Lisbon with little ones

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

CITY BREAK LISBON:SO, WHERE DO a digitally connected father and son go for an extended weekend break? London has it all in terms of museums, but can be pricey. Paris is fine, but you can’t really visit there with kids without also taking in Disneyland Paris, and some of the more child-friendly destinations require pre-planning, especially during school holidays.

 For a recent last minute trip during the Easter holidays, Junior and I opted for the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where accommodation is affordable and the city is something of a children’s paradise of museums, fun public transport systems and wide open plazas and pedestrianised streets. The deal was that we would limit computer and phone time during the five-day stay, and get out and about as much as possible with an itinerary drawn up in conjunction with very helpful staff in the Lisbon Tourist Office in Rua do Arsenal. But, no sooner had we left the arrivals lounge and were organising a taxi to our hotel close to Avenida da Liberdade, when Junior grabbed a flier advertising a gaming convention being held in the city that weekend. Weekend bargaining chip No 1 was firmly in place.

Our hotel, the Hotel Altis, had a good cross-section of tour groups (mostly American) and business guests, and was perfectly located at the end of one of the main avenues in Lisbon, close to a metro stop and within walking distance of areas such as Restauradores Square and Comercio Square. In fact, pretty much everywhere in Lisbon city centre is within walking distance, and if you do have to travel a little further, the rickety old trams are a fun and novel way of getting up the more challenging cobbled hills. A three-day all-access transport ticket costs somewhere in the region of €15 and was excellent value – just be careful not to bend the small paper travel pass. If the seal inside is broken you’ll have to buy a replacement, and there’s no way of checking whether you had unused credit.

I’d suggest scheduling a full day to discover the areas of the city that sprang up in advance of Lisbon Expo 98, including the many seafront restaurants, a rather pricey cable car experience and some large shopping centres. There are two must-sees in this area. The first is the Oceanario, one of the largest aquariums in the world, housing somewhere in the region of 16,000 species. We visited on a Sunday morning and queues to gain admittance took less than five minutes and there were plenty of picnic areas both inside and out. The main exhibit is a 18,000 sq ft central tank, which you get to explore from several viewpoints. Inside are sharks, rays, tuna, barracudas, moray eels, an impressive sun fish and dozens of other fish species. The tour is divided into areas housing species from several of the world’s oceans, and also has an open-air section with penguins, sea birds and – the stars of the show for us – several sea otters. When we visited, three otters were floating on their backs only a few feet from visitors, making for great photo opportunities.

A temporary exhibit (which you must pay for separately) tells the story of sea turtles and their endangerment. One of the great attractions of this is see-through walkways, so if you’re lucky, you get to see enormous turtles swimming under your feet.

In a little alcove you can even lie flat on your back as turtles and fish swim over your head.

A few minutes’ walk from the Oceanario is the Pavilion of Knowledge, which is similar to the Science Museum in London. This allows for a fully interactive hands-on experience for adults and children, examining a variety of things from how electricity works, to gravity, to understanding the natural world. The high-wire bicycle ride across the top floor with a safety net to catch you if you should fall is great fun, and staff are on hand to guide you towards areas that may be of interest. Refreshingly, there isn’t a restrictive glass case in sight, and pretty much everything you come across can be interacted with.

The locals in Lisbon are generally wonderful. They’re helpful and patient, and while some argue that they have a fatalistic outlook, any we met were clearly proud of their city and appreciative of the tourist spend. We lost count of the number of times locals we asked directions of went out of their way and walked with us to ensure we were on the right track.

The one area where we felt Lisbon let itself down, though, was food. In short, most of it was awful, overpriced, and salted to the hilt. We tried several restaurants from well-flagged ones in the tourist areas of Chiado and Baixa, where Fado singers serenade you between courses, to recommended restaurants such as the Café Martinho de Arcado. The portions given to children and adults are huge, and one main dish would suffice for two people. Generally, meat or fish is the main attraction, and vegetables and potatoes are either over-cooked or too salty. In many restaurants, mains come in at about €15-€20, even for lunch, and there’s little in the way of vegetarian options or extensive children’s menus to choose from. By the third night, the best food we could find was in Hard Rock cafe.

I shared our experience and exasperation on Twitter, where several others said they too had similar negative dining visits. A little while later, one local IT entrepreneur offered to help and take us to his favourite local restaurant. We met on Rua Des Portas, and ate at an out-of-the-way restaurant called Casa de Alentejo. From the outside it looks like nothing – a crumbling facade and an old doorway, which leads into a wonderful Arabian palace, complete with large dining rooms, ballrooms, arced ceilings, frescos and restaurants spread over two rooms. Food was excellent, especially the fish and pork. They were happy to serve half portions for children and it was very reasonably priced, given the setting.

Our last two days in the city were spent rambling through the ruins of castle Sao Jorge, from where you can view the whole city and walk the castle’s restored ramparts. We also took a trip out to the maritime museum in Belem. This is one of my favourite museums in the city, with dozens of detailed small-sized replicas of the great Portuguese ships of old, along with some actual royal barges and flying boats. There are no digital bells or whistles, it’s just a real old-fashioned museum, where most things are behind glass and there’s lots of written narrative to get through on each exhibit. It builds a wonderful picture of just how rich Portugal’s maritime history is, and even with the somewhat dated layout and format, it holds genuine appeal for all ages. If at the end of your trip you feel the need to address the lack of digital interaction, across the road from the marine museum at the Museum of Popular Art is a temporary exhibition entitled Game on Lisboa. Here, for a general admission charge, you can play computer games on everything from old Commodore and Spectrum computers to the latest Xbox and Nintendo machines.

Here, Junior got his digital fix, and I got to whoop his ass at Pac-Man. Perfeito, as they say in Portugal.

How to . . . Lisbon

Where to stay:Hotel Altis, which is centrally located on Rue Castilho, just off Avenida da Liberdade, was decent value, and has an indoor heated swimming pool, although it could do with a refurbishment. Minutes away from a metro stop, it may be better suited to large group and business travellers, and you should get a large twin room for about €100 per night. They also have regular family offers. hotel-altis.pt

For a more authentic option, try myhomeinlisbon.com, run by a couple with a real eye for stunningly restored self-catering apartments. Some of the apartments, situated in excellent neighbourhoods, can be availed of for as little as €110 a night and sleep up to six persons. They’ll leave breakfast for you and are very helpful with recommendations on places to eat and see nearby.

How to get there:We flew from Cork to Lisbon with Aer Lingus, flying out first thing on Thursday morning and returning late on Monday evening. Including taxes and charges, it came to €263.96 for us both, but this was during holiday season. See aerlingus.com

For more information: see golisbon.comor visitportugal.com