Discovery in a big, beautiful way. We spent the bulk of our time there letting the boys run around while we admired the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a monastery built by Henry the Navigator, and the Monument to the Discoveries which is directly across the street. Then we grabbed a tram back, had a late dinner, and collapsed into bed.

Day 2: After breakfast, we took the metro to Parque das Nacoes. I know I said we didn't go to a park, but the name is a bit misleading. This part of the city was developed when Lisbon hosted the 1998 World Expo (the name translates to Park of Nations). It's full of shops, restaurants, stadiums, and several big tourist attractions. We went to the Oceanario de Lisboa, the world's second largest aquarium. It was really impressive.

After the Oceanario, we were drawn to the Telecabine dangling above our heads and hopped aboard. We opted to take it one-way, and then walked back to the metro/train station (Estacao do Oriente) from the other side. We had a quick lunch there before heading back to our apartment.

After the boys napped, we strolled around some of the historic streets and squares of Lisbon's city centre. (Essentially, our route was the Avenida da Liberdade south toward Rossio, and then the pedestrian-only Rua Augusta further south to Praca do Comercio, with a few detours along the way.)

Day 3: This was our big day trip to Sintra. It's about a 45 minute train ride out of Lisbon. Once in Sintra, we stopped for coffee and pastries while we waited for everything to open for the day. We then caught the bus for Palacio da Pena. We explored the palace for a couple of hours, and then headed back into Sintra's center for lunch. After lunch, we shopped for souvenirs while we waited for our train back to Lisbon.

Later that afternoon, we took the boys swimming at the hotel pool next door to our apartment, which was a really nice break for them (and us) after a big day of sightseeing. We also watched the sunset from our apartment building's rooftop deck, cocktails in hand. A fitting ending to a perfect Lisbon getaway.

I'll be writing a post about each of our days in Lisbon in more detail in the weeks to come.


  • Lisbon is extremely hilly. Some of the roads and sidewalks are so steep they leave you breathless after just a couple of blocks (and especially when pushing a double stroller). Ask around to determine what metro stops or tram lines are best to use based on your accommodation location and sightseeing destination. A slightly indirect route might allow you to avoid some of the more difficult climbs. (For example, we took the Metro one stop past our apartment because it was a downhill walk from that station.)
  • Trams are a great way to get around and fun for kids (especially the historic ones). You can buy tickets from the driver once on board (or the modern ones have ticket vending machines). Try to know your route in advance, as the driver won't typically announce each stop. If you can, sit or stand by the window so you can see the stop names as you approach. And plan to fold up your stroller, the trams get very crowded.
  • Most people working in the hospitality industry will speak basic English. We had no trouble communicating with anyone during our trip. That being said, it's always nice to learn a few of the basics when traveling, like hello and thank you.
  • Four days would have been ideal. There were several other big attractions I wanted to see but there just wasn't enough time without pushing the boys too hard.
Upon deeper reflection, I think we never made it to a park or playground for one simple reason: we didn't really need to. 

The boys played tag around various historic squares and spaces, climbed up turrets at Pena Palace, and got so much fresh air just walking around the city. There are portions of Lisbon that are tight and cramped (and charming!), like any European city, but for the most part, I never got that desperate need for space for the kids to run around that I sometimes get in urban areas. Plus, the Portuguese culture is so family centered and accommodating to young children that I also never felt unwelcome in the busier parts of the city.

If you have dreams of visiting Europe with young children, Lisbon would make a terrific starting point (and Portugal in general). It has so much history and character, all the amenities you could hope for, and a culture that adores children. Aside from the expensive flight across the Atlantic to get there, it's a relatively affordable destination once you arrive. 

Plus, it even has a few parks and playgrounds, or so I'm told.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Renewing our Traveling Spirit at Martinhal's Beach

A year ago, when we were planning this move to England, I had visions that our travels would be endless sightseeing excursions. Castles. Cathedrals. Cobblestone streets. If it was on a must-see list, we were going to check it off. We've done a lot of that already and we have many more plans for the future. No way am I spending three years in Europe without seeing these historical landmarks I've always dreamed about.

Following this logic, a year ago I also figured that visiting the beaches of Europe might be a waste of our time. We could always do beach trips when we move back to America. Sand is sand, waves are waves, whether they've got a Florida zip code or a Portugal post code.

So on our last afternoon in southwest Portugal, my husband and I had the decision of spending an hour or two on the beach at our resort, or touring Sagres, a coastal town rich in history as the epicenter of the Age of Discovery.

We chose this.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Martinhal Resort in Sagres: My Stress Reliever

I've been thinking about stress lately. How much is too much, where it comes from, how I react to it, and what can be done about it. Probably because I've been dealing with it lately, mostly related to driving. In the last 4 weeks, these things have happened:
  • Rented a car in Lisbon, only to have it break down on the highway an hour away from anything. Now I know what being stranded on a Portuguese highway with two little kids feels like. For the record, my children handled that scenario way better than I did.
  • Got a cab back to Lisbon, only to pick up a new rental car and scrape it against a guardrail coming out of the airport parking garage.
  • Back in the UK, I got a speeding ticket for going 36 in a 30 (caught by a speed camera). Then I learned that if I get just one more speeding ticket in the next two years, I'll have my license revoked. Instead, I have the pleasure of taking a 4-hour speeding awareness class on a Saturday afternoon to get it cleared from my record.
  • Studied my tail off for two weeks and passed my written theory test, the first step in a two-step process toward getting my UK driver's license.
  • Had my first driving lesson to prepare for part 2, the actual driving test. When's the last time you kept your hands at ten and two and performed a perfectly executed parallel park?
White knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel? Yeah, that's been me lately. I swear I'm not a bad driver, just prone to bad luck apparently.

But something else happened during the past month that found me more relaxed than I think I've ever been since becoming a mom. We spent a blissful 36 hours at Martinhal Resort in Sagres, Portugal. (It should have been 48 hours... damn you rental car!) It was the highlight of what was already a pretty magical week in Portugal.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Week in Portugal with Kids

Sunset over the waterfront in the Belem area of Lisbon.
I've had an interest in visiting Portugal for nearly 10 years. When my husband and I were planning a month-long trip to Spain before we had kids, I had hoped we'd be able to include Portugal in our itinerary and I even bought a Lisbon guidebook. In the end, a detour to Portugal never materialized.

But I kept that guidebook. When we moved to a new house 10 months after Big Arrow was born, I shook my head as I unpacked it from its box (this being the third time I had packed and unpacked it). Why hold on to this, I thought. I've got a baby now... no way we'll get to Portugal in the next decade, at least.

You just never know what twists and turns life has for you.

So when I stuffed that old guidebook in my carry-on the night before we departed, I was thankful my dream of visiting had finally come true. Yet I couldn't help but wonder... would this place live up to the "dreamy destination just out of reach" hype I had given it in my mind?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Our trips to London always inevitably involve a bit of hassle. Non-handicap accessible tube stations, which means we carry a double stroller up three flights of stairs, crowded streets, lines, etc. I'm not complaining. We're lucky to have such an amazing city just a train ride away. And it's well worth the effort, each and every time we visit. But there's nothing about going into London that's easy. I suppose that's true of any city, particularly when you have young kids.

So I truly appreciate those moments of relaxed bliss, a chance to carve out some space among the streets and the sights, full of millions of people, when you feel like you have a little corner all to yourself. Exactly what we were treated to when we ventured over to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in mid-December.