Enchanting Old Lisbon
Flying into Lisbon (Lisboa, as the locals call it) is easy. You see the coastline, moments later you’re on the ground, and after a very short taxi, at the gate. Passport Control was very quick for me, though miserable for my wife whose flight arrived half an hour later. Baggage handling is really slow—like stepping back in time to the 1980s.
It’s a quick Metro ride from the airport to the Old City. The trains look to be from about the 1980s, but they’re well maintained and popular. And most stations have some public art.
We stayed the first two nights of the trip in a clean but cramped pension, up four flights of stairs on Rua de Prata. It’s about five minutes from the Metro and even less to the main plaza on the river. The interesting old neighborhoods are all walking distance. The next time we got on a Metro was to get to the train station on our way to our next city.
Dominated by Castelo de São Jorge (Saint George Castle)—an ancient castle on a hill—Old Lisbon is full of beautiful churches, government palaces, scenic overlooks (follow signs for “miradouro”) balconies, active clotheslines, tiny and wildly overcrowded antique trams, picturesque alleys and stairways, domes, spires, large old trees, views of a bridge that looks just like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and is even painted the same red-orange.
Both tourists and locals seem for the most part happy and relaxed; everybody’s laid back. Shopkeepers are patient with our handful of Portuguese phrases, or usually happy to talk with us in either English or Spanish. Large numbers of mostly European tourists are in evidence, but the city can easily handle them.
Art is everywhere in this city (including the sides and tops of many of the older buildings), and so is music. We passed numerous street musicians, stopped to listen to a set from a group of about eight men in black capes wrapped around their chests like sari-sweaters, and later went to first a round-robin at a fado music club (where the enthusiastic crowd sang along on many of the numbers) and then to a free outdoor classical orchestra concert that was part of a month-long festival—and didn’t started until 10 o’clock! Walking between, we passed several other live fado clubs along the way.
In our three days of walking the neighborhoods, the dominant economic model we saw was independent local retail. We only passed one US fast food chain store (a McDonald’s), one Northern European department store (H&M), and a few multiple locations of several Portuguese chains. We tried one: A Padaria Portuguesa, a chain of high-quality bakery/cafes located all around the city. They had a location a block from our hotel and when we ate there for Sunday breakfast, we hadn’t realized it was a chain. Rolls started at around €0.30, but for €1.20 we could get an entire loaf of bread, sliced to order. They gave us some butter with it, and we also got fresh carrot juice, one tea, and a bottle of water for later, for just €7.50 total.
Then we walked about half an hour to the Azulejo Museum, stopping en route at the Santa Apolonia train station to change our ticket to a later train, since we weren’t going to be able to meet our host until late in the day (and getting the very good advice that we could board the train at this closer, quieter, and easier station rather than the main Oriente station).
Since most of the azulejo samples I’d seen, researching this trip, had been blue, I assumed the word “azulejo” was a cognate of the Spanish “azul” (blue). But it’s actually derived from an Arabic word meaning “polished tile.” Located in a magnificent old church, the museum had a stunning collection of both representational and abstract art, stretching from several centuries back through modern reinterpretations. Allow about two hours. Free on Sundays (lucky us!), closed Mondays, €5 the rest of the week.
Later, we spent another couple of hours at the Fado Mueum. Be sure to pick up the audio wand (no extra charge beyond the €5 admission); no only can you hear commentary in your choice of language, but you can actually listen to many hours of fado from famous performers over several decades, and learn facts about Fado history including the way it was embraced by the Salazar dictatorship and then rejected by the populist revolutionaries before making a comeback. During our trip, there was also a big exhibit about the movie “Fado,” which made both of us want to see it.
These are just two of dozens of Lisbon museums. We passed a Museum of Water, a separate Museum of Patrimonial Water (in the park at Principio Real), a Geological Museum, a Beer Museum, several art museums…
Then we walked around the Alfama, an old and charming neighborhood on a series of hills whose name is derived from the Arabic word for baths. Although we usually stay away from the restaurants on the tourist track, we ended our day with vegetarian paella (a rare treat for us) at Vitória, Rua dos Correeiros 37/39. €12 for a paella that was plenty big enough to share. And the waiter graciously warned us that many Portuguese restaurants, including this one, charged individually for all the side snacks: cheeses, olives, fish pate, and rolls—but only what we ate. We chose the olives and one roll.
