May 2019 Lisbon —> Porto
It feels like Summer is speeding past and we will be in pumpkin spice season in no time! But as we sit melting in the steamy NYC heat, Mike and I can’t help but reminisce about the amazing trip we took to Portugal this May.
We were in desperate need of a vacation and long overdue for a European getaway. Mike and I really wanted to find a destination that would provide us the culture, history and food we love so much about Europe but also checked off our new requirements of “kid-friendly” and relaxing. Since this was going to be Asher’s first international trip we were acutely focused on making the trip as stress free as possible. I have to say, even with an impromptu hospital visit for pink eye (Asher) on day one and ending the trip with Bronchitis (me), this was still one of our most favorite trips. Portugal definitely won our hearts.
*Leave a comment below if you would like to see more about our tips for international travel with a toddler.
We landed in Lisbon early in the morning and it was a quick cab ride (20 min) to our hotel, Hotel Santa Justa*. Our hotel was centrally located around the corner from the Santa Justa Lift which connects the lower Baixa neighborhood to the Bairro Alto district. This turned out to be the perfect location for us to do all of our exploring on foot/stroller and it was about a 6 min walk to most major squares where we could pick up public transit or uber.
*Prior to our trip, we emailed the hotel to confirm our early check in with no extra charge. When we arrived at 7 am to check in, we were told they could not honor the no extra charge email since the request was contained in a separate email than our actual booking. It was honestly absurd reasoning but with a sleep deprived toddler on our hands, we just paid the fee and went to the room.
The entire Baixa area was made up of quaint cobblestone streets or pedestrian only sidewalks lined with shops and cafes. Since we were there right before peak season (June to August) it was not as crowded and navigating with our UPPA Minu was manageable.
BEWARE: Those beautiful cobblestones are deadly smooth and even without the hazard of a rainy day, they could easily take down even the most experienced high heel wearer.
Day 1 – Lisbon
While Asher took a post flight nap, Mike ran to Vodafone pick up our pre-ordered sim cards. By then it was clear Asher was starting to get sick so we also spent some time researching pharmacies and urgent care centers nearby. We were quickly learning our first trip lesson which was that all the best laid plans are no match for a toddler germ magnet! Since Asher seemed to improve a little bit after the nap, we decided to brave a day of exploring and go to the doctor in the evening.
First we headed to Praça do Comércio which was the starting point for our self-guided walking tour of the Alfama district.
After stopping for some photos at the Miraduoro de Santa Luzia we took the guidebook’s advice and got lost in the Alfama (for 2 hours)! The oldest district in Lisbon, the Alfama with its narrow and climbing alleys is teeming with local life and hospitality. Little makeshift restaurants and bars poke out of people’s homes selling homemade (literally) delicacies and Portuguese moonshine (Ginjha). With the buildings so closely packed together, these narrow streets serve as front yard, back yard and living room for the locals who inhabit it. Don’t be surprised if you get invited in for some Ginjha and Bacalao during your strolls!
Lugging Asher in the stroller up and down those hilly, cobblestone streets was not for the faint of heart and we definitely got our workout in. Eventually we stumbled upon Miraduoro Portas do Sol. By this time we were ready for some food (and drink) while we rested and took in the views. We wanted to squeeze in some last bit of sightseeing before taking Asher to the doctor so we made our way up one of Lisbon’s Seven Hills to Castelo de São Jorge.
Walking along the outer walls, you are able to get some breathtaking views of the city. The woman at the ticket booth warned us that most of the grounds were not totally stroller friendly especially with the cobblestones and steps. We could have left the stroller with security and had Asher walk with us, and honestly if he hadn’t been so tired and sick we would have done that and seen more of the Castle.
Day 2 – Lisbon & Belém
For our only FULL day in Lisbon we decided to grab an uber* to the suburb of Belém. Our first stop was Belém Tower which was stunning. We got there early enough that the crowds and tour buses hadn’t yet come around so we were able to get some great pics. After Asher had some time to play along the beach we walked along the promenade to the Monument of Discoveries. This impressive monument was erected and dedicated to Portugal’s contributions in the Age of Discovery. It features sculptures of famous Portuguese explorers including Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Magellan. From there we took the overpass across the highway to the Centro Cultural de Belém. We walked through there to get to Jerónimos Monastery and Gardens.
*We had planned on taking the 15 tram from Praça do Comércio but with Asher still under the weather, uber was just easier. Uber in Portugal was amazing. It was super cheap, easy and nearly everyone had a child booster seat in their car for Asher.
NOTE: Both Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery are closed on Mondays so we weren’t able to go inside. But it probably was a blessing in disguise with a fussier than usual toddler!
