A day trip to Sintra

On our second day in Lisbon, we took a day trip out to the small town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains leave regularly from Lisbon’s main train station on the hour, with the ride taking about 35 minutes.

Once we arrived in Sintra, we were surprised to find that all the sights were quite far apart, so we bought tickets for a ring road bus. We were reluctant to do so as we always like to “do it ourselves” but this time the bus was a lifesaver, as we found ourselves atop a mountain just 15-20 minutes later, a walk that would have taken us nearly half a day at such a steep incline.


The Moorish Castle as seen from Pena Palace

Our first stop  was the Moorish Castle, which wasn’t part of our original plan, but since it was on the bus route, we decided to hop out. The fortress was built around the 9th or 10th century by the Muslim population, which occupied the Iberian peninsula at that time, and was later surrendered after the Conquest of Lisbon.

The Castle reminded me of none other than Rumelihisari – which sits on the banks of the Bosphorus and served as an Ottoman fortress – but this one was on a much grander scale.


The Portugese flag flies atop the castle keep

Just like our visits to Rumelihisari, I found the fortress rather frightening, with its steep staircases and treacherous heights. I opted to play it safe while Gurkan traipsed to the highest points, and sometimes, even stood atop the fortress walls. At one point, I ducked out of sight, knowing that I couldn’t stand to watch him stand precariously on the edge.


The fortress is perched high above the valley below


A view from the fortress’ Royal Tower

Our next stop was Pena Palace – King Ferdinand’s colourful summer residence, and probably the most well-known of all of Sintra’s attractions. The palace was constructed in the 1850s after the King acquired the land, which was the site of an old monastery built centuries earlier.


Pena Palace seen from the Moorish Castle

Just like at the Moorish Castle, the palace is perched atop the mountains, so be prepared to walk up a steep incline from where the bus drops off in order to get to the castle entrance.

We were hot and sweaty by the time we reached the entrance, so we first set out for the palace terrace, where the air was crisp and fresh with a tinge of the Atlantic Ocean, and the geometric reds and yellows were sharp and vibrant against the bright sky.


The colourful Pena Palace up close

The terrace walk was also one of the quieter moments of the day, as many of the visitors had headed directly inside the palace. It was a nice opportunity to take a moment’s pause from the sightseeing rush of the day.


Along the terrace walk


Looking out

The interior was an even more eclectic mix than the garishly-coloured exterior, with an architectural style which clearly drew on  Eastern influences, which can be seen in the arched gateways and inner courtyard.


Moorish archway


Inner courtyard

The rest of the castle’s interior was less than exciting and much like you would expect: chamber rooms, chandeliers, and other luxurious items, but the last room on the tour – the kitchen – was a dream. With well-appointed copperware and plentiful natural light, it was a kitchen fit for a king (or alternatively, his kitchen staff).


After Pena Palace, we jumped on the bus and headed back into town for a quick lunch before visiting the Quinta da Regaleira residence, which is a short 10 minute walk from the town’s centre. Known for its whimsical gardens featuring underground tunnels, hidden waterfalls, and other labyrinthine structures, the residence seemed otherworldly.


The lush green of summer

The gardens were expansive (in fact, we didn’t even have enough time to make it to the residence) and as it was sweltering hot, we were drawn to the cool tunnels.

At one point, we entered a dark tunnel which dove into the ground, feeling along the damp walls to stay on the path, only to come out minutes later at this small pond. Other times, we found ourselves on winding paths that emptied out into hidden waterfalls with drawbridges and stepping stones laid across the water.


A small cave within the “Labyrinthic Grotto”

The Quinta da Regaleira is perhaps best known for its Initiation Well that plunges 27m into the ground, and which can either be accessed through a tunnel at its base or from a non-descript top entrance. We arrived via the underground tunnel after finding an entrance at the aptly named “Portal of the Guardians.”

After just a few minutes underground, we found ourselves peering up out of the darkness.The well is supposed to make the relationship between heaven and hell “intensely felt” according to the map we were given, and it was indeed an eery feeling to be caught so far beneath ground, peering into the light, a middle ground or a Dante’s inferno of sorts.


