1. The old town is very beautiful, with the feel of a Greek fishing village crossed with an Italian hill-top town. Winding cobbled streets, bougainvillea and vines tumbling everywhere, and charming cafes, restaurants and petisco (small plate) bars. Many of the buildings are covered in incredible tiles in the typical Portuguese style. Step outside the old fishing village, however, and you’ll find a bustling, vibrant, culturally thriving town, with every possible facility you could hope far (a Jumbo supermarket, for example, along with multiple specialist shops), along with museums, art galleries, markets and festivals. So you really get the best of both worlds when you stay in Cascais.
2. You can rent a gorgeous old villa within a stone’s throw of the beach. We found ours through Homeaway - located in the heart of the old town, it has been owned by the same local family for 17 years, who live in it off-season and rent it out during the summer. It felt very much like a home rather than a rental, with perfectly chosen accessories, hand-painted murals on every wall, and a fridge full of wine and cheese. The villa had a large terrace outside one of the bedrooms, and a lovely courtyard with a big bougainvillea tree.
3. There are lots of beaches to choose from within a short walk of the centre. The main town beach, Praia da Ribeira (beach of the river - also known as Praia do Pescador - beach of the fishermen) is used by the local fishing boats, so if you’re lucky with your timing, you’ll see the catch of the day coming in.
Head to the right, and you’ll find beautiful Santa Marta lighthouse, and a couple of ‘secret’ beaches that are only accessible at low tide.
Head to the left, and you find the main tourist beaches, with umbrellas and loungers for hire, and beach bars serving rosé and great sea food. First up is Praia da Rainha (beach of the queen), a little cove with the ubiquitous white sands and turquoise waters. It’s the smallest beach we found, and on a sunny Saturday was absolutely crammed to the extent that we could barely find a spot for our beach towels. We squeezed in regardless, and within the hour spaces had opened up as all the locals sloped off home for lunch and a siesta.
Next along the bay is Praia da Conceição (beach of conception - cue many jokes about how we have quite enough children, thanks very much). This beach is much larger and has a fantastic beach bar which serves delicious sea food. We hired loungers and a parasol for 25 euros, and bribed our older kids with sweets to look after the little one so we could have a nice lie down and a bottle of rosé, which was delivered to our loungers.
Round the corner is Praia da Duquesa (beach of the duchess), which is connected to Praia da Conceição at low tide. It has palm tree style parasols which look very pretty, but we didn’t go that far because to the kids a beach is a beach, so we mostly hung out on the others as they were that little bit closer to the centre.
Our host recommended Guincho beach, which is further to the west and is a popular surfing beach that looks wild and beautiful. However, bathing is not recommended there, so we didn’t go, as telling the girls they couldn’t go in the water would not have been very popular.
4. Cascais is a place where the Portuguese go on holiday. I find it very restful holidaying in places where you don’t hear English voices all the time - the only English we heard was from the occasional American family, along with a few French, German, and Dutch folk speaking English as the universal tourist language. The rest of the time it was Portuguese, Portuguese, Portuguese. Nearly everyone in the shops and cafes spoke beautiful English, of course, but they seemed to appreciate our attempts to speak the local language. I barely progressed past ‘dois pastel de nata, por favor’ (in my defence, I speak French with reasonable fluency, along with enough Italian, Spanish and Greek to get by as a tourist, but adding another lingo to my repertoire was beyond the capacity of my chronically-sleep-loss-befuddled brain cells) but the girls were brilliant, especially our eight-year old, who perfected ‘vinho branco, por favor’, before handing the wine over to her tired mother.
5. It’s half an hour on the train from Lisbon, with a ticket costing a few euros. The train station is called Cais do Sodre, and it’s located on the riverfront in the south of the city, opposite the Time Out market. We set our sat nav for Bairro Alta, and began to climb up the cobbled streets into the old town. I’ve never seen anything like Lisbon before. I was expecting something similar to Paris, wide boulevards and elegant buildings and so on, so I was blown away by the incredible character of the winding cobbled streets and pastel-coloured tiled buildings festooned with tinsel, banners, bunting, graffiti and street art. The smell of coffee, cigarettes and the sea. Washing hanging out of all the windows, folk sitting on the steps outside their houses peeling potatoes and cooking sardines over buckets of charcoal, yellow wooden trams rattling along the steepest, most unlikely looking streets - and then suddenly stumbling out of the maze into a lovely open square with an incredible vista over the higgeldy-piggeldy terracotta rooftops. And all with the deep, intense blue of the river Tagus resting serenely in the distance. What. a. city. Lisbon, you took our breath away.
6. You’re never more than a few paces away from a custard tart. We loved the pastel de nata from Cafe Bijous in Cascais, which had a subtle lemon flavour. The delicious pastel de nata is one of Portugal’s best known treats, with the most famous coming from Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon (their version is called ‘pastel de belem’, and is trademarked, meaning everyone else has to call their custard tarts ‘pastel de nata’). In our pre-child days, we probably would have trekked out to Belem on the tram to sample the original model, but going to great lengths to queue out the door of cafes to buy a patisserie item that is broadly speaking exactly the same as every other version probably isn’t on the holiday to-do list of any child, so instead we made a solid effort to sample them from as many alternative vendors as we could find. I even had one in Lisbon airport, which to be honest tasted just as delicious as all the others.
We also gorged on ice cream from Santini (my favourite was hazelnut). Artisani is also recommended for their more unusual flavours, but as every parent knows, the best ice cream is the closest, and Artisani is a ten minute walk further down the promenade than Santini.
7. There’s an incredible local market selling well-priced sea food (Wednesdays and Saturdays) that sells every vegetable under the sun, with a fabulous fresh fish and seafood market to the side. We bought a kilo of sardines for 7 euros, and a kilo of prawns for 16 euros. Clue - that’s absolutely loads of sardines and prawns; the lady on the stall kept tossing them onto the scale while we marvelled at how many you got for your money. We bore them back to our villa and cooked everything outside on the braai, after marinating the prawns in a sauce I invented myself using random ingredients from the kitchen (olive oil, honey, paprika, chilli flakes, lemon, chopped garlic and a freshly squeezed tomato).
8. There’s always something going on. During the week we visited, a month-long jazz festival was taking place, and we were treated to the lilting tones of Diana Krall drifting from the stage in the nearby park into our courtyard garden. Tom Jones was on the bill the following night, slightly randomly, and played until 1am, which was a bit more Tom Jones than we needed, strictly speaking, but fair play to the man's stamina.
9. There’s a lovely well-maintained park for children, with a couple of different play areas fringed by palm trees, plenty of seating for tired parents, a cafe with very good espresso and cake, and a pond filled with turtles. In England, we have ducks. In Portugal, apparently they have turtles - who all crawled out of the water to sunbathe on a rock, located strategically just outside the grasp of small fingers.
10. You can have lots of fun trying to pronounce the name Cascais. We heard it pronounced as ‘kash-kush’, ‘kash-kigh-suh’ and ‘kash-kiysh’ - we eventually settled on the latter, which is spoken with the accent on the ‘ka’ and ‘ki’, rather than the ‘sh’ sounds. Hours of entertainment.
Cascais, you were too perfect to visit only once. We will be back…