Lisbon is also amazing for the sheer number of heavily-used public spaces: parks, pedestrianized streets, riverfront walkway (along the wide Taugus that looks at first like an ocean), and plazas of all sizes.
And because June turns out to be a month-long festival, many of these squares, as well as lots of patios, were all decked out with rainbow colors of crepe paper, either as streamers or sometimes in elaborate floral replicas.
Things you find everywhere: sushi, sweet shops, nata (custard tarts) and pastry shops in general, laundry hanging on balconies, mosaic patterns in the sidewalks, trams both ancient and modern, azulejo, good coffee, wonderful fresh-squeezed juices, both gas and electric tuk-tuks (something I don’t associate with European capitals), large selections of meat and seafood, especially codfish. There’s one chain that has very elegant shops in old-style copper decor, serving fried breaded codfish dumplings with cheese mixed in. Of course, as vegetarians we didn’t try it, but the two branches we saw in Lisbon (and another in Porto) were both extremely beautiful, not even just for a fast-food shop but for any store.
Another beautiful place is the Time Out market in the Ribeiro (River) Marketplace, housed in a beautifully renovated building that had been a public market for decades, and featuring a wide assortment of artisanal foods vetted by the editors of Time Out magazine. It shares a building with the “traditional market,” which turned out to be a produce market with inexpensive but frankly unappealing and tired produce, in an ugly and unrenovated space. But Monday morning at Time Out, we bought some excellent goat gouda cheese at one stall, a nice coffee at another, and a home-made cinnamon pastry at a third. The cheese was great with the bread we still had from the previous day.
We’d planed to go to the outlying area of Belem, but two of the main attractions there were closed on Mondays. Instead, we walked through the Bairro Alto, another hilly old neighborhood—it felt a bit like Brooklyn’s Park Slope before it got super-fancy—finishing at the lovely park at Principio Real. Our plan was to do the botanical gardens one block away but they were closed for renovation so we just hung out in the park. We bought our nata (which we enjoyed but had no need to repeat) from a neighborhood bakery and then walked back down the hill for amazing smoothies at Liquid, Rua Nova do Almada, 45A. Mine had raw cacao, banana, and ginger while Dina went for coconut, mango, and banana. One of our more expensive snacks at €4.90 for a medium, but oh, so worth it.
We had the option to take an antique tram for part of the return trip, and I love old trams and trains. But they were so crowded that walking seemed by far the better option.
And then it was time to walk back, climb those stairs one last time, retrieve our suitcases from the pension, and take the Metro over to the train station.
Less than ten minutes outside Lisbon, we were already seeing hayfields. Lisbon, even though we were told it has about 600,000 in city limits and 2 million in the metropolitan area, never felt too urban; things were so relaxed. A pleasant contrast with other Iberian cities including Barcelona and Granada.
Accessibility Notes: Lisbon would be a challenging but not impossible city to visit if don’t walk well. If you use a wheelchair, it would be more difficult, but still not impossible—but scale back your expectations. Often, the shortest route between two points will involve streets that become stairs. There will be an alternate route, but in some cases it will be substantially longer, perhaps half a mile or more. Buses and trams are not accessible. The Metro has escalators and elevators, but again, it can be a lot of walking to get to them. Check on accessibility with any accommodation before reserving; many, especially the less expensive ones, are not accessible.
Peaceful and Pleasant Aveiro: “The Venice of Portugal”
Our original plan was to explore Aveiro one day and the medieval city of Coimbra as a day trip. But we chose instead to enjoy an extra morning in Lisbon and arrive late in the day (since there was no luggage storage at the Aveiro train station and we couldn't meet our hosts until the evening). So we skipped Coimbra to explore this beautiful town instead. Our host lent us bicycles for the ten-minute ride to the center, and we rode past a beautiful marsh, across a long pedestrian bridge, and through the university, locked the bikes up all day, and walked.
