Named “2016 Hottest Destination of the Year” by Travel & Leisure, more and more families are discovering that Portugal is a fantastic Europe vacation destination. What’s the best way to get there? Where can families find a kid-friendly resort? Which cuisine delicacies should you be on the lookout for? Where can you find one of Europe’s most unique castles? Plus the most breathtaking outdoor wonders of this beautiful seaside country that you can’t miss.
A First Timer in Europe
My recent visit to Portugal was my first time experiencing Europe, and was certainly a thrill. Fellow world traveling companions provided some insight for me along the way, pointing out just how many of this country’s wonderful features were unique in all of Europe.
Portugal offers relatively low prices, lots of English speakers, friendly people, delectable foods, and amazing coastline scenery. For these reasons and all the other fantastic things I enjoyed while there, I can’t wait to return with my family. Here are the absolute highlights, what to look for during your stay, and my top recommendations.
TAP Portugal Can Get You There in 6 Hours
Our TAP Portugal flight was a red-eye leaving at midnight from JFK airport (in New York City, NY). Flying TAP Portugal, a premiere airline specializing in service to and from Portugal, meant I was immersed in the culture while still on my journey. Cabin crew speaks both Portuguese and English, and I enjoyed practicing my “Obrigada” – a female’s “thank you” in Portuguese.
There are other departing US locations besides JFK. Personally, I find JFK airport and it’s *very* separate terminals to be confusing. TAP Portugal flights leave from JFK Terminal 5. For the JFK newbie, that may mean leaving your connecting flight’s terminal, riding the AirTrain to Terminal 5, and then going through security again. Annoying. But necessary.
Leaving at midnight was the perfect way to go. It meant I could maximize my schedule by sleeping overnight during the travel time. TAP Portugal took great care of us during the flight. From complementary toothbrushes and mini toothpaste in the lavatories, to a pillow and blanket on every seat upon boarding, to fancy and soothing LED mood lighting to optimize our chance at getting some rest – this was an extremely slick and comfortable flight.
Coach vs. Business Class
I rode in coach on the flight to Portugal, then in business class on the return trip. The added legroom in business class made a huge difference in comfort, as the coach seats were a bit cramped for such a long flight.
Entertainment is free, and was displayed on our own seat back screens. There was a election of 50+ movies, TV shows, and games to chose from. I was traveling alone, but my kids would have loved the entertainment if they had been with me. It greatly helped pass the time.
The airline served a Portuguese style hot meal in the early part of the flight. Not sure what to expect on the upcoming culinary scene, I enjoyed the tomato based rice and shrimp dish with vegetables, served with a berry flavored flan for dessert. Shortly before arrival, there was a second complementary food service of a small and tasty cold cut sandwich and granola bar. Great to stuff in my backpack for later.
And the best part? The flight from New York to Lisbon is just over 6 hours long. Who knew Portugal was so close? With the time change, we arrived around 11 am. Ready to start the day, for the most part. I’m horrible about being able to sleep on airplanes, but the adrenaline rush of arriving in Portugal gave me a boost.
Family Luxury at Martinhal Resorts
Martinhal Resorts hosted me on this Portugal trip, so we were able to check out three of their four Portugal locations. Their unique specialty is “family luxury,” and I have never seen a more family-friendly, kid-amenity-packed resort. All of the needed baby and toddler gear, from high chairs to potty seats, were on hand both in rooms and the resort’s restaurants.
Martinhal Resort locations have dedicated kid centers, playgrounds, and a staffed play area adjacent to each of the onsite restaurants. Complementary with a stay, Martinhal staff engage children (often right within a parent’s line of sight) so parents can savor an unrushed experience such as fine dining or spa time. My family was not with me at the time, but my kids would have loved the option to eat quickly from a kid-friendly menu, and then go play while mom and dad took their time over dinner.