Looking up from the base


Looking down after reaching the top

Although there is plenty more to see in Sintra such as Monserrate Palace and Cabo da Roca – continental Europe’s westernmost point – we opted to head back on the train to be able to spend the evening in Lisbon, complete with more custard tarts, a bit of port wine and just by chance, one of the best steaks I’ve had in a really, really long time.



Out to Belem for custard tarts

On our third day in Portugal, we headed out to Belem, a Lisbon neighbourhood known as the home of the best Portuguese custard tarts. Although city buses head out to Belem, we opted for the tram which leaves from Lisbon’s main square and takes 20 minutes or so ride to reach Belem’s Jeronimos Monastery tram stop,  which is right by Pasteis de Belem, the holy grail of custard tarts.


Our tram didn’t look this one, but many of them still have an aura of nostalgia about them. We saw this one while waiting for our tram to Belem.

At the famed pastry shop, we debated whether to get the tarts to go or eat-in, and our decision was helped by the fact that the shop is humongous, probably seating upwards of 400.  Unless you’re in a hurry, relax and enjoy your tarts inside.

We were seated in the garden which was lovely, and while the service was slow, the custards were utterly delightful. At this point in the trip, we had already sampled the tarts at various cafes, and I was already a fan of the tarts at Fábrica de Nata in main Lisbon – they have a menu featuring a tart and glass of port, a real treat – but the Belem custard tarts were really, truly something altogether different.


Pasteis de Belem is easy to spot if not for its blue awning, then the gaggles of people standing nearby


The iconic Pasteis de Belem

For starters, the tarts at Pasteis de Belem were fresh out the oven, and still warm to the touch. They had a much flakier crust than elsewhere while the custard taste was also much lighter and less egg-y, making for the perfect combo. Cans of powdered sugar and cinnamon were placed at every table, and many people sprinkle the tarts with a heavy helping of both. We did the same, yet I’d say the tarts are best on their own, without the added flavor.


Fresh tarts before getting sprinkled with powdered sugar & cinnamon


Employees preparing thousands of tarts

Right next to the pastry shop is Jeronimos Monastery, an imposing structure dating back to 1500, and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Although we opted not to go in and pay the entrance fee, it was still impressive to see from the outside. In fact, this picture captures just the entrance, although the structure is much larger and longer, taking up more than several city blocks.


The famous Jeronimos Monastery

Although the monastery is likely the number one sightseeing attraction in Belem, I was most interested in the Monument to the Discoveries, a structure which I had studied in  a college course on Portuguese, Spanish & Italian literature under fascism, and prior to coming to Lisbon, it was about the only thing I associated with the city (the statue, not fascism).

I was more than a little bummed to find it under restoration when we visited, but it was still magnificent, with the early explorers and navigators leaning out to sea.


A straight on view of the monument


The monument’s Eastern profile


It’s not possible to tell from the pictures, but the monument is indeed right on the bank of the Tagus River, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean


For Americans, the most familiar name would likely be Vasco de Gama, third from right.

Walking a bit further along the embankment, we came to the Belem Tower, a structure Wikipedia tells me was built in the early 16th century to be both a defence system at the river’s entrance, as well as a ceremonial gate to Lisbon. Like the monastery, it too is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Like any spontaneous traveler, however, I had failed to read up on the sites ahead of our trip, so didn’t know any of these details at the time, but what I did know was that it was an absolutely lovely structure, with intricate architectural details, and like the Monument to the Discoveries, faced out to sea, something of an ode to Portugal’s maritime past.


Approaching the tower along the river embankment


A regal tower against a clear blue sky


A look at the tower from the opposite side


The sailboats give a sense of the scale of the tower


Gurkan, husband and travel partner, looks toward the ocean

We spent not more than a couple hours in Belem, but were able to take in the main sites – the Monument to the Discoveries and the Tower of Belem – as well as try the famed custard tarts. In addition to the Jeronimos Monastery, Belem is also home to several museums, so one could easily spend much, much longer in this Lisbon district.

Day 1 & 2 in Lisbon coming soon…