Built on a canal framework and known as “The Venice of Portugal”, downtown Aveiro’s “skyline” is dominated by one- and two-story houses either painted bright colors or covered in azulejo. Although they look several hundred years older, many of the best examples were constructed during the Art Nouveau period in the very early 20th century, and the town is part of a network of Art Nouveau hotspots along with such cities as Barcelona, Brussels, Budapest, Glasgow, Helsinki and Havana
Even a few wooden buildings remain. Tourist and a few working boats ply the waterfront, which has several baroque-appearing early 20th-century buildings, including the bright blue Art Nouveau Museum, which we visited (€2 apiece, or €5 for a pass that covers two other museums). The collection was small, captioned entirely in Portuguese, and not all that impressive, but the building was a treat to be in, and there was a nice short film in English about the Modernist movement across Europe and even into Havana, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
We also walked through the historic neighborhood, including the full length of Dr. Antonio Cristo Avenue, which is lined with ancient homes, many ornately decorated. It terminates at a second waterfront that has some remarkable buildings (turn right when you get to the water), and where we enjoyed a rare vegetarian price-fixed lunch (something usually denied to us non-carnivores) at the Sombras Salgadas: a very nice vegetable soup, excellent cheese ravioli in tomato sauce, choice of wine/beer/water, bread with both butter and olive oil mixed with vinegar, and the small coffee typical of Portugal, for the princely sum of just €10 each. Such a deal!
We finished our self-guided exploration with a lovely walk through the salt flats, where Aveiro’s famous artisanal salt is collected (and where we got to spot some exotic birds), then biked back early enough for our host to take us on a quick tour of the beach town of Costa Nova, known for its many vertically striped buildings (where a gelateria on the lagoon side served us excellent warm nata for just €1 each, and then we went around to the ocean side and stuck our feet in). On the way back, she drove through the campus of Vista Alegre, a 200-year-old former pottery factory whose founders were early examples of social entrepreneurs, including such amenities as a theater and a school in the planned village. It’s now a 5-star hotel, abutting the company’s new factory (and suffering from an unsightly new addition behind the main building).
Proud, Potteresque Porto
Like Lisbon, Porto has luggage storage lockers in the train station, which was good, since our host couldn’t meet us until 8 p.m. and we arrived before noon, switching trains from Porto-Campanha to arrive at the magnificent Sao Bento station in the heart of the Old City (more about that station in a moment). A third choice would have been Vila Nova del Gaia, a sister city on the south bank of the Douro River and home to the port wine industry named for Porto (as is Portugal).
Crossing to the Welcome Center to pick up a map, we discovered a free walking tour leaving daily at 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. (Simply B Tours), limited to 12. Make an advance reservation at the Welcome Center, call +351 927 429 870 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, we started exploring on our own, strolling down café-lined, hip Rua das Flores through several beautiful plazas toward the waterfront, then along the river a bit past an antique trolley stop and the beginning of an extensive bike trail network that goes through the park-like (according to the map) north shore. We stopped to investigate the possibility of renting bikes the following day. The one at the trolley stop offered bike with helmets and locks and maintenance service starting at €5 for two hours, with longer rentals available. Other shops, near the bridge, were a euro cheaper, but the idea of fighting the bike through hordes of tourists heading for the tables of expensive restaurants was not appealing. The shop at the edge of town would be a better bet, and probably not any more expensive to the same destination, factoring in the extra time for that crowded first kilometer
We turned the opposite direction and walked along the waterfront toward the main bridges to Vila Nova del Gaia, taking the lower footpath of the same iron bridge the railroad uses and visiting several of the port wineries to figure out our best bet. We chose Augusto’s, Rua de Franca, 10, http://portoaugustos.pt, a block and a half down an alley off the main street. This is a small family-owned artisanal winery that offered a combined tasting and tour for just €5, with the tour price credited to any wine purchase. Other tastings, with and without tours, began at €10.
Augusto’s only farms 41 acres, producing several thousand bottles per year in several different quality grades. The longer the port is aged—anywhere from a few weeks to 40 years—the smoother it is. Ports come in red (“tawny”) and white varieties and have three different oak-barrel aging processes, one of which strips out the color as the wine ages and another that gets more colorful as it ages. The third one is for the special vintage ports, which maintain their original very dark color. The tour includes a few seconds of video showing the winery crew actually mashing grapes with their feet (something I’ve heard about but never seen). They don’t do this for the entire production run, but they do for their ultra-high-end line.
What makes wine into port is the addition of a high-alcohol grape-skin extract that stops the fermentation while allowing the wine to continue aging gracefully.