We visited several Martinhal Resorts, which gave me a diverse overview of Portugal. I love the idea of a split stay with Martinhal, absorbing some culture and seeing the sites at one of Martinhal’s Lisbon locations, then heading for a laid back beach and outdoor recreation time spent at Martinhal Sagres. The comapny can book a combo package like that and arrange for any needed airport transfers.
Read my overview of three Portugal Martinal Resorts to get a feel for the resorts.
Freshest Seafood I’ve Ever Eaten
Portugal sits just west of Spain, a long rectangle shape of a country bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It stands to reason that a place with miles of ocean coastline would have decent seafood, but I was unaware of just how off-the-charts fantastic the seafood delicacies would be in Portugal. Fishing is a large industry, and the sea life is rich and varied in this area.
The result was the freshest, most delicious seafood I’ve ever eaten. More than once we were served a classic dish of Portuguese Fish Stew. It’s a simple but savory combination of broth, garlic, onion, sometimes potatoes, spices such as thyme, oregano, and cilantro; and a variety of ridiculously fresh seafood: clams, mussels, shrimp, cod, prawns, and other catch-of-the-day. Between me personally ordering the dish, combined with our hosts often serving a pre-selected specialty menu… at one point in the trip, I actually ate this three time in a row. I’ll admit, I was ready for a cheeseburger break at that point. But I reminded myself to savor the unique opportunity. Even if you aren’t a seafood fan, I’d encourage you to try this nationally famous dish when in Portugal, which truly offers a flavor of the country.
Nearly every restaurant we entered had a glass case with the fresh catches of the day displayed on ice. These chefs are rightfully proud of the high quality product they are able to serve. More than once I witnessed a waiter carrying an entire fish to be shown off with a bit of flair to (and likely inspected by) the eating party, before carrying it back to the kitchen for preparation.
Pena Palace in Sintra
My very first European castle tour! How thrilling it was to climb the winding path up to see Portugal’s Pena Palace in Sintra. You can pay for a shuttle bus ride, but we were crunched for time and opted to walk as we could see the palace just a few hundred yards above us. A bit of a steep walk, you can reach the palace on foot in about 5-10 minutes. The shuttle bus seemed to run on a 20 minute cycle.
The exterior of Pena Palace is free to explore, and was fascinating to me in its diversity. Somehow the distinctly separate sections of bright yellow, red, and grayish blue tiles all flowed together beautifully. Our local guide Alicia commented that although the Pena Castle’s interior is somewhat similar to other castles found in Europe, the exterior is known for being unique in all of Europe. The views are phenomenal from this vantage point on top of the Sintra Mountains, and include a glimpse of the nearby Moorish Castle.
Walking the castle wall along the interior perimeter, my fear of heights kicked in a little at the narrow portions where the battlement wall felt awfully low. If you visit with children, I recommend sticking close and holding hands along this walkway. Seeing the man-sized, enclosed watch stations drove home the functional, strategic reality of what castles were actually used for in the past.
I did opt for the paid admission to tour the castle interior, and highly recommend this if you have time. We had only one hour total at Pena Palace, and it was not sufficient. I had to breeze through the castle’s rooms catching only a glimpse of the fully furnished interior, imagining the royal life lived there. I’d recommend one hour for an exterior tour, and at least one additional hour for the interior castle tour.
Mild Year Round Climate
My visit was in November, and the temperatures were in the 60’s. In other words, darn near perfect!
Especially in the southern portions of Portugal, the climate is surprisingly mild year round. This makes it a highly desirable European destination in what perhaps would typically be viewed as the colder off season months.
Plus they’ve got plenty of amazing beaches to see. Which leads me to my next unique and wonderful thing about Portugal: The Algarve.
The Algarve: Rocky Cliffs and Crashing Waves
I’m certain my Pinterest “Wanderlust” board has been packed with gorgeous photos taken of the Algarve, from long before I had any idea it was in Portugal. It’s actually the entire southernmost region of Portugal, spanning 150 kilometers along the coast. And I was thrilled at the chance to finally see a portion of it.
