On days 3 and 4 of our Lisbon adventure, we’ve actually spent quite a bit of time outside of the city centre, and seeing what Lisbon’s surrounding areas have to offer. The city itself is really amazing, but I think one of the best features of Lisbon is that some truly awe-inspiring things lie just outside the city, well within reach if you’re willing to trek out there, and if you’re in the know.
In the past 2 days away from “home” (somewhat unexpectedly), I’ve seen more castles than I did all throughout my childhood watching Disney movies. Let’s start with the obvious, one of the most tourist-visited places in Portugal – Sintra.
Sintra is a town. Sintra is a region. Sintra is just plain unbelievable. If you want to be transported to a real life movie set (well, more like several movie sets), then you must visit Sintra. It doesn’t feel real, it feels like fantasy land. I’ll rewind a bit to tell you about our crazy start, in hopes you avoid the same comedic follies.
Look up “how to get to Sintra”, and any guidebook, Google result, or person will tell you to go to Rossio station and get the train from there. Easy, right? Yeah, easy…. We were searching for this damn train entrance for about half an hour, running back and forth from one praça (square) to the other, and walking up and down every single subway entrance we could see.
Here’s where went wrong….. Rossio is a major interchange station in the Lisbon Metro. So took the Metro there and thought we could change trains to Sintra. Turns out we had to go outside and go in another entrance. So we went outside, and found an entrance to the Rossio metro and went in. Wrong. We went back out, tried 2 different entrances. Wrong. Long story short, there is Rossio metro station, and Rossio train station. Two different stations! So, to save you all the trouble and make it easy for anyone wishing to come to Lisbon and visit Sintra one day, here’s the easy version. If you’re taking the Metro from anywhere in Lisbon…. If you’re on the the azul (blue) line, get off at Restauradores station. Go out to the street, and the Rossio train station is the ornate building with Starbucks in it. There, that makes an easy landmark to look for, for all my fellow North American travellers.
When you arrive in Sintra, it’s like a mass confusion. Everyone gets off the train, pours into and out of the station, and looks at maps and wanders around trying to figure out what to do next. To save yourself the confusion, get out of the station and book yourself a ticket on the “hop on/hop off City Sightseeing” red bus. This is great because you can just use it at transportation to get from one place to the next… and trust me, don’t try to walk the circuit. Just don’t do it.
While in Sintra, we visited 4 palaces. Palacio Nacional, which is right in the town itself, is most noticed by the two tall while chimneys. Choosing between all the palaces can be confusing as well, but the one that is an absolute must see is the fairy tale castle, Palacio de Pena. It was built as a playground retreat for the King, and it certainly is that. We spent a couple hours there, and didn’t even wander the gardens/park surrounding it.
Right by Pena is the Castelo do Mouros. This is the ruins of a castle built by the Moors when they ruled the Iberian peninsula, before being conquered by Afonso Henriques (Portugal’s first king) in 1147. It’s amazing to climb the walls and be so high up on the mountain top, overlooking everything, but you’ll definitely need a jacket with you, as it’s quite windy up there. Actually, it’s quite cool and windy at all the castles you’ll visit, as they’re all in mountain tops.
The 4th place we visited isn’t quite a castle/palace, but just as beautiful. The Quinta de Regeleira is a mansion, and striking in itself, but the real highlight of the Quinta, is the grounds it sits on. Walk around the park and you find yourself surrounded by exotic vegetation, walking through waterfalls, up towers and through hidden passageways, and along an underground tunnel system, ending at the bottom of a huge sistern that makes you feel like you’re in the movie, Goonies (80’s kids!).
After returning home from Sintra, we went to the Campo do Ourique neighbourhood to have dinner with local Lisboetas (Susete’s cousin lives in Lisbon). We ate at a no-frills crowded taberna, where the locals eat. A classic meal of bread, wine, and bife a casa (steak with a garlic butter sauce), complete with sides of arroz (rice) and batatas fritas (fries).
We stayed over in Saixal (‘say-shall’) that night, and woke up the next day to a typical Portuguese breakfast of pão com queijo fresca (bread and fresh goat milk cheese). We then set out for a long day on the road again, to explore the Setúbal (pron. ‘sh-too-ble’) region, the peninsula just south of Lisbon. Only about 40 minutes south of Lisbon, but it totally felt like we had been transported to a tropical island somewhere…. except for the fact that it was relatively cold and windy!
During this day trip, we hit a centuries old monastery, built on a dramatic cliff side, tropical (looking) fishing villages with crystal clear blue waters, and we found a magical cave that lead us down to the ocean and looked like a pirate cove. There was even a small temple/chapel inside the cave. It was absolutely amazing to find this hidden gem.
During our drive around the peninsula, we also drove through the Arrábida mountains national park area. If I told you thing this drive was breathtaking, I still wouldn’t be doing it justice. The views from so high up, driving along the sides and tops of the mountains, we’re just amazing. I don’t even know how else to describe it. We got views on both sides, with Lisbon and surrounding area to the north, and the ocean and the Setúbal estuary to the south. Just pure magic. Just to add to this dramatic scenery, we also got to stop in to visit two more castles (as if we didn’t get enough in Sintra!), that were built by the Moors before the Portuguese took over in the 1100’s. The Castelo Palmela, sitting atop the mountain overlooking the coastal town of Setúbal, afforded us an amazing 360 degree view…. again with Lisbon to the north, and then looking out to where the great Alentejo region begins, to the south and east.
Another great two days in Lisbon, this time exploring AROUND Lisbon, which is a MUST. Just an hour in either direction, and you’re taken to different worlds, feeling like you visit 3 different countries…. This just can’t be done at home in North America.
I love Portugal, even more than before now. More to come!