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Portugal Is a Great Family Destination — How to Plan a Trip



We brought a tooth to Portugal

It wasn’t planned. Our six-year-old daughter’s first wiggly tooth had been bothering her for days and had fallen out just before we left for the airport. I wrapped the precious cargo in tissue, promising that the tooth fairy would visit her once we reached Lisbon. 

We were setting off on what Lulu called “the magazine trip.” She’d been desperate to join me on my recent book tour, which wasn’t possible, but here, finally, was an adventure for all of us. For Lulu, there would be many firsts: her first transatlantic flight; her first visit to Europe; her first time staying anywhere that wasn’t an Airbnb or a great
deal on Priceline.

From left: Traditional wooden cargo boats, or rabelos, ply the Douro River near Porto; strolling past the Martinhal Chiado Lisbon hotel.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Though my husband, Adam, and I had traveled extensively before becoming parents, this would be only our second family vacation, with four destinations in Portugal spread over 10 days. We’d talked about visiting Portugal for years. Adam, a documentary filmmaker, loves Pedro Costa’s Letters from Fontainhas, a trilogy of films set in Lisbon. Over the years, my interest had been piqued by stories from our friends Miranda and Gabriel, who’d lived in Portugal when their first child was an infant. During my own childhood, I was fortunate to have my curiosity shaped by traveling with my parents. Here was a chance to continue that tradition with Lulu.

Lisbon was glowing. Even after only two hours’ sleep on the red-eye flight, I was convinced that Portugal had a brighter sun and bluer sky than suburban Chicago, where we live. “Are we climbing a mountain?” Lulu sighed with the weariness of a child from the hill-less Midwestern suburbs. We’d walked exactly one block. She hadn’t wanted to leave our apartment at the luxurious Martinhal Chiado Lisbon hotel, having immediately climbed onto the bunk bed and changed into the child-size terry robe. 

How does one become fascinated with a place? What role does beauty play? I suppose I’ve always felt drawn to photos of Lisbon’s old-world grandeur and its buildings covered in tiles the color of the ocean. 

Founded by hotel developers Chitra and Roman Stern, who are parents of four, Martinhal has four properties in Portugal, all of which are designed for families. Located in a renovated 19th-century building in the upscale Chiado neighborhood, our chic one-bedroom had numerous Martinhal-specific features, such as a high chair and potty seat, strollers for rent in the lobby, and a kids’ club that resembled a Montessori dreamworld, complete with a climbing wall. 

Having trudged to a blazingly sunny, tree-lined square, Lulu seemed ready to fall asleep in her father’s arms. As we continued to wander, I spotted a solution: toys. At the charming boutique Mexerica, a newly energized Lulu selected two sets of dainty Maileg toy mice (not Portuguese, but IYKYK), including a “Dream & Tooth Fairy” with a heart-shaped tin for leaving under the pillow.

From left: Soaps at the Claus Porto flagship store, in Porto; pizza at the Rebello, in Porto.

Rodrigo Cardoso


While Adam and Lulu sat on the square and listened to a busker playing electric violin, I lined up for a 6 p.m. seating at Taberna da Rua das Flores, which Miranda and Gabriel had promised us was the best restaurant in Lisbon. A tiny place with a cash-only, no-reservations policy, dining there required extra effort, but the food was indeed exquisite. 

Lulu perched on a stool between us at a table for two, receiving the procession of small plates — razor clams, scallops, goat cheese covered in ashes, bittersweet tiramisu, and more — like a jet-lagged little queen. 

In the morning, she discovered that the Portuguese tooth fairy had left six euros in her heart-shaped tin. 

From left: Enjoying the beach at Martinhal Sagres; toys on the beach at the resort.

Rodrigo Cardoso


How does one become fascinated with a place? What role does beauty play? I suppose I’ve always felt drawn to photos of Lisbon’s old-world grandeur and its buildings covered in tiles the color of the ocean. 

Tile-making is considered an art form integral to the country’s identity. (Fun fact: the term azulejo is derived from the Arab word for a “small polished stone.”) During a workshop at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, we decorated tiles of our own, using charcoal and a stencil to apply the pattern, then adding color. Our visit to the rest of the museum, which is housed in a former convent and showcases examples dating back to the 15th century, was brief, my desire for tile-gazing conflicting with Lulu’s flagging energy level. We were learning how to travel at her pace. 

