From medieval walled cities, to pilgrimage sites, coastal towns, and fairytale palaces, you’ll find unrivaled variety on your road trip from Lisbon to Porto (and back). All of the cities on this list are family friendly.
Sintra has become a well-known secret because of its accessibility from Lisbon and the fact that it is highly photogenic.
It is commonly called a “Fairytale destination” as its palace looks like something out of a Disney movie. While it is a significant detour on a road trip from Lisbon to Porto, it will be worth it.
We day tripped to Sintra by train, but hope to return one day to spend at least one overnight in the city and experience it with more serenity after the swarms of people return to Lisbon. We had very little time to relax and dine in Sintra’s city center.
The three most popular attractions in Sintra are Pena Palace and Park, Quinta da Regaleira’s Initiation Well, and Castelo dos Mouros. It is easy to move between them on a Sintra Hop on Hop Off shuttle bus.
Pena Palace served as a colorful summer home for Lisbon’s Royal Family. Book your tickets in advance so you can explore the interiors and soak in the stunning views. A visit isn’t complete without strolling through the royal gardens.
At the Initiation Well, there are mysteries and legends galore about the original purpose of the well and the symbolism that has been interpreted here. Visitors can journey “to the center of the earth” down the winding stairwell with nine landings, sometimes compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy and may represent the ‘Nine Circles of Hell’, ‘Nine Sections of Purgatory’ and ‘Nine Skies of Paradise’.
At the bottom, the well connects to a labyrinth of tunnels.
Castelo dos Mouros – Walk the restored defensive walls of a 1000 year old Moorish Castle and gaze over the city and as far as the Atlantic.
Óbidos (pronounced “oh-bee-dohsh”) is one of the finest medieval towns and walled cities in all of Portugal. The area was settled before the Romans arrived and in the 13th century became part of the Queen’s estate with the king gifted it to his wife. This brought great prosperity and preservation to the city.
It reminded me of San Marino mixed with charming alleyways of the Greek Isles. It was picturesque with a fascinating backstory.
The best way to enjoy Óbidos is to stroll its narrow streets. Kick off your visit with the famous Ginjinha de Óbidos. It is a sour cherry brandy, typically served in a small chocolate cup.
Parking is a breeze as there is a large parking lot just outside the castle walls adjacent to the centuries old aqueduct.
Staying the night? Consider a unique stay at The Literary Man, the world’s largest library hotel.
Kids will love the city! My boys’ jaws dropped over the castle and were stoked that they could climb on the wall.
I spent most my time telling the kids “Walking Feet!”. We made it 5 minutes walking the wall before we had to turn around because they were too energetic to make me feel safe having them near the drop off. There’s wasn’t a lot of room within the walls to allow them to explore freely or burn energy without disrupting other visitors. Moral of the story… it’s an incredible stop on a journey through PT, just make sure to tire out the kids first.
An area our kids especially liked was Parque Cinegético de Óbidos as one of its trails run right up against the castle wall and they “discovered it” by timidly exiting through one of the wall’s doors. We liked that there were less people and we could give them a bit more space.
On the way to Fatima from Óbidos, consider a stop at the Alcobaça Monastery.
Fatima is one of Portugal’s religious epicenters and a site of mass pilgrimages especially on the 13th of the month, May-October.
In 1917, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared before three children (ages 10, 9, and 7) each month, on the 13th. The children shared their experience and were met with much skepticism. The public gathered to witness the final apparition and on October 13, 1917, they all reported seeing the sun dance! They explain a spectacular show of colors and unnatural movements of the sun. People in a 20 mile radius reported seeing the same.
May to October, the church hosts grand processions and masses in their outdoor grotto. Thousands flock to Fatima for the service to pray and in hopes they might witness another miracle.
Admittedly, we discovered Fatima’s religious significance somewhat on accident. Based on our itinerary, we were looking for a hotel that would be central on our road trip from Lisbon to Porto and this led us to book a stay in Fatima. Luckily we had a bit of time to explore the church and its grounds.
Costa Nova is a colorful coastal town with a gorgeous sand dune beach. A boardwalk runs along much of the length of the beach making a wagon or stroller easier to tow along.
The town is famous for its striped “palheiros” houses. Stroll the promenade and be sure to stop for gelato. Let the kids play at the bayside playground and sports courts across the street from the colorful buildings at Av. José Estevão 96 3830, Gafanha da Encarnação.
This was the first beach that exposed us to the monstrous waves of the west coast of Portugal, which are at their highest November-February. Nearby Nazare, Portugal holds the record for the largest wave ever surfed, measured at 86′. It’s a bone chilling video to watch on YouTube.
Costa Nova and Aveiro: If you are tight on time during your road trip from Lisbon to Porto, these two fabulously kid-friendly cities can be visited as a single day trip from Porto. They are about 50-60 minutes drive from Porto.
Aveiro is often compared to Venice, due to it’s canals and gondola-like boats called “Moliceiros.” However, it is unique in its own right and its charm evolved independently from Venetian influences.
The Moliceiro boats were originally created to harvest seaweed from the lagoons and use it as fertilizer in the nearby sandy soil. Now, the fleet is solely used to wow tourists.
As of early 2023, the downtown area is undergoing major reconstruction to expand amenities for tourism.
Coimbra (pronounced “queem-bruh”) once served as the Portuguese capital before it was moved to Lisbon. The area was first settled as early as the 7th century by romans, then the Moorish, then Christians.
The old city sits upon a steep hill, with a Portugal’s Oldest University dominating the top. It’s worth a visit to the University even if the only part you your is the Baroque Library, founded by King John V in the 1700s. It is lavishly decorated with fine, imported art and materials. Like inlaid tables made of wood from Sri Lanka and Brazil.