We stayed at Martinhal Sagres Beach Resort, the only resort found in the vicinity of the tiny fishing village of Sagres. Lonely Planet ranks the nearby Cape St. Vincent as one of the top experiences in The Algarve. A biking tour to the Cape St. Vincent was on our list, and was a perfect way to see some of this legendary coastline.
So much power and beauty on display. The crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean meet the rocky cliffs of the shoreline, creating violent, blisteringly blue pools. Trails leading down to pockets with sandy beaches are also found in the area, so you can get right down by the water to enjoy it. We were only able to catch glimpses of these beaches, while riding our bikes back from Cape St. Vincent to the Martinhal Sagres Resort. It looked to be a 5 minute steep hike along the trail from the top parking lot to the lower, picturesque beach.
Returning here someday with my family is firmly on my wish list.
Artistic Tiled Buildings of Lisbon
When touring Lisbon’s “old town” district of Chiado, one of the first things I noticed were buildings covered in tile. Our guide Alicia was originally from Spain, and informed us that Portugal’s tiled buildings are unique in all of Europe. Historical buildings in various states of repair, each is stunning and unique.
Not just decorative tile mosaics, which we also saw a great deal of during our time in Portugal. But an entire building’s outer surface would be covered in tiles. What a fabulous display of the Portuguese artisanship and traditional tile-making skills. It was gorgeous, and should be on everyone’s “European Bucket List”.
Step into a Blue Fantasyland… Lisbon Tour Boat “Trafaria Praia”
There are numerous ways to tour the city of Lisbon, but by far the most unique one we experienced was a Tagus River ride on Trafaria Praia. This boat docks along the busy city center area of Chiado, Lisbon. It’s easy to spot by the exterior covered in hand panted blue tiles, a work of art called “The Great Panorama of Lisbon”.
Then things got even better. Knowing nothing about the boat ahead of time, I was as delighted as a child when I stepped onboard, and was directed towards a viewing of the magical blue room. A floating work of art created by artist Joana Vasconcelos, the lower region of this fascinating boat contains a dedicated dark room that’s a sensory explosion. Blue lights flicker on and off, providing an ever-changing glimpse of what appears to be an undersea world. Created from a variety of textures and fabrics, my kids would absolutely flip out over exploring the regions of this glowing fantasyland. Children have been known to spend the entire 1-2 hour cruise playing in this lower portion of the boat.
This boat tour is sadly not narrated in any way. But it did give a relaxing chance to cruise the Tagus River, and offered views of the city’s Old Town sights from a new perspective.
I also appreciated the onboard glass display cases, featuring a few choice Portuguese products and gifts for sale. You may purchase any of the items seen in the glass cases, and the prices are comparable to those I saw (for the exact same items) in Lisbon shops. It was very handy, and a great way to make sure you are selecting an authentic Portuguese-made souvenir.
My New Favorite Thing: Pastel de Nata
This last tip is my gift to you. “Pastel de Nata”…. Custard tarts, regional pastry of the Lisbon area. Although they are so prevalent, I don’t think you could visit Portugal without encountering them in a pastry shop or your morning breakfast buffet. Start early in your trip, seeking them out on your first day.
Sure, Europe has amazing croissants. But only Portugal has custard tarts, and they just might be the most luscious things I’ve ever tasted. A flaky, croissant type pastry cup holds a dallop of thick, creamy egg custard which looks like it’s been fire roasted. Some shops are dedicated to nothing BUT pastel de nata, and for around 1 euro you can grab a warm, fresh one. Or three.
The best ones I found (I ate them daily, for a week!) was at Lisbon’s Manteigaria. It’s a long narrow building with hustling, friendly staff making the pasteis de nata right in front you and serving them hot. No seating. You stand right there at the crowded counter and eat it, pure culinary heaven worth every slightly awkward moment.
I dearly miss all of these wonderful and unique things about Portugal, but custard tarts are at the very top of my list.