For my twins’ second birthday, we took them all around Portugal for two weeks. We had originally planned to stay put in a central location and make a villa our base of operations so that we could maintain the same place to sleep for the boys. We changed our minds and decided to travel around most of the country over two weeks when we started researching the country and discovered so many great things to see and do. Little did I know how perfect Portugal would be for our family.
During our two-week stay, we looped around the county from Lisbon to Porto via stops in Lagos, Evora, Coimbra, and Braga. Each city had it’s own unique feeling and culture. Across the entire country though we found incredibly warm, friendly people and beautiful scenery without hordes of tourists. Everything was surprisingly affordable and we had some truly amazing meals, especially of seafood, sometimes right on the water. At one meal, perched feet from the water, we watched fisherman catch fish and bring them to the restaurant’s back door as we ate grilled dorado, octopus, and cod.
Each town brought us amazing sights and experiences and allowed us to spend a ton of time with our kids who we normally barely get to see during the work week. We bonded over shared experiences and new things they picked up and learned, cracking up along much of the way. There were challenging times too like when they’d refuse to sleep or would throw a tantrum in the middle of a public space, but I was amazed at how much they grew up during the trip.
These are the 12 ways Portugal was perfect four our family vacation.
1. Flexibility – Portugal isn’t a country of rigorous rules and timetables. While the public transportation was frequent and regular, we didn’t have to stress about running 15 minutes late for a dinner reservation or sprint for a bus since they’d always stop and wait when they saw a stroller. We also began to pick up on this flexibility, allowing the boys to sleep in a bit later and stay up to enjoy the evenings when so much was going on. We even skipped a few nap times when it meant the difference between seeing one more sight and running back to the hotel. Thankfully they would usually grab a quick catnap in the stroller when needed.
2. The touristy things are still fun – I never thought I’d find myself on a tourist-packed double decker bus, but when one of our days in Porto turned into a rain storm, we decided the bus tour was our best chance to actually see some of the city. It turned into a fantastic and memorable experience when the boys embraced it, shouting “bus” for much of the ride, pointing out sights and their map to other riders, and grabbing a cuddly nap on my shoulder. With kids, sometimes it’s worth not overlooking the touristy experiences because at least they are new to them.
3. The food was incredible – Like life-altering seafood so good I think it might have just nudged out some of our Croatian meals as the best seafood I’d ever had. Think fish so fresh it’s still swimming, slow grilled over charcoal with potatoes and a small salad. I ate an entire octopus over the course of four meals (two tentacles each, get it?) and was still ready for more. It never got old either as the cooking was simple, but there were multiple options of traditional preparation to always spice things up. The boys even discovered a love for fish and gelato over the course of the trip. Every meal was surprisingly affordable too. We were constantly surprised when the bill came that food for four, an appetizer, and two glasses of wine each would be under 50 Euros.
4. Historical experiences – One of the experiences I’ll never forget was our tour of one of the famous old Port wine cellars in Porto. Not only was it interesting and added to the experience of drinking Port, but we had quite a unique experience. When we arrived, the only remaining English tour for the day was two and a half hours later. We knew the boys would crash if we kept them out, so we did the only logical thing. No, we still took the tour, but in French. I don’t speak a word of it and the boys cried for much of it, but I still somehow learned about the aging process and the grape selection. Merci! Best of all was after 45 minutes when we sat down for the tasting and someone asked us a question in French and we just said, “oh sorry, I don’t speak French”. The look on their face was priceless but the camaraderie of drinking Port together covered up the awkward moment.
5. I skipped every day’s run but still lost weight – Portugal is hilly. The cities like Lisbon and Porto are completely built on hills and have sights in both lower and upper towns. Our boys weigh almost 30 pounds each and don’t yet walk more than five minutes. Combining these facts meant there was a lot of great high intensity core training throughout the trip. Pushing a stroller up the cobblestoned 15% grade streets of cities like Coimbra meant I always arrived to meals with a healthy appetite and still somehow came home lighter. Even with a variety of local craft beer throughout the trip I didn’t bring home a spare tire.
6. Perhaps the most forms of public transportation in the world – Lisbon and Porto have their street cars and boats. Nearly every town had busses and trains. The airports meant we often spotted planes overhead. For two-year-old boys obsessed with every form of transportation, Portugal was the most interesting place they’d ever seen. In Porto, while enjoying a meal under the famous double-decker rail and street bridge, serenaded by a splendid rendition of Despacito on the accordion, we were able to sit and enjoy a meal with appetizers, grilled-to-order fish including a cod fillet the size of a porterhouse steak, a bottle of wine, and a glass of Port over the course of nearly two hours because the boys were so busy pointing out every train and bus that passed on the bridge and every tourist boat departing along the river. “Bye bye choo choo” is adorable the first 12 or so times. I’m not sure the boys actually realized we went to another country, but they had a blast with all the trains.