Our price included two generous samples apiece of lower-end red and white 10- and 20-year ports, plus our guide gave us a tiny taste of its middle-grade offering, LBV—much smoother, which we liked enough to buy. It was only €25—about a third more expensive than any of the regular ports but much cheaper than the top-line vintage ports. The company will ship up to six bottles, duty-free, though the shipping cost is significant.
By this time, we had to hustle in order to make our walking tour, leaving from the Welcome Center—so instead of walking up the hill on the Porto side of the river, we took the modern funicular. It felt more like a sideways elevator and less than a gondola ride than some funiculars I’ve experienced, but it was fun and it was quick enough that we were on time.
Then, for three hours, our guide Sandra (only on the job for a month but very knowledgeable) led us through a tiny geographic area, probably well under a mile in a straight line, stopping frequently to tell stories.
Our first stop was a solid 20 minutes at the train station, whose lobby contains an enormous azulejo project of some 20,000 tiles by local artist Jorge Colaço, hand-painted between 1905-1916. Multiple murals tell the history of Porto: stories of the 1587 wedding between King John I and his English bride Philippa of Lancaster that cemented a still-active alliance with Britain, the history of transportation from Roman times to the present, scenes of working people in farming and industry, Prince Henry the Navigator, and more. Sandra elaborated on many of these stories we walked through the sites where they occurred.
Thanks to her, we learned that the gorgeous McDonald’s was once the Imperial Café, haunt of Porto’s most celebrated business and arts figures—and that keeping the original Art Deco décor was a condition of the lease (definitely go inside)…that Rua das Flores takes its name because during that famous wedding of King John, the entire street was strewn with rose petals to cover up the excrement smells from people throwing the contents of their chamber pots directly onto the street…how the Jews of the Inquisition period fooled the Portuguese soldiers who went checking to make sure they had pork in their house…that the dictator Antonio Salazar who ruled with an iron fist during the mid-20th century, commissioned the scary statue of Justice outside the courthouse, with no blindfold, the scales pressed together in one hand, and a sword in the other, as a reminder to the people that the government was all-seeing and ruthless…and that the fortress-like prison across the plaza from the courthouse is now a photography museum.
We never did rent bikes in Porto. The following day, we started at the main cathedral, another fortress-like edifice dominating a hill near the Sao Bento station. Like other churches we’ve seen in Portugal, the interior had lots of gold in the front areas, along with quite a bit of art. But much of the wall space was actually bare—something much less common in the larger churches. The enormously high ceilings and long corridors gave a feeling of great antiquity and the smallness of any one human being.
Our host was coordinating an art project involving ordinary citizens making miniature typical Porto houses out of clay, to be exhibited at the Welcome Center, and she’d invited us to come by and make a house each, in order to show a newspaper photographer—and that day she happened to be based in the little medieval tower behind the cathedral..
We were happy to do this.
Then we took a long and roundabout amble beyond the areas we’d seen the first day, heading west all the way as far as the Crystal Palace Gardens. Our first goal was Cultura dos Sabores, Rua de Ceuta 80, a restaurant known to serve a vegetarian version of francescinha, a traditional Porto food modeled loosely on France’s croque monsieur: a sandwich with meat, melted cheese, egg, and maybe some vegetables, served in a mildly spicy, beer-laced tomato sauce. Our plan was to grab a quick bite there at noon and then eat a few hours later at a restaurant we’d spotted offering a vegetarian combination lunch of the day, much as we’d enjoyed in Aveiro. When we got there, quite hungry, we discovered that they had a full vegetarian lunch buffet that didn’t include francesinha, so we had a full meal instead.
Our path to the restaurant took us right past the famous Livraria Lello, one of many places in Porto that inspired J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. (Another is the public park across from the Palace of Justice, whose oddly shaped rows of huge sycamores with swollen trunk bottoms inspired the Whomping Willow.) This bookstore has become a major tourist attraction, charging visitors €4 apiece and refunding the entrance fee if you buy something, and routing visitors through a ropeline to get in. The inside is magnificent, everything in old dark wood, unusual shapes of stairs and bannisters, and so forth. And since the store sells many English-language books, it wasn’t a challenge for each of us to find a book. I confess: I even took a picture of Dina posing with a trolley (as the Brits call a luggage cart) containing an owl, a broomstick, and several old suitcases in front of a big sign that said “Hogwarts Express, Platform 9-3/4.”