Centuries old, antique books fill the shelves and are still perused by the University’s researchers.
Coimbra is an excellent stop on your road trip from Lisbon to Porto because it is such a short distance from the motorway and won’t add much to your overall drive time if you have a schedule crunch. I recommend giving yourself at least four hours though to see a few of the city’s highlights and grab a bite.
If you’re visiting with kids, let them explore the miniature park on the opposite side of the river (in the newer part of the city). Portugal dos Pequenitos features kid-sized renditions of historic Portuguese homes and monuments. This is a great place to let them run free before hoping back in the car for more of your road trip.
You made it to Portugal’s second city. (You’re number one in my book, Porto.)
One of the reasons Porto tourism has greatly increased over the last couple years is that it is a central hub for lots of attractive day trip options. If you have some extra time once you’re settled into Porto, consider a drive to explore more from this list, perhaps Aveiro, Costa Nova, Coimbra or Braga.
Beyond Porto – Head to the Beach
Praia de Matosinhos
Matosinhos Beach was recommended to us by several Porto locals as a place to thrill the kids. Here you’ll find a long stretch of find sand and a lot of restaurant options too. It is the main beach for Porto residents to retreat to the ocean and it’s easy to reach with a public bus or by car.
Praia das Pedras Amarelas
We opted for the quieter Pedras Amarelas beach. It is more rocky than Matosinhos, but my kids weren’t swimming, we just wanted a place to play in the sand.
We had much of it to ourselves, perfect stacking rocks, there was a playground for kids, and best of all, no tall buildings behind us.
You can park right behind the playground.
Beyond Porto – Braga
Best known for being the religious heartland of Portugal, you can’t visit without journeying to the Bom Jesus do Monte complex.
To see Braga will require traveling further north than Porto, but is well worth a trip!
In 2021, Braga was voted the Best European Destination. It has a vibe that differs from anywhere else we visited in the country. There’s youthful energy, wide walking boulevards, delicious local pastries, decorated palaces, and endless historic points of interest.
We highly recommend spending part of your day at the Biscainhos Museum and Garden. For €2, you’ll have a tour of the former residence complete with rooms set up with original furnishings and upon completion of the 20 minute tour, you are free to explore the gardens at your leisure. This was an ideal spot to experience Braga’s history with two young children in tow.
Be sure to walk through the Arco da Porta Nova, formerly one of the doors of the old city wall. It is hard to miss on your way to Biscainhos or the bakery I’ll recommend below.
For a spot with incredible curb appeal, head over to Palacio do Raio to see the opulence of the 1700s at its finest. It is visually striking the way the elegantly carved sandstone contrasts against the blue and white azulejo tiles.
Portugal’s Religious Heartland
Braga boasts the country’s highest concentration of religious buildings, most notably the Bom Jesus do Monte and Braga Cathedral.
The Braga Cathedral is the center of the Archdioses of Braga and dates back to 1089, predating the country of Portugal itself. The 1st King of the Kingdom of Portugal rests here.
Step inside to marvel at the painted wood ceilings, ornate golf leaf woodwork, and breathtaking pipe organ.
Bom Jesus do Monte is a sprawling Cathedral Complex situated on a hilltop outside the city, so if you did not drive into Braga, you’ll need to take a bus out to the site. We had our rental car and found it easy to drive to the top and park for only €1. There are also limited parking spaces in small lots at the bottom of the famous staircase.
Prior to the current church, a chapel sat atop this hill and since the 14th century, Catholics would walk up the 577 steps on their knees to feel some of the pain Jesus did. Nowadays, a funicular offers patrons a ride up or down the hill.
Plan to spend at least 90 minutes in the Church and its surrounding property. There are numerous alter chapels that depict various moments in Jesus’s life. Behind the church, and further up the hill you’ll find a park, complete with a children’s playground, row boats, and a café.
Tip: The perfect place to start your tour of Braga is from the Praca da Republica. Many of Braga’s streets lead back to this central square.
Bakery in Braga
Besides the obligatory Nata, three more notable local bakery items to sink your sweet tooth into are:
Pudim a Abade de Priscos – Sweet and sticky, it is best with an espresso drink.
Fidalguinhos – A famous convent baked good. The cross legged appearance of these was a sassy slant at the noblemen who never had to work hard for their lifestyle.
Tíbias de Braga – Unique to the city, they are called Tíbias as their shape resembles the tibia bone.
You can find more information about typical Portuguese foods to try on our Porto Itinerary post.
Typical drive times between key cities
Lisbon to Porto nonstop – 3 hours
Lisbon to Sintra – 30 minutes
Sintra to Obidos – 1 hour 15 minutes
Lisbon to Obidos – 1 hour 10 minutes
Obidos to Fatima – 1 hour 5 minutes
Lisbon to Fatima – 1 hour 20 minutes
Fatima to Aveiro – 1 hour 25 minutes
Aveiro to Costa Nova – 15 minutes
Costa Nova to Porto – 1 hour
Porto to Coimbra – 1 hour 15 minutes (There’s also a train if you prefer to make this a day trip from either Porto or Lisbon after you drop off a rental car)
Coimbra to Lisbon – 40 minutes
Porto to Braga (north of Porto) – 40 minutes
Porto to Atlantic Beaches – 20 minutes
Closing Thoughts on Your Road Trip from Lisbon to Porto
Be prepared to spend more on tolls and fuel than you did on your rental car itself. Save time and hassle by renting a automated EasyToll reader with your vehicle.
While pricey, the tollways are beautiful with several service stations and cafeterias with impeccable restrooms.