Sintra: A Lisbon Daytrip Fit for a King

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A visit to Sintra will have you feeling like a royal for a day.  This quaint little town just 20 miles northwest of Lisbon is characterized by cobbled streets, charming shops and fairytale-like castles built high atop lush green hills.  In the 19th century, Sintra was a summer retreat for the Portuguese monarchy who sought to escape the heat, and is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Lisbon today.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around

The best way to get to Sintra is by train, which departs from Lisbon’s Rossio station about every 15 minutes.  Buy your ticket from a window or vending machine near the tracks or swipe your Lisboa Card at the turnstile – it covers the fare and gives you discounts on some of Sintra’s main sights.  Then it’s just a quick 40 minute ride to Sintra, which is the last stop on the line.

When you get there you can explore the lower town on foot (and you should), but save yourself the steep hike and take bus #434 to see the sights further up.  The bus does a loop every 30 minutes connecting the train station with the main square near the National Palace, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.  You can buy a “Pena circuit” ticket from the driver and hop on and off at any stop on the route. Click here for bus timetables and an interactive map.  You can also get a unique guided tour of the area, including transportation, with our friends at We Hate Tourism Tours.

What to Wear

Chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and castle climbing, so sturdy shoes are a must for Sintra.  A light jacket is also a good idea since it’s a little cooler than Lisbon given its coastline location.  After all, that’s why the monarchy came here to escape the hot summer months.

Rainy season is usually winter through spring (and occasionally in the fall), so pack an umbrella if you plan on visiting during these months, otherwise you may find yourself waiting in line to buy a poncho in the gift shop at Pena Palace.  And since many of Sintra’s sights are outdoors, you may want to bring a hat in the summer.

Sintra Highlights

One way to tackle Sintra is from the top down, which means your first stop would be Pena Palace.  This whimsical palace is an eclectic fusion of architectural styles inspired by the castles of Bavaria.  A prime example of romanticism, its bold red, yellow and purple exterior is hard to miss, complete with Moorish turrets, alligator water spouts and a Triton-flanked archway.

Built by King Fernando II, the palace was home to 5 generations of Portuguese monarchs from the mid-1800s until 1910 when they fled during the Republican Revolution.  Thereafter Pena Palace was converted into a museum, and has been restored with a keen attention to detail, looking as if the royal family left just yesterday.

As you explore the interior, you may notice that the palace is considerably modern as palaces go (i.e. Versailles in France or Schönbrunn in Vienna, etc.), offering up an intimate look at 19th and early 20th century life.  Pena Palace was actually quite progressive, having the flush toilets and hot shower in Portugal, a telephone to listen in to the opera when the king didn’t want to make the trek to Lisbon and an enviously well-stocked kitchen by today’s standards.

The palace itself is surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park, which is more like a forest than a park with dense trees, plants and other hidden treasures.  The palace grounds make for an almost magical downhill walk, otherwise you can pick up bus #434 and head next to the Moorish Castle.

Located on an adjacent hilltop, this medieval castle was originally built in the 10th century by the Muslims as a military fort.  After years of conquest, rebuilding and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that caused considerable damage, King Fernando II launched a campaign to restore and preserve the castle and its surrounding forest.

Buy your ticket and then follow the winding forest path to get to the main entrance.  Once inside, you can walk along the moss-covered ramparts and climb the stone towers for amazing panoramic views on a clear day.   Even if the weather is less than favorable, or you’re left without a view thanks to the thick fog that rolls in off the Atlantic, you can still have a great time, trust me.  Read more about my foggy day in Sintra here.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s also a zip line that allows visitors to soar through the tree tops at the base of the castle.  After you’ve had your fill of castle-climbing, hop back on the bus and get off at the main square where you started for the National Palace (it will stop at Pena Palace first, so sit back and enjoy the ride).

This palace also dates back to Moorish times, making it the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal – and hard to miss thanks to the two white conical kitchen chimneys on top.  The interior is truly a feast for the eyes with highly decorated, themed rooms each with a unique story, like the Swan Room (an homage to the king’s daughter) and the Stag Room (adorned with coats of arms and hunting scenes).  The National Palace also boasts the largest collection of Portuguese azulejos painted tiles in the world.

