Portugal has been in my top 5 for years now, and I’ll tell you why. It’s one of the cheapest European country to visit. It has city life, history, and beautiful beaches. Plus, a couple of my older flight attendant friends who have been all over the world both dubbed it one of their favorite countries. Word of mouth goes a long way with this traveler. Being only a 6 hour or so flight from the East coast, it’s basically a no brainer.
Soo, If Portugal isn’t on your radar, it should be. I’ll tell you about the towns of Sintra and Lagos, and do my part to introduce the small town Portugal feel to you.
We landed on SATA airlines direct from Boston, and immediately went to the magical fairytale land of Sintra. Picture a little mountain town that has a castle and a colorful palace overlooking the city center. The National palace is in the middle of town and exquisite summer home mansions that are plastered all over Pinterest are available to tour. And it’s all walkable, or hike-able I should say. If that’s not enough, Sintra overlooks Lisbon and the beach town of Cascais below. It’s ADORABLE, and I LOVED it.
When I planned the trip and told my friends I wanted to go to Sintra rather than stay in Lisbon, I had high hopes it would end up being one of those ‘hidden gems’. We weren’t disappointed.
The first place we visited was Quinta de Regaliera. It is a home rebuilt to its current status in the early 1900s by a Brazilian millionaire, Carvalho Monteiro. Mr. Monteiro had an interesting outlook on architecture, as well as an interest in religions, ideologies, as well as mythology that are reflected in the house and gardens. The initiation well is a great example of that. At 27 meters deep, the well symbolized going down into hell or rising out of it. I suppose depending on the day. It’s a looking up into the light, or peering down into darkness deeper meaning kind of thing. The 9 levels also represents Dante’s Infernos’ 9 circles of hell. The end result is a place that can be felt and experienced rather than just toured or visited. The underground tunnels connecting waterfalls and wells with spiral staircases make it seem more like a fun house than someones gardens. It is romantic, spooky, and surprising all wrapped into one.
- Details on the house. Please note the top little boy holding the dog. Terrifying.
The next day we woke up early and started hiking up the hillside on what would end up being a 30,000 step day. You can hike trails from Sintra town up the hill most of the way to Pena Palace. I really mean up the hill too… like straight up. Upon walking up to the palace, I quickly realized I had underestimated this place. Pena palace is 1. beautiful 2. huge 3.surrounded by 85 acres of gardens.
The palace history began when a chapel was built in its spot, supposedly where the Virgin Mary had appeared. In the early 1500s pilgrimages were made to the site,including the Kings and Queens of Portugal. A monastery was constructed on the site upon the order of King Manuel I, and Sintra was simply a quite place for meditation and to house the monks.
Lisbon and the monastery were nearly destroyed in an earthquake in 1755. Nearly a hundred years later King Ferdinand II acquired the land with the monestary ruins and the nearby Castle of the Moors (we’ll get there soon). He turned these ruins into a palace that served as the summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The palace is truly a marvel to see, and I don’t think I’ve ever read about or seen another quite like it. The king supposedly had a heavy hand in the designing and construction of the palace, and wanted vaulted arches, Medieval, and Islamic touches, and also designed many of the windows himself. In the pictures you’ll notice the rounded domes, castle like walls, and the detailed tile work all somehow fitting together for the exterior of a royal palace. It remained a residence of the royal family until the revolution in the early 1900s. The colors and hodgepodge design are quirky and intriguing to see side by side on a Palace.
I wish we had gone inside the palace looking back, but instead we decided to spend our time wandering the expansive gardens (we wanted to go horseback riding, but the stables only have 4 horses). The park was created at the same time as the palace, and contains a lot of the Romanticism touches of that time. The King Ferdinand ordered species of trees from around the world, over 400 different species of trees are in that park! Keep in mind, around the time of the construction of the palace, Portugal was a very wealthy country. It was the age of discovery, and Portugal was leading the world in discovering new land and trade routes. I’ll get to that more when I discuss the 2nd part of our trip. The park is full of small little trails that lead from the palace to the queens fern garden, up to a viewpoint from a cross that sits almost even altitude as the palace, even to horse stables. It truly was a labyrinth of trails, and I’m sure that even after walking around for 2 hours with a map, we missed plenty.
Next up, the Castle of the Moors. It’s just up the hill from the Pena palace, and the entrance price includes both places. This is my first medieval castle, and while the inside hasn’t been refurbished, the outside and walking along the top lived up to expectations. It’s a 450 meter perimeter on top of a mountain cliff. Hello, that’s bad ass to walk on the walls of. The castle was built by the Moors during their reign in the 8th & 9th centuries. The surrounding area was important for Muslims because of agriculture and it was heavily populated at the time. Hence, a castle was built for protection. The castle lost importance over time and progressively diminished. Lucky for us, in 1375 King Ferdinand I, ordered the rebuilding of the castle. The earthquake that ruined Lisbon and the monastery created major damage to the castle as well. Later good ol Ferdinand II took it upon himself to improve the condition of the castle along with Pena palace. We never entered the castle, but were able to walk the walls from one end to the other. The views over Sintra and Lisbon are prettty spectacular. It’s interesting to look over and see Pena Palace sitting on top of the next hill as well. Supposedly that was King Ferdinand II’s favorite place in the castle and he would sit and draw artistic inspiration from that spot.
