Lisbon - 23/2 - 26/2/2012

Lisbon, Day 1:

Oh, Portugal, Spain’s often-overlooked, always underappreciated kid brother. At least that was Brett’s and my initial perception when booking our trip to Lisbon, the country’s capital city.

Always fans of the underdog, we chose this more obscure destination as our first official continental European outing, and because of this (and many other reasons), it will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Spread across steep hillsides that overlook the Rio Tejo (Tejo River), Lisbon offers all the delights you’d expect of Portugal’s star attraction, yet with half the fuss of other European capitals.

Gothic cathedrals, majestic monasteries and quaint museums are all part of the colourful cityscape, but the real delights of discovery lie in wandering the narrow lanes of Lisbon’s lovely backstreets.

Finding a sweet deal on Groupon (flights and a 3 night stay in a 4* hotel for only £260), we jumped at the opportunity. We left on a Thursday afternoon and flew out of Gatwick via Easy Jet.

Travel Tip: When flying out of Gatwick, long-term parking is a breeze. Pay in advance online here. Much more affordable than taking the train from Bournemouth, and an extremely efficient system.

By the time we finished our drinks, the flight was over (about 2.5 hours from London, 2 if you have a good captain like we did).

Travel Tip: A few things about Easy Jet: It’s a free-for-all – no assigned seats. So as SOON as the gate number is announced, make a run for it to get in line, or you’ll be sitting next to the 400 pound guy who hasn’t showered in 3 days. And your bag won't fit in the already-jammed overhead. Another good thing to know is they only allow carry-ons that fit in their teeny-tiny bag cages (despite the measurements stated on the website) so take care when choosing your bag. Brett and I ran the gauntlet with bags that were a bit bigger than the cage, but when we got to the gate, they asked if anyone was willing to check their bags – free of charge – since it was a full flight. 80% of their flights are full, so the odds that you will get this opportunity are pretty great! We also were given priority boarding as a ‘thank you’ – so not only did we save £80 by not checking, we got to board before the long line. Result! (Can’t guarantee this will happen for everyone!)

Once in Lisbon, I got my passport stamp (yay!) and we were on our way. Was surprised at how laid back customs was. I suppose I’m used to the US where everyone is on a power trip.

It was about 7pm when we landed, so we grabbed a cab to get to the hotel quickly (you can take the bus or a shuttle, but we hadn’t researched so didn’t want to mess with it). The airport is only about 5 km from the heart of the city, so really, if your hotel is in a good location, shouldn’t cost you more than €10. Unfortunately, our cabbie screwed us, seeing that we were obviously tourists and SUPER excited to be there. He definitely went the scenic route. It cost us €30 to get to our hotel. At the time we had no clue, but found out later we were duped!

Travel Tip: Always research the typical cost/time it takes to get to the airport to your booked hotel. One of the biggest ways tourists get ripped off is cabbies who know you are not familiar with the area, so sometimes get up to 3x as much out of you as they should (with suckers like Brett and Me). If you have doubts, when you get to the hotel, before paying the cab driver, ask the concierge the typical cost to get to the airport, and if you’re being overcharged, let the concierge have a chat to the cab driver to put him in his place.

We were booked into the Tsar Hotel, a brand-new, 4* hotel right on the metro line and about 3km from the city centre. Brilliant!

Upon checking in, we learned that they had overbooked for the night, but had a great little hotel down the road we could stay at until our room opened up the next day. This is what you get for booking through Groupon/Holiday Package sites. We are at the bottom of the food chain.

Disturbed, we agreed to go see the ‘sister hotel’. It was awful. AWFUL. I asked if it was the same star quality and they confirmed it was (lies!), and there was really nothing we could do, so we got our room key and headed up. After 15 minutes in the place, we'd had enough. We went back to the Tsar and said NO WAY. This won’t work for us. They promised we would have a room open the following day, and also gave us a free dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Seeing as how there was nothing else we could do, we submitted. We were wasting precious time and just wanted to get out on the town. A bed is a bed is a bed, right? (We found out later there were about 4 other couples who were booked through the same deal as us that had the same experience!)

Travel Tip: Sometimes when you book discount holidays, you get screwed. This just happens.

Okay! We’re off. We decided, since it was already about 9pm by the time we were heading out, we’d hit up the Alfama district for a little bite to eat, and to catch some Fado music, Portugal’s traditional melancholic singing. It's a must-see while in Lisbon.

