Exploring Central Portugal with Kids
Central Portugal has so much to offer we had to make some tough choices on where to spend our time. We ultimately leaned on things we knew the boys would enjoy, turning a day heavy with driving into one of the best of the trip.
We left Évora early with an end destination of Coimbra. We front-loaded the driving with a two-hour stretch in the morning, hoping the boys would be fine with some quiet car play. We misread the situation a bit, and not 30 min into the drive the boys were at each other and the baby needed fed. We pulled over at a rest stop, offloaded the big kids into the playground and fed the baby. (Thank goodness you can always count on European rest stops to have playgrounds.) This 15 min stop was just what we needed. When we piled back into the car the kids asked for stickers and happily played for the drive.
Castelo de Almourol sits in the middle of the river Tagus. The moment the boys saw a castle in the middle of the river they were into it.
You have to catch a boat out to the castle. It costs €3/adult and is paid on the boat. The trip is under 5 minutes. There are no signs telling you what to do, so just wait by the dock and pay the captain.
The castle is perched on top of the island, high above the water. Prepare to climb quite a few stairs once on the island.
There are plenty of signs and using your smart phone you can scan the QR codes and get all the information in English. You will need cellular service for this to work as there is not wifi on the island.
You can climb the castle tower, for stunning views of the river and surrounding land.
The boys enjoyed exploring the castle. Since it is built right into the rocks the boys loved finding rock thrones and “caves” in the boulders.
We were lucky to find a cafe by the boat launch, as we didn’t really have a plan for lunch. The cafe food was great. We stuck to pretty simple toasties and a pork entree plus the small dishes that come out to the table at every meal. (If you don’t plan on eating these ask the server to take them back as you will be charged. The prices for the plates range from under €1 to €5. This is a normal practice in Portugal (and some other European countries) so don’t be put off.)
We used the downtime to inspect all the “treasures” the boys collected while exploring the castle. There were also several cats playing in the yard that the boys loved watching.
We drove another hour and a half to Coimbra. Just outside the city is the Portugal de Pequenitos, a small park for children. Do not be dissuaded by the entrance or the first section of the park. It is in need of a little TLC, but once you go through the castle walls the back half of the park is perfectly maintained.
The first part of the park has pavilions from each of Portugal’s colonies around the world. Inside the buildings are some artifacts and information about those areas of the world. The signs are in Portuguese but seem to play on lots of stereotypes. Inside one of these houses was a craft area.
We visited during Carnival so the boys both made a mask, which they wore around the park and sporadically throughout the trip. The room seems set up for crafts year round, so I suspect most weekends and holidays you can find activities here.
The large map on the wall displaying the major exploration routes by Portuguese explorers was fascinating. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it’s interesting to see how Europeans “discovered” the world.
On the other side of the map wall are the tiny houses. This is where the fun is. Our kids were in heaven. Some have working gates or hidden passages.
They are all different styles. Some of the larger ones had passageways running through them just big enough for the kids. We literally just kept finding more and more houses.
There is also a large playground out back. Oddly it backs a large dirt field, which appears to be a future expansion area for the park. We sat in the grass to give the baby some tummy time while the boys ran around until the park closed at 5pm.
Our hotel in Coimbra was another big winner. We actually almost left because the parking area in the back looked so shady! That being said, once we got to the front of the hotel everything was lovely.
The Tivoli Hotel Coimbra, provided large clean rooms and a delightful staff. Our big little loves to help us check into hotels, handing over passports and providing information. The Tivoli staff let him come behind the desk and help out!
The room is a bit outdated, with the bathroom in need of an update. The room itself was large for Europe though and even had a hallway with a door, so Jeff and I were able to hang out there after the kids went to bed. The hotel also provided adorable gift bags for the kids, with coloring sheets, a game of pickup sticks and hats, which funnily enough we forgot to pack!
Dinner doesn’t start in Portugal until late and our kids were exhausted. We plopped them in front of the TV, where by some miracle one of their favorite movies, Thomas and the Legend of Lost Treasure was playing, albeit in Portuguese. Jeff went to the nearby grocery store and brought back a feast! The kids love a good hotel picnic, where they get to watch TV and eat cut fruit, rotisserie chicken, salads, bread and cheese. Yummy. We enjoyed a nice glass of vino verde and then swiftly put the kids to bed!
Breakfast was included in our room rate. The selection was large and got our day off to a great start.
The hotel called us a cab and we headed up the hill to Coimbra University. You need a ticket to see the sights here, but they are worth a visit. We were really interested because one of our friends here did his PhD at Coimbra.
The Chapel of Sao Miguel is stunning. The church was planned in 1522, but construction wasn’t completed until 1739. It’s popular for Catholic weddings. If it is not in use your ticket allows you to peek in.
This is one of the cases where a small chapel can really take your breath away in a way that larger churches just cannot. The chapel feels so intimate and so grandiose at the same time.
The main attraction is the library, Biblioteca Joanina. It’s a stunning Baroque library. The books are stacked high and ladders have to be used to reach the books.
It’s seriously incredible. You feel like you are in the Harry Potter Library when you are there.
I also have to include a photo of where Coimbra dissertation defenses are held. Incredible.
We decided to enjoy the city a bit by walking back to the hotel from the university. The walk is almost entirely downhill. On the way we saw some incredible street art.
This piece was in the works. It looked like they were converting an old lot into a play area.
And this was in a random alley we accidentally turned down to avoid some street work. I love how it is juxtaposed with the spray paint.
My favorite little find though was this yellow pagoda fountain. The kids (and Jeff) were able to run over each of the little bridges, over the water, to the towers. It was just lovely and such a fun find. A reminder of Portugal’s prominence.
The city is under some renovation so you also come across some more modern areas sitting directly upon some older buildings. There is nothing I love more than seeing old stuff exist with new modern design.