In the last few weeks, I’ve had four people ask me for recommendations on visiting Portugal with kids. My husband and I took our three- and four-year-olds on a two-week family vacation to Portugal last July and had a wonderful time.
The country is quickly becoming a hot destination for families traveling to Europe because of its relative proximity to the U.S., its old European charm, and natural beauty. Another big attraction for families is the cost. You get more bang for your buck in Portugal than you do in more established tourist destinations like Italy, France, and Spain. We bought good local wine in Portugal for the equivalent of $4.00 (Vinho Verde, where have you been all my life?).
Here’s all of the information I’ve shared with family and friends since our trip. Jump to a specific topic by clicking below or scroll to read through it all. Happy planning!
Our Vacation Goals
Before deciding where we wanted to go, my husband and I talked about our goals for vacation, and I suggest you do the same. Once you know what you want out of your trip, you’ll be able to tell whether the activities and locations I outline below match what you’re looking for.
Plus, there are unavoidable moments of stress when traveling internationally, and you might find yourself asking, “Why did we do this?” Remembering your goals for the trip will help.
Here’s what we wanted out of our trip and how it shaped our plans:
Efficient Travel Time
We travel cross-country with our kids several times a year to visit family, and within those trips, we’re often staying in multiple locations. It’s fun but very tiring. So for our first European family vacation, we decided to set up a home base for the duration of the trip and do day trips rather than bouncing from place to place like my husband and I liked to do before we had kids.
We actually started our vacation on the east coast, first flying to visit my family in New Jersey for a few days before venturing on to Portugal. This allowed us to gradually adjust to the time change and made the start of our Portugal trip more productive.
Since we knew we’d be launching from the east coast, we only considered European destinations that offered direct flights on my husband’s preferred airline, United. (He travels frequently for work and has accumulated status and frequent flier miles with them.) Newark-Liberty Airport to Lisbon, Portugal is about a 6-hour flight—roughly the same distance from SF to NJ. We knew our kids could handle that.
Balance of Sightseeing and Relaxing
We also wanted this to be as relaxing a vacation as possible— no small feat when traveling to a foreign country with two small children, so we set our sights on renting a house in a beach town. This way, we could intersperse busy travel days with laidback downtime.
We flirted with the idea of spending two nights in the middle of the trip in Porto, a three-hour drive away, but decided, as much as we wanted to see that city, it would be too much. Stick to your goals, and it’ll help you prioritize what to do on the trip.
Quality Family Time
We invited our parents to come on vacation with us because we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them, and we thought it would be beneficial to have extra hands helping with the kids. My parents flew out with us from New Jersey and spent five days in Portugal before venturing on to tour London and Paris. Then, we had a few days alone before my husband’s parents joined us. They had been on a European river cruise prior to meeting up with us.
Clearly, you have to have a good relationship with your family to do this and have parents who are willing and able to make the trip. Fortunately for us, it worked out perfectly. The collective memories we share now are priceless, and I don’t think either set of our parents would have booked vacations like this had we not been the catalyst.
Where We Stayed
After a lot of research, we discovered Sesimbra, a small fishing town an hour south of Lisbon. It’s a popular beach spot for locals but also welcoming to visitors; menus at restaurants were offered in Portuguese and English, and they were friendly toward the kids, even adapting meals to fit their taste since no place really offers a kids’ menu.
This also means the town’s built into a mountain! Based on distance, our rental house was walkable to the beach, but factoring in the steep elevation, mostly non-existent sidewalks, and all of the beach gear we needed to carry, we ended up parking in a little lot half way down and walking the rest of the way to get to the beach and to restaurants at night. Read reviews of where you’ll be staying for important insights like this.
The water in Sesimbra is very cold, but it’s also very calm, which made it the perfect beach spot for kids. My husband and I were able to sit on beach chairs and let our kids play at the waters’ edge without fear that they’d be swept away by a big wave. And since the climate in that area is similar to Southern California—never too hot and never too cold—we always felt comfortable and were never desperate to get in the water.
Sesimbra is more quaint than larger resort areas like Cascais or the Algarve. If you’re looking for a posher beach experience that’s still close to Lisbon, head to Cascais. It’s larger than Sesimbra, caters to international visitors, and is close to Sintra, which was one of our favorite day trips of our vacation.
