A Touch of Magic

Soak up the natural beauty and fairy-tale charm of Portugal with easy day trips and local cuisine.

By Jennifer Campbell

With its beautiful beaches, medieval castles, and vibrant cities, Portugal has a lot to offer for its small size. If you’re travelling with kids, you’ll want to find ways to keep the whole family happy. The good news – there are plenty of activities that are suited to travellers of all ages.

Portugal is packed with castles, and kids are sure to love the country’s most colourful one. Located in the Sintra Hills outside of Lisbon, the National Palace of Pena is beautifully whimsical with its pink and yellow walls and pretty mountain setting. There are daily guided tours of the park and palace available, as well as a number of family programmes like pony and carriage rides.
Also, in Sintra, Quinta da Regaleira has a gothic facade decorated with turrets, gargoyles and ornate carvings. The real magic of the place, however, lies within its gardens. Ideal for exploring with little ones, it’s filled with tunnels, underground passageways, a hidden waterfall, caves, and a spiral staircase. Look out for quirky details and mythical features scattered throughout the grounds.

The oldest wine region in the world, the Douro Valley is well worth a visit for its scenery (and a taste of the local port, if you’re so inclined).
The valley can be explored by road or train from Porto, and it’s possible to visit vineyards and small villages, explore a walking trail, or simply soak up the landscape along the way.
For a fun family trip, take a boat cruise on the Douro river — there are a number of routes to choose from, ranging from short trips to overnight options. Some tours will provide lunch and drinks, as well as stops along the way, while others combine boat and rail to really explore the area.

If you’re looking for an easy family outing, consider heading to one of the country’s beaches. If you’re based in Lisbon, you’ll find a number of options, many of which can be accessed by train. If you’re willing to travel a little further than the city limits, take a trip to the pretty Portinho da Arrábida in the Serra da Arrábida National Park. Also, within the national park is the town of Sesimbra, which has some good swimming beaches and a selection of seafood restaurants. If you’re in Porto and in search of a fuss-free spot away from the bustle, try Moreiro Beach, which is around a half hour drive from the city. Further out is São Jacinto, which is set in the Dunas de São Jacinto nature reserve. The drive from Porto is beautiful, and you can enjoy views of the Aveiro lagoon and estuary on the way. Pack a picnic and make a day of it.

Portugal is well known for its seafood and rice, and one of the most loved dishes includes both of these staples — arroz de marisco is made with prawns and clams cooked together with rice and vegetables, much like the better-known Spanish paella. You’ll also find whole crabs on local menus, often cooked with butter, garlic, white wine and chilli sauce, and served in the shell. For a taste of street food, try bifana, slices of pork marinated in wine and garlic and served in a fresh bun — it’s served in food stalls and food trucks all over Lisbon’s streets, and makes a great snack on the go.

For a meal that’s made for sharing, order cozido a portuguesa. It’s a combination of tender pork and beef with vegetables served family-style in a big pot. For a popular sweet treat, try pastéis de nata — custard tarts made with pastry and dusted with cinnamon. And if you pop into a bakery, pick up some cavacas, a traditional cupcake-style pastry topped with a sweet glaze.