Portugal family holidays – Lagos to Lisbon (pretty hill towns and eat-you-up waves)

The Portugal family holidays plan - Lagos to Lisbon

Ever since a cousin had been to the Algarve when I was a child, I had wanted to go. I had spent a lifetime looking longingly at those big orange rocks in the travel agents’ window. I don’t quite know how it took me so long to get there, as it’s about £60 on Easyjet from Bristol, but the time had come. To trick ourselves into thinking the Portugal family holidays plan was longer than it was, we had a 2 centre plan – Lagos to Lisbon. Beach and city bases covered.

Portugal family holidays Part 1 - Lagos

The campsite

Flew into Faro having booked  Turiscampo Yelloh village, a fairly average campsite, 7 miles from the beach with 1 middle sized pool and a basic bar area. Not as fab as other Vacancesoleil offerings, but the sun was shining (a lot).

The beach - Dona Ana

First job was to find the orange rocks, which we did at Dona Ana beach. Lots of other people had found them too, and a good number wanted to share the cliff shade, hugging the edges and shuffling round on towels like human sundials as the day progressed. A feature was the 4-foot Atlantic waves regularly engulfing the children at the shoreline (and the full force of the Atlantic was still round the corner at this point).

The town - Lagos

The nearest town was Lagos, with its cobbledly streets, freakishly realistic clown and surprise adventure canoing. To get a low flying bird/fish-eye  look at the cliffs you hire a 2 person canoe and paddle along the coast, ducking into orange caverns. It is an arm sprint to keep at the front of the group, just behind the guide, but worth it to avoid the scrum carnage of clattering paddles at the rear.

Shafts of sunlight illuminate water beneath you but there is no time to stop and stare as double time canoeing is necessary to make up for the fact that your child partner doesn’t bring much in the way of technique or upper body strength to the canoe table.

Drifting up to the rock faces, the waves do tend to buffet your head in their general direction. There is a beach stop where you and your child then surf the 4-foot waves on to the sand for a small break. The tricky bit is going up, over and against them on your way back out to sea. This involves your canoe tipping back to a near vertical position, but thereby avoiding you approaching them side on and  being fully rolled over. Pretty hair raising stuff (or flattening, from the wave slap).  Fortunately they tie up  all the canoes in a long line and motor you back the final kilometre to the harbour, while you lie back and check out your injuries.

Celebrated being back on land by having tea on a cobbled street outside a restaurant in the old town, where Husband bought a ridiculously priced dusty bottle of Portuguese port from the year of my birth on a “when in Rome/Portugal” basis.

Praia de la Luz

Time for more Portugal family holidays exploring. The next day’s new beach find, a wide palm fringed arc of yellow, turned out to be Praia de la Luz, of Madeleine McCann notoriety. 3 of us attended the local church where a large percentage of the congregation are ex-pats and much of the service is still dedicated to her.

Market day - Odeciexe, not to be confused with Odiaxere

On Portugal family holidays a market is pretty much mandatory. Looking for a local candidate, we’d read that there was a weekly one in Odeciexe (or similar). Looking at the map we could see it was a good hour and a half up the coast, pretty much half way up the road from Lagos to Lisbon that we would be travelling later in the week, but we decided to go for it anyway as this was market day. On arrival, the market bunting was up but no one was home – the streets were disappointingly devoid of market goers or stalls. Weird. 

We did stop at a beach on the way back as a plan B, but the curved cliff face backdrop reflected the fierce midday heat straight back onto the sand, like a furnace.  There was no shade, and the fear of being baked alive before we hit the water resulted in Husband refusing to even attempt the steep descent to the beach inferno. So we had a medicinally re-hydrating coke and headed back to base camp. 15 minutes from home, we passed a signpost to a place called Odiaxere. With its extra letters. Which are apparent if you don’t skim read it.

The best beaches - Sagres and Praia do Beliche

After the disastrous market expedition, it was back to a beach day. Time to explore a bit further afield. Headed to Sagres, the end of the world, or Europe anyway being its most westerly/southerly point. Checked out the dramatic headland and historic forts, set upon half a millennium ago by Francis Drake and his 800 pals.

Heading round the continent’s corner, vast deserted and desert-like sandy areas, towered over by yellow cliffs this time, were battered by fresh n wild seas. Spent a crowd- and shade-free afternoon at my new fave beach in all the land, Praia do Beliche. 

Hill towns - Silves

Following the beach day/town day plan, we found ourselves caught up in a medieval hill town festival, encountering processions of traditionally costumed pipers, surprise camels, falcons and general heraldry.  Invested in local spirits and the obligatory hunting knife. Although tempted, we left the crossbow, animal skins and horned helmet to visitors without airport customs to contend with. 