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More successful was the perfectly proportioned Museu da Marioneta, where dramatically lit exhibits of puppets from around the world give way to larger displays celebrating the artistry of Portuguese puppet makers. While Lulu enjoyed trying on a roberto (glove puppet) and performing as “jet lag puppet,” she preferred Lisbon’s simple pleasures — tiny robe, bunk bed, evening stroll — and thrilled at the chance to people-watch as we walked from the Santos neighborhood back to our hotel in Chiado. 

A guest room at Martinhal Sagres, a family-focused resort in the Algarve.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Though I’d organized most of our itinerary around Lulu’s interests, on our last day in Lisbon, we set out to look at the city’s terra-cotta rooftops from the Castelo de São Jorge, a medieval castle on a hilltop. After convincing Lulu not to chase the peacocks, I led us downhill through the winding streets of the Alfama neighborhood to the Hospital de Bonecas (Hospital for Dolls), located in an old apartment building in Praça da Figueira. My first novel, The School for Good Mothers, includes lifelike child robots called “dolls,” so once I learned of this place, we had to go.

Our guide, Marta Machado, a doll nurse of 24 years, explained how the hospital, a family business since 1830, restores antique dolls from around the world, some more than a century old. Describing the hospital’s intake process, Machado said: “We look at the problems and tell you about the triage-ing. We have a paper with the number of the hospital bed.”

The city’s Cerca de Graça park.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Part of the doll hospital’s immense charm is the staff’s total commitment to both premise and execution. This is a hospital; the patients just happen to be dolls. You’ll enjoy it more if you, too, are willing to believe. 

There were tables of broken doll bodies, shelves of legs, trays of eyes, rows of vintage heads, faces peeking out of glass windows in cabinets, one with a single tear falling from her eye, another mid-scream. Some might find the hospital and the attached museum a bit spooky, but I felt truly transported, lost in the joy and wonder of this singular place. Lulu, meanwhile, was rewarded for her patience with dollhouse toys from the shop — books, candlesticks, teacups, a china set, cookware. The whole lot fit in the palm of her hand. 

During one of our post-dinner strolls, I’d spotted a stylish fiftysomething American couple traveling with their teenager. A glimpse of the future, I thought. What would life be like eight years from now? Where would we travel with Lulu? Who would she become? Would she still enjoy spending time with us? 

The store of a soap company that dates back to 1887 might not appeal to most children, but Lulu is a child who loves fancy things. The ornate vintage designs on the brand’s famed packaging spoke to her, as did the scents.

On the train north from Lisbon to Porto, she slept in my lap for the first time since she was a toddler. I touched her still-round cheeks and considered her beauty. It’s such a bittersweet part of parenting — that watching your child grow up involves less and less time spent really looking at them. 

Once we reached Porto, our excitement at seeing the shimmering Douro River was tempered by the first of several rounds of getting lost. Our hotel, the Rebello, had been open for only two weeks, and the address foiled taxi drivers and Uber’s GPS. 

From left: Shrimp with garlic and chili at the Martinhal Sagres; a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the resort.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Comprising four 19th-century industrial buildings across the river from Porto in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, the Rebello made me feel like I’d been plunked into the most glamorous Elle Decor spread, with concrete floors and touches of steel and tile. Interior designer Daniela Franceschini’s choice of vintage and contemporary furniture and works by Portuguese artists emphasizes the themes of water, wine, and wood. Franceschini explained: “The hotel has a story of manufacturing and wine storage, and we try to preserve it.” I’m still dreaming about the fuchsia velvet desk chair and the citron verbena scent of the Claus Porto toiletries.

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From her own room in our palatial riverfront suite, I heard Lulu shout: “Mama, I have my own safe!” Words I never expected to hear in this life. 

I came to appreciate the Rebello even more once my plans began to go awry. 

Above Six Senses Douro Valley, which is set in Portugal’s wine country.

Rodrigo Cardoso


That night, Adam and I forgot to set an alarm, so we had to skip breakfast. I’d ambitiously booked 9 a.m. tickets for Livraria Lello, “the most beautiful bookstore in the world” and a huge draw for tourists as the supposed inspiration for parts of the Harry Potter series. 

Our first Uber driver got lost on the way to Porto and began driving in circles, and driving so erratically that Adam insisted we get out on the side of the road. On the second try, we made it to the bookstore an hour late. I talked our way past the snaking line, and we stayed exactly 15 minutes. 

We got to see the bookstore’s famed red double-helix staircase, but the crowd was too much. “It feels like we dropped into the vortex of Porto,” Adam said. 

From left: Tiles at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo; the courtyard of Lisbon’s tile museum.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Strike two was Clérigos Tower, where I wanted us to see the views from the historic quarter’s highest point. Deeming the stairs too scary and the stairwell too narrow, Lulu abandoned the climb halfway up, and I quickly discovered that a floor-length Dôen sundress was exactly the wrong thing to wear when climbing an 18th-century tower with very smooth stone stairs. 