Continuing to the Crystal Palace Gardens, we were at first unimpressed. The easternmost entrance off Rua D. Manuel II leads to an uninteresting landscape and the ugly, seedy Rosa Mota Pavilion, a 1954 arena that appears to be abandoned, though Wikipedia says it still hosts basketball games. There is no actual Crystal Palace on the grounds, though there is a Museum of Romantic Art, quite lovely from the outside (we didn’t go in). Once past the Mota, however, the part got a lot nicer, with some formal landscapes, an “aromatic garden,” and some lovely wooded paths with stunning views of Porto Old City and Vila Nova del Gaia. With some challenges due to construction blockages, we were able to find our way out behind the art museum via Rua da Maciennha and then through a series of alleys, staircases, and small streets that eventually wound us around to the waterfront at Alameda de Basillo Teleso, near the electric car museum. This street changes names several times on its way back to the city center.
Amazingly, we came to the Café Sao Nicolau, Rua Nova da Alfandega, 37, a traditional Portuguese cafe whose placard proudly announced several varieties of vegetarian and even tofu-based vegan francesinhas along with the usual meat versions. Going for the closest approach to the traditional that was within our diet, we chose one with cheese and egg. Easily enough to share, it was like a pizza in Ranchero sauce, with little scattered bits of onion, carrot, arugula, lettuce. I found it quite tasty, though it was a lot of white flour and cheese at once and not the way we usually eat. Dina didn’t care much for it.
Our day ended sharing a lovely meal with an Internet friend at Portugandhi, a very nice Indian restaurant steps from the Marques Metro station on Rua do Bonjardim, 1143. The approach was different from Indian food we’d had at home, lightly spiced but elegantly flavored. Their paneer was both firmer and more crumbly than what I’m more familiar with, and I liked it better. The vegetarian dishes were all familiar ones, with a more limited selection than most but plenty to choose from.
Sylvan and Sensual Sintra
While we enjoyed all four cities we visited, if anyone asked me to recommend one place to visit in Portugal, it would be Sintra, hands down. A little miracle only half an hour’s drive from Lisbon if there’s no traffic (or about 45 minutes by train), Sintra has an amazing amount to offer in a very compressed space. We had only one evening and one full day to explore it, and it wasn’t enough.
Sintra has palaces, Moorish castles, some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever seen, lots of museums, fine restaurants, and access to the beach. I would have liked three full days. If you can, go during the week instead of the weekend; you’ll have a lot fewer crowds to contend with.
It’s a tribute to Sintra that we enjoyed it so much after a very inauspicious start. With all our luggage in tow, we’d arrived after a full day of travel from the north and a rush to catch both the train from Porto to Lisbon that departed just minutes after changing to that train and then the Sintra train, with no time to eat. So without much exploration, we grabbed a quick and mediocre bite near the train station—and then waited about 40 minutes at the taxi stand, where for some reason, no taxis were showing up.
When it was our turn, we had the good fortune to land in the cab of Chauffer Mario Dias, an ebullient personage who speaks five languages and treats his driving with passion—as a chance to impress his riders with Sintra, and with him. It turns out he also runs a three-room guest house right in the center of town, Guest House VC 17. If there is a next time for us in Sintra (and I suspect there will be, eventually), we will book a reservation with him: http://guesthousevc17.com, email@example.com If you want Mario’s driving services, call him or his business partner Joao at +351 96 483 76 10.
Our own booking, Casa Das Hortensias, was delightful in every way but one: it was very isolated. Clean and well run, and with very friendly staff, it was a wonderful, quiet, inexpensive place to stay and had a lovely view of the castles from the dining room. But taxis (or renting your own transportation) were the only viable way to get back to town. It was only 3 km, but the way was hilly, confusing, and lacking sidewalks—not good for either biking or walking. The bus ran only once an hour and according to the owner, Alberto, would cost about €5 apiece each way (we didn’t verify this, since the bus timetable didn’t match our needs anyway). Our room cost €49 per night, with an extra €3.50 per person for a very decent buffet breakfast. But we spent from €6.70 up to €8 before tip every time we went to or from town.
