Portugal is a small country, so at first, it seems easy to plan for. However, once you start really digging into all the things your Portugese vacation could be, you realize how huge and densely packed with variety this little country really is. It could be a city getaway, a beach vacation, a hiking trip, or even just a historical romp through the palaces, lighthouses, cathedrals, libraries, and fortresses that litter the countryside, each one somehow more majestic than the last.
If you’re looking for a kid-friendly getaway, there’s a little beach town just outside Lisbon that you should know about. Cascais is just 30 minutes from Lisbon by train and 30 minutes from Sintra by car. With its dramatic coastlines, a bustling city and an abundance of culture and history, it’s the ideal under-the-radar spot for families.
Positioned between Lisbon, Sintra, and the Cascais-Sintra National Park, Cascais is easy to get to when flying into Lisbon. You can take the train back and forth between the two cities or make a trip out of leisurely driving the coastline, which is full of lighthouse, sand dunes, and includes landmarks like Cape Roca, the westernmost point in Europe and Boca do Inferno, a chasm where you can see huge waves crashing through the cliffs. The national park is full of hiking trails that will take you to the top of steep cliffs and historic ruins. For a guided experience, Portugal Walk Hike offers a variety of tours that can take you off the beaten path and shed light on the region's storied history.
For a long time, Cascais was a simple fishing village, but when ocean swimming became fashionable in the 19th century, the Portuguese royalty chose Cascais as the place to build their summer homes. Filled with mansions and high society, Cascais later became a place of refuge for European royalty fleeing their home countries during World War II. While they waited to see where they would go next, the city transformed into a political hotspot full of secrets and spys. It was at this time, that author Ian Flemming first found the inspiration to write Casino Royale, when he encountered a Yugoslavian spy at the Palacio Estoril Hotel that inspired the character of James Bond. If you visit the hotel, you can see photographs and letters from the royals who lived here and order a 007 Martini—shaken, not stirred—at the bar.
Courtesy of Villa Cascais
A few of Cascais' mansions are still private property, but many have been transformed into luxury boutique hotels. You’ll feel like royalty yourself checking into one of the charming seaside abodes like The Albatroz Hotel or the stylish Villa Cascais, which has prime real estate right in front of the ferris wheel. In the summer, do your best to get a seat on the deck of their restaurant Reserva da Villa, where the cuisine is Mediterranean, but the focus is on their wine collection which is displayed using enomatic machines. They are basically like classy wine vending machines, which let you portion out your own pour so you can taste as many vintages as you like.
If you’re traveling with younger kids, there’s a lot in Cascais to keep them engaged and having fun. You can take a spin on the ferris wheel to get the best views of the harbor or check out kid-friendly attractions like the Museum of the Sea which showcases ocean science mixed in with the history of traditional Portuguese fishing life. Of course there are always the beaches and Praia de Tamariz is especially nice because the water is gentle and shallow. Another place where kids can play is the Marechel Carmona Park, a lovely green space with a cafe and a pond filled with ducks, turtles and peacocks.
The black and white streets of Cascais' central village are lined with adorable shops and and souvenir markets where it’s easy to find handmade jewelry and the distinctly-Portuguese azulejos tiles, which are hand painted. Up the road from the city center, Casa da Guia is a former 19th century mansion and estate turned into a shopping complex with fashion boutiques, an art gallery, and a couple of restaurants and cafes with ocean views. When visiting the Citadela de Cascais, the old fortress, make sure you take a peek at the adorable bookshop above the Taberna da Praça restaurant.
By Jamie Ditaranto