Surprisingly, everyone’s mood lifted after we visited the Claus Porto flagship store on Rua das Flores. Imagine Barneys (RIP), but for soap, with displays befitting the finest jewels. The store of a soap company that dates back to 1887 might not appeal to most children, but Lulu is a child who loves fancy things. The ornate vintage designs on the brand’s famed packaging spoke to her, as did the scents. Choosing four tiny soaps for herself, she announced: “I love soapies! I love soapies!” 

The living room of a Martinhal Chiado Lisbon guest apartment, in Lisbon.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Despite soap joy and Adam and Lulu’s happy chess playing in the Rebello lobby, strike three was a tour of Ferreira Cellars. Having spent an hour learning the history of port wine, during which we trudged dutifully past row after row of enormous casks, Adam commended Lulu on her endurance, telling her: “You’re a boss wine tourist.” 

During one of our post-dinner strolls, I’d spotted a stylish fiftysomething American couple traveling with their teenager. A glimpse of the future, I thought. What would life be like eight years from now? Where would we travel with Lulu? Who would she become? Would she still enjoy spending time with us? 

Even though I had followed the Internet’s advice regarding Porto’s “must-sees,” my plans had been that unfortunate combination of hot, crowded, tiring, and boring. Why hadn’t I just scrapped the tickets and taken us to the hotel’s indoor pool? 

Thankfully, dinner at the Rebello’s Pot&Pan offered redemption. Diogo Magalhães, the food and beverage manager, served as our friendly, mellow guide, commiserating about our messy day as we feasted on chef André Coutinho’s modern take on Portuguese gastronomy.

From left: Spare parts at Lisbon’s doll hospital; the Museu da Marioneta, in Lisbon.

Rodrigo Cardoso


“Lulu, your taste in food is insane,” Adam said. At home, she’s often a picky eater, but that night, she cheerfully tried Portuguese-style prawns, crisp pork belly and clams with sautéed potatoes, baked octopus à lagareiro, and too many other dishes to name.

A tray of desserts arrived, garnished with dry ice that had the aroma of violets: Toblerone-shaped tiramisu, lemon meringue tarts, honeycomb-shaped cinnamon cookies, macaroons, ice cream, sorbet, and abade de priscos, a traditional caramel pudding.

Food rarely makes me emotional, but this was our favorite meal of the trip, the pleasure of the dishes enhanced by the succor it provided. Coutinho stopped by to say hello. Then only 33, this was his first time opening three dining outlets from scratch. He told me about working in partnership with Magalhães: “I believe the connection with the kitchen and service must be like this — like a marriage.” Both want the restaurants to be accessible, with food and drink priced accordingly, so locals can also enjoy the food and the stunning view of the river. 

Later, Adam summed up our admiration for the Rebello when he said that Magalhães and Coutinho had a “great vibe.” For my husband, who isn’t given to effusiveness, this was the highest of compliments.

The pool at Six Senses Douro Valley.

Rodrigo Cardoso


“You didn’t tell me we had our own pool.” Lulu stared at me over the top of her glasses. She’d never sounded more like a tiny teen, but soon she was prancing through our villa at the Six Senses Douro Valley, singing “We have our own po-ol! We have our own po-ol!” 

In our living room, a cavernous rotunda decorated in serene earth tones, she found a welcome note addressed to her and a box filled with fruit skewers, berries, and granola. In the fridge, a bottle of chocolate milk had her name on it. 

We first saw the resort from the road above, which added to the sense of decadent unreality as we descended into a lush green world. Set on almost 20 acres alongside the Douro River in Portugal’s oldest wine-producing region, the Six Senses was once a manor house owned by the wealthy Serpa Pimentel family, who were apparently close friends of King Carlos I and owned numerous vineyards in the area. Having never been to any manor houses, I’d describe the estate as castle-esque.

Spotting another box on the coffee table, she said, “I’m just going to see if it has my name on it.” On her pillow, she found a woolen puppy with LULU embroidered on the side.

“I can’t believe you’re experiencing this at six,” Adam said to Lulu. We exchanged nervous glances. How would she ever go back to Airbnb? Our 2,700-square-foot villa, a short walk from the main house, was more than twice the size of our current apartment, not including the private pool, sun deck, garden, and gazebo.

But parenting is still parenting, even in such splendor. Lulu had another loose tooth. She’d become reluctant to eat.

