While our time in Portugal has been short, we wanted to get a feel for it as a potential destination for the Family Adventure Summit in a future year. We drove from Porto to Lisbon on a 9-day road trip, stopping in Coimbra and Sintra on the way.
Here are a few things that stood out to us about our time in Portugal, and photos of some of the places we visited. (Along with a video below.)
The countryside overall was beautiful and green, with rolling hills, lush forests, and picturesque city rivers.
The overall feeling in the cities was gritty and real – a bit more run down and graffiti-covered than other parts of Europe we’ve been to, but with an authentic and playful feel that was refreshing.
This “what you see is what you get” or “let it be” energy seemed to pervade the country, whether it’s being okay with graffiti on the walls, drugs sold in the streets (yes, I was offered some), or children and adults expressing emotion loudly in public, both positive and negative. I appreciate the connection my wife Jen made that the Portuguese people seem to value the deeper balance that can emerge from allowing a more wild and open approach to life.
The neighborhood block parties on weekends with music, singing, and laughter until 1:30 am were another demonstration of the fun energy of this place. It all felt real, raw, and beautifully unique.
One unique aspect of Portugal is that many of the buildings are covered in beautiful colored tiles. There seemed to be more of this in Porto than other cities, but we saw it throughout.
In Lisbon, many of the houses were painted in lovely pastel colors. During this time of year, in June, the jacaranda trees were blooming with beautiful purple blossoms. Turning most corners in Lisbon yielded some form of eye candy.
Most of the towns were quite hilly, which offered beautiful views, but made it a little tough on our knees, which were still recovering from our 180km (111 mile) walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain the week before.
During our road trip, we visited several sites that enlivened our sense of wonder and awe.
Bussaco Palace and Forest
This mountain range near Lusso, Portugal houses a very impressive palace near the top, with miles of trails through mossy forests, picnic areas, ponds, lookout points, and more.
The Batalha Monastery
This huge 500-700+ year-old monastery, about 90 minutes from Sintra, is a stunning example of late Gothic and Manueline architecture.
Mira de Aire Caves
We’ve seen some impressive caves in our travels, including the Phong Na caves in Vietnam. But the Mira de Aire caves were no small sight either. What I found especially unique about them was that they were so well developed inside, with staircases, lights, manmade waterfalls, and even fountains in areas they rent out for events and dinner parties. There’s also an elevator at one end. It was almost like walking into an underground palatial residence with a very unique atmosphere.
Palace de Pena
We were lucky enough to meet up with some friends here in Portugal who we’d spent time with in San Miguel de Allende. Aysia and Marie had a sleepover at their house one night, and then we met up the next day to explore Palace de Pena together in Sintra. Most of the day was cloudy and misty, which made for an interesting setting to enjoy this elaborate and colorful palace built at the top of the hill.
In northeast Lisbon is a very well-maintained oceanarium, allowing a peaceful setting to observe some of the ocean’s amazing creatures.
Overall, we’ve been most impressed with Lisbon. The food scene here is incredible, with so much variety and delicious cuisines from around the world. Former Portuguese colonies in India, Brazil, Africa, and elsewhere add a unique flavor to the city. We saw more Japanese, Indian, and even Vegan restaurants than expected – all favorites in our family. And we loved the pastéis de nata, or custard tarts, so much that we treated ourselves to one every day of our trip.
The prices for food were quite a bit higher than we expected (8-12 EUR for a plate of food were at the cheapest end), but with so many great options in such walkable proximity, we felt spoiled for food choice and quality.
Like other parts of Europe, most restaurants follow strict hours, where they close from around 3-7pm. So if you get off schedule, or are late by even a few minutes, you may miss that meal, and not be able to get another one anywhere for several hours. Although there are more restaurants in Lisbon now that stay open through the afternoon.
One other oddity we noticed is that in many restaurants, they only provide one (or maybe two) menus per table, which required a bit more discussion in making orders.
We did our best to learn a little Portuguese before we came (and while here), using a combination of the Duo Lingo app and Google Translate. Though we found that most people spoke English and/or Spanish quite well, so we had no trouble getting around. We also listened to some Rick Steves audio guides about various aspects of Portugal through an app on our road trip, to help deepen our understanding of the culture and history.
Parking was a challenge in nearly every city, with very few spots available, and all requiring payment of a euro or so per hour. Though we noticed that some of the parking garages played music, which was nice.
Along with the grittiness and realness of Portugal, we also experienced our own authentic struggles as a family. Having been moving a bit too quickly for too many days in a row (nearly 3 weeks of sleeping in a different place almost every night), we began to experience again what we call “Travel Burnout“. This forced us to look again at why we’re still traveling as a family after 9 years on the road, and the challenges of doing it at such a fast pace.
Ultimately, we’ve come to love how travel challenges us as a family, and it’s become a bit of a spiritual path for us – an opportunity to look inward and grow. But we also accept that there are times when what we need most is to settle down for a while, and we look forward to continuing adjusting to this balance as the needs of our family continue shifting.
Lisbon is HUGE and we could easily spend years here and not see it all. It’s a place I could see us returning to again for sure. Of course, we still have several other cities we’re considering for the next European destination for Family Adventure Summit, but Lisbon is a definite candidate. Have you ever thought about traveling to Lisbon? What do you think you’d like the most or the least?
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