After all that walking around Belém, we were HUNGRY! It was perfect timing because directly across the street from Jerónimos is the famous Pasteís de Belém. This place is famous for their pasteís de nata, which reportedly uses the original recipe from the Jerónimos monks who invented the delicacy before the 18th century. Luckily despite the crowd of tourists outside the shop, we were able to get a seat quickly in their covered back patio and grab a “light” lunch which of course included some pasteís de nata!
Next, we took an uber back to the main city just in time to make our afternoon walking tour of Baixa-Chiado. We used Hi Lisbon! for our free walking tour. They have a bunch of different tours and areas they explore. Our guide José was great! The way Hi Lisbon and a number of the free walking tour groups in Portugal work is the tour is entirely free/ donation based. At the end of the tour if you liked the guide and appreciated the tour you can tip them whatever you feel. Our tour was so great and informative, I really wish we had more time to do the other tours with them. Even after the tour was over, our guide José offered to email us with his food and sight recommendations in some of the other cities we were headed to.
Here is the most basic summary of the tour. This is in no way a substitute for utilizing the tour so if you are in Lisbon we HIGHLY recommend you partake in as many Hi Lisbon tours as you can!
We started off at the Praça do Comercio and walked up Rua Augusta. One the first sights we passed was the entrance line to the Santa Justa Elevator but José assured us he would show us the “secret” way to get to the top without paying the €5 fee. We took Rua Augusta to Rossio Square. After a brief history lesson and fun facts about Portuguese cobblestone, we walked to the Igreja São Domingos and the memorial for the Lisboa Massacre. Here we took a quick stop to try Ginjha from one of the oldest Ginjinha shops in Lisbon. Thoroughly fortified with cherry liqueur, we walked through Rossio Station and made our way to Largo de Carmo in front of the Carmo Convent. As promised, just a few blocks away from Carmo Convent we were shown the “secret” passage to the top of the Santa Justa Elevator. The views were amazing and honestly I wouldn’t have minded paying the €5 (however probably NOT worth waiting in that long line). We ended the tour by walking up Rua Garrett through the Chiado to Largo do Cameos. On the way we passed Livaria Bertrand (the world’s oldest bookshop still in operation).
After the tour was over, we walked to Pizzaria Lisboa for dinner. The food was AMAZING and we were so lucky to get a table without a reservation (we did not realize this place is owned by the famous chef, Jose Avillez, and thus extremely on trend).
Day 3 – Sintra
First thing in the morning we picked up our Europecar rental and checked out of our hotel. Since the street our hotel was on becomes pedestrian-only after 10 am we had to load the car quickly and hit the road. The drive to Sintra was about an hour and we had no issue checking in early at our hotel Tivoli Palacío de Setaís. Words cannot describe how beautiful the hotel and grounds are. It is so easy to see how Sintra was the resort getaway location for Portuguese royalty. After checking in we walked up the road (12 min) to catch the local bus to Pena Palace*. We ended up spending almost all day here and still didn’t see everything. I truly don’t understand any of the guidebooks that suggest making Sintra a day trip from Lisbon. We stayed the night and I still feel like we should have stayed 3 more days to see everything this tiny town has to offer. Pena Palace was so stunning and one of a kind, the grounds were so lush I almost felt like we were on some tropical island. Pictures can’t do it justice.
*We were warned by our hotel that parking was very limited at the palace and other attractions in the area so it was better to just take the bus (€10 for the day).
After walking the grounds we took the bus down the hill to the city center. It was about 15 min walk back towards our hotel with a slight detour to see the Quinta de Regaleira. The estate and grounds were like a fairytale or gothic novel setting. There definitely was a mythical air about the gardens and all the hidden grottos. I wish we had had more time to explore more of the grounds but it was still worth the stop (and it was literally a 5 min walk up the road to our hotel).
Before dinner we explored the grounds of our hotel and Asher got to run around the hedge maze. I can’t say enough about how great the staff at Palacio de Setais was, especially with Asher. The food at the hotel restaurant was so delicious and beautiful. But what honestly made the meal exceptional was the waiter and maître d’ who went out of their way to entertain Asher and make sure he was happy while mom and dad enjoyed the meal.
Day 4 – Cabo de Roca & Praia d’el Rey
After reluctantly saying goodbye to Tivoli Palacio de Setais we headed to our next town, Praia d’el Rey. While we were on the road we made an impromptu detour to go see Cabo de Roca – the Westernmost Point in Continental Europe.