The metro is very easy to use here, because it’s not that big.

Just be sure you don’t ride it alone too late at night, or it can get dicey.

We took the train from Anjos to Rossio, which drops you right at the center of town, in the Baixa neighborhood (great for shopping – we’ll revisit this later in the post!)

Travel Tip: You can get a day pass for the trains for €5, which is the best deal if you plan to do a lot of riding, BUT, we walked mostly everywhere (mainly used the tube to get into town from our hotel), or we used the over-ground busses, so really, it may be worth it just to buy a couple of rides for €1.50 each. Also, although your ticket will come out in paper like a business card, keep it and reload it, or they charge you for a new card. Brett and I went through about 4 cards at €.50 each each before we discovered this. We really are idiots!

We walked along the center streets, and were shocked and a bit scared when we started getting approached every 10 feet by men trying to sell us drugs. Hash, coke, even heroin.

Now, typically this would put me on edge, but a friend of mine warned us of this before our trip, and that it was very normal, and expected.

His words exactly: there is a long running drug liberalisation exercise in Portugal, which is most relevant in Lisbon. Goes through waves but don't be that surprised if people are openly selling heroin. It's not a problem. (Thanks Simon!)

So, with that in mind, we kindly declined their offers of "Hash - the good stuff!" and kept walking towards Alfama.

Walking the windy roads and little alleyways everywhere, we were truly enjoying taking in all the scenes.

Although at first a bit nervous, walking in strange neighborhoods in the dark, up alleyways with random people lining the streets, it didn’t take us long to get comfortable in this environment.

You can't help but fall in love with the magic of a dimly lit alleyway!!

Travel Tip: If you’re like me, you’ve been raised to know that walking up dark alleyways in strange foreign neighborhoods is dangerous. While there is always an element of danger in foreign travel, Lisbon is almost all alleyways – so if you’re going to go exploring, it’s going to happen. Just stay aware of your surroundings, don’t be stupid, and you will be fine!

Being a Thursday night in the off-season, the streets were pretty quiet. We turned a corner and stumbled upon double doors from which we could hear the siren sound of the beloved Fado.

The place was called A Baiuca. An older Portuguese man standing in the alleyway saw our curious faces, and cracked the door open for us so we could peek in. We were hooked. We walked into a dimly-lit room, overstuffed with people drinking, eating, and listening contently to the sounds of the singing over the 12-stringed Portuguese guitar.

We were greeted by an 80-or-so year old woman, double kiss, as she led us to a corner where we were stuffed in next to three 30-something men and four French travellers. The room was no bigger than 15x15, but somehow about 50 people were crammed in.

We learned quickly that there is little or no talking during Fado, or you will be ssssss’d (equivalent to shhhh’d).Fine by us, we were content just listening.

We were brought menus (most menus are in Portuguese and English, including this one) and found out that it was minimum €25 per person in food.

That’s fine. Our first dinner in Portugal – go big or go home.

We ordered drinks (Superbock, a local beer, for Brett, and vino tinto, red wine, for myself) and food (Brett got the steak, and I got roast fish), and sat back to enjoy the sounds of Fado.

Here is a video, if you would like to have a listen! Apologies for the poor quality - was very dark inside!

Travel Tip: Many Fado joints will try to exploit tourists with large minimum charge prices but terrible food. Luckily, the place we went was great and authentic, but take care when choosing a place. If a restaurant has people outside trying to get you to come in, most likely it’s hurting for business – and for a reason. Do your research before you leave. Check Trip Advisor reviews, or if you have data on your phone, do a quick TA check before venturing in someplace!

After a good three or so hours at A Baiuca, we decided it was time to venture home for the night – we had an early start in the morning! By now it was past one, which meant the metro was closed, so we caught a cab. “Fala Ingles?” we asked our driver. “No… fala Portuguese?” was his response. “No!” Brett and I both chimed. So I handed him the card from the hotel, and we were off. Not more than €10 to get home, several glasses of water to ensure waking bright-eyed in the morning, we tucked ourselves in after a great first day in the Portuguese capital.

Travel Tip: Always carry a card or written address of where you are staying, so you can ensure you get home, even if speaking different languages.