From left: The Rebello’s indoor pool; vintage accents in a guest room at the Rebello hotel, in Porto.

Rodrigo Cardoso


The Six Senses strives for “emotional hospitality” — to empathize with clients and provide whatever they need — and I’ll assume this is how everyone heard about her tooth. There were cries of “Hi, Lulu! Hi, Lulu!” wherever we went. Staff stopped by at meals to inquire about the tooth’s progress. 

Adam and I wondered whether it had been discussed via text messages, or maybe walkie-talkies. This level of service, combined with our lack of resort experience, became almost comical. When shown the daybed on which Lulu would sleep, I asked where the linens were, not understanding that a turndown service would magically appear or that they’d leave gifts — chocolate, port wine, sliced fruit. While we gawked and bumbled, Lulu swiftly adjusted her standards. Spotting another box on the coffee table, she said, “I’m just going to see if it has my name on it.” On her pillow, she found a woolen puppy with Lulu embroidered on the side.

Months before, our daughter had learned to swim. My parents had taken her to lessons, so Adam and I didn’t witness her new skills until our stay at the Six Senses. We were astonished to see her dip underwater, float on her back, and demonstrate her “froggy” moves. Who was this swimming, toothless big kid? 

Tearing her away from the pool was challenging, but we had a packed roster of activities to try. At the Earth Lab, we pickled vegetables, made yogurt, and learned how to grow sprouts. At the Alchemy Bar, we made an organic body scrub. At the Activity Hut, we chatted with resident artist Helena Ferreira about travel while she and Lulu painted. 

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One morning in this idyll, I heard screams. When I ran upstairs to the bathroom, I couldn’t see Lulu at first, only the geyser of water spraying from the bidet and out the door of the toilet stall. 

The bathroom was getting soaked. Lulu, still hollering, was plastered against the wall in terror. Scrambling to turn off the water, I got sprayed in the face. We’d asked Lulu not to touch the buttons. I didn’t begin the day needing a massage, but after cleaning up the water and speaking too harshly to Lulu, my existing spa appointment felt more necessary. During the treatment, I wanted to relax, but I ruminated on my mistakes. Perhaps there are no best practices for handling a child’s bidet emergency at a five-star resort, but I could’ve been more patient. 

I found my family waiting for me at the entrance to the spa. Lulu had been in another section getting her nails painted, a special vacation-only treat. I admired her pink nails and apologized. It wasn’t her fault. The buttons were too tempting. 

I’d heard that for families at Six Senses, part of the wellness experience is having time to reconnect, and for us, this was true. Beyond the cinematic setting and the beautiful meals, what I’ll remember most is taking Lulu for one last bit of pool time before checkout, seeing her swim the whole length of the spa’s vast indoor pool, playing “mommy dolphin and baby dolphin.” How instead of using the circuit of jets, cold plunge, and Jacuzzi as intended, she sat on the divider between hot and cold and plunked one leg in each.

From left: Soaps at the Claus Porto flagship store, in Porto; pizza at the Rebello, in Porto.

Rodrigo Cardoso


Next we flew to faro, a city on the southern coast. From there we were driven to Sagres, a beach town in the western Algarve known for its excellent surfing and near-constant sunshine. 

During the journey, my sudden summer cold had blossomed into a sinus infection that sent me crawling into bed at 5 p.m. Our villa at the Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort, which had a view of the ocean, turned out to be a comfortable, scenic place to recuperate. There were sweet moments as I convalesced: Lulu changing into her pajamas to keep me company; Lulu and Adam standing on the terrace that night for “star seeing.”

We were familiar with the Martinhal approach from our stay in Lisbon, but we really experienced the brand’s ethos in full at this hotel, its first property, which opened in 2010. It has everything a family could want, from trampolines and playhouses in the Village Square to gourmet baby purées on the kids’ menu.

“We want to make sure parents can enjoy their cappuccino with the foam still on it,” Martinhal CEO Chitra Stern told me. “We have curated a lifestyle hotel where parents don’t have to be stressed about their children. Kids are welcome to finish their meal and head over to the Kids Corner and they’ll be well entertained by toys, art supplies, and well-trained people. Adults can be adults and enjoy great food, the best of Portuguese wine — and their cappuccino!”

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We saw the benefits of this thoughtful approach at every meal. While there were plenty of roaming kids, Lulu stayed glued to us, so the effects were more subtle. It was a relief to know that we didn’t have to nag her to be quiet or sit still.