From there it was about an hour drive to Praia d’el Rey. We checked into the beautiful Marriott Resort and Asher was immediately welcomed with a balloon from the front desk staff! It is truly amazing how warm and welcoming the Portuguese have been to Asher. It was a tremendous help to make our trip more relaxing and stress free. We ate lunch at the hotel restaurant which was ok but very overpriced. The one drawback to staying in Praia D’el Rey was being captive in terms of eating in the hotel. If we had stayed longer (and I wasn’t starting to come down with Bronchitis) I think we would have ventured to the nearby towns to get a more affordable and diverse food selection. After a quick nap we suited up to go to the Pool (Asher’s first time ever!). The water was still a little too cold to get a proper swim in but still a great first time for Asher. It was still the off season so we had the pool to ourselves!
Around this part of the trip, Asher became really verbal and started to say “agua”, “walk”, “up”, “no”, and “mas”. It was so exciting to see what an impact all these new adventures were having on his learning and development. Once we were done at the pool we ended up having dinner in the room and watched the sunset from our balcony.
Day 5 – Obidos & Praia d’el Rey
We started the day with a little trip to explore the medieval town of Obidos. It is said that King Alfonso II gifted the town to Queen Urraca after she commented that the town was as beautiful as a jewel in a crown (Boosted that fun fact off a tour guide I overheard in Obidos). Obidos is a very small town surrounded by fortified walls. We parked in the municipal lot outside the walls (also where the tour buses drop off) and took the short walk through the wall gates to the town entrance. The town itself is quaint with white stucco buildings and bright blue and yellow edging. Even though it was the off season, the main street was a little crowded with tour groups the buses had just dropped off. As you walk down the street you can see why…nearly the entire street is lined with souvenir shops. It was relatively easy to sort through some of the tackier tourist trap gifts to find some really great keepsakes. We were able to do all of gift shopping for family done here!
The main street leads all the way up to the town’s main attraction, the medieval castle and church. The castle is now a poussada (hotel/B&B) but you can still wander the parapets and fortified walls. This part was not entirely stroller friendly, so Mike went up and did some photo reconnaissance while Asher and I chilled along a lower wall. From the walls you get some beautiful views of the local vineyards surrounding the town.
*It was around this time I realized that Portugal has a HUGE wine culture that seems unjustly overshadowed by the more well known Italian wine culture. Literally it felt like you could not go one mile without seeing another vineyard.
By lunch time most of the tour groups had cleared out and the town felt almost deserted. We had a peaceful and almost solitary lunch at an outside kiosk in the town square before the next wave of tour busses came. We took advantage of the solitude to get some shots of the town before making our way back to the hotel. Obidos is definitely small enough (especially if you don’t do all the souvenir shopping) that you could leave well before lunch and squeeze in another town on your day trip (Nazare or Tomar perhaps) but it was honestly nice, with a toddler and my impending bronchitis, to just leisurely explore and take photos before heading back to our hotel for some beach and pool time.
Even if you don’t souvenir shop, the bookstore and the Comur sardine shop in Obidos were two of the more interesting tourist spots and well worth a peek in.
Day 6 – Coimbra & Porto
We said goodbye to the beach breeze and headed north to our final stop Porto. Since it was going to be about a 3 hour drive we decided to break the drive up with a stop in the college town of Coimbra. After parking at a tiny municipal lot on the riverbank (and paying €2 to the random guy “guarding” the cars) we walked across the Santa Clara Bridge to a “theme park” called Portugal dos Pequenitos. Essentially the park has miniature replicas of famous monuments in the colonies of Portugal as well as a section of replicas of famous landmarks from across the country of Portugal. It was a weekday when we got there and there were a ton of school groups so it was a little crowded.
*If you don’t have kids, this is not something you HAVE to see but if you like the eccentric and quirky, this MIGHT be worth it. I think Asher would have appreciated it more if he was maybe like a few months or a year older, but it was still fun and a great stop for kids.
In the Pequenitos gift shop we decided to purchase tickets for the Yellow Bus tour. Since we didn’t have a ton of time and things were a little spread out in Coimbra we figured this was the quickest way to see as much of the city as possible. Since it was the off season the busses weren’t departing that regularly so we grabbed a quick lunch at an outdoor café in front of the Hotel Astoria.
The Yellow Bus tour is a hop on hop off tour so we could have gotten off at several sights if we had the time but we figured a 90 minute drive around the city with the audio guide was as much as we could ask Asher to endure.
Once we finished the tour we got back on the road to Porto. We hit a little rush hour traffic coming into Porto but stil made it to the hotel around 6:30 pm. We checked into our second “palace” the Pestana Palacio de Freixo. This was located right on the Duoro River in the Freixo suburb just outside Porto. The main lobby and reception is an old Palace estate on the banks of the River however all the rooms are housed in the next door building which is a converted flour mill. It ended up giving the entire place this very interesting modern opulent feel.
