Of the many good reasons to take a family gap year — foremost of which was time with our kids — was a desire to visit other places we might like to live someday. High on that list was Portugal, a charming and bucolic country we’d only recently gotten to know.
Our first visit to Portugal was in 2010. We had been warned off the Algarve by fellow travellers, put off by the preponderance of holiday developments and resorts. Still, we’d spotted a little B&B called Muxima on the northwestern edge of the region, and the sun beckoned. Our instincts were right and Muxima proved to be everything we hoped for – a family run eco-retreat surrounded by nature and moments from wild Atlantic beaches. What struck us then, and continues to this day, was Portugal’s natural beauty and fecundity. It is an utterly pleasant place to be. We were enchanted by friendly locals, a family focused culture and a land blessed by great weather and abundant produce.
Our next visit came in 2015 when our friends Marta & Manuel invited us to stay in their extraordinary home near Sintra. It was on this visit that we really fell in love with Portugal. Marta & Manuel introduced us to all of the local attractions, restaurants, markets and beaches. For a few days we felt and lived like locals. We found all of the hidden gems and enjoyed all the local specialties. When Marta & Manuel invited us back this year, we could not imagine a better final stop for our year of travel.
Remarkably close to Lisbon, Sintra feels a world away from city life. It is in an area of extraordinary beauty, with historic towns, breathtaking beaches and great restaurants. You can find almost any outdoor activity here—hiking, cycling, swimming and surfing to name a few. Marta & Manuel also took us to their favourite restaurants and farmers markets. This area specializes in seafood — which we particularly enjoyed — and local produce. You’ll have a hard time finding imported wines, olive oil or other produce in this region. The locals say Portuguese wine and produce is so good, why should they bother getting it from elsewhere? They have a point.
For those who have come to surf, there are several good spots to choose from. We tried our luck at Praia Pequena as Praia Grande was looking a bit too fierce for our abilities on the day. Praia da Adraga, with its dramatic natural arch and famous restaurant, looked good too. If you’re looking for lessons or less challenging waves, Peniche is just an hour away. We spent a few days at The Surf Lodge Peniche, (the only place we’d recommend staying in the area). It has a great vibe, good restaurant and top instructors. Michael and the kids honed their skills with a few lessons.
Though we won’t be settling in Portugal anytime soon, we look forward to visiting often. Marta & Manuel have promised to show us other towns and beaches—Portuguese treasures that remain relatively undiscovered by travellers from outside of Portugal. Below is a list of our favourite things to do, see and eat:
- Praia da Aguda – a secret beach away from the summer crowds. It’s the stairs that keep it off the beaten path. A long walk down but worth it!
- Praia Grande – the busiest beach and famed throughout Portugal for having the ‘prettiest girls.’ It gets crowded for sure, but head to the far southern end to find a bit of room, dramatic rock formations and tranquil tide pools. There are also great facilities, a good restaurant and a happy vibe.
- Praia Pequena – Praia Grande’s little sister with half the crowds and gentler surf, but no restaurants or facilities to speak of. Pack a picnic.
- Swim in the natural pool at Azenhas do Mar, a beautiful beach with a popular restaurant of the same name.
- Walk the fortified walls of Obidos, a beautiful, historic town filled with charming book and ceramic shops.
- Take surf lessons in Peniche. Surf Lodge Peniche offers accommodation, a great restaurant, excellent instruction and a fun vibe. Peniche has several great beaches for learning to surf but don’t visit for the scenery. The town is a case study in bad planning and development.
- Castelo Dos Mouros – a seriously impressive hilltop medieval castle built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries. Our kids’ favourite attraction.
- Parque e Palacio de Monserrate – an extraordinary villa with wonderful gardens.
- Palacio da Pena – visible from almost anywhere in Sintra, you can’t help but see this colourful, hilltop castle. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage site and on everyone’s list of things to see in Sintra. We found it a bit crowded and reminiscent of Disneyland… though if anything Disney took inspiration from it.
- Go for gelado (ice cream) at Santini in Cascais. This famed establishment often has queues twenty people deep, but it moves quickly and is worth the wait.
- Restaurante da Adraga – Considered one of the best beach restaurants by locals, it has beautiful views of Praia da Adraga and a delicious strawberry meringue for dessert!
- Restaurante Buzio – a true local’s spot. You’ll find authentic Portuguese cuisine and wines, with an emphasis on seafood. Try the ‘Acorda’, a delicious bread soup with seafood.
- The Farmers Market in Colares (R. de Santo André) – definitely worth a visit whether or not you’re cooking at home. It takes place on Saturdays and Sundays from about 8am until 6pm. You’ll find loads of local produce and specialties, plus some hand crafts.
- Azenhas do Mar – a famous restaurant above the beach of the same name. A great spot for seafood and sunsets with a bit of a nightlife scene in the summer months too.