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Family travel: Lisbon

The Portuguese capital is one of Europe’s most atmospheric cities, and with beaches, surfing breaks and romantic castles just 25 minutes away, it’s a serious alternative to the Algarve

Family travel: Lisbon
Pena Palace, Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Turismo de Portugal

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“Sometimes it feels like you’re floating on air.” Our guide, José Alves, is leading us along a Cascais coastline caressed by a gentle breeze, sunshine and the tangy scent of grilled fish. We’re SUPing — an activity three out of four of us didn’t know existed until an hour ago.

SUP (stand up paddle boarding) sees paddlers standing on large boards to propel themselves over the water, through the waves or into the thrashing surf. With eight-year-old Rosa and four-year-old Sam on board, however, our induction is of the gentle variety. Picking up our boards from Conceição Beach (from €15/£10 per person), we follow José’s lead. It’s surprisingly easy — aside from the odd beginner’s wobble. My wife and I are up and running within minutes, stroking our way past hidden coves, fishing boats and sunbathers on the beach.

On the return leg, Rosa hops onto the front of my board. I’m rocking Laurel and Hardy more than Laird Hamilton, but we both have a blast.

The Portuguese Riviera is famous for its watersports, of course — from thumping beach breaks near Ericeira to kitesurfing beneath those awesome sandstone cliffs. But what makes this Atlantic coastline particularly special is the humming and historic city just 25 minutes away: Lisbon.

A city break here offers a rare combination: urban buzz and coastal adventures. One moment, we’re navigating hairpin bends as we ascend through Sintra-Cascais Natural Park to the Pena Palace; the next, we’re chilling out among the sophisticates, street artists and strutting waiters of Chiado.

Lisbon is all about atmosphere. Famously devastated by the 1755 earthquake, it rose from the rubble as a beautiful mix of elegant grids (Baixa), classy quarters (Chiado) and one of Europe’s funkiest old towns (Bairro Alto). Sitting outside a cafe, with old yellow trams trundling past and those irresistible Pastéis de Nata custard tarts  in our fingers, we soak it up.

The main reason we chose Lisbon is its mind-blowing aquarium — Lisbon Oceanarium (family tickets €36/£26) is located just 10 minutes from the airport at Parque das Nações. Simply put, it’s an all-ages spellbinder.

Structured around a 5,000 cubic metre tank, it swarms with rays, sharks, sunfish, jack, barracuda and groupers, and the viewing areas are like IMAX-style windows into the ocean.

Hundreds of species and habitats are dotted around the central tank — tropical reefs, Arctic penguins, iridescent jellyfish and furry otters float, splash and glide about as if in one great global ocean…  which, I suppose, they are. It’s as if children made up the fish, too — who else could have come up with such glorious creatures as guitar sharks, sea dragons and clownfish?

Bit by bit, from our base at Estoril’s Hotel Apartamento Clube do Lago, we explore. From the old royal hotspots of Sintra and Cascais to the buzz of Chiado and the picturesque Bairro Alto, José’s words are perfectly apt. We do feel like we’re floating on air.

How to do it

Ryanair flies from Manchester and Stansted to Lisbon from €19.99 (£14) each way. Its Family Extra service offers 50% off priority boarding, checked luggage and allocated seating for kids. Stay at Hotel Apartmento Clube do Lago.  

Published in the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family