Did you know that Goa and Pondicherry are former Portuguese colonies? Vasco da Gama, a well known Portuguese explorer, was the first European to discover the sea route between Europe and India. He first ported in the city of Calicut, India. Not surprising then that Portugal tugged on the heartstrings. I wish I had more time to travel to Lagos, Porto and other parts of Portugal, but considering that I was on a short break from work, I had to prioritise where I wanted to go and Sintra and Lisbon took top marks on the short-list.
During the planning phase, I was in two minds as to whether we should make a day trip to Sintra from Lisbon or spend a night or two in this small town. After perusing through countless articles, blogs and travel guides, I finally decided that we should spend at least one night in Sintra. And I’m very glad that we did.
After an 8 hour flight from Abu Dhabi, a 4 layover in London and a 40 minute drive from Lisbon, we finally arrived at the Sao Miguel Guest House around midnight. We were so shattered from our journey that we barely took note of our surroundings before falling into deep slumber.
After a good night’s sleep, and a lovely breakfast, Maria Teresa (the caretaker of the property) took us around the casa to show us the garden and the surrounding views. The property is a house that was converted into a small bed and breakfast after the owners moved to Lisbon. Much of the interior has been kept as is and therefore retains its homely feel.
After breakfast we ventured to the town centre to commence our tour of Sintra. We quickly realised that our decision to spend the night in Sintra was a good one. Seeing the number of tourists in the town centre and queuing to enter the main sights, we were relieved that we had the luxury of time on our hands.
We visited Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle, Palacio Nacional de Sintra and the Monserrate Palace (read the Tips section on advice for how best to get around Sintra). Pena Palace is amazing for its beautiful architecture and colourful facade whilst the Moorish Castle is famous for its views of the city. Monserrate Palace is renowned for its beautiful gardens and its interior architecture. The Palacio Nacional on the other hand left me a little disappointed mainly because in comparison with Monserrate and Pena Palace, there wasn’t a lot to see.
On our second day in Sintra, we visited the Quinta de Regaleira and explored some of the town centre before we left for Lisbon. The Regaleira is known for its gothic architecture and its surrounding gardens and is definitely worth a visit if you have the time. It is about a 15 minute walk from the town centre.
Instead of taking the train back to Lisbon (about 55 minutes) we opted instead to have a car to take us back to Lisbon via Cabo de Roca (western most point of continental Europe) and Cascais. This is a more expensive way of getting to Lisbon, but we really enjoyed the views and stops along the way. There is not much to do in Cabo de Roca (tip: the hop on-hop off bus will also get you here) but the views of the ocean are amazing – it is also quite windy so be careful as you are walking along the cliff!. Cascais is a beach town that is also famous amongst tourists and locals alike with plenty to keep you busy.
- There are many public buses that can take you to visit the main sites in Sintra, however these are normally overcrowded and you may find yourself waiting up to 30-45 minutes for one. Instead, I would suggest booking a ticket on the hop on – hop off bus to quickly make your way around the city.
- Buy tickets to all the sights you want to visit from the tourist information centre in Sintra or book online. This will save you time from having to stand in the queues. And trust me when I say that these queues are looooong!
- Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle are close by and I would suggest visiting here first (get here just before opening time) to avoid long queues. There is a small bus that you can take up to the top of Pena Palace for about 3 Euro but I would suggest walking up (it’s not too far).
- A Raposa: Great ambience, the restaurant offers lovely seafood options.
- Saudade: located near the train station, I wasn’t able to try this myself but it comes highly recommended.
- Sao Miguel Guest House
- Tivoli Sintra Palacio Seteais (highly recommended if it falls within your budget!)