Lisbon, Day 2:

First full day in Lisbon – woot woot! Brett and I woke up refreshed and ready to get to the "good hotel". We quickly showered and packed up our things and headed back to the Tsar, where we enjoyed a nice quick buffet breakfast, checked our bags into the bell-hop (room wasn’t ready yet), and headed out on the town.

One of the best ways to get your bearings in a new city is to book a tour first thing.

This way, you get the lay of the land, and get to see what areas look interesting that you can go back and explore deeply.

We decided to go for the hop-on/hop-off bus tour, as this would allow us to use the busses to get where we needed to go, plus we get a bit of insight into the history of the city, with the guided audio tour.

Travel Tip: There are 3 bus tour companies that operate in Lisbon. Yellow buses, Grey Line (red) bus, and another red bus company. GO WITH THE YELLOW BUS. They have about 4x as many buses that come every 10 minutes or so. You can also use your bus ticket for public transportation. It’s a bit more expensive €18 vs. €12 €15, but totally worth it for the convenience and frequency. Brett and I went with the Grey Line bus and were stuck in Belem neighborhood for an hour while waiting for a stupid bus.

Prior to jumping on the bus, we snagged some warmer clothes in the Baixa district (we were bad and went to H&M, but just needed something quick. We paid the rest of the shops proper attention the following day, we promise!).

Baixa is considered "downtown Lisbon", and is the heart of the city.

It is the main shopping and banking district that stretches from the riverfront to the main avenue (Avenida da Liberdade), with streets named according to the shopkeepers and craftsmen who traded in the area.

You find the main avenue lined with cafes and street performers. There is always so much to see! The floors are all tile -- very pretty but very slippery to walk on! Definitely avoid high heels in this town!

We HAD to grab a couple of coffees from one of these cool little street cafés.

Travel Tip: These street cafes are very touristy, so while getting a coffee or drink here is fine, I would definitely avoid ordering food. Just one look at their "menus" and you will understand. There are too many great spots for a meal to be wasted here!

Once we felt we'd seen a fair share of Biaxa, fueled with coffee and ready to go, we hopped on the bus and got our tourist on.

Travel Tip:
Baixa’s top 3 sights: Comercio Square, Rossio Square, Santa Justa Elevator
Don't forget to: Look down at the cobbled mosaic pavements as you walk down Avenida da Liberdade, past Restauradores, Rossio, and Rua Augusta.
Off the beaten path: It is hardly a secret but the nondescript façade of "Casa do Alentejo" in Rua das Portas de Santo Antão may prevent you from finding its beautiful Moorish interior.
Transportation: Take the metro (Avenida, Restauradores, Rossio, Baixa-Chiado, or Terreiro do Paço stops) and walk.

Headphones in and ready to rock, we ventured down to the Belem neighborhood.

We hopped off here as there is much to explore. The monestary of Jeronimos, Belem Tower, great views of the bridge, and the Monument to the Discoveries are just a few of the things to see while in Belem.

We didn’t venture in to tour any of these places, or any of the great museums down here. It was too beautiful a day to be inside! So we just took in the sights, took a ton of photos, and headed back on the bus to see the rest of the city.

Travel Tip:
Belem’s top 3 sights: Jeronimos Monastery, Belem Tower, Berardo Museum
Don't forget to: Give in to temptation and have several custard tards ("pasteis de belem") at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem.
Off the beaten path: The Tropical Garden
Transportation: Take tram 15 from downtown's Figueira Square or Comercio Square, or a hop-on/hop-off bus.

Because we had waited close to an hour for our bus to arrive while in Belem, we decided not to ‘hop off’ again until the tour was over. This allowed us to take a nice hour-long drive around the entire city, to scope out where we wanted to venture to next.

We hopped off the bus back in Baixa, and went on a little walk. We headed past the Restauradores square to grab a bite to eat. Being a tourist builds up quite the appetite!

The Restauradores square is dedicated to the restoration of the independence of Portugal in 1640, but it is also home to some great back alley cafés and restaurants.

We walked up and down the back streets where hosts would beg us to come into their cafés for lunch. We wanted to find someplace in the sun, so we headed to Restaurante Destino, where they weren’t quite as pushy to get us to dine with them. This place was great.

Sitting in the sun, sipping on sangria, eating bread, cheese and olives (olives with EVERYTHING!), Brett and I were in our absolute element. We ordered the starter of melon and parma ham. What an amazing combination of naturally sweet and savoury.