Portugal family holidays Part 2 - Lisbon

On day 10, we broke camp and set off north for part 2 of the holiday on the road from Lagos to Lisbon. About an hour into the journey, I realised we had left the bonkers expensive bottle of port, hidden so well from potential caravan burglars at the bottom of a cupboard, that it had not been spotted during the packing process. Did a u turn accordingly and turned a reasonable 3 hour journey into less reasonable 5 hour one.

Lagos to Lisbon - road trip

On the road again, you could see the heat shimmering above the tarmac, surrounded by a landscape that was both scrubby and bone dry. Driving through clouds of dust we listened carefully to reports of wildfires, but made it through to face the full-on driving nightmare of an international capital.

Upon arrival, after the obligatory overshooting/shouting session, we were underwhelmed by our campsite choice. 3 of the group had to exit the vehicle to avoid neck injury after being bounced over the heat blistered and time ravaged road, which led through the campsite and past rusting caravans spilling out extended families, who appeared to be living permanently under tatty tarpaulin.

In case the campsite wasn’t disheartening enough, there was a beach access gate opening timetable, which permitted beach side campsite entry for a short window at the start and end of the day only. If you missed it, although you could literally see your caravan through the chicken wire fencing, you had to walk an unenjoyable extra  kilometre in the sun round perimeter the to the entrance on the main road to get in. Days were structured around the gates of doom.

The games room contained one ride-on toy not connected to the mains and the park was unlit, resulting in a metal bar/blooded nose incident. On googling alternatives, we could have stayed in a Novotel in Lisbon with a roof top pool for the same money. My advice – do this.

(We did get most of our money back when we got home.)


A Portugal family holidays was next up – Lisbon, an  hour’s boat ride away.  The boys sat through a very different Sunday service (in Portuguese, or possibly Latin)  at the very fabulous Monastery Of Jeronimos and got to see a UNESCO heritage site for free (not sure how much they appreciated this opportunity).

Wandered round the stately streets, past the water bound 16th Century Tower of Belem, climbed inside a giant palm, found a pool in which to paddle and drank cocktails in a grand square. Much impressed, it was time to find the vintage tram.

The guide books suggest you have to wait for tram 28 to take you around the streets of the old town. During the very August-hot 2 hour wait in a queue of hundreds for tram 28, we noticed that the number 12, which looked exactly like the 28 left at 15 minute intervals from the stop next to us, empty. When we finally got to board the very cool vintage tram, we noticed that we were followed by the 12 for the whole route.

Top Tip – catch the number 12.


The final day trip on our Portugal family holidays was to Sintra. A 30 minute train ride took us past suburban tenement blocks before magically transporting us out of the city into a different world, of cool mists and castles in the sky.  It was like something out of a fairy tale crossed with Chitty Bang Bang. 

Climbing a wooded hill ,we found a medieval castle hiding in the trees, and had a cuppa on the top of a crenellated tower. Was very surprised not to encounter some kind of giant or princess and were sad not to have booked a night here.

Portugal family holidays - Lagos to Lisbon : Lessons learned

  • Avoid the Algarve beach crowds by heading to Beliche.
  • Stay in the Novotel in Lisbon – not the campsite of doom.
  • Catch vintage tram number 12.
  • Stay a night in Sintra with Baroness Bomburst (not the childcatcher)
  • Only travel the Lagos to Lisbon road once in a holiday by paying more attention to actual place names.

Portugal family holidays - Summary

Portugal, Lagos to Lisbon– furnace hot, icy eat-you-up waves, adventure canoeing, unexpected medieval camels and castles in the sky.

For some more of the best beaches in the Algarve check out this gorgeous post by fellow travel blogger, My Faulty Compass – Beaches in Algarve, Portugal

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6 thoughts on “Portugal family holidays – Lagos to Lisbon (pretty hill towns and eat-you-up waves)”

    1. Sintra was my favourite. I loved the castle in the woods, but was disappointed not to find the sunken tower which features in all the reviews. Next time!

  1. We did a road trip around Portugal a couple of years ago, from north to south and back again, it is a wonderful country to tour around. The Algarve is beautiful, although I’m not too sure if I’d rush back as it is so touristy. It’s great you found a quite beach in Beliche.

    I would certainly return to Lisbon the history is incredible and there is so much to see and do. #farawayfiles

    1. I agree, the beaches are stunning, and an afternoon in Lisbon did not feel enough. I would love to stay in the city itself next time. Maybe not in mud summer though.

  2. I really enjoyed this. I’d be the same trying to kayak ahead of everyone else to get the best views. I hope the port tasted amazing so that the extra two-hour drive back to get it was worthwhile! We really want to visit the Algarve. Our family loved Lisbon and Sintra. Thanks so much for joining us all on #farawayfiles.

    1. Thanks, the port was pretty amazing. Much like Portugal itself, especially the deserted beaches on the wild Atlantic coast. I hope you manage to get there soon.

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