Traveling to Portugal: 7 things to know before you go

Apr 11, 2021

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

Related: The best credit cards for family travel

Sintra Natural Park Lisbon Portugal Seascape
Sintra-Cascais Natural Park on the coast of Portugal. (Photo by ARoxo/Getty Images)

Lisbon is a no-go for strollers

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. Consider that one of Lisbon’s major neighborhoods is named “Bairro Alto,” which literally means “high neighborhood.”

This 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 stroller. With a toddler, you might want to limit your plans to neighborhoods that have public elevators and/or bring a stroller 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 $7 for Uber X and many were under $12 for Uber Black.

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 favorite 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 artifacts from da Gama’s voyages among its extensive collection. As a traveler, 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)

Admission to the Museu de Marinha is $6 for adults and $3 for kids 4–12. The museum is open daily, 10 am to 6 pm, in summer; 10 am to 5 pm in the winter.

Lisbon’s famous trams can get crazy crowded

If you have seen photos of Lisbon, you probably know about the iconic yellow trams weaving through the city’s distinctive neighborhoods. That’s not what we encountered in the days before COVID-19.

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 via Getty Images

I’m not sure when the photos of empty trams are taken, but during an entire week, we never saw a tram that wasn’t standing room only. If a future visit is in the cards for you and your family, consider whether or not you’ll be able to comfortable social distance before jumping on.

Visit 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

Our moderately cloudy day obscured the views 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 realized that Sintra was a weather-dependent destination because of its location about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from Lisbon near the ocean.

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 top out in the low 70s in mid-August. In late June, when we visited, the ocean was 67 degrees according to Sea Temperature, which felt too chilly for more than a toe-dip for us. Those degrees made a huge difference in our ability to swim in the ocean.

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, Algarve, Portugal (Image by M Swiet Productions/Getty Images)

A house with a private pool is surprisingly affordable

TPG wrote 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. We rented this one for 30% less than a room at Pine Cliffs for a week in June. With three bedrooms, including one in a turret, two patios overlooking the ocean and furnishings that look fresh out of an HGTV shoot, I’d say $254/night (before discounts) was a steal.

Photo via Airbnb
Photo via Airbnb

It’s easier than ever to get to Portugal (in normal times)

Portugal is not currently open to most Americans due to COVID. And, as of Jan. 26, 2021, everyone age two and older traveling to the U.S. from Portugal must show a negative viral COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of departure before being allowed to board their flights; documented proof from a licensed healthcare provider of recovery from the virus within the past 90 days will also be accepted.

However, Portugal’s pre-COVID popularity has not gone unnoticed by the airlines. TAP Air Portugal has a number of routes including nonstops from Washington, DC, Chicago and San Francisco. TAP is a member of Star Alliance and I’ve found great availability using United MileagePlus for 30k each way in coach or 70k each way in business class. United is a Chase transfer partner. Air Canada’s Aeroplan is another good option if you want to transfer from American Express. TAP tickets include a free stopover in Lisbon or Porto, which can help maximize your travel budget.

TAP A321LR. Photo by TAP.
TAP A321LR. (Photo courtesy of TAP)

Bottom line

Believe the hype: In normal times, Portugal presents tremendous opportunities for a great vacation, though that doesn’t mean it is perfect for every single traveler. My teen, who is notoriously hard to please, listed Portugal among his favorite 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.

Read more about planning a vacation to Portugal:

Featured image by Knowles Photography / Getty Images

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