The first stage of my recent trip to Portugal was primarily spent in its magnificent capital, exploring neighborhoods old and modern. Day 3 marked the first of my excursions outside Lisboa. My guide Isabel took me to the fairytale town of Sintra, a popular day-trip destination for tourists coming from the big city. Like many visitors to Sintra, I wanted to see its Moorish castle as well as its many palaces and mansions, former possessions of the late Portuguese royals and nobles. Isabel told me how they would stay there, or anywhere else outside Lisbon, to avoid the immense poverty and disease of the time. From what I had seen on television and social media, the palaces and mansions looked quite majestic. I was excited to finally see them up close.
Isabel and I got to Sintra by taking the train directly from the Rossio Station in central Lisbon (the Baixa). It took us some time to get there, approximately 40 minutes, but we arrived in one piece. The two of us then hopped on the shuttle bus that takes visitors to the town’s main attractions. It was a very useful way to get around, especially as many of the sites are spread throughout the hills of the Sintra Mountains. Otherwise, it would have been nearly impossible to hike up the craggy roads. The bus ride itself was truly rough climbing those hills and squeezing through narrow hairpin turns. With every seat taken, we stood up most of the time. Luckily, we did not fall down and got to our first stop, the Castelo dos Mouros safe and sound.
Castelo dos Mouros:
Like Lisbon, Sintra has a Moorish castle. It sits upon a 450 meter high cliff, overlooking the town and its extensive forests. When the Moors controlled the Iberian Peninsula in the early Middle Ages, the castle was a means of defense against invaders. It fell to the second Christian Crusade in 1147. It was abandoned and lay in ruins until the nineteenth century when the reigning king ordered its restoration. Ferdinand II was keenly interested in all things Medieval. Thus the Castelo dos Mouros was returned to its former glory. It is now a good place to get a healthy dose of Sintra’s early history.
During our time at the castle, Isabel needed to make an important phone call, so I explored a little on my own. It was still morning and the expected large crowds of tourists had yet to materialize. I freely traversed the castle walls and towers, more or less alone. The footing there was more rugged than at the Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon. There was a moment when I had to sit after walking up and down various steep staircases.
The view of Sintra from the castle is extraordinary. I consider it far more impressive than the view of Lisbon from Castelo de São Jorge. The fortress is, after all, set much higher above the town. Everything looked so quaint and picturesque down below, with rolling hills beyond. The castle also had a great view of the colorful and mega-popular Pena Palace, which was the next stop.
Palácio Nacional da Pena:
I had anxiously looked forward to seeing this attraction – perhaps most of all. I was drawn to its unusual yet glorious blend of east and west. Perched atop a hill, the multicolored palace had been the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family for most of the nineteenth century. The exterior architectural features are marked by onion-shaped domes and arches reminiscent of Islamic buildings. There are immaculate floors of azulejo tile-work, statues of ferocious gargoyles, and numerous terraces overlooking Sintra, the Castelo dos Mouros and its endless greenscape. Mesmerized by its grandeur, I took countless photos.
To my surprise, the rooms were smaller than I thought they would be. This was a palace, so I had expected them to be more spacious. Nevertheless, they were very ornate with vividly-carved vaulted ceilings, dining tables with the finest china, and canopy beds covered by shimmering fabrics. The palace also had a beautiful courtyard decorated in azulejos with views of its red clock tower above. One could definitely tell royalty once resided there.
Overall, Pena Palace was a wonderful place to visit. I enjoyed walking through its many passageways and gawking at its flamboyant architecture. I could totally see why Pena is so popular with tourists. There is no palace quite like it!
Lunch at Villa Craft Beer and Bread:
After Pena Palace, it was time for Isabel and I to have lunch. We rode a bus all the way down to the center of town, to a restaurant she and her boyfriend once went to. It was a brewery called Villa Craft Beer and Bread, serving sandwiches made with homemade bread and beers of every type. To eat, we ordered two kinds of sandwiches: one with chopped chouriço (spicy Portuguese sausage) and melted cheese, and another with savory shredded pork. To drink, I tried a blond ale and an IPA. Everything we ordered was delicious. The service was swift, attentive, and helpful, particularly when it came to advice on which beers to order. Isabel definitely picked the right place for lunch.
Walking through Sintra:
The next stop was Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th century villa renowned for its extravagant gardens. My aunt went there during her trip in Portugal and enjoyed it very much. Isabel and I walked to the quinta (villa) directly from our lunch spot, not terribly far away. This gave me the opportunity to see more of the town center.
We passed several colorful shops, restaurants and manors, with a variety of architectural styles. The colors ranged from blue to white to yellow to pink. Some of the mansions were adorned with vivid azulejos, either detailing images of saints or the town’s early history. One of them, the Sintra Palace, had cone-shaped chimneys – odd but fascinating. Sintra is a very, very photogenic place.
Quinta da Regaleira:
The first thing I did at Quinta da Regaleira was explore its vast gardens. They were extremely lush with trees, plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes. I came upon Birds of Paradise, dense ferns and swaying palms. It almost felt as if I were back on the Azorean island of São Miguel, famous for its diverse vegetation. I strolled past lavish fountains and outstanding vista points. One fountain was emblazoned with many different kinds of seashells, while another was covered by radiant mosaics. I saw a cat drinking water from one of them. Funny and adorable, I thought.
