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Portugal for Families

From Faro to Porto and the highlights inbetween

Madeline Hoskin finds that a trip to Portugal is packed wide with fun, from historic towns, beaches and hands-on activities to fresh seafood and, of course, Portuguese tarts!

Spain may be known for sunshine and siestas, but jump across to its leisurely paced neighbour and you’ll find a similar ambience... but amplified. It’s so narrow that you’ll never be too far from the ocean; it hums along at its own speed, savouring the warmth of the Mediterranean sun; and celebrates port wine, colourful conversation and, most importantly, its youngest visitors. If you’re visiting the country and wanting to see as much as possible, it makes sense to work from top to bottom (or vice versa), so here’s a kid-friendly path from Faro in the south to Porto up north.

With over 800 kilometres of coastline, it’s no surprise Portugal has a bounty of beaches, and the Algarve region across the country’s southern tip is home to some of the best. Most people here fly into Faro, a small port town with plenty of charm, little boats and delicious Portuguese chicken burgers. If you linger here a day or two, be sure to check out Ilha do Farol, a long sandspit with both the waves of the Atlantic and the marine life of Ria Formosa Natural Park’s calm waters. However, it’s really the town’s surrounds you want to see. Hire a car or hop a bus heading west and soon you’ll hit Alvor. At the eastern point of the main beach you’ll find Praia dos Três Irmãos with a trove of beach restaurants and coves to explore.

Keep heading west and you’ll soon reach Lagos, a town popular among Aussies, particularly those in search of good nightlife. Don’t be deterred – it’s a fantastic family stop, too. The town is quaint with cobbled nooks that hide fresh seafood restaurants and alleys lined with umbrellas, and its two main beaches offer very different experiences. There’s Meia Praia with plenty of space to run, splash and build sandcastles, while the more crowded Praia de Dona Ana has stunning rock formations that provide little pockets of shade, translucent waters and a cove shape that protects it from wind. For a seafood bite on the beach, check out O Camilo, or soak up the sights with a visit to the baroque Church of Saint Anthony or the Point of Piety, complete with a lighthouse and views over sandstone cliffs. In town there’s also Zoomarine theme park, brimming with rides, slides, pools, dolphin shows and more.

Less than three hours north you’ll find the nation’s capital, Lisbon, packed with colourful buildings that sprawl over the seaside hills. It a maze wonderland, prime for exploration. If you’re up for a walk, I recommend grabbing a map and simply seeing what you can find, though there are some stops you won’t want to miss. Lisbon Oceanarium is the second biggest indoor aquarium in Europe, and Jardim Zoológico is not just a zoo, but an amusement park, children’s farm and miniature train destination, too. What family wouldn’t love that? For a taste of the country’s history, museums such as the Navy Museum, the Lisbon Puppet Museum or the Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Pavilion of Knowledge) will have imaginations sparked by old seafaring ways and interactive play, or for something a little bit quirky, an amphibious Hippotrip tour will show you around town... before driving into the Tagus River! Many of the buildings here are also stoic and impressive, from the giant Jerónimos Monastery (which is worth seeing from the inside) and the fortified Belém Tower to the huge São Jorge Castle which sits proudly overlooking the city’s historic centre. You could spend hours meandering through its internal streets, or outside its walls you’ll find fountains, a fun assortment of street performers and plenty of places to stop for a meal.

The last place you won’t want to miss is Porto, just another three hours’ drive north. Visually it looks like the older brother of Lisbon – more historic buildings, more compact, more colourful. Life here is centred on the Douro River (which is the livelihood for its renowned wine), and wandering the streets you’ll pass countless stores selling port, as well as Portugal’s signature bakeries and seafood restaurants. Down near the ferry pier you’ll find a hub of cheap and cheerful eateries that are always full of families such as Taberna São Pedro. Chow down on piled plates of fresh sardines, seafood casseroles, octopus grilled in wine and other local delicacies – without spending much more than €10 a dish. The city is home to a spread of old churches, buildings with intricate façades such as the old Stock Exchange, Palácio da Bolsa, and the grand Ponte de Dom Luís I, a bridge notably built by a student of Gustave Eiffel.

A good way to see it all is with a Porto Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour, many of which have optional extras such as river cruises and wine tasting. While in town it’s near sacrilegious for parents not to test the local Port Wine – look out for neon signs on lodges bearing names such as Sandeman, Taylor’s or Cockburn’s and stop in for a free guided tour or tasting. If you have time and want to see some of the other nearby towns, up north there is UNESCO-listed Guimarães which is home to awe-inspiring monuments, a 10th-century castle and a historic centre that needs to be seen to be believed. There is also the town of Braga, renowned as Portugal’s oldest Christian city, where you’ll find countless Roman ruins, Baroque fountains and palatial buildings. Ask at your accommodation and they’ll probably be able to help you arrange a day tour that encompasses both of these stops. Whatever you see, you’ll walk away sunkissed, smiling and inspired by the colourful nature of the towns and people.

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