Travelling to Portugal: 6 things to know before you go

Sep 9, 2020

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Chances are you know someone who has travelled to Portugal and has raved about it. After spending two weeks exploring the country with my family, I wholeheartedly recommend it as a great destination for kids. But even the best places have pitfalls that come with the highlights, so here is what I encountered while visiting Portugal with children in tow.

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Sintra Natural Park Lisbon Portugal Seascape
Sintra-Cascais Natural Park near Lisbon. (Photo by ARoxo/Getty Images)

1. Lisbon is a no-go for prams

There’s a lot about Lisbon to love. It’s clean, safe and fun to explore. However, its streets are paved with cobblestones and it is remarkably hilly. Young kids might have trouble keeping up. One of Lisbon’s major neighbourhoods is named “Bairro Alto”, which literally means “high neighbourhood”. The below is from a two-hour walking tour of the city, and only records stairs, not hills:

Lisbon Hills screenshot
(Screenshot via Apple Health)

Of course, you don’t need to take a two-hour walking tour, but if you are visiting Portugal with an infant, I highly recommend a carrier over a pram. With a toddler, you might want to limit your plans to neighbourhoods that have public lifts and/or bring a pram that is good with uneven terrain. On the upside, some of the elevators in Portugal, such as the Santa Justa Lift, are attractions in themselves.

Naturally, if an adult in your crew has limited physical abilities, some of these same terrain concerns would transfer to those situations — so plan logistics accordingly.

We did discover that Ubers were cheap and plentiful. Most rides within the city were less than 6 euro (£5.40) for an Uber X and many were under 10 euro (£9) for an Uber Black.

2. Don’t miss the Maritime Museum

A popular Instagram spot in the Belem District of Lisbon is the Monument of Discoveries. It’s worth seeing for the view alone.

Read more: 11 best hotels for a beach holiday in Portugal

Lisbon Portugal Monument to the Discoveries and 25th April Bridge #lisbonportugal
(Photo by The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus)

But our favourite spot was actually across the street at the Maritime Museum (Museu de Marinha). It appealed to our kids much more than other museums as it took visitors through the adventures of Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese explorers. It even had artefacts from da Gama’s voyages among its extensive collection. As a traveller, I was obsessed with the historical maps and globes displayed throughout the museum.

Younger kids will especially love the Galliot Pavilion at the end of the museum. There’s a huge exhibition hall that houses royal yachts and brigs, fishing vessels and Portuguese ships with lots of room to explore.

lisbon maritime museum
The Galliot Pavilion at Museu de Marinha, Lisbon. (Photo by Dia Adams/The Points Guy)

Admission to the Museu de Marinha is 6.50 euro (£5.90) for adults and 3.25 euro (£2.95) for kids ages 4 to 12. The museum is open daily, October to April 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and May to September, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

3. Lisbon’s famous trams are crazy crowded

If you’ve seen photos of Lisbon, you probably know about the iconic yellow trams weaving through the city’s distinctive neighbourhoods. That’s not what we encountered.

Read more: 13 of the most beautiful villages in Portugal

Lisbon Portugal Tram
(Photo by PEC Photo/Getty Images)

What we saw was a bit more crowded than the postcard image.

Lisbon Portugal trolley #lisbonportugal
(Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images)

I’m not sure when the photos of empty trams are taken, but during an entire week in June, we never saw a tram that wasn’t standing room only.

4. Visit the town of Sintra on a sunny day

Prior to visiting Portugal, everyone we asked told us that we must visit Sintra, mainly because of views like this:

Palacio da Pena,Sintra,Portugal
Palacio National da Pena in Sintra. (Photo by Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

This is another case where our reality was much different from our expectations. I mean, fog happens.

Sintra Cloudy day
(Photo by Dia Adams/The Points Guy)

On a moderately cloudy day, the views were obscured as a misty fog bank enveloped Sintra. We couldn’t see the ocean even when we drove just a few yards away. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention and realised that Sintra was a weather-dependent destination because of its location about 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Lisbon near the ocean.

5. The Algarve’s water is colder than the Mediterranean

Something to keep in mind if you’re an ocean swimmer — average water temperatures in the Algarve in southern Portugal are about 22 degrees Celcius in mid-August. In late June, when we visited, the ocean was 19 degrees Celcius, according to Sea Temperature, which felt too chilly for more than a toe-dip for us. Those degrees made a huge difference.

If your kids are into building sandcastles and chasing seagulls, the beaches along the Algarve are ideal — sandy compared to the rocky ones in Mediterranean hot spots. Just keep in mind that you might have to descend a long flight of stairs to get to a spot for your beach towel. Here are some more tips for navigating the Algarve with kids along for the fun.

Beach in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal. (Image by M Swiet Productions / Getty Images)
Steps to a beach in Lagos, the Algarve. (Photo by M Swiet Productions/Getty Images)

6. A house with a private pool is surprisingly affordable

TPG U.K. has written about the Pine Cliffs Resort, a great hotel for families or groups of friends. Although it’s definitely worth considering, so is renting a house with a private pool. Currently, a search on Airbnb shows up three-bedroom villas with a private pool in the Algarve for about £140 per night so roughly £1,272 for a week including charges. At Pine Cliffs Resort, for the same dates, a two-bedroom townhouse is £2,745.

Bottom line

Believe the hype: Portugal presents tremendous opportunities for a great holiday, though that doesn’t mean it’s perfect for every single traveller. My teen, who is notoriously hard to please, recently listed Portugal among his favourite countries. When I asked why, his understated response was simply: “I liked the vibe there”. I understood what he meant. Between the maritime history, the expansive vistas and the friendly people, I liked the vibe there, too — though I’m sure having a private pool didn’t hurt.

Featured photo by Sean Pavone/Getty Images

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