Sintra

A day-trip to Sintra was actually my favorite thing we did during our time in Lisbon. Located 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, Sintra is just a 44-minute train ride away. Portugal’s aristocracy considered it the perfect place to escape from city life, and while it’s filled with tourists now, it still feels like an escape — from Portugal, at least. We visited two castles here, the Castle of the Moors, which looks like the Great Wall of China, and Pena Palace, which looked like a German storybook castle.

The Castle of the Moors was built by the Moors (indigenous Muslims during the Middle Ages) in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista. In 1147 it was taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon. Situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains, this former military outpost follows meanders over the granite terrain of a mountainous cliff.

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Doesn’t it remind you of the Great Wall?
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Obligatory

After the Castle of the Moors, we hopped on a bus to the next castle, Pena Palace, which is what I really came to Sintra for. If it reminds you of Neuschwanstein, there’s good reason — in the 19th century, German-born Prince Ferdinand (cousin of Neuschwanstein’s King Ludwig) hired a German architect to build his fantasy castle, mixing elements of German and Portuguese style. It’s the most flamboyant castle I’ve ever seen, filled with Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish minarets, and Manueline carvings in bright yellow, dusty red, and azulejos. We bought tickets for the interior but ended up not using them because we were so intrigued by the exterior as we followed the walls surrounding the castle. We probably spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the courtyard, which was once the cloister of a monastery.

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So flamboyant!
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Those colors!
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Former cloisters

Tips on how to do Sintra:

Since we went on a weekday in November, the train station in Lisbon wasn’t too crowded, but if you’re here in the summer, especially over the weekend, avoid the lines by purchasing tickets or refilling your Viva Viagem the night before.

Check the times for the trains to Sintra. You don’t have to book in advance, but you don’t want to just miss it, and you want to get there early enough to you can claim a seat on the train.

Once you exit the train station at Sintra, make a right and hop onto the #434 bus. Someone should be there selling all-day tickets as you board the bus. You can hop on and hop off at any castle, and then it brings you back to the train station.

Purchase your castle tickets in advance so you don’t have to waste time standing in line.

We did Sintra in about half a day (left Lisbon after a leisurely breakfast, and returned to Lisbon in the late afternoon), but we easily could have stayed a couple of hours more if we were interested in the other castles or wanted to wander around Sintra town for lunch.

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Lisbon

We flew to Portugal over Thanksgiving weekend, trading turkey and pumpkin pie for bacalhau and pastéis de nata. Our short trip began in Lisbon, which really is as pretty as everyone says, filled with mosaic sidewalks and colorful buildings, yellow trolleys rattling up and down the hills, and jaw-dropping views scattered throughout the city.

Stay
We stayed at B&B Zuzabed, an adorable bed & breakfast owned by Luis Zuzarte, who also owns a handful of other properties around Lisbon. From the moment we booked our room, I knew he’d be an unbelievable host. He spent half an hour with us going over every single detail — from how to properly close our sliding balcony door, to which route to take for the most picturesque walk to Alfama. He even let us borrow a cell phone during our stay and called it while we were still with him so we’d be able to recognize the ringtone when we got a phone call. Portuguese hospitality is next level.

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Our bedroom
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View from our balcony
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View from the window

Do
Since our time was short, we woke up early each day, packed in a lot, and returned home late each night. However, if we had wanted to narrow it down to just the very best activities, here’s what we would have done:

Watch the sunrise from Miradouro das Portas do Sol. We were pleasantly surprised by how empty it was when we got there; we were worried it would be like Santorini at sunset.

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Sunrise
The rooftops of Alfama

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a huge, white limestone monastery that was financed with “pepper money” (a 5% tax on spices brought back from India). It’s classic Manueline architecture — intricate, lacy, and influenced by Gothic and Moorish architecture. Go toward the end of the day for smaller crowds and romantic lighting.

Courtyard of the monastery
Gothic, but lighter

Listen to a fado performance. Fado is intense, mournful, traditional Portuguese music, often focusing on heartbreak and lost sailors. It’s mainly for tourists now but is still a unique thing to do in Lisbon and a nice way to spend dinner.

Eat
Compare the pastéis de nata at Manteigaria and Pastéis de Belem. There’s a fierce rivalry between the two, and everyone seems to have an opinion on which one is better. The truth is that they’re both fantastic. Manteigaria is more conveniently located, slightly cheaper, and has a smoother pastry crust. Pastéis de Belem is the birthplace of pastel de nata and only serves them fresh out of the oven, which means the egg custard is the best. There’s usually a long line outside, but it moves quickly.

Topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon

Our favorite meal on the entire trip was at O Nobre, run by female chef (!) Justa Nobre and her husband. We had a fantastic ten-course tasting menu for under €90 — a perk of eating in the cheapest country in Western Europe.

Platter of innovative seafood and vegetable starters
Best bacalhau of our trip
Veal and creamy mushroom couscous

Transportation
Uber is incredibly cheap in Portugal. A ride all the way from the airport to the center of town was only $14. Public transportation is also really easy to use. Their subway system is similar to Boston’s (small and efficient), and their iconic yellow trolleys are filled with little old ladies. Take the #28 trolley to Alfama or the #15 to Belém. On one of the days, we bought a 24-hour Via Viagem card because we were taking multiple rides on public transportation (a train to Sintra, bus to Belém, and subway to Campo Pequeno). If you’re only going to take a few rides over time, you can just buy a refillable card and put in the appropriate amount of money.