The Algarve, which is about three hours south of Lisbon is another hot spot. Because of the distance, we didn’t visit, but I’ve heard from friends who’ve been there that it’s beautiful and worth the trip. A different way to structure the trip would be to spend half the time sightseeing in and around Lisbon and then spend the other half relaxing at a resort in the Algarve.
Porto is another city we nixed from the itinerary in favor of Lisbon-based day trips but several people have told me that it’s an incredibly picturesque city and well worth the visit.
What We Did
Since one of our goals was to make our trip as stress-free as possible, we splurged on a few private tours during the trip. A car, with car seats, picked us up at our house for each tour day, and we had a private guide show us around. If you choose to stay in a hotel in Lisbon or another main city, you’ll have less expensive group touring options available.
Before we booked any tour, I confirmed that it was appropriate to bring children. Europe, in general, is more welcoming and accepting of children than America, but we still wanted to be respectful to the tour and make sure we would feel comfortable going through it with the kids.
Lisbon is similar to San Francisco in that there are lots of hills, but there are also flatter areas close to the water. It even has a look-alike Golden Gate Bridge, the 25 de Abril Bridge, that was actually designed by the company who made the Bay Bridge.
You might recall that leading up to the Portugal trip I wrote an article reviewing child carriers that can hold bigger little kids. We ended up not using carriers at all, and we didn’t bring a stroller either. The sidewalks are mostly cobblestone and mostly narrow and/or busy, so we were happy to be as agile as possible.
Our kids wanted to be carried a lot, and it just sort of worked out. The excitement of exploring made it easier to pick ’em up and keep walking.
The Alfama neighborhood is a must see. Narrow alleyways, old buildings… it’s everything you want in an old European city.
Pastéis de Belém, in the Belém section of Lisbon, is the oldest bakery in the city, famous for pastéis, a delicious Portuguese cream-filled pastry. When we arrived, there was a long line out the door to purchase baked goods, but we walked right in and found a table right away to eat onsite.
It’s basically impossible to go to Europe without visiting multiple churches during the trip. Our favorite in Lisbon was São Domingos. There was a terrible fire there many years ago that melted the large parts of the interior structure. Instead of renovating it, they kept it as is, and its imperfection is really beautiful. It also helps that there’s a little walk-up window across the square from the church where you can take shots of cherry liqueur called Ginja for a Euro.
Cafe Martinho Da Arcada is the oldest cafe in Lisbon and lots of famous dignitaries have been there so that’s another spot to try.
The Baixa neighborhood is where our guide told us all the best restaurants and nightlife are, but we didn’t get to indulge. We’ll have to save that for a future kid-free trip.
Lisbon is really just a great city to wander around and explore for yourself.
Sintra/ Wine Tasting
The other memorable day trip we took was to the medieval town of Sintra. The town itself is picture perfect and a great spot to grab lunch, some souvenirs, and a good bottle of Port wine. Above the town is Pena Palace, which is a sight to be seen. It’s a huge castle constructed in a hodgepodge of architectural styles. I wouldn’t call it pretty, but it is worth the visit. It’s also very crowded. We opted not to wait in the line to tour the inside of the castle because we knew our little ones wouldn’t be interested in seeing giant murals and old furniture that they weren’t allowed to touch. Instead, we explored the outside areas and the grounds.
Then, we went wine tasting! Quinta de Sant’Ana is an absolutely beautiful, family-owned winery that was welcoming to our kids (we came prepared with snacks and entertainment to keep them well-behaved). The wine was delicious and the private tour with wine and cheese pairings were informative and fun.
We also toured the three largest wine producers in the country on a separate day. They’re all located closer to where we were staying: Quinta da Bacalhôa Palace, Casa Ermelinda Freitas, and José Maria da Fonseca. Our guides at these stops were friendly and knowledgable, but the locations are much more commercial than Quinta de Sant’Ana.
Dolphin and Jeep Tour
One of our most adventurous days was spent riding in jeeps around the Arrábida national park and searching for dolphins on an old schooner. We had a love/hate relationship with this tour. It was a memorable day— my three-year-old son declared that it was his favorite— but it was also the most uncomfortable and tiring. Skip the dolphin watching if you get seasick. If you plan to do it, confirm how long the tour will be before you set sail. With no food or entertainment aboard, we all got a little antsy waiting to see dolphins and ended up asking the captain to turn the boat around early.