For my main, I ordered spaghetti with prawns, and I think it may have been the best thing I have ever eaten. Brett got roast chicken, and devoured it.

The staff was exceptional. Flirty and fun, they made us feel right at home. Before leaving, they invited us insde for a shot of port, which was amazing. They made us promise to come back for dinner, and while we didn't stay to eat, we did go back that night, just to say hello, that’s the rapport we felt with these guys!

Highly recommended for an amazing lazy lunch or dinner. Sexy all the way.

Travel Tip: Most restaurants in Lisbon will bring you bread/cheese/olives right as you sit down. THIS IS NOT FREE! It’s not like chips and salsa in the states – you have to pay for it, and many places they rip you off, because tourists don’t think to turn it away. When they bring it to you, you can ask how much per person, and if it’s reasonable and the food looks good, accept. Otherwise, you can totally turn it away. At one place Brett and I went to, we were charged €8 EACH for bread and cheese. We were beyond blown away. When we tried to argue, they claimed they didn’t speak English. Don’t get caught in that trap!

We explored a bit more (it's hard not to!), then jumped back on the metro to freshen up at the hotel. Ready to rock the night away (still a bit buzzed from our lunchtime jug of Sangria), we headed back down to Rossio (this was always our main jumping off point – everything is walkable from here) to eventually head up to Bairro Alto (the “higher district”).

Bairro Alto is a picturesque working class quarter dating from the 16th century that has traditionally been the city's bohemian haunt of artists and writers.

It is also known for its bustling nightlife. This is an understatement.

We walked through Restauradores square where we stumbled upon a little shop with about 20 or so people pouring out the door, holding little plastic cups of something. We quickly realized it was a shop selling ports, and you could sample a glass for a euro or two.

When in Rome!

We each grabbed a glass of Cerise, a port-style cherry wine, and fully enjoyed it while walking down the square. We were told by our friends at Destino that the best way to get to Bairro Alto was to pass through the square and go up the elevator. Well, okay then!

We were looking everywhere for an elevator, when we realized the ‘elevator' was simply a cable car that took you the 50 or so yards up a steep hill to the district. When we asked the price, it was €4 EACH to go such a short way! No thanks, we decided to walk it. Was a good little pre-dinner work out.

Views from the top of the hill were stunning.

Bairro Alto is great, as there are many winding streets and back alleyways chock-a-block full of quaint little bars and restaurants. We hit a few up, all with very different personalities. What a brilliant location for a pub crawl.

When it was time for dinner (about 10.30pm), we had many options to choose from. Again, we were being pulled in every direction by hosts wanting us to visit their establishments… so we stayed clear of them (we love a challenge), and snuck into a little spot called B'Artis, A cozy wine bar with wooden furnishings that gave it a decades-old ambience.

They specialize in a variety of "petiscos" (Portuguese "tapas") and yummy wines.

This place was fantastic. Again, just tiny, so we sat at the bar until a table opened up, sipping on wine and beer and taking in the sights.

Everyone was foreign. I was the only blonde in the room. Smokers everywhere – inside. While they were eating! Oh, Euorpe!

We were seated relatively quickly, and ordered a few drinks and tapas. Still full from lunch, we didn’t need much. I ordered a glass of wine – vino verde – GREEN wine! Lisbon is known for it. Didn’t taste green, so that was good. (Didn't look green either, so that was a bummer.)

For food, we ordered a salmon dish, patatas bravas (a MUST with tapas), calamari, and grilled chicken with olives. We took our time eating and drinking, enjoying the slow pace of life in this European metropolis. But alas, there was more to be seen! So after an hour and a half or so, we paid the bill and were on our way.

We continued through the windy streets, which had become increasingly crowded now that it was about midnight.

We stopped into a bar full of 20-somethigns playing foosball. Apparently, Portuguese are the BEST at this, and Brett was enjoying watching the madness. We later realized that, sitting in the corner sipping our port, watching the kids play their games, that we were that creepy couple… so we left.

More wandering, taking in the funky tiles lining the walls, the window plants that looked as though they jumped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, and the most elaborately colourful murals.

The night was magical.

About 2am, we’d had our fill, and headed home, just as the night was starting to pick up. Yes, we’re old. And Lisbon folk love their late nights.

