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Monday, July 11, 2022

Three Days in the Algarve (with a toddler)

Welcome to the first (of several) posts in my Portugal series. To recap, we took off two weeks in mid-June for a European summer holiday. We spent one week on the mainland of Portugal, and one week on the Portuguese island of Sao Miguel in the Azores (roughly 1,000 miles from the Portuguese mainland).  Why Portugal? My parents were born in the Azores and find themselves traveling back to Portugal and the Azores time and time again. It's also a safe and affordable place to travel. I planned this two-week trip abroad with my husband, our 16-month-old son, my parents, and my inlaws. It was our first serious trip with our son and his first time on a plane so we planned our travels when the adult-to-child ratio was in our favor. 

The streets of Ferragudo

This was my second time back to Portugal, but my first time as an adult and my first time with a toddler old in tow. You may be wondering why we chose to drag a toddler on a red-eye flight and all this way when he is too young to ever remember any of it. The truth is I wanted the memories here with him and the confidence to travel with him. I wanted him to learn to be a baby who travels and to be able to adapt to a different culture, different food, and a different way of life. I wanted to raise a child who had been abroad before he had been to Disney and from a young age, could see the world through a lens that wasn't always clouded with our American Exceptionalism. 

It's not that I mean to sound pretentious and if you break it down dollar for dollar, a European vacation is likely cheaper than a week at the parks after you factor in overpriced meals, expensive lodging, and the high cost of park admission. It's that I don't enjoy crowds, the culture at the parks, and Disney World just has little appeal to the way I like to travel. Now more than ever, it's important to expose our children and ourselves to different cultures and experiences. I'll take him once when he's older for his American right of passage but for now, I wanted to experience a family summer vacation the way Europeans do. 

If you are looking for an action-packed guide... this isn't it. Instead, it's an adapted style of Katie Wandering, let's call it adventure travel modified to work with a toddler in tow. We planned a week in Portugal that allowed us to see some of the highlights of central Portugal and the southern coast without feeling too "overwhelmed". I wanted to see some of the landscape, get out and hike, and experience the food and culture. Portugal isn't the kind of place you can go for a week and see it all so I highly suggest you find a few "must-see" items and find some time to relax. If this is your first time abroad, you will be forced to slow down the pace of life, something Europeans are much better at than us. Leave some wiggle room in your itinerary and if you really want to experience the scenery and the culture, go for the less is more route and surrender to lazy mornings, long lunches, leisurely walks, and if you budget in a nap, nights that stretch past your standard bedtime. 

Ponta da Pieadade

For our week in Portugal, we spent three days down in the Algarve and three days up in Lisbon. After a red-eye flight, we landed in Lisbon in the morning and grabbed our rental car, making the three-hour drive south to the southern coast of Portugal known as the Algarve. I can't say I would recommend this sort of jet-lagged induced travel torture but it worked for our schedule and made our flight out of the island easier. With enough coffee and pep talks, we made the drive down south to see where Portugal plays in the summer. 

The Algarve is famous for its rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, nightlife, and restaurants. We were excited to start our trip on the beach and ironed out a pretty low-key itinerary that allowed us to see some of the sights but also relax back at the Airbnb. We were vacationing with our parents and our toddler and we knew this trip was going to be at a slower pace than we were used to. You could fit a lot more than this in three days but if you don't want to rush through the sights, here are some highlights. 

The famous Algarve coastline

Airbnb with a great outdoor space and pool

Where we stayed: Portimao

Portimao is the second largest city in the Algarve. It was a perfect central launching point for adventures. A quick drive east and you are at famous Praia do Carvahlo (Carvahlo Beach), Praia do Marinha (Marinha Beach) where the hanging hills hike starts, and the town of Benagil home to the famous caves. Head west and you have the towns of Alvor, Lagos, more beaches, and the well-sought-after Ponta da Pieadade. Within Portimao itself, you have a bustling waterfront town with restaurants, shops, and a great place to walk along the water. 

If you are traveling with a toddler, don't plan long lazy days at the beach. We knew beach time would be limited with a larger group and a toddler so instead, we opted for a house with a large outdoor entertaining area and a pool so we could enjoy the European sunshine at the house where we could nap, eat, and unwind. The location was a perfect launching point for our three days in the Algarve and we loved relaxing at the house just as much as seeing some of the coast itself.