The vista points presented superb views of both the Castelo dos Mouros and the town center. I saw the castle’s towers and Sintra’s glowing, elegant architecture with the rolling hills in the distance. I could have stayed and gazed at the charming scenery for hours, but there was much more to see at the site.
I was eager to see the Poço Iniciático (Initiation Well). Among its intriguing features is a long spiral staircase through the grounds, leading to cave-like passageways known as Gruta do Oriente. It almost felt like walking into a fantasy novel, strange and scary. The original owner of Quinta da Regaleira was said to be fascinated by secret religious cults, influencing him to build the well. I was awestruck by how deep it was, at least 27 meters (88 feet). It seemed a bit spooky as the stairway turned darker near the end. Thankfully, I did not notice anything weird on the way. The cave passageways, on the other hand, were well-lit by electric lights. I was able to see their unique rock formations quite clearly. One of them even led to a quaint grotto outside with a waterfall. It was a marvelous spectacle, especially as the sun shone down on it.
The quinta itself was delightful. Its Neo-Gothic façade held intricately sculpted stonework. including saints and angels from its chapel, and knotted ropes (perhaps a nod to Portugal’s nautical heritage). The interior was equally opulent with glowing frescoes and dynamically-carved wooden ceilings. Its former residents certainly kept a grand lifestyle.
I was also glad that the villa had a cafe. I needed to relax and have a cold drink after walking around the site and its grounds. I drank a refreshing Sumol soda, and also had a popsicle made with Azorean pineapple. It made me feel nostalgic – just as sweet and refreshing as I remembered.
Queijadas and One Last Stroll in Sintra:
After leaving Quinta da Regaleira, Isabel wanted us to do one more thing before returning to Lisbon: trying Sintra’s famous queijadas (milk tarts). People love them for their amazingly sweet taste. We bought some at a little café in the town center, and they were fabulously scrumptious with a strong hint of cinnamon. I enjoyed them so much that I purchased two packs of queijadas to take back to the guest house. They were definitely the perfect snack.
As we walked back to the train station, I got to experience the town’s scenic charm one last time. As before, we passed its vibrantly colored buildings, the outstanding cone shaped chimneys of Sintra Palace, and azulejos commemorating its past. We passed the city hall which resembles a Neo-Gothic cathedral. It had a tall tower painted with images of the Portuguese Coat of Arms and Cross, and a little cloistered hallway as part of its entrance. It was stunning, and showed Sintra as a place worth visiting for its impressive architecture.
Pastéis de Bacalhau at Pastelaria Casulo:
After returning to Lisboa, Isabel and I stopped by at a snack-bar across from the Rossio Station. Isabel wanted to get a sandwich for her dinner. Since I had made dinner plans for that night, I snacked on some pastéis de bacalhau (salted codfish fritters), and washed them down with a glass of Sagres beer. Isabel mentioned it is customary for folks in Portugal to have a small bite to eat in the late afternoon before having their supper later in the evening, typically after 7:30 pm. This is usually done at their local snack-bars: small eateries where they can order sweet and savory treats, sandwiches, coffee, beer and wine. I was happy to share in this Portuguese tradition. My pastéis de bacalhau were exquisite with their salty and garlicky flavors, finished off perfectly by my ice-cold beer. Despite all the carbs, my stomach still had room for more food.
Dinner at Boteco Dona Luzia:
I was planning to dine at a local Brazilian restaurant named Boteco Dona Luzia. Lisbon has a thriving Brazilian community, which shares many of their culinary traditions at different eateries. When I went to the Oceanarium on Day 1, I enjoyed a Brazilian-style hot dog at the cafeteria. It came topped with ketchup, mayonnaise, and potato sticks. Two days later at a café near my guest house, I had a coxinha (triangular fried croquette filled with shredded chicken and cream cheese) for a morning snack. It is a popular party food in Brazil. Both dishes were yummy, even the hot dog with ketchup and mayo (I normally eat one with yellow mustard), and it inspired me to dine at a traditional Brazilian restaurant in the Portuguese Capital, and Boteco Dona Luzia was just the place.
The restaurant had an array of foods, and a live band performing pagode music that night. To start, I ordered pão de queijo, tiny bread rolls flavored with cheese. They were warm, chewy, and had a bold cheesy taste – a perfect start to my meal. For my main entree, I ordered feijoada completa, a big black bean stew flavored with various cuts of pork meat, and served with plenty of side dishes like rice, orange slices, farofa (yucca flour), pork cracklings, and fried sweet plantains. Most Portuguese-speaking countries have their own version of feijoada, but Brazil’s is perhaps the most famous. It is the country’s national dish, and is usually served in extravagant portions. Similar to the feijoadas I ate at Brazilian restaurants back home, it had an awesome salty and smoky taste from the pork meat. It tasted so good that I consumed the entire plate in one sitting. Of course, I still had room for dessert. I ordered pudim (flan), which was covered in sweet, succulent caramel sauce. It was fabulously appetizing, and a great dish to finish off a spectacular dinner.
The live pagode band was pleasant to listen to. I sat outside and was unable to see them perform, but I could hear their lovely melodies and upbeat tempo loud and clear. Pagode is a subgenre of Samba music, and is normally sung with romantic and cheerful lyrics, and played during parties and dinners. It is the perfect music to play at a restaurant. I almost felt like dancing, but was tired from sightseeing all day. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the music. It was a clever way to entertain the customers, and another perfect example of Lisboa’s multicultural side.