We decided to leave the kids to it, so we ventured back to our hotel to put our second night in Lisbon – and these aching feet – to bed.

Travel Tip:
Bairro Alto's top 3 sights: Ancient Art Museum, São Roque Church, Carmo Church
Don't forget to: Return to Bairro Alto at night for its vibrant nightlife and some of the city's best restaurants, bars, and alternative shops.
Off the beaten path: The popular tram 28 passes by, but few stop to see the pretty Estrela Basilica.
Transportation: Take the metro or walk from downtown to reach Chiado and Bairro Alto. To get to Estrela and Lapa, take tram 28 or 25.
Recommended RESTAURANTS: Pap'Açorda, Tavares Rico, A Travessa, Olivier, Artis

Lisbon, Day 3:

Day three in Lisbon, and ready to do some final exploring. With our hop-on bus pass, we were privy to two routes out of three: the Belem route, then a choice of the Orient route or the Castle route. We stupidly chose the Orient route, as it covered more terrain. Little did we know, there wasn’t a ton of terrain to see on this route. Ah well. Was a nice little 2-hour tour to start the day off, and we got to see much of the outskirts of the city.

After vowing never again to do a bus tour without thorough research (again, please please choose the Yellow Bus in Lisbon if ever you decide to do a tour), we decided to go explore Lisbon’s infamous castle. It was at the top of one of Lisbon's 7 hills (Alfama), and we were told you could get there by taking Tram 28. Hooray! We get to take the street car!

We caught the tram a few blocks up from Biaxa’s Avenida da Liberdade. It was a bit pricey, €9 for the two of us, and it only took us 3 stops until we were at the castle! We could have EASILY walked it.

Travel Tip: Tram 28 is a great line that, if you catch it at the right place, allows you to see many of the important parts of the city. Stay on as long as you can to ensure you get your money’s worth. If you are hoping to get to the castle from the Baixa district, WALK. You see so much more in the winding little alleyways, and it’s really not that far. Once again, coulda, shoulda, woulda!

Once up on the hill, the sweeping views of the rooftops out to the water were absolutely stunning. We spent quite a bit of time just taking them in.

Before venturing into the castle, we decided to stop for some food (are you noticing a them to our trip? This is why I gained a stone in the past week!).

We saw a cute little café on the corner, right where the tram dropped us. We have since learned that the cafes in these heavily tourist-travelled areas are the worst. You’re better off finding a back street or alley – someplace off the beaten path that you have to work for – to grab a bite. Live and learn.

We had a seat and they brought us bread (this was the infamous €8/pp bread!!). I wasn’t too hungry, so I ordered a glass of wine (duh) and a bowl of soup (€1.95). Brett ordered grilled chicken (€8.50) and a beer. Brett’s chicken arrived, and it was Curry chicken, not what he ordered, and coincidentally, €5 more than his original order.

When the bill came, it was €48!!!!! We were BLOWN AWAY. Upon further inspection, the charge for the bread and the discrepancy with the chicken made this meal the biggest rip. When we tried to complain, they feigned that they didn’t understand our complaint. We didn’t have the energy to fight it, so just chalked it up to living and learning, and left in a huff.

We headed up towards the castle, and along the way, were in awe of even more beautiful doorways, cafés, and alleys. Overlooking the city from millennium-old walls, Saint George's Castle can be seen from almost everywhere in the city, and is an intimidating sight.

Its oldest parts date from the 6th century, when it was fortified by the Romans, Visigoths, and eventually the Moors. It served as a Moorish royal residence until Portugal's first king Afonso Henriques captured it in 1147 with the help of northern European crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.

It was then dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of England.

It cost us €7.50 each to get in for a tour.

Travel Tip: If you book a bus tour, a lot of these types of places offer discounts on entry (castles, museums, etc.). Be sure to check your brochure to see where you can take advantage of discounts often up to 50% off entry fees!

We explored this ancient castle, strolling leisurely around the grounds taking in breathtaking views of the entire city. Great spot for pictures. We made our way inside the castle walls, where we climbed 30-feet staircases to rocky walls with barely-there guards to prevent you from falling. Brett and I are both terrified of heights, so we didn’t spend too long up top.