If Porto inspired Harry Potter, perhaps Sintra inspired Walt Disney. The Moorish castle atop the mountain and the neighboring Pena Palace, City Hall and the National Palace (Palacio National) downtown, and the mystical fairlyland Quinta da Regaleira all look like they could have been models for some of the attractions in Anaheim or Orlando.
Here’s how we experienced Sintra’s charms. Heading back into town after checking in and finally leaving those suitcases, we were immediately struck by how much parkland and forest is in and around Sintra—and, of course, by the dramatic mountain topped by neighboring castles. We began our exploration of the Old City by strolling through the cafes and shops of Rua Dr. Alfredo Costa, just a block down the hill from the main train station and a whole lot more interesting; follow signs for “shopping street.”
Almost immediately, we spotted the huge church-like tower of City Hall, built in the first decade of the 20th century—but like so much in Portugal, seeming much older. White (probably marble) with a black geometric design, the tower is much wider than a typical church steeple, more like something you’d see on the campus of an ancient university. The guard allowed us a quick look through the flowered courtyard, which gave us a glimpse into a couple of the richly paneled offices.
Bearing to the left and up the hill, we passed around the edges of a lovely park whose exterior sidewalks were lined with a few permanent sculptures in bronze plus quite a few more in a temporary exhibition of several contemporary Portuguese stone artists. We liked almost all of these, and some we really loved.
But this is Sintra. We never found out the name of this park, and neither this nor the beautiful flower gardens of Liberty Park across the street even make it onto the two different maps of Sintra palaces and parks we’d picked up at the tourist office. Many other vast green spaces are omitted from these maps as well. Some of them show up on the city map billboards around the city center, along with something resembling a street map, but the tourist office doesn’t have copies of this map.
Liberty Park was closing soon so we only walked down one path near the gate. We expected to return the next day to explore it, but instead we found far more exotic and beautiful places. So for the most part, visitors orient themselves according to the obvious landmarks: the two castles on the mountain, City Hall, and the two cones of the Palacio National de Sintra.
So we continued our walk through the old quarter, visiting the main square, home to Palacio National, tourist office, News Museum, and several small shopping and dining streets, as well as the road up the mountain.
By this time, it was getting late, and we returned to Rua Dr. Alfredo Costa for dinner. For vegetarians, this neighborhood (all of five minutes walk from the main square) offered several good choices at reasonable prices. Both selection and price were better for us than anything we saw near the Palacio.
We selected Incomum, Rua Dr. Alfredo Costa, 22, incomumbyluissantos.pt and were very pleased with our choice. I expect to remember the sublime richness of the wild mushroom soup with coconut as well as their version of Tira mi su: a Portuguese variation with a nice ring of quince amid the cream, store-bought cookie, high-quality unsweetened cocoa, and cinnamon for many years. I forgave the store-bought wafer because the rest of it was simply miraculous. And very reasonably priced: we shared the above plus a good risotto (bit heavy on the salt for me, but Dina really liked it), bread and olives including what might well be a home-made cornbread, a glass of wine and a small bottle of sparkling mineral water for just €33.40 before tip. And exiting through the back door, we were right by the taxi stand—which, both this evening and the following, had plenty of taxis.
The next day after breakfast, we caught a taxi back to the main square. The driver tried to discourage us from walking to the top of the mountain, but fortunately, we didn’t listen to him. The hike up through the grounds of the Vila Sassetti (no charge) was one of the most gorgeous of my life, and not at all difficult. If you don’t look carefully, it looks like a natural park, but it’s actually carefully landscaped to simulate nature—in a Central American rainforest! Lush banana trees, birds of paradise, philodendrons and similar tropical plants lined the well-maintained walkways, which were steep but barrier-free; all that was missing was the strangler figs (and the tropical birds and monkeys). It’s situated between two parks that show what an actual natural forest looks like in southern Portugal.
The vila itself, a beautiful stone Italian revivalist mansion designed by Luigi Manini for the Sassetti family, was built in 1890. It’s not open to the public, although plans are to restore and open it. From the outside, the building appears to be in perfect condition, but of course we didn’t see the interior.
