Family vacations for me are a patchwork of memories – there were the many summers that my cousins and I hunted the coastal jetties daily for starfish and mussels, returning home tired and sunburnt and with buckets full of seafood. And later on, when as a teenager, my mom woke me early every morning for a walk on the beach as the sun rose – just the two of us. At the time, I complained a bit, but still it’s my most cherished memory of that particular vacation. Notice that nowhere in these memories are there fond recollections of long lines, big crowds or amusement park-style entertainment. Family vacations are a time to slow down, reconnect. And while Portugal is rightly famous for its beautiful coastline and breathtaking scenery, there are magical places just waiting to be discovered where kids and parents alike can do just that while seeing some of the most beautiful spots on the planet without the crowds. Here are some ideas for a family adventure that gets you off the beaten track.
Family adventure in the North: for the nature lover
Adventure abounds here in this land that used to be underwater. Today, the park is home to fossils that date back millions of years. Part of UNESCO’s European Geoparks Network, there is no shortage of things for the whole family to enjoy. From hunting for fossils that date back millions of years, to hiking, swimming, rafting, kayaking and exploring villages of traditional schist houses.
Passadiços do Paiva
The Passadiços do Paiva stretches 8 km along the Paiva River gorge, the last wild and untamed river in Portugal. A series of beautifully constructed wooden stairs and walkways, you will be surrounded by some of the most untouched landscape in Portugal.
Castelo de Paiva
Where the River Paiva meets the Douro is a small island called Ilha do Castelo (affectionately nicknamed “Island of Love”) where an ancient hermitage of the 15th century was discovered. Beyond the beauty and the history, this is a place where water sports are plentiful and an outdoor pool, a cafe, a small beach and shady spots round out the offerings.
Where to Stay: Solar Egas Moniz
Staying here is like staying at the home of friends — but even better. For young ones, there is a swimming pool and a play area and for parents, the wine cellar is a delightful diversion. The staff will also help plan a visit to one of the many trails along the Romanesque Route or a bike rental for family fun.
Family adventure in Portugal’s center: a different kind of beach
In the center of Portugal, the crowded beaches and scorching sun of the south seem a world away. The landscape is lush and as you move away from the coast and towards the mountains, you’ll find hiking, biking, canoeing and relaxing on one of the region’s many river beaches. Here is a favorite that will appeal to everyone for a family adventure.
Senhora da Piedade
This is a natural river beach in a stunning location nearby the hermitage of Nossa Senhora Da Piedade and the Castle of Lousã . After exploring the castle and the charming town of Lousã, the beach and the surrounding gardens have lots of spots to rest, picnic or dream away the afternoon.
Where to Stay: Palacio da Lousã
Lousã is the gateway to getting to know the lovely Schist Villages nearby and which Lousã is part of. Years of history, tradition and authenticity in a genuinely well-preserved environment. Serra da Lousã is also a major destination for adventure sports and nature, ideal for cycling and mountain biking, 4X4 vehicles and walking. This elegant hotel is the perfect counterpoint to days spent in nature. For family fun inside the hotel, look for a game room, gardens, an outdoor pool with a bar, a playground and a playroom.
Family adventure in the Alentejo: where time slows down
This is the land of cork and olives, beautiful coastline and golden prairies. Things tend to move a little more slowly in Alentejo, and for miles and miles, cows will probably outnumber people. Perfect for a family adventure with no crowds.
Nestled up against the Spanish border lies Parque Natureza de Noudar. One of Alentejo’s best kept secrets, the nature preserve is best explored on foot or on bike. Cows, black pigs and sheep abound as well as foxes, wild boars, cranes and eagles. The Iberian linx is being reintroduced here. Hike down to the Ribeira da Murtega where you can picnic alongside local watermills, then visit the golden Noudar Castle. The night sky here is one of the darkest spots in Europe, perfect for stargazing.
Mértola is a charming, historic town layered with centuries of Islamic and Christian rule. It boasts a beautiful castle, an ongoing architectural excavation that has uncovered one of the oldest dwellings in Portugal, and a riverfront location that positioned it as an important of center for trade. After exploring the hills of the town, head down to the river where you can take a boat ride, rent kayaks and paddle boards or head for the lovely river beach in nearby São Domingos Mina.
A former olive oil press, this lovingly restored property offers a main house with two rooms and four small, independent houses to choose from, making it the perfect spot for families. The swimming pool is framed by the arches of the former oil press and surrounded by a thousand-year-old olive grove, among vegetable gardens and orchards, valleys and fields.