Ponta da Pieadade

Ponta da Pieadade

Lagos and Ponta da Pieadade

Lagos was the former capital of the Algarve and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Portugal. This area is known for its fantastic restaurants, nightlife and beaches. We spent a bit of time walking around the downtown area but really came to visit the iconic coastline. Ponta da Piedade is one of the most famous spots in the Algarve. While you can see a lot of famous photos of this spot, it is absolutely worth a visit in person. Descend the stairs down to the water’s edge and enjoy the stunning views. It's also a popular spot for kayak tours in the area. We went first thing in the morning and enjoyed having this gorgeous spot to ourselves. 

Beaches of the Algarve  




Ferragudo was just across the way from Portimao and a cute quick little stop before dinner one day. It isn't big enough to spend a day, but it's the perfect place to visit before dinner when you have some time to kill. This village has a quiet charm to it and it's where you see those iconic tile houses and steep streets. You can wander through the town and enjoy a quiet happy hour before dinner or a simple stroll. 

Benagil Cave

Benagil Boat Tour 

Benagil Cave

Benagil Caves is one of the most famous (if not the most famous) attractions in the Algarve. You can only visit the caves by boat, kayak, or SUP which have launching points from the town of Benagil and as far west and Portimao where we stayed. While the cave is beautiful and interesting, I think this cave itself gets a lot more hype than it's worth. 

With that being said, we took a boat ride from Portimao to Benagil and the tour along the coast, seeing the Algarve from the ocean was absolutely worth it. A SUP or kayak tour of the area would also be pretty fun but if you have a toddler, I would stick to a boat. It was a 2 hour round trip ride from Portimao with some aggressive winds where we all left rather soggy but wild with laughter. The boat ride made the experience was worth it and Whitney absolutely loved his first boat ride.

Seven Hanging Valleys Trail

The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail

The Seven Hanging Valleys trail is a coastal walk starting at Praia da Marinha and ending at Praia do Vale de Centeanes (or vice versa). You have a few options for this hike and you can do it either as an out-and-back trail at 12 km (7.5 miles) or as a drop a car/uber one-way hike of 6 km (3.7 miles). We did it as a group with various skill and fitness levels so opted to do a scenic section of the 3.7-mile hike. The mostly flat trail offers sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. We followed the eastern end of the trail between Praia da Marinha and Praia do Carvalho. You’ll pass various sandy beaches, Algarve's famous rock formations, and gorgeous views down the coast. The trail is relatively well marked with red and yellow trail markers along the way but we definitely found that they are easy to miss, especially in the Benagil area. This hike is best to do early in the morning as there is no shade and full exposure to the sun.

Old streets in the Algarve

Leisurely snack stops 

Need to Know

There are a few details that will make your trip to the southern coast a bit easier
  • Rent a car. A car is the best way to get down to the southern coast and have the freedom to visit whichever town, beach, or restaurant you choose down there. 
  • Pay for the toll transponder. There are a lot of tolls when you head down the main highway to the southern coast. You cannot pay at the toll booths and having the EZ Pass style transponder rented through the car rental agency allowed us to breeze through the tolls and pay one easy bill at the end of the rental period. 
  • Parking is limited. Wherever you go, don't expect large lots and ample parking. Get to the more popular spots early because while the lots are typically free, they are small and fill up fast. We had a harder time finding parking at the popular beaches.
  • Closing time. Restaurants typically close after lunch (3pm) and don't open again until 6:30/7:00. This was a little challenging with a toddler but he quickly got used to staying up later. We had an arsenal of snacks to make it to dinner time and spend a lot of time at the grocery stores. 
  • Everything. Takes. Longer. Don't expect a quick meal. Portuguese take their meal times as a chance to unwind, socialize, and relax. After you finish eating, you will always have to ask for your check. It's normal to finish your meal and spend another hour or so relaxing with friends. 
  • Reservations required. Because everything slows down around meals, you will quickly find that reservations are required for dinner. We quickly noticed that leisurely meals means one table will be reserved for the whole night. Restaurants are usually quite small with just a few tables. If you are traveling with a group, plan out your meals in advance and make reservations. If you are traveling with just a few folks, reservations will still be required at some of the more popular spots. It was very common to call a restaurant and they were booked solid for the entire night. 
Ponta da Pieadade

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