It took about 45 minutes to hike up to the gray, granite, austere, sprawling Moorish Castle, which once was a whole city up on the hill. After the reconquest, various Portuguese kings added on and built up, making the former Muslim grounds a Christian settlement. Quite a bit of the complex including a small interpretive center with a useful short film is before the admission gate.
From what we learned at the interpretive center, the paid part would focus on the Christian centuries, and we were more interested in the several hundred years of Moorish rule. So we walked back out the gate, taking in the stunning views of the city and surrounding countryside along the way. Turning left on the road, we went to the gate of Pena Park and the Pena Palace. This is the mountaintop complex adorned in yellows and reds visible from the town center, to the right of the Moorish Castle.
And on a sunny, warm late Saturday morning in June, it was mobbed! Tour buses, taxis, private cars, and tuk-tuks came streaming up the road with visitors. The gate area was packed. After the wonderful almost solitary hike, we couldn’t bear to be pressed together like sardines—a popular Portuguese delicacy, by the way—for the two hours we were told it would take to explore properly. We also thought €10 just to walk the grounds or €14 including the palace seemed like a lot. And we were getting hungry. And we’d seen an interesting trail back to the center on the other side of the mountain that we thought would be more direct, and still pretty scenic. Needless to say, we didn’t go in, although we were sorry not to get close to the painted palace (you only get the tiniest glimpse from the gate).
Instead, we went back into the Moorish Castle grounds and took the other trail down the mountain. It was indeed scenic, though not nearly as much as the trail we’d taken on the way up. It wasn’t particularly direct, still taking about 45 minutes. But it gave us the chance to see something different, and we always like that.
Back at Rua Dr. Alfredo Costa, 60/66, we chose Ekvilibro, a vegan/vegetarian café/natural foods grocery/yoga studio/spiritual center with many gluten-free options. We had a delicious vegan sweet potato quiche and a gluten-free buckwheat crepe with vegetables, also quite good. The desserts looked great, but it was already past the 1 pm Saturday closing time and the only staffer clearly wanted to leave.
Sintra is quite a vegetarian-friendly town. We found our choices just by looking around, but when I went online looking for Ekvilibro’s spelling and address (I lost their card), I found 12 choices at https://www.happycow.net/europe/portugal/sintra/
After lunch, we eagerly explored the Quinta da Regaleira, just up the hill from the main square. Built on mystical principles, this late-19th-century estate with a romanticized 15th-century Italian look is a great place to wander. We spent about two-and-a-half hours and enjoyed every minute.
The grounds are not just lovely with their majestic trees, stone features, and mix of natural and landscaped areas, but they’re really interesting, with certain features accessible both by underground tunnels and aboveground paths—and a spiritual component to many of them. We particularly enjoyed the Well of Initiation (with both the top and bottom also accessible by a stairway winding around the inside wall) and the adjacent Unfinished Well…Lake of the Waterfall…even a cork tree whose bark you can feel…and of course, the wild-looking and very elegant house. Be sure to pick up the brochure/map, which is available in several languages and quite helpful. €6 admission with a €2 discount for teachers. Highly recommended!
Although it was already after 5 and we’d had a very full day, we made one more stop: an hour and a half at the News Museum, a multimedia museum with plenty in English, focused on the intersections of news, propaganda, public relations, and politics, with a sprinkling of celebrity coverage (especially deaths) mixed in. As certain countries experience threats to press freedom (including, unfortunately, my own United States as I write this in June, 2017), it was great to see quotes on the importance of an open press from a wide range of figures including Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Howard Zinn, and even Karl Marx. And comparing the ways different dictators and the Catholic
Church have used propaganda over the last two millennia was fascinating.
Note: many of the exhibits show multiple competing screens at once. If you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, don’t go. My eyes were tired afterward, but it was worth it. €6 admission with a €2 discount for journalists.
We could have easily done a completely different itinerary with the same intensity. We didn’t see the Montserrat palace and farm, the Capuchin convent, the National Palace, several other museums, or any of the attractions in the nearby towns such as Queluz (whose national palace also comes highly recommended).
Accessibility Notes: Sintra is very vertical, with steep hills. Many attractions would be challenging, though you could take a taxi to the castles atop the mountain. The best thing we did was the walk in the Vila Sassetti, which is barrier-free but quite steep. It could be done with a motorized wheelchair, or with a very strong person to push.