Travel Tip:
Alfama’s top 3 sights: Saint George's Castle, The Tile Museum, Sao Vicente de Fora Church
Don't forget to: Stop at the miradouros of Portas do Sol and Graça.
Off the beaten path: Although popular with hip locals, Doca do Jardim do Tabaco's stylish alternative shops and trendy eateries are still relatively new and unknown to visitors.
Transportation: It is best to walk around, returning on a tram if your feet are too tired.
Recommended RESTAURANTS: Chapitô, Bica do Sapato

After a few hours at the castle and along the high streets of Alfama, we ventured back down into the heart of the city to do some shopping. There are so many fun little boutique shops in Baixa, we both struck gold and will be rocking our Portuguese finds this spring.

Tired from a big day of sightseeing, we headed back to the hotel to refresh. We stopped at a small local market not far from our hotel and picked up some cheese, grapes and wine to snack on. It was fun being in an authentic grocery store that was clearly NOT a tourist attraction. There is something about grocery stores in other countries – it gives an authentic sneak peek into to the daily life and routine in different cultures. I just love it.

After a quick reset, we decided to hit up Alfama again for a final stroll and a quiet drink. We were heading up to Sintra the next day and knew we’d be getting an early start.

Well, it doesn’t work that way in Lisbon. What was meant to be an early night started in a quiet bar in Alfama, meeting and mingling with locals who gave us great tips on Sintra, nibbles of parma ham, the tastiest port, and constant compliments on how beautiful we were. Was wonderful to chat with the locals about their city, their wines, and of course, their football.

After a great start, we weren’t ready to end. Alfama being a quieter neighborhood and it being the off-season, everything was shutting down, and we weren’t ready to… so, you guessed it, we walked our butts the 3 kilometers back to Bairro Alto, where we knew things would be jammin’.

Had a few drinks at a few bars, and ended up grabbing a late-night snack at a café in an alleyway. Perfect end to our third night in Lisbon. Hopped on the metro back to the hotel (just as it was closing shop!) and tucked ourselves in, ready to recharge for our final day in Portugal.

Lisbon, Day 4:

Today is for Sintra. We had been told by several people that, if we had time, we had to make our way up to this spectacular city.

Travel Tip: Sintra is located about 30 minutes north by train, so if you are short on time, this is a great way to get there and back quickly. Two return tickets cost us €9. However, if you have the time and money, we highly recommend you rent a car and drive up the coast. We have heard the views on this drive are comparable to the French Riviera.

We caught the 11am train (not quite the early start we were hoping for) and sat back to enjoy the ride. Some great sights to be seen along this route.

Once in Sintra, we saw exactly what all the fuss was about.

Sintra and its mystical hills dotted with fairytale palaces and extravagant villas have bewitched visitors for centuries.

The Romans made it a place of cult moon worshiping and named it "Cynthia" after the goddess of the moon. They were followed by the Moors who also fell in love with the lush vegetation and built a hilltop castle, a palace, and several fountains around the town.

Later it became the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and attracted a number of wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions and villas. We can see why.

We ventured up to the main part of town, looking for a café. Having learned from our mistakes the past few days, we hoped to get out of the touristy areas and off to a more obscure, back-alley haunt.

Well, we walked, and walked, and walked, looking in random alleys and places, until we realized we had walked halfway up to the Moorish Castle… the Castle that everyone advises you NOT to walk up to because it takes forever and is a royal pain in the ass.

Travel Tip: DO NOT WALK UP TO THE CASTLE. Brett and I did it by accident and were SO HUNGRY and sweaty and tired by the end of it. Grab a bus pass that takes you around to all the sights, including the castle. This is a much more time-efficient way to see the town. You can also take bus 434 that runs every 30 minutes from behind Sintra's train station, but we didn’t know that.

Well, we finally arrived at the castle, and it was amazing. The views were nothing short of spectacular, and the history of this castle oozed through the walls we walked while exploring.

Constructed by the Moors in the 8th or 9th Century A.D., this castle is situated on two peaks of the Serra de Sintra, and from its walls there are magnificent views.

When we bought our entrance, we also bought entry into Pena Palace. These two tourist attractions were the ones all our friends (as well as our new friends from Alfama the previous night) recommended seeing whilst there.

So, once we’d had our fill of the castle, we walked another 10 (grueling) minutes or so over to the palace. And boy, was it worth it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a more whimsical, fancy, beautiful place in my life. And I’ve been to Disneyland MANY times.