Riding in an open jeep is a bumpy ride but is also really fun. We went off-roading up some very steep paths and also hiked down to explore a cave near the water.
It was a nice change of pace after doing more traditional day tours, but be prepared for a tiring day.
What We’d Do Differently
Two weeks in the same location was a long time. Having my in-laws join us halfway through renewed our excitement and gave us the chance to take them to the great local restaurants we’d found in Sesimbra, but had they not come, we would have been ready to move on.
We wish we had spent a night in Lisbon. The Lisbon airport is very close to the city itself, and it would have made sense for us to spend our first night in the area or to leave our beach house a day early and check into a hotel in Lisbon. That would have given us a chance to explore the city in the evening and we would have been closer to the airport for our flight the next day; we hit traffic every time we commuted around the city of Lisbon.
In hindsight, we could have sacrificed the pool at our house. We did use it, but it was unheated and the air temperature was only in the low to mid-70s. A house lower on the hill in Sesimbra would have made us even more mobile to roam the town without having to drive a portion of the way down.
Tips & Logistics
Plan for Your Jet Lag
We landed in Lisbon early in the morning but check-in for our rental house wasn’t until 6:00 PM that night! We should have booked the house starting the prior day so it was ready for us when we arrived. By the time we realized this, the house was already booked, so we booked a room at the Marriott near the hotel and spent our first day in Portugal napping and sitting by the pool. We were too tired to do anything else, and this ended up being a nice way to de-stress and ease into our trip. Later in the afternoon, we dropped off our luggage at the rental house and went grocery shopping.
We rented a car at the airport through Sixt and brought our kids’ car seat travel vests. These vests make traveling with small children so much easier. You can learn more about them in this review I did last year.
I’ll also put in a plug for packing cubes because they are magical—especially if you do find yourself staying in several locations during the course of your trip.
Groceries & Restaurants
Pingo Doce is the main chain of grocery stores in Portugal, similar to a Safeway, and has everything you’ll need to stock a rental house. We did our first round of shopping at an Aldi because we were familiar with the name, but it was clear that the locals shopping there were buying a handful of items, not stocking an entire kitchen. Keep a few coins on hand. You’ll need it as a deposit to take a shopping cart at both stores.
If you find a restaurant you like, stick with it. With so many little challenges facing us each day, like translating labels on packages in the grocery store, choosing from unfamiliar food on a menu, figuring out how to pay for parking in a parking garage, and dealing with jet lag, we quickly learned that there is great comfort in visiting the same restaurant multiple times. The servers got to know us, and we got to know the menu. Each time we went, we got more adventurous with our orders.
Speaking the Language
Google Translate is your friend. While most people we encountered not only spoke English but spoke it well, our translation app came in handy on a number of occasions. It helped us decipher labels on food packaging and also helped us communicate with the mechanic who had to jump start our rental car after the battery died (definitely not a highlight of the trip).
Which brings me to my final tip: Expect the first few days to be kind of hard and know the trip won’t go perfectly as planned.
Do you remember the castle in Sesimbra that I mentioned? It was actually the location of an all-night rave for the first two nights we were there. We were terrified that we would hear bumping base vibrating through our rental house every night of our trip, but fortunately, it was a temporary inconvenience.
And do you know how I said we figured out that it was best to drive halfway down to the beach from our house? It took several days for us to perfect that routine, and there was a strong feeling of disappointment in our location before we figured out how well that setup actually worked.
All of the other times I’ve been to Europe, I’ve stayed in hotels and didn’t have to worry about cooking or doing laundry. On this trip, I was confronted with a European kitchen and washer/ dryer. We had a big house but all of the appliances were super tiny. When in Rome, as they say…
And the house also had a yucky, musty smell for the first few days. And there were a ton of flies (because screens are not a thing in Europe). But all of these issues magically disappeared around day three. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m sure part of it was because we became more accustomed to our new surroundings.
All the planning will be worth it!
If you want a comfortable, carefree vacation, book an all-inclusive somewhere in Mexico (hello, Kids Clubs!). If you want to get out of your comfort zone and learn the history and culture of another country, then a trip like this is totally worth it. Despite the hiccups, it truly was perfect.