Since it was still light out, and by now we had abandoned any semblance of bedtime enforcement for Asher, we took the advice of the concierge and ordered an uber to go into Porto for dinner. The uber was easily a 10 min drive and dropped us in front of one of the restaurants recommended by the concierge, The Wine Box. The food is tapas style (everything was delicious) and the wine selection was extensive. We allowed our waitress to recommend the wines to compliment the dishes we ordered and she did not disappoint. I really think if we had stayed a few more days in Porto we would have come back here for a few more meals. Afterwards we strolled down to the Ribeira district and explored the waterfront at night. We could see Gaia across the river and all the Port Wine estates. Next time we come back to Porto I definitely want to venture across and check them out.
Day 7 Porto
On our last full day in Portugal we spent it taking in all the sights of Porto. From the moment we set foot in Porto both Mike and I realized we just LOVED this city. We instantly realized we need to come back and definitely add in some day trips to the surrounding Duoro Valley. I think Porto had a similar vibe to Tuscany so it definitely made us nostalgic for our Italian honeymoon almost 7 years ago.
To make the most of our only full day in Porto, you guessed it, we did a free walking tour! This time it was with Porto Walkers. Our tour guide Nuno was hilarious, charming and so knowledgeable. It was simply an amazing tour that took us through so much of the city it feels like we really got to see everything. Admittedly, my Bronchitis was besting me that day and Asher’s tolerance for stroller confinement was dangerously low so I didn’t note all the sights we saw but as you’ll see from the photos, we saw a lot. Nuno was even kind enough to take breaks to allow for our slower stroller navigation AND he even texted his pharmacist friend to try and score me some sweet European antibiotics for my Dickensian novel sounding cough. (Spoiler alert: his friend is a law abiding pharmacist and couldn’t get me the meds, but I appreciate the effort!).
The tour was about 3 hours long and like I said, covered a lot of ground (historically and geographically). We ended around lunch time so we took Nuno’s recommendation and went to Lado B to try a famous Francesinha*
*Since a traditional Francesinha is a pork and cheese behemoth (definitely not kosher), we were excited to hear that Lado B serves a vegetarian version that Nuno assured was so close to the original even he double checked it was the vegetarian version.
From there we walked to the famous Livaria Lello. The line was huge and you actually have to go to the shop down the block to purchase the €5 ticket to enter (but it will be credited toward your book purchase within Livaria Lello). The bookshop itself was PACKED and it was really hard to fully enjoy the beautiful design or even the book selection because everyone was only there to take selfies. From what we could see, the bookshop was gorgeous inside though the book selection not too huge. It seems nowadays to be mostly known as the bookshop that inspired JK Rowling when she writing the first Harry Potter. It is rumored that Lello was the inspiration for Flourish & Botts in Diagon Alley and the staircases inspired the moving staircases in Hogwarts.
As a book lover first and a Harry Potter fan second, it was honestly a little sad to see how hard the bookshop is leaning into the HP hype but even sadder that while the line to get inside the shop was down the block, the line to actually purchase a book was almost nonexistent (you just have to elbow past all the selfie takers). If you are in any way claustrophobic or have a strong aversion to selfies, you may want to skip this stop. I honestly think Lello may be falling victim to its own fame. I don’t know that I would have paid the 5 euro admission and waited in the line at all if it wasn’t for the fact that we were told that families with kids get priority and don’t have to wait in the line.*
*The whole trip we had been so impressed with how accommodating everyone had been with us and the stroller. At Lello we finally learned that it is actually law in Portugal that families with infants/toddlers and the elderly or disabled get priority in lines and entrances. This was true literally everywhere we went. We even had a special line at passport control. But what really stood out is that no one obliged in a begrudging way. It felt like they truly did want to make sure we were comfortable and accommodated. So when people say Portugal is kid friendly…they aren’t kidding!
Asher started having a tantrum while I paid for our books so Mike took him outside and we walked to the São Francisco Igreja. Afterward it was time for an early dinner so we decided to roll the dice and try to get in at Cantinho do Avillez, another restaurant by michelin chef José Avillez. By some miracle we were able to get in without a reservation and the food was AMAZING. It is definitely deserving of the hype and we recommend making a reservation and checking it out! After dinner we took an uber back to the hotel to explore the grounds before settling in for a night of packing to go home.
We hope you enjoyed our travel diary for Portugal and stay tuned for our next adventure!
If you have any questions about this trip in particular or have suggestions on where we should go next, please leave them in the comments below! And be sure to follow us on instagram (we have even more photos from the trip saved in our story highlights).
M&T (and Asher too!)