Portugal: Lisbon, the Atlantic, and the Algarve

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When a friend in Lisbon asked us if we wanted to swap apartments for a couple of weeks, we didn’t hesitate long before we said yes. We booked some flights, arranged a couple of additional home exchanges, and a few weeks later we were on our way to Lisbon!

From countless coffees and bustling streets to UNESCO castles and monasteries to beautiful beaches and relaxed seaside towns, and all for an affordable price tag, keep reading to get a glimpse of our experience in this fantastic corner of Europe!

What is Home Exchange?

We have been using homeexchange.com for the last couple of years to find free places to stay anywhere we travel, including at two lovely coastal properties in Portugal! 

As the name implies, it is a platform that allows you to leverage one of your main assets – your home – to facilitate exchanges with other respectful travelers around the world. Much like any other booking platform, it allows you to search and browse thousands of homes all around the world, some of which are clear vacation-rental type properties, and some of which are primary residences. Once you’ve found a place you like, you can send a friendly request to the owner to stay there during your preferred dates.

While a ‘direct’ exchange is the most straightforward (you go to their home while they come to yours), it can obviously be a little tricky to arrange this to align with everyone’s travel plans. That’s why the platform also has a points system, whereby somebody staying at your home pays you a predefined amount of points, and then you can use those points to pay somebody else to stay in their home at the same time or a later date. 

Having already hosted or been guests on over 10 exchanges, we can say with confidence that the platform works extremely well, our home has always been looked after extremely well, and using the platform has allowed us to stay for weeks at a time in expensive cities like Paris basically for free. Sure, we welcome strangers into our home and spend a bit of extra time cleaning before we leave home and when we leave a host’s property, but a couple of hours cleaning is well worth literally hundreds to thousands of saved dollars!

If you’re thinking of signing up, click here or scan the QR code below… we both can get free points if you use our referral!


If we had to sum Lisbon up in a few words: coffee, bakeries, new and old architecture, beautiful tiles, lively streets and squares, suicidal trams, hills, purple jacaranda trees, fresh fish, and, well, LOUD.

As one of the oldest cities in western Europe, centuries of history seem to be jumping in front of you at every turn, from white and black patterned cobblestones worn smooth from countless feet to the oppulently decorated buildings and monuments lining grand avenues. Yet at the same time, the city embraces bold and interesting modern architecture that somehow seamlessly integrates with the old. With great public transit, lively public squares with kiosks serving coffee and drinks, fantastic street musicians, endless views of orange rooftops, narrow winding streets, world-class museums, and tonnes of activity, it is exactly what you expect when you think of a wonderful European city. And with copious sunshine, brilliant purple jacaranda trees, and genuinely warm and friendly people greeting you, you know almost instantly that you are in southern Europe.

Portuguese tiles

One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises were the beautiful tiles lining the interiors and exteriors of countless buildings across the entire country. From blue and white hand-painted tiles that are centuries old depicting religious scenes or patterns, to moody mass-produced tiles lining the facades of 70s apartment blocks, they lend a charming and authentic look to the city and the entire country. They’re also a fantastic souvenir, whether to use as a coaster or to hang on the wall, and we even picked up 4 matching tiles at a flea market that the seller claimed were from the 1730s.

Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery

Aside from simply walking the streets and immersing yourself in the soul of Lisbon, there are also some flagship UNESCO sites to see, including the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery.

Belém tower, built in the 16th century, was part of a fortification system and a famous point of departure for Portuguese explorers. It doesn’t look like too much from the outside, but inside it is decently interesting, and as you pass through the worn stone spiral staircases or look at the old fireplace and grand vaulted ceilings, you can almost imagine what it would have been like to be a sentinel on duty or a customs officer waiting for vessels to report their goods. Nowadays, it is very well-suited for pretending to bake cookies in the little corner bastions with your toddler.

The nearby Jerónimos Monastery is a rather impressive complex built between 1501-1601 (one hundred years!) with a long and storied role in Portuguese history. The part that is open to the public features some phenomenal stonework in light-coloured limestone all around the cloister, an extremely grand cathedral with epic arched ceilings, as well as some notable tiled walls and vaulted ceilings in the refectory where monks would have gathered to eat in silence while being read to from religious texts. Were it not for the throngs of tourists, it would have almost been possible to imagine how the space would have been while populated by the monks who filled its halls and wore the floors smooth through several centuries.

The grandeur of the cathedral was so bewitching that our little kiddo’s body was temporarily possessed by awe (or silliness?) and she was rendered unable to walk normally on two legs.

Got a family? Skip the line and get in for half price!

When we approached the Belem tower and saw the hour-long lineup of people waiting under the hot sun, our hearts sank. With a toddler and an infant? Impossible. 

And that’s when somebody told us about the law in Portugal that allows anybody with a child under 2 years of age to cut to the front of the line. Incredible. Never again did we wait in line at popular tourists destinations during our entire stay in Portugal!!

On top of that, for many popular sites, you get an automatic discount when you visit with a family, making it actually quite cheap to get in to popular attractions… instead of paying about the equivalent of a meal, it ended up being about the equivalent of a coffee. 

Portugal is amazing for families!

The Atlantic coast

After a few days in Lisbon, we picked up a pretty-darn-cheap rental car, loaded in the ridiculously cumbersome child seats we had dragged along with us (and good thing too, because the rental place didn’t have any more child seats available), and headed up to a home exchange that we had organized on the Atlantic coast near an old fortified peninsula town called Peniche.

We were a bit apprehensive about how the trip might go with two young kids in the car, but we were pleasantly surprised by how excellent the Portuguese highway system is, and with a couple of coffee breaks and one blissful moment when both kids were asleep in the back seat, we arrived at our destination with plenty of time to hit the pool before supper and bedtime.