Sintra also introduced me to 2 pastries I ate as many times as possible after trying them. Travesseiros which is a sweet fluffy pasty filled with an almond paste, and queijadas that’s a small cake similar to cheesecake. The little custard filled cakes are the bomb too. Yummm. The seafood stew is worth noting as well. Portugal is known for the fishing industry, and most of our dinner meals consisted of fish or some sort. But, that stew (or the seafood rice form), I mean the picture speaks for themselves.
We also discovered how hospitable the Portuguese are early on in the trip. The uber drivers from the airport wouldn’t leave us until our airbnb host showed up, then the airbnb host took us to dinner and out on the town. Mom, don’t kill me…. but he also offered to let one of us ride on his motobike with him so the rest could fit into 1 uber on the way to dinner. By motobike I quickly discovered he meant a dirt bike. So, I got the local experience of cruising down the main highways on the back of a dirt bike. I had a helmet on… They also were very hospitable in buying us a couple of bottles of an almond flavored liqueur that was delicious. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that he was our age, and 6 pretty girls were the 2nd booking for his grandmas apartment. But whatever, we had a blast and stayed up til sunrise hanging out with locals.
Next day, we had to figure out how to get to Southern Portugal. Getting to Lisbon, finding the bus, riding the bus with Kate and Darias massive luggage, and then getting to our apartment in Lagos just seemed to be too much. So we rented a car. I wont get into what a nightmare that process ended up being, but trust me when I tell you DO NOT RENT FROM ALAMO. It’s half the price for a reason, and the line was literally an hour and a half long. We divided and talked to every other car rental booth, and conquered. Finally, in our ride we headed for the Southwest coast of Portugal & Europe. To the end of the world as it was known for a long time!
There are multiple options for beautiful beaches on the southern coast. I chose Lagos because it has cliff side beaches, grottos, and history. Also, it’s not resort filled and known to still feel small townish. Henry the Navigator set up shop near here during the 1500s and voyages to discover new parts of the world started from here, which I found intriguing. **Fun fact, Henry the navigator never actually went on one of these important voyages.** He set up a center with the worlds best navigators, map makers, and astrologers, and others actually went out and did the sailing. But, we arrived in town at dark, went to the grocery store, and had a phenomenal selection of meats and cheeses for dinner. And wine, the same wine we had paid for by the glass previously that we bought a bottle of for 1.50 euros. I love Europe and their appreciation for wine. It was a solid girls night in on vacation sitting around the patio relaxing.
The apartment was just above Porto do Mos beach. It’s a long and flat beach and had beautiful clear water. We brought a bottle of our newly acquired Rose and a 40 oz bottle of beer (classy, we know), and beached it for a couple of hours. Next up on the afternoon, the tourist spots. The cliffs reach 60-80 ft down to the ocean, and little beach coves dot the coast. The most famous one is Point de Piedade. A lot of people do tours by boat through the rock formations and grottos. We walked to the bottom via stairs and took pictures, which seemed sufficient to me. The beach cove just walking distance over was our stop and we vegged out for another couple of hours admiring the tiny beach getting bigger as the tide went out, and enjoying the day. Daria, Kate’s sister who lives in Poland, was on her first girls trip with us and I remember her saying from the top of the cliffs looking down, “it’s the best thing she’s ever seen.” It’s on up there on my list too. The pictures are beautiful, but really can never do justice to the feeling of standing on the top of those cliffs looking around.
We visited the town that evening and were surprised to find it lit up with people well into the late evening. Granted, it’s holiday in Europe and the Algarve is a top holiday destination. We had a nice dinner, walked the town, and then went to bed with plans to get up and do more roaming and beach time. We accomplished all of this, purchased overpriced large beach blankets from the street vendors (well they did, I decided it would sit in the closet with the other stuff I had to have but never use), and drove back to Lisbon.
I wish I could talk about how awesome Lisbon was, and how the nightlife lived up to expectations. But, we spent the evening on our phones trying to figure out how the heck we were getting home. We made it to dinner, and that was about it. Kate and Daria were able to stay the next day and explore the town, but Christine and I left for the airport before the sun was up. We could get out of Lisbon that day, but only to Madrid. When flying standby goes wrong and you see an opening, you take it. We booked an airbnb and decided to extend our Portugal vaca to Spain for a night, but fate had other plans. Both of our bags were lost from Lisbon to Madrid, our phones wouldn’t work to book an uber or other apps to take us to town, and we just didn’t want to take the long train ride. In addition, we were going on about 2 hours of sleep after all the routes home research and flight load inquiring. We said screw it, and boarded the flight to Miami that we knew was open (aboard a brand new 787 dreamliner which was pretty cool). I pulled an amazing race, and rushed through customs/immigration in Miami, got an uber to Fort Lauderdale, ran through the airport, and barely made it on the last flight home to DFW. Still in my dirty clothes from Lisbon.
The trip may not have ended on a good note, but I implore you to go back to the time I was talking about Portugal being in my top 5 and why you should travel there. I will go back for sure… I feel like we crammed as much as physically possible into our time there, yet I can’t help but feeling like I missed so much. FOMO is real yall!!!! (fear of missing out, old folks). Portugal is a place of interesting history as well. I mentioned that it was one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the 1500s. To go from that to being one of the poorest european country, and to even having a dictatorship as recent as 1980s makes for some interesting conversations and a change of pace from the rest of Europe that I have visited.
So, pack your bags and go see the beauty of Portugal, try the delicious seafood and pastries, & meet the friendly locals. Just don’t do as these stews did and fly standby to Europe in August :).