I have been meaning to get this post out sooner but….such is life. It has been so great looking back in editing and remembering those sunny days as we are deep into winter here in Oslo. Enjoy Portugal!
Living abroad is an experience in itself, but the single best part about it is being so close in access to traveling the neighboring countries. We have taken some weekend trips to Sweden, The Netherlands, Copenhagen, and Lithuania among just a few. I feel like I start to get a little stir crazy if I don’t get outside of my normal and go somewhere new every now and then, especially with not seeing the sun as often as I would prefer. Ben and I usually like to go somewhere every couple of months (when work allows) to feel inspired + ease my wanderlust, even if it is to cabin a few hours outside of Oslo. We utilized summer 2017 to travel Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, and France and this winter we had a nice cabin get away to Trysil, a few hours north of Oslo. So it has now been quite a while since we have packed up for a new country.
By the time you read this, I’ll already have been to the Portuguese coastline and back! I landed in Lisbon, then headed on to the opposite coastline of Sintra to stay at a magical hostel, and made a final day trip to Colares and Casais Natural Park at the coastline. All of this was sans husband. I had not yet solo traveled abroad and Ben and I felt it was something I needed to do for myself and my soul. Once in Lisbon I met up with my friend Sasha, who also lives abroad in Prague, and is an avid easy going traveler, making for a great adventure companion. Portugal has been on the list for a while as it boasts a ton of history and rich cultural heritage, amazing beaches, lush mountains, delicious eats, and of course it’s distinctive late-gothic architecture. I’m so stoked to have made this travel happen and to be able to share! Portugal was seriously a dream country to visit!
Other cities have compass points and maps that tell you where things are, but Lisbon has only two dimensions: up and down. Wherever you set out to walk, your journey will end in stairs.
~ Alfama ~
The oldest part of the city is the Alfama, a hill leading up to St George’s Castle; within the Moorish quarter where poverty has weathered the area into a kind of determined picturesqueness. There are one-room grocery shops, and bars that might have dropped in from Africa, with concrete patios and corrugated-iron roofs. No one took any notice of us as we walked the streets and alleys. Up by the castle, the roads widen and become richer and more respectable. There are art centres, restaurants and a couple of hotels with views right across the city. It is all clean, modern and welcoming. But plunge down the hill again and you will start to see the poverty again; at the foot of the Alfama, where it touches the heart of the city, there’s a five-storey bazaar, with shops that are more like stalls, and staircases