A word on Portuguese coffee

If you like really good and really cheap coffee at every turn, Portugal is the place for you! There is almost hardly a place in the country that is more than 5 minutes away from a delicious cup of espresso and tasty baked good – like the iconic pastel de nata, the classic egg custard tart pastry. Once you learn a few Portuguese words for the many variations of espresso and milk (our favourites: the galão and the pingado), it gets even better. 

What do we mean by cheap? Expect to pay about €1.50 in tourist-ridden or fancy places, but we found some cups of super tasty espresso for as little as €0.60 off the beaten track in places teaming with locals, many of whom simply come in and down their coffee in one or two sips at the counter.

The western coast of Portugal faces the full brunt of the Atlantic, meaning it is generally windy, wavy, and a bit chilly. The city of Nazaré even boasts records for the largest waves in the world (but the water was remarkably calm when we went to check them out).

We spent our time at the coast meandering around rocky outcrops, enjoying some locally-caught fish, and even finding a couple of spots where we could take a dip in the chilly water and warm up again in the warm sun, whether in a sheltered bay, in an inland coastal lagoon, or behind a well-crafted wind break. Sometimes we were having so much fun that we almost forgot about the tide as it crept closer and closer to our little baby in the sun shelter that we built for him. Oops! After that we were sure to keep a closer eye on him… for example, while enjoying some delicious Portuguese sparkling wine on tap just up from the beach!


Not far from where we were staying was the fantastic medieval city of Óbidos, a must-see for history buffs and castle lovers.

A UNESCO world heritage sight, the Óbidos we see today is built upon literal centuries of history. Once a roman settlement dating back to the 5th century, then a Moorish fortification in the 700s, later an important castle built over time by the King of Portugal, this place has seen a lot, and today, it has a lot to see for the tourists that throng to its winding streets.

While the main street is far too crammed with tourist shops and tour-bus clientele, as soon as you walk up one or two side streets and gain some elevation you leave most of those crowds behind. In particular, most of the fortified walls are still standing and you’re even able to walk around much of them, though it’s not for the unsteady; with no railing from catching you if you might stumble, and heights that are several meters high in some places, it is not for the faint of heart. It’s also probably not great for your typical toddler, but ours happens to be a very good listener and we had a lot of fun exploring the walls together.

Alcobaça Monastery

Not far from the big waves of Nazaré is another stunning UNESCO site with seven centuries of history, the Alcobaça Monastery, which was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. First begun in 1178 and finished in 1252, the monastery is the first example of gothic architecture in Portugal… and what an example!

With a population of almost 1000 monks living and working here at one point, the monastery would have dominated economic, religious, and cultural life in the region and across Portugal. Being associated with the Cistercians, the monks who lived here filled their days with prayer, manual labour, and strict routine, and they would have done most of it in total silence.

With far fewer tourists than the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, we were almost able to imagine what it might have been like here with monks seated around the shaded cloister deep in meditation or prayer, sleeping on rows upon rows of beds in the massive dormitory, tending the lush green gardens under the hot sun, or putting paintbrush to paper by candlelight while beautifully illuminating manuscripts.

One of our main highlights was the fountain house, where the monks would have washed their hands before meals or performed other rituals. Jutting into the bright sun from the cool-shaded protection of the cloister, the light pours in to highlight the ornate stone carvings of the ancient stone fountain… which had been waiting there for centuries just to be in the right place at the right time to meet our daughter’s forehead as she ran around like a stumbling maniac.

Another highlight was the kitchen, one of the most impressive pieces of medieval building we have ever seen. Being quite technologically advanced for its time, it had taps with water running into several basins and a huge cooking area which would have had fires going nearly constantly, with the smoke travelling upward into an enormous chimney supported by cast iron pillars. And all of it is tiled with absolutely lovely blue and white tiles, all the way up to the ceiling. It was the type of space you have to be in to fully appreciate, and the pictures below don’t quite do it justice.

Mafra National Palace

On our drive back to Lisbon from the coast, we took a stop to check out the Mafra National Palace, another UNESCO site. It was worth the visit (especially for the reduced family ticket price!), especially the 18th century infirmary, with beds positioned so bedridden patients could attend mass, and magnificent library, which hosts 3 species of bats that help to keep pests away from the thousands of leather-bound books.


The Algarve, the southernmost region of continental Portugal, is home to beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise waters. We lined up another home exchange at a very nice apartment in the sleepy town of Olhão for another multi-day excursion from Lisbon. With a couple of weeks of travel behind us already, we were content to slow down and relax, and our days mostly consisted of beach time, lunch, an afternoon siesta, and more beach time after that, with a few coffees, fresh seafood, and meanderings through the town here and there.

When we tired of our time on the beach, we took a short drive to visit the Roman ruins of Milreu. Having been continuously from the 1st to the 10th century AD, the town was somewhat of a luxury complex, with beautiful mosaics decorating gardens and baths that rival present-day spas and luxury accommodations. After a half hour of walking among the ruins under the blazing sun, how we wished we could have been a wealthy Roman family relaxing for the day at the baths.

The journey home… with kids

The next day, we drove back to Lisbon to return our car, and the day after that we woke up early, cleaned our Lisbon home exchange, and made our way to the airport lugging way too much stuff: car seat, baby seat, stroller, diapers, a portable toilet seat cover, etc. etc. Even when you try to pack as light as possible, there are some things you just can’t avoid if you want to navigate the world safely with little ones in tow. And while we recommend traveling as much as you can before you have kids, it’s still extremely nice to be able to travel as a family, and sometimes seeing and experiencing the world through your kids’ eyes is far more rewarding than seeing it any other way.

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