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With its almost perfect year-round climate, Portugal is a justifiably popular destination for family holidays. Located in south-western Europe, next to Spain, it’s one of the oldest countries in Europe and boasts some magnificent cultural sights. But it’s also a small country (around the same size as Scotland), which means it’s fairly easy to travel around, and the locals just love children.
The most popular region for family holidays, offering heaps of child-friendly accommodation and amenities, is the Algarve, famous for its long sandy beaches and seemingly constant sunshine. But if you’re after something more action-packed than a sunbathing and swimming holiday, the country has plenty of other things to offer: picturesque towns and fishing villages, rocky coves and marinas to explore, world-famous golf courses and aqua-parks, and lots more besides, much of it off the tourist track.
Explore Lisbon, one of Europe’s most laidback and family-friendly capitals, with a host of attractions for children.
Enjoy the very child-friendly attractions of the Algarve, from natural white-sand beaches to mountains, and from beautiful villages to nature reserves, oceanographic theme-parks and water-parks.
Check out the lesser-known Alentejo region, north of the Algarve and east of Lisbon. Largely inland, it’s home to the theme-park Zoonatura in Almodovar not far north of Faro, where kids can play with deer, ostriches and farm animals such as chicken, ducks and cows. Traditional activities such as marble games and horse-drawn cart and donkey rides are also on offer. Also in Alentejo, in Moura, the Horta de Torrejais, a small farm owned by a couple of teachers, has a wide range of children’s activities. The hosts organise treasure hunts in the orchard, encourage children to help pick fruit, bake and water the plants, and are currently working on an environmental education program for kids. There is also a small stream and a children’s pool.
Make a foray into Portugal’s Centro (Central) region, home to the Biopark San Pedro do Sul, where families can take part in treasure hunts, horse-drawn carriage tours, abseiling, climbing and traditional games. There are also ceramics, tile-painting and patchwork workshops.
Head north, to Porto and the Norte (North) region. Porto/Oporto, famous as the home of port dessert wine, has a UNESCO World Heritage listed historic centre, while north of it, between Vila do Conde and the mouth of the Rio Miño, you’ll find untouristy beaches and resorts and unspoilt villages. The landscape, studded by waterfall and vineyards, takes in several national/natural parks, including the Peneda-Gerês National Park with its hiking trails and small campsites. There are also two World Heritage sites: the Alto Douro wine region and – of more interest to families – the Côa Valley with remarkable open-air prehistoric rock carvings that can be visited by jeep tours led by specialist guides.
Experience the island of Madeira, which lacks sandy beaches but makes up for it with several exciting theme-parks that belie its reputation as an oldies’ destination.
The Azores archipelago is very appealing to those with younger kids and for those in search of adventure holidays – you can go on sperm whale and dolphin watching tours, and even swim with dolphins.
There isn't really a concept of ‘child-friendly’ restaurants in Portugal – except in very posh places, children are always welcome, and restaurants tend to tailor dishes to children's tastes rather than offer a kids’ menu.
The locals just love their fish, which is served in many guises, although salt cod (bacalhau) is the most popular, closely followed by the likes of fresh sardines. Tuna steaks are a major ingredient in Madeira’s cuisine. Don’t leave without trying some of the country’s egg-based desserts, especially the tiny but incredibly rich and sweet custard tarts (pastéis de nata). Arroz doce (rice pud) also goes down well with kids.
It's well known that service in some parts of Portugal is slow, as chefs like to prepare food fresh from scratch – it’s a good idea to take colouring books and pens to keep boredom at bay. On the other hand, in a lot of restaurants you’ll be served bread, olives and other appetizers as soon as you sit down, which can keep help small children going until their main meal arrives.
Vegetarians are not very well catered for in Portugal so check the menu has some suitable options before taking a seat.
The good news for family holidays is that the Algarve tends to have pretty good weather year round. Those with pre-schoolers should consider going outside of July and August, when it can get overrun by tourists. Even winter days in this region are pleasant, and golfers and other sports fans appreciate the Algarve's winter sun.
Any time from April to September is a good time to visit cities and beaches in other parts of the country, where temperatures average around 30°C. Winter is moderately cool, with the wet season running from November to March.
Almost all the major airlines fly from the UK to Portugal, plus some of the no-frills companies. Flights from London to Lisbon take about 2hrs 20mins. Other international airports on the mainland are Porto (Francisco Sá Carneiro/Pedras Rubras) and Faro on the Algarve, and the Alentejo region how has direct (summer-only) flights from the UK.
The Algarve can be pricey, although self-catering in villas or apart-hotels will help you keep costs under control. Less touristy parts of Portugal offer better value.By Suzanne Baum
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