In Sagres, Adam finally got his bike ride: a rugged, well-designed route that covered 50 miles. He’d taken Lulu to the beach that morning, so I rallied to give her more time in the water. At home, I rarely sit and truly play with Lulu, but that afternoon, we built sandcastles for hours. I tried to be present in the moment and let images imprint on my mind: my water baby at her most content; the piercing turquoise of the ocean; the agave growing on the terra-cotta cliffs. 

How strange to be in paradise while receiving news that Canadian wildfire smoke had spread to Chicago. I texted my parents to close their windows and wear masks outdoors. Lulu announced she wanted to bring all her friends to Portugal, away from the smoky air. 

She made a sand birthday cake for her friend Ruby. Invented a character named Seaweed Seaweed. Jumped in the waves. On the beach, she felt no hunger, thirst, or boredom. To her, the icy water wasn’t cold at all. 

We ended our ocean-oriented day at the Martinhal’s beachfront seafood restaurant, As Dunas. Lulu heard about the fresh-caught fish list and requested “sardines just for me.” Having lobbied unsuccessfully for Lulu to try the Kids Club, her request reminded me that her adventurousness emerged in other ways. While waiting for Adam to return, I proudly watched our child feast on clams in white wine sauce, carefully dip her bread in oil and vinegar, and tuck in to her own towering pile of fresh-caught sardines on toast. 

It was a test, in a way. Whether the memories of this trip would last in my heart and mind, even without the perfect family pictures. Whether Lulu would remember. 

What’s a family vacation without one last twist? While packing for our return flight, I couldn’t find our camera — the one I’d bought just for the trip. We had left it behind on our train ride back to Lisbon. In these extraordinary places, we’d used this camera to take mother-child photos, and many of the three of us together, and now they were lost. I’m not proud to admit that I wept in front of my daughter for a full 20 minutes. 

We had stayed overnight at the sleek, newly opened Martinhal Lisbon Oriente. In my emotional state, I was especially grateful for the kind concierge, who received my illogical ramblings, called the train company on our behalf, and suggested we stop by the station’s lost and found, just in case. 

After these efforts proved futile, Lulu tried to console me during the drive to the airport. We agreed that we’d take more photos and make more memories. I told her that I’d write about our trip, share our family’s stories with readers. 

It was a test, in a way. Whether the memories of this trip would last in my heart and mind, even without the perfect family pictures. Whether Lulu would remember. 

A year later, I can tell you that she’s still talking about Portugal and wants to know, more urgently than ever, when we’ll go back.  

Lisbon

Martinhal Chiado Lisbon: A luxurious family hotel with 37 apartments, drop-in childcare, babysitting services, a playroom, and numerous other amenities.

Martinhal Lisbon Oriente: Hotel residences in the Park of Nations neighborhood, with 82 apartments ranging from studios to three-bedrooms, plus a Family & Baby Concierge and indoor and outdoor pools.

Taberna da Rua das Flores: Wonderfully inventive Portuguese small plates. Line up early for the 6 p.m. seating. Better for older children who can sit still in the narrow dining room.

Hospital de Bonecas: Entrancing “hospital” where dolls are repaired, plus a museum. Miniature enthusiasts will have a field day in the gift shop.

Museu da Marioneta: A well-curated collection of puppets from around the world, with fun, interactive displays.

Museu Nacional do Azulejo: Located in a former convent, it showcases the history of the art form from the 15th century to today. Tile-painting workshops are also available.

Porto

The Rebello: A design-lover’s fantasy, with 103 spacious apartments (each with its own kitchen), a kids’ club, and a Roman-baths-style indoor pool. High glamour for parents and comfort for kids.

Floresta Café by Hungry Biker: A great, affordable option in a touristy part of central Porto. Try the green smoothies and the pancakes with ricotta, fruit, and nuts.

Pot&Pan: Named for the site’s prior life as a kitchen-utensils factory, the Rebello’s fine-dining restaurant serves fantastic modern Portuguese.

Claus Porto: Impeccable displays of soaps, plus a second-floor museum that brings the history of this storied brand to life. 

Ferreira Cellars: The cellar tour and wine tasting will entertain parents, but younger children will need to practice patience.

Livraria Lello: Famed as the “most beautiful bookstore in the world.” Reserve timed tickets, and be prepared for crowds.

Douro Valley

Six Senses Douro Valley: Otherworldly splendor for wine tourists and wellness enthusiasts alike, with activities that range from kayaking to tree climbing. Dinner at the Garden Barbecue is especially memorable.

Sagres

Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort: This sprawling resort has a range of accommodation options for families, plus a watersports center and multiple pools. Its seafood restaurant, As Dunas, has the best ocean view.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Our Portuguese Adventure.”





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