A foreign city break isn’t the obvious weekend away with the children. How would one see all the sights, enjoy lie-ins and lengthy lunches in the sun, and sample the nightlife with a bunch of needy little ones in tow?
Or at least that’s what I thought until I found out about a new hotel in Lisbon that offers parents the chance to do all these things (except sleep in, perhaps) whilst still spending some quality time as a family.
At Martinhal Chiado, on a quiet cobbled street in one of the trendiest parts of Lisbon, there is a kid’s club, a family-friendly restaurant and a pyjama club to entertain youngsters while you go out for dinner.
It’s the first of its kind, a family city break hotel, and in the name of research, we try it for a weekend with our three children, aged four, three and one.
The apartments are seriously stylish, decorated with chic Portuguese furnishings yet kitted out with everything a parent might need, such as high chairs and bottle warmers, microwaves, bath mats, wine glasses and a bottle opener.
If you don’t fancy cooking (which I didn’t) you can order kid meals on room service from the restaurant downstairs. Seriously civilized, as you’d expect from Martinhal, a small hotel chain founded by parents with four children, which also has stylish family hotels in Sagres, Quinta do Lago and Cascais.
But Martinhal isn’t just a depot to store your children while you go off and have fun in Lisbon (although there’s nothing to stop you using it in this way if you wanted to). The hotel very much encourages parents to show their children this amazing city; the staff can reel off numerous age appropriate activities within easy reach of the hotel: the Santa Justa lift, for example, connecting the lowest and highest points of the city – Rossio Square to the Bairro Alto district – or the zoo.
First morning, after a breakfast of hot chocolate, pain au chocolat and maybe one or two forced pieces of fruit salad, the boys decide that they want to go on a tuk tuk tour of the city. They’ve seen them buzzing along the cobbled street outside the hotel and NEED to go on one.
The guy at the reception breaks it to them gently that they’re not enough for tuk tuks yet (you have to be six) and instead suggests that we ride around the old town on a traditional tram.
This is how we spend the morning, rattling up and down the hills of Lisbon, admiring the streets in all their faded splendour.
Then, also on the concierge’s recommendation, we visit a toy shop – the Portuguese know how to treat their children – and stop for a pizza before heading back to the hotel.
So exhausted are the children by their “city break” experience that they are only too happy to put their feet up in the kids club for the afternoon.
We feel guilty leaving them – for about 50 seconds – but see a completely different side of the city once we’re child-free: coffee in one of Lisbon’s numerous hipster cafes; the antiques emporiums filled with beautiful tiles and plates (definitely not suitable places for my boys); a few clothes shops; a cold drink in the shade in one of the parks. It is memorably wonderful.
Pyjama Club is also a great success. Both nights. A babysitter from the hotel looks after the one-year-old in our room while the older boys go downstairs where movies (Despicable Me; Moana etc) are shown on a projector screen. When the film ends they are taken upstairs to our apartment and handed over to the babysitter who helps them into bed.
Meanwhile we go out on the town; drinks in the Barrio Alto followed by dinner at Café Lisbon on the first night and then a local wine bar, BytheWine, followed by Ibo, a Mozambique restaurant on the waterfront on night two.
Portugal, which calls itself the “California of Europe”, has embraced the slow food movement with gusto and Lisbon is awash with great places to eat and drink. And it’s good value compared to other European cities such as Rome (more on this to follow).
We try, and fail, to get a table at the hugely popular, Taberna da Rua das Flores, on the same street as the hotel, which has one of those frustrating policies whereby you have to log your name on a list early in the evening and hang around until your table comes free. One for next time.
None of us wants to leave Lisbon. We genuinely could have stayed on for several days: the station, with trains to the beautiful Atlantic beaches 15 minutes away, is just a few minutes from the hotel. We never got to visit the palaces of Sintra or explore the local wine country.
Martinhal allows the best of all worlds: quality family time and time to hang out just the two of us.
It’s the BEST holiday for ages, according to my four-year-old… and the best bit of all?
The toy shop of course.
- For more information about Martinhal Chiado or to book a room, click here