Planning Your Portugal Itinerary
Unsure where to go in Europe in February?
Jeff has a Portuguese coworker who suggested that Portugal would be a great winter getaway from the dreary Dutch weather. We were hesitant, thinking that February anywhere in mainland Europe would bring unpredictable temperatures and rain. Portugal turned out to be a perfect winter getaway boasting moderate temperatures and less rain than Holland.
Portugal is small. It is roughly broken into three manageable regions: North, South and East. In the North you find mountains, forests, national parks and the Duoro River, home to innumerable wineries and the city of Porto. The South has the beachy Algarve region. The East is arid and consists of hilltop fortresses, Roman ruins in Evora and mountains.
A reasonable 10-day Portugal holiday can take in two regions, but you would need two weeks to catch all three. Since the regions are a bit different climatically, it makes sense to limit yourself to one to two regions during a visit. The hot resort area in the south can be reached via Faro’s airport, whereas the East can be reached by Lisbon’s airport. Lisbon and Porto airports service the North. If coming from outside mainland Europe, you may only be able to arrive in Lisbon. Expect a three-hour drive from Lisbon to either Porto or Faro. Beware the highway tolls, which are steep compared to other European countries.
All three regions hold enough sites to make a full week’s vacation worthwhile for families with children. For beach families, go to the South. For hiking families, go to the North. For kids goo-goo for castles and archaeology, go to the East.
We found it difficult to purchase an up-to-date Portugal travel guide. We checked with three publishers and each had guides over five years old. Buying old guidebooks can fill your itinerary with landmines waiting to detonate. Remember the time you walked 2 km across town to the ‘best cafe in Prague’ only to find out it closed two years ago? The two guidebooks we did use gave us a good ‘big picture’ of the Portuguese sites and we filled in the rest with more current website information.
For a Portugal holiday in the North, fly into Porto and rent a car. Spend a week hopping between the big city (Porto) and the smaller towns (think Braga, Guimaraes and others).
This type of holiday is a fairytale for kids. There are castles, monasteries, convents, forests, and rivers to explore. For the adults, Porto offers all the Port wine tastings one could ask for.
The Duoro River valley boasts vineyards along both sides of the valley but we caution a wine valley trip. Companies offer multi-day river cruises with stops at vineyards which is a blast for the parents but is not geared for kids. Be sure to make a good plan that includes kid activities if you venture into the wine region. Also consider reservations at the vineyards.
In the South, the thing to do is rent an apartment or cottage by the week and enjoy the beach. For this type of holiday, fly into Faro and book a transfer to your property. Consider renting a car only if you want to explore the nearby towns. In the South, rent mountain bikes to explore the region or veg out on the sandy expanses. This area of Portugal is known as the Algarve and is famous for its rocky stretches. Expect both Portuguese tourists and many other European tourists in the Algarve. Also expect your typical buffet of beach activities: boating, surfing, kite-flying and more.
Fly into Lisbon to explore the East. You can put together a more rugged itinerary in the East but there are still all the modern comforts in the cities. It is best to drive in the East, hopping from city to city to see walled cities, a wine region and some great prehistoric sights (think dolmen and stone circles). The East is less popular with tourists so you will find more authenticity here.
Lisbon sits smack in the middle of what we are defining as the North, South and East regions. It is a big city with lots to do for the kids. While there are few playgrounds in the historic downtown area, we did find several playgrounds in Belem (30 mins East, go by tram) and some in outlying areas of the city. We think any visit to Portugal should include Lisbon.
Language, public transportation, food options, Internet and cleanliness were all non-issues in Portugal. Our kids were welcomed everywhere. Most attractions offered us a family discount. Most gave free entry to children under 12. Some even gave mother-children discounts where we only paid a reduced entry price since a mom was out with her kids.
If you have 3 days in Portugal, spend them in Lisbon. With 5 days, add Evora or just spend them all on the Algarve beaches. With 7 days, see Lisbon and Porto. With 10 days, see Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and Evora. That said, we met a fellow from Washington state who had a seven-hour layover at Lisbon airport and he intended to see everything there was to see in Lisbon. It was an aggressive plan given he was carrying his luggage. Part of the allure of Portugal is the experience. Sure, Portugal has first-rate tourist sites but when you add the people, food and drink, it’s an unbeatable holiday, even in February.