Other worthwhile sites in Sintra include the Quinta da Regaleira, an elegant estate towards the outskirts of town with yet another absolutely gorgeous park filled with grottoes, fountains, underground wells and hidden tunnels.  It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Palace, otherwise you can take a separate bus #435 from the main square.

This bus will also take you the farther out west to Monserrate.  This palace has a bit of a different flavor than the others in Sintra, combining Gothic, Moorish and Italian styles of architecture (it’s dome was modeled after the Duomo in Florence) and a subtropical garden with waterfalls, palm trees and other exotic plants.  There’s also a free app to guide you through an interactive tour of the palace.

For another unique experience, the Toy Museum is just 2 minutes from the National Palace on foot.  The museum houses an expansive collection of more than 40,000 items from around the world – from ancient Egypt ion toys to Nazi toy soldiers, as well as trains, planes, cars, boats, games, books dolls and even playthings that belonged to royal children – dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.

Finally, for an especially memorable way to see the main sights in Sintra, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city.  Book in advance or look for these old-fashion carriages waiting near the main square.  Tours range from 25 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes for up to 4 people, and can be customized to make your daytrip extra special.  Check out the company Sintratur’s website for tour options and rates.

For more travel tips by Jessica, check out her blog here.

 

City Locker – Paris Luggage Storage in 3 Central Locations

City Locker – a genius idea.  Three locations in the city where you can check your luggage in either while waiting to check in or after you’ve checked out of your accommodation.  They’re open from 8am to 10pm, 7 days a week.  You have to book online in advance with a credit card and they’ll send you a code so you can access your locker without the need for staff.

 

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Discovering Lisbon’s Belém Neighborhood

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A day spent in Belém is a journey back to a time when Portugal ruled the seas.  This peaceful little suburb of Lisbon played a huge role in the Age of Discovery, as it was the starting point for explorers like Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.  Their journeys literally spanned the globe, staking claims in Africa, Asia, India and South America along the way.  Even Columbus landed in Lisbon before returning to Spain after his famous 1492 voyage.

With boatloads of history and impressive panoramic views, Belém warrants at least a half-day of sightseeing, or longer if you have an appetite for discovery.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get to Belém from downtown Lisbon is to hop on tram #15E.  You can pick it up at Praça da Figueira, Praça do Comércio or the Cais Sodré rail station, and in about 30 minutes it will drop you off right in front of the Jerónimos Monastery.  Just be sure to not get off at the first “Belém” stop, rather wait for the next one named “Mosteiro Jerónimos”.  From there most of the main sights will be within walking distance.

Alternatively, you can also take bus #714 from Praça da Figueira or Praça do Comércio, or bus #728 from Praça Comércio or Cais Sodré.  When you’re ready to head back to Lisbon, catch the tram or bus from the same stop in front of the monastery (they come about every 10-15 minutes).  Both are covered if you have a Lisboa Card, otherwise just pay the driver when you get on.

The Lisboa Card also includes free entry to many sights in Belém including the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery and offers discounts on several others.  If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing or using a lot of public transportation in Lisbon, then the card is a good bet.  If your usage will be light, then you can probably skip it.

What to See

Belém offers a good mixture of museums and monuments depending on your preference.  Here are just a few of the top highlights.

You can’t miss the impressive Discoveries Monument soaring 171 feet high on the waterfront.  Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death, the monument immortalizes Henry, placing him at the helm of the ship.  He’s followed by 32 other larger-than-life figures who also played a role in the Age of Discovery – monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, missionaries and the only female, Henry’s mother Felipa.

As you stand at the base of the monument, look around and take in the view anchored by the 25th of April Bride and Monument to Christ in the distance.  Then look down at the inlaid marble map in the square in front of the monument that chronicles the expeditions of Portugal’s explorers.

Next head to the Belém Tower, which was built in 1515 as a fortress and watchtower to guard Lisbon’s harbor.  The tower quickly became a symbol of the Age of Discovery since it was the last thing explorers would see as they embarked on their journeys and the first sign of home when they returned.