Palácio da Pena, or "Castelo da Pena" as it is more commonly known, is the most complete and notable example of Portuguese architecture in the Romantic period. It stands on one of the rocky peaks of the Serra de Sintra, and its magnificent presence makes it hard to miss.

The palace is full of special touches, includes a drawbridge, a conglomeration of turrets, ramparts, and domes, and a gargoyle above a Neo-Manueline arch, all washed in an array of pastel shades.

The extravagant interior is decorated in late Victorian and Edwardian furnishings, rich ornaments, paintings, and priceless porcelain preserved just as the royal family left them.

There is much more to explore than just this magnificent home. Surrounding the palace is the mystical Pena Park, filled with a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans.

There is also a charming lodge hidden among the trees that can be visited. At the highest point is a statue of King Ferdinand looking towards his palace, and a viewpoint called "Cruz Alta" overlooking Pena Palace and surroundings.
Once we’d had our fill of whimsy, we caught the bus down to the town center, where Brett insisted we go into a café and try some of these famous Portuguese tarts we kept hearing all about. OKAY, Brett… twist my arm!

We found a cute little spot to duck in, that reminded me of the café Amelie worked at.

Beautiful pastries, strong coffees, and folks chatting in quaint corners, this place was just what we needed.

Two tarts and two espressos later, we were happy and quickly falling in love with this magical little town. After a bit more exploring, we knew it was time to head back, as we had an 8pm flight to catch and still had to snag our bags from the hotel.

We headed back to the train station (about a 10 minute walk from the center of town), sad to be leaving so soon… there is so much more to be explored in this town, we only wish we had more time.

Travel Tip: If you can, try to stay one night in Sintra so you can make the most of your visit. When taking the bus down from the Palace, we passed through many quaint little neighborhoods full of shops and restaurants, a huge Sunday merchant market, parks, museums, galleries – all just begging to be explored.

Back to the hotel to pick up our bags and off to the airport we went. Driving through the tile-lined streets that had become our second home for the past four days, it was very sad to be leaving a town that we had become so enchanted with so quickly. Lisbon truly is a magical place, and will leave a lasting impression in both Brett's and my memories.

Some additional Travel Tips:

Weather: We lucked out with the weather on our trip, as typical winter weather means rain and chilly temps. Being located near the Mediterranean Sea, Lisbon boasts one of Europe's milder climates. You can find out more about typical temps here.

Language: The language in Portugal is of course, Portuguese. While you will be fine without speaking the language, it helps to know a few key phrases. Also, as with any foreign country, you get a lot more respect from the locals if you at least attempt to speak their language. Brett and I made flash cards of a few key phrases and practiced them while drinking wine on the plane ride down. Brilliant. Find all your basic phrases here.

Driving: They are mad. As my friend Simon warned me: "Portuguese people are insane behind the wheel. This is not a general aren't-foreigners-funny comment but a proper I-would-look-you-in-the-eyes and make sure you understand comment. Especially at night on motorways. Their road fatality stats are off the charts - just a weird national peccadillo. This doesn't mean you shouldn't hire a car, just be aware and don't get too close to the car in front. (They will frequently come within an inch of your bumper when you are doing 60- they are insane)." So, take that into consideration.

Etc.: There is a cool company Brett and I discovered a bit too late that I implore you to check out: GoCar Lisbon. So bummed we didn't know about this sooner - we TOTALLY would've taken advantage!

Pickpocketing is prevalent here, as well... not as bad as in other parts of Europe, but be mindful and watch your belongings at all times, especially on crowded buses and trams!

I'll add tips as I think of them, but you can always shoot us an email at or if you have any questions, or find us on Facebook here!



Kristin K said...

LOVE all the details and green box tips! Especially the bread & cheese! Can't wait to read the next 2 days and hope the hotel made good on your 2nd night!

Monk said...

Mandy - love this summary but any chance of providing a bit more detail?

jonwhite123 said...

Oh europe.... Still always looking for ways to rip off tourists!

Looks like you had a great time, very thorough post!

Miguel.M said...

Excuse me but "Spain's Kid Brother"??? Are you aware of te fact that Portugal is the oldest country in Europe? Established as a Kingdom in 1139 while the country wich is now known as Spain was only established in 1492? Only a small gap of 353 years...
Traveling should be a little more than sightseeings, monuments and restaurants don't you agree?