We arrived in Lisbon late afternoon to a completely different topography. Whereas Sintra had small town feel to it, we were thrown into the hustle of Lisbon as soon as we disembarked from the car. Instead of staying at a hotel, we chose to book into a serviced apartment (Baixa House) in the Baixa neighbourhood. The location couldn’t have been more perfect and the apartment was quite charming decorated in the shabby-chic style that is popular today. Our hosts, Sandra and Susana had clearly put a lot of thought into ensuring that their guests experience is second to none. We were want for nothing. This was a 2 bedroom apartment (the second room is fitted with a bunk bed, and is quite tiny – perfect if you are travelling with kids). Our hosts made sure we had the makings for breakfast for every day of our stay, and also delivered fresh bread to us every morning. In the evenings, when we got back from a long day of sightseeing, there was a small cake and fresh juice awaiting us!
One of the things that I like to do whenever visiting a new city is to go on a walking tour or bicycle tour with a local tour company. As travelling to a new city, while exciting, can be somewhat overwhelming if you are trying to find your way around, a bicycle or walking tour is a great way to familiarise yourself with the lay of the land.
We booked a full day tour with Andre at What About Lisbon for our tour of Lisbon. The great thing about this tour was that it was private and we could therefore move at our own pace, and not have to worry about keeping up with the group.
Alfamma is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon and still retains the Moorish feel to it. It is a labyrinth of narrow alleys and terracotta-roofed houses. The buildings are worn down (our guide told us that this was because rents have not increased since the 1920s due to a rent control law and so building owners have no interest in the maintenance or up keep of the buildings). Nevertheless, in Alfamma, you will see colourful doorways, cobbled streets, freshly washed laundry hanging in the streets and older ladies gossiping the morning away. Best to wander through Alfamma in the morning to experience the liveliness of this neighbourhood. We were fortunate that there was a Fado Festival while we were in Lisbon, so on one of the nights that we were there we spent the evening listening to Fado music.
Chiado and Bairro Alto
A contradiction to Baixa and Alfamma, Chiado was once famous for its literary scene. On the weekend, you will still see booksellers lining the streets to sell ancient copies of famous literary works (unfortunately for the tourist, most copies are in Portuguese). Chido is also a chic shopping district, with a mixture of well known high street and boutique brands. There’s also a really great gelato place called Gelados Santini in the area.
Your visit to Lisbon is not complete without making a visit to Belem. Belem is famed for a few things (1) the UNESCO World Heritage listed Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (2) Torre de Belem is another World Heritage listed fortress that was designed in the 1500’s to defend Lisbon’s harbour (3) it is the birthplace of the famous Pastel de Nata (egg tart pastry) and (4) those who are familiar with Portuguese history will know it as the place where explorers set off on their journey after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India.
Parque das Nacos
It is the sight of the Expo 1998 – an example of urban regeneration, there is a beautiful waterfront, riverside gardens and public art installations.
A very popular tourist attraction is Tram 28. The reason why it is so popular is because it is a great way to see Lisbon sights for less than 3 Euros. If you are really keen on taking a ride on the tram, my recommendation is to catch it at the top of Chiado/Bairro Alto (near Praca Luis de Camoes) towards Alfamma. I would also recommend to travel on the tram after 10am and before 4pm in the evening to avoid rush hour commuters.
- Time Out Mercado – food hall style market with a lot of options. Try the Italian pizzas and the Asian food kiosks
- Esperanca, Alfamma – Tasty Italian food
- Pois Cafe, Alfamma
- Cruzes Credo, Alfamma – charming cafe with good food
- Honorota Belem, Belem (good vegetarian burgers)
- Pasteis de Belem, Belem for the famed pasties de nata
- If you find somewhere to stay in Baixa, Chiado or Bairro Alto you are golden.
- Baixa House, Rua dos Fanqueiros, 81 – Lisbon.
- A Vida Portugesa – for ceramics and other items made in Portugal
- Rua Augusta, off Praca do Commercio, has a couple of ceramics shops located nearby.
- Avenida de Libderdade – the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street and Paris’ Champs Elysees.
- What about Lisbon – www.whataboutlisbon.com
- Lisbon Walker – www.lisbonwalker.com
- We Hate Tourism Tours – http://wehatetourismtours.com
- Tip: Ensure that your group does not have more than 8 – 10 people. This ensures a more intimate experience and you are also able to hear everything that the tour guide says.