The exterior is an ostentatious example of Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I to celebrate the prosperity during his reign.  This style of architecture is characterized by intricate ornamentation that glorified Portugal’s achievements as sea, like twisted rope, anchors, shells, flora, Manuel’s armillary sphere and Christian symbols because, after all, someone had to finance the journeys.

Cross the makeshift pedestrian bridge to get to the visitors entrance (during high tide the water can completely surround the tower), then spend some time exploring the various rooms that were once used for cannon firing and spoil storage.  The climb to the top of the tower’s terrace is worth the 120 steps for the sweeping view of the Tagus River.

Continuing with the theme of discovery, Portugal’s story of sea exploration comes to life at the Maritime Museum.  Located in a wing of the Jerónimos Monastery, adjacent to Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium, the museum houses a collection of more than 17,000 seafaring items.  You’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at model ships from the Age of Discovery, ornate royal barges and other vessels, maps and navigation tools from the past few centuries.

From sea to land, the National Coach Museum offers another perspective on Portuguese transportation from a bygone era.  In 1905 when it was clear that motor cars would become all the rage, Queen Amélia had the riding arena at the royal palace turned into an exhibition area to preserve her collection of fancy coaches.  The museum’s unique collection began with 29 royal vehicles, along with uniforms, harnesses and other cavalry accessories, which has grown to include even more vehicles, art and artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries.


Ending up back where you started, the Jerónimos Monastery is another brilliant example of Manueline architecture in Belém.  Construction began in 1501 under King Manuel to give thanks for the successful sea voyages of Vasco da Gama and other great explorers, fitting since it was the sale of spices from da Gama’s trip to India that financed the project.

The monastery was inhabited by the Hieronymite order of monks who provided spiritual guidance to sailors before they embarked on their journeys.  It’s also the final resting place for King Manuel, da Gama and other Portuguese notables.


The real highlight of the monastery is its cloisters.  Just like the Belém Tower, the bold yet elegant, lace-like arches and columns are heavily decorated with nautical motifs, representing a time of Portuguese wealth and sea power.  With such breathtaking architecture, it’s no wonder that the monastery and the tower are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


What to Eat

After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to one more discovery at Pastes de Belém.  This café, which is conveniently located across from the Jerónimos Monastery bus stop, stakes claim as the birthplace of Lisbon’s trademark custard tarts.

They make about 20,000 of the pastel de nata a day, and rumor has is that the closely-guarded recipe is only shared with 3 pastry chefs at a time.  The tarts are served with little packets of powdered sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top, and usually warm and crunchy right out of the oven.

To read more about Jessica’s travel experiences and tips, check out her blog Boarding Pass.

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Some of the best value can be found in Lisbon on self-catering apartments.  Here’s 3 stylish, central and ultra-inexpensive places to stay in Lisbon:

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Lisbon Core apartment – €60/night

My House in Lisbon – €79/night

Off the Beaten Path in Rome’s Monti Neighborhood

by Amy Knauff

Monti is the historic area located between Termini Station and the Colosseum/Roman Forum.  It’s where Woody Allen shot a good deal of “To Rome with Love” – so it’s your picture postcard version of Rome: ivy covered buildings, narrow cobblestone streets – but it’s less touristy, more authentic and hip than the area around Piazza Navona/Pantheon.  On a rainy autumn day, here’s what we’d consider an ideal visit:

9:30am: Start at the Cavour metro stop. Walk straight up the street in front of you, via Leonina. Here you’ll find two great cafés to choose from for breakfast. Ciuri Ciuri, at nr. 18, is a classic Italian bar with yummy Sicilian pastries (cassate, cannoli, marzipan, Modica chocolate, sweets made with Avola almonds and Bronte pistacchios). 2 Periodico Café, at nr. 77, is a cozy spot where you can enjoy a more leisurely breakfast while listening to chill-out music, snuggled up in an armchair as you read the morning paper.  For a typical Roman bar, with amazing coffee and good pastries, head right up Via del Boschetto to Er Baretto on your left at nr. 132 (has a few outside tables too).

