Stephanie, our social media manager and writer, recently returned from a month in Portugal with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.
With its history (geographic borders defined in the early 12th century, a long list of contributions to global exploration, incredible cathedrals), people (a friendly and peaceful population that is family-focused), and culture (beautiful sites and cities from north to south), Portugal captured our family’s interest as a place to spend some extended time. Planning a month-long visit became a part-time job, and even our 7-year-old was involved with the arrangements. Beyond my experiences studying abroad in college, this would be my longest trip as an adult, and I was excited to embrace the luxury of time.
WHERE WE STAYED
We divided our month into stays in three different cities/apartments: 12 nights in Matosinhos, 11 nights in Porto, and 2 nights in Lisbon before flying back to IAD and driving home to Cleveland.
Matosinhos is a larger city (about 175,000 people) located along the Atlantic with a beautifully long stretch of beach and bustling paved walkway where we often saw people trekking the Camino de Santiago. Connected to Porto via Metro, the city provided us a walkable beachside city experience with easy access to Portugal’s second largest city. We both worked during our time in Matosinhos, aligning our hours with EST and settling in at our apartment from 1pm-10pm. This meant mornings spent sightseeing followed by lunch, and later grabbing a quick carryout meal for dinner or taking a walk on the beach during my husband’s break.
Porto, a friendly rival to Lisbon with many often comparing the two, was our second stop and main hub for exploring a couple of other cities on our must-visit list. Working only our first two days here, this leg of our trip was for major sightseeing: we planned day trips, toured Porto via tuk-tuk and private boat, spent leisurely mornings at cafes sipping coffee and working through word puzzle books with our kiddo, and hit every park and playground we could find.
A full day in Lisbon was not nearly enough time to explore this busy city, so we only planned a visit to a museum our daughter had selected, walked the city center, and enjoyed a couple of meals out.
HOW WE GOT AROUND
Upon arrival in Lisbon we met our private driver, Rui Botelho – The Road Butler, who escorted us to our apartment in Matosinhos. This service eliminated a daunting taxi/train/Bolt ride combo after an overnight flight with a young child, and we were so glad we had made these arrangements in advance. We hired Rui later in our trip when we found ourselves in a bind with transitioning from our apartment in Matosinhos to Porto. He drove us to our new neighborhood and even stowed our luggage for us and delivered it later in the day when we were settled after check-in. We were so grateful for his assistance! (He also offers tours!)
We walked nearly everywhere, often logging 15,000 or so steps per day. Sidewalks are usually uneven with a mosaic design, and hills are plentiful (and can be brutal!) in both Porto and Lisbon. In some areas, sidewalks are barely wider than a small stroller, with people often stepping into the street to move past one another. This is an important consideration for those with mobility issues, and very comfortable sneakers are a must. (Nearly everyone I saw in Porto wore sneakers, regardless of attire!)
When traveling further distances across town, we used Bolt, the Uber of Portugal. Bolt is widely used and easily available via app in major cities. With discounted rates for our first ten rides, this option was often significantly less expensive for our family than the cost to ride the Metro. We packed an inflatable travel booster seat for our 7 year old, which was very convenient and didn’t take up too much luggage real estate.
We rode the Metro only a couple of times during our trip but found it to be relatively user-friendly once we did some research about zones and purchasing titles (tickets). The machines can be finicky with accepting credit cards which caused us some issues when trying to return from NorteShopping, so always have some cash/coins on hand.
For day trips, we traveled by Rede Express bus or took the urban train. Both were incredibly affordable options, and with a bit of research, generally user-friendly. (There are multiple types of trains in Portugal and tickets should be purchased through the official website: cp.pt)
To travel from Porto to Lisbon before our return home, we booked tickets for the Alfa Pendular, the highspeed “fancy” train. At about 40 Euros per person for first class tickets, we had a very comfortable ride through scenic Portugal, which proved a delightful way to travel.
WHERE WE DAY-TRIPPED
There were several cities we would have loved to visit, but even with a month-long stay we needed to prioritize our day trips. For us, this meant two trips to Braga because we fell in love with the city on our first visit, and a trip to Aveiro, the “Venice of Portugal.”
Braga: The third largest city in Portugal and religious capital of the country, Braga is an enchanting town with its large pedestrian-only city center, cathedrals that wow (Sé de Braga was constructed in the 12th century!), beautifully landscaped public areas with fountains, and numerous cafes. The highlight of our visit was riding the funicular to Bom Jesus do Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The climb down provided us with both stunning Braga views and equally as breathtaking views of the stairs and cathedral as we looked back. We were also charmed by the Jardim de Santa Bárbara located near the Archbishop’s Palace, constructed in the 14th century.
Aveiro: With its canals winding through town beneath colorful ribbon-tied bridges, Aveiro is affectionately known as the Venice of Portugal. We spent the morning wandering the city center, stopped to allow our daughter to play on a playground while we sipped coffee, glided down the canals by guided tour in a moliceiro, ate a delicious lunch at a quaint vegan cafe, and walked to a nearby park to explore.
ACTIVITIES / TOURS WE BOOKED
We didn’t make official plans until we were in Portugal, as our family wanted some flexibility with how we spent our days. I used Viator to book two tours that we decided on as a family: a private tuk tuk tour of Porto and a private bridges sunset cruise of the Douro River. The boat tour was a highlight for us, and seeing stunning Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia from the water was magical. My husband sipped delicious wine from the vineyard of the captain’s friend as I snapped a million photos of the passing scenery.
Other highlights: We visited Sea Life Porto, World of Discovery, (both in Porto) and 3D Fun Art Museum (Lisbon), toured numerous cathedrals, visited São Bento train station (“the most beautiful train station in the world”), waited in line to see Livraria Lello (“the most beautiful bookstore in the world”), shopped at Bolhão Market, walked luscious gardens and spotted peacocks at Jardins do Palácio Cristal, played on every playground we could find, and explored hidden corners in city parks (our favorites for this were Parque das Águas in Porto and Parque Infante Dom Pedro in Aveiro.)
THE DAILY MAGIC OF A MONTH ABROAD
Having a full month to sink into life in Portugal was one of my most rewarding life experiences to date, and it was nearly impossible to condense the moments and memories into a short blog post. Sharing that time together as a family and touring a new country with our curious daughter was truly magical. Portugal quickly captured our hearts, and the country’s warmth, beauty, and history completely enveloped us. It’s a hidden gem of Europe, and one that I recommend travelers take time to discover.