7. We learned the language – Well I learned the words for beer and large, but the boys picked up greetings. By the end of the trip they were greeting everyone with an “Ola” in the morning at breakfast and a “Ciao” or “Bon Dia” as we walked around town. They might not have learned the Portuguese word for fish, but they expanded their own food-based vocabulary too.
8. They learned helpful habits – One morning while we were wrapping up our breakfast after we had spent 30 minutes feeding the boys, they were getting a bit antsy. Since our fantastic breakfast of fresh baked bread and cakes – apparently common in Portugal since we had this in multiple places – took place in an old building with a stone wall, we told them to go and clean the floor and wall. After 30 minutes of wiping it with napkins, we finished up our meal and started off for the day. They also learned to clean up their cars at the end of a day by putting them in the pocket of the stroller for the next day. The cars were an absolute life-saver because each day hey wanted a different one and would carry it around the entire day.
9. We lived like locals – Thanks to the incredibly tourist friendly economy, we were able to stay in incredible apartments and homes throughout our stay for hostel prices. We had multi-room apartments, often located right in the middle of the town which were perfect for giving the boys some personal space to fall asleep and also for us to have some time to ourselves too. In Braga we stayed in an art-deco apartment with a balcony that would fit in at Buckingham Palace where the boys loved practicing their royal waves to the locals passing by. In Evora, we stayed on a farm house where horses actually walked by our windows in the evening and two massive Portuguese Shepherd dogs kept a friendly watch over us and the boys who immediately fell in love with them. In Cascais we stayed in a resort and in Lagos were a 500 foot walk to the waves on the beach.
10. We partied it up like the Portuguese – The early summer season meant there were various celebrations and festivals occurring across the country. Our favorite, in Coimbra was a celebration of local culture and cuisine. Included were countless food stalls featuring the region’s sheep cheese and cured meats, a local craft brewery, and even the town’s transit system with a bus and trolley kids could climb on. I’m surprised any of us every willingly left. Trying to order in Portuguese there and look like a local, we ended up with a two pound plate of sausages stuffed with cheese and some roasted boar sandwiches.
11. The best beer culture of any Mediterranean country – I know it isn’t really on the Mediterranean, but Portugal’s culture is similar to Spain, Italy, and Greece. Unlike these countries, Portugal has beer that isn’t just beer flavored water. The two main super-breweries, Super Bock and Sagres are actually palatable. For some reason, in a fantastic idea that needs to catch on elsewhere, beer is often sold in either 20 cl or 5 cl (1/2 liter) glasses. Even the bottles are available in “minis” offering a nice light choice with food or for a faster stop. Beyond these two are a bevy of craft and microbrewers found across the country. Even the big breweries have craft sub-brands with multiple styles and they tend to be easy to find. Many meals were a difficult choice between a cheap local wine and interesting local beer. Beer usually won for me.
12. Wine and dine at night – With boys that usually go to bed around 7, we thought it might be difficult to make dinner work each night and keep them on a schedule. Thanks to a combination of our great accommodations which allowed us to get them to bed and sit next door without disturbing them and quick meals and widely available take out, we were actually able to have dinner with the boys every night. Two of our more memorable meals were ones where we decided to grab takeout because of rain or a long day and a desire to get in early with them. For one, we found a nearby Indian restaurant and bonded with the owner and his son who was the same age as our boys and learning English. The other involved me doing my best Portuguese ordering at a churrascaria or grill. Having a hard time interpreting the menu, I ordered what I believed to be three entrees plus some french fries for the boys, and rice and beans for us. I was asked a few questions thatI thought I understood and answered affirmatively. After I grabbed the bag that I thought contained all of my food and turned away, I was directed back and given another bag. I turned around again and was told to wait for the third! All of this, plus an entire bottle of wine I grabbed from the refrigerator next to the coke bottles came out to under 20 Euros. We ended up with five fillets of skirt steak, a flank steak, three pork cutlets, nearly two pounds of fries, an entire plate of rice, a bowl of beans, and a salad. We still somehow finished all of it between the boys’ dinner, ours, and a breakfast snack. Those cobblestoned worked up an appetite.
Portugal was the perfect destination for us this summer. We got to watch our boys grow up in realtime and share an incredible time and experiences with them over two weeks when we otherwise would have only had a weekend. By experiencing new culture and being open to new experiences, we grew closer together and made memories we’ll never forget. The boys still greet their classmates at school with “ola” and finally eat potatoes now. I could live with a new phrase, but they still say “bye bye choo choo” to every train, trolley, tram, and street car we see. I’m so glad we chose this great country to visit and got to meet so many amazing people.