10am: Head back down via Leonina to nr. 46/48, where you’ll find a big, blocky industrial-looking building that stands out like a sore thumb from the more quaint buildings in Monti. It’s a parking garage, and on Saturdays and Sundays, the ground floor is home to Mercato Monti, a small but interesting vintage-styled market. Purists, take note: most stuff in here is not actually vintage. But it’s the style that counts, and it’s a fun spot to pick up some interesting, offbeat finds and hang out with creative types.

11am: Leave the market and head out for a wander around the narrow cobblestone streets of Monti. This neighborhood is charming, picturesque and packed to the brim with interesting, eclectic shops for clothing, jewelry, and home goods. Stop by the uninspiringly named Candle’s Store (via Urbana, 21), which has gorgeous homemade candles. Aromaticus (via Urbana, 134) is like being in an adorable greenhouse; they sell garden and home decorations (and you can enjoy lunch or an organic smoothie or snack surrounded by greenery). On via dei Serpenti (nr. 141) check out Pifebo Vintage Shop, which has authentic vintage finds.

Of course, Monti isn’t just about shopping: the architecture is fascinating, as the mix of individual homes with street entrances, ivy-draped streets, and planters exploding with red and pink flowers make you feel like you’re not in otherwise chaotic Rome. Being something of a bohemian/artsy area, there is also plenty of interesting street art and graffiti to see as you walk around. (See if you can spot the space invader mosaics!) And of course, it’s de rigueur to pay a visit to the neighborhood church – the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti right in the main piazza was designed by none other than Giacomo della Porta.

1pm: You’ve earned a long lunch. Monti is loaded with good restaurants (for all budgets). Urbana 47 (at via Urbana 47, of course) is one of the most popular ones in Monti, and it’s “zero-kilometer” (locally sourced). But in general, it’s hard to go wrong in this area – it has mostly authentic, non-tourist-menu restaurants. Even La Bottega del Caffè located smack dab in Piazza della Madonna dei Monti is good, packed with tourists and locals alike. It has covered outdoor seating (so it’s great for people-watching) and I like their pasta with salmon in cream sauce. If you’re in the mood for something non-Italian, you can also get sushi at Daruma (via dei Serpenti 1) or Indian at Maharajah (via dei Serpenti 124) or Sitar (via Cavour 256) to name two of the four different Indian restaurants in the area.  Down Via dei Madonna ai Monti, almost at the end on the right, is Taverna ai Fori Imperiali (via della Madonna dei Monti 9), a well known Roman trattoria with great food – but you’ll definitely need to make a reservation.

2:30pm: Stretch your legs after lunch – climb the stairs next to the Irish pub on via Leonina and cross the busy street (via Cavour). On the other side there is a big tunnel with stairs. Walk up the stairs and keep going straight until you get to Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli. Follow the hordes of tourists into the church and visit the stunning marble statue of Moses, sculpted by Michelangelo.

3pm: Leave the church and keep going straight, away from via Cavour. You’ll soon get to the back end of the Colle Oppio park, which overlooks the Colosseum. On Sundays the dirt soccer field (called “la polverera” for its dustiness in the summer) in this part of the park is used all day by Latin American soccer teams. They play rain or shine. Huddle under your umbrella for a while and watch the back-to-back soccer games with the Colosseum as a backdrop. The smell of South American food and the sound of Latin rhythms add to the atmosphere.

4pm: It’s time for an afternoon coffee (or hot chocolate). Get out of the rain and into the closest coffee bar. Caffe dello Studente, just across from the soccer field, is Rick Steves-recommended and has a nice view of the Colosseum.

And no visit to Monti is complete without a stop at Fata Morgana on Piazza degli Zingari (up at the end of Via degli Zingari, and not on the lower part near the Cavour metro).  This is one of the top 3 gelaterias in the entire city and not to be missed.

Want to stay in the neighborhood? Here’s some of our top suggestions:

Appartamento Baccina starting at €100/night

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B&B Suburbe from €120/night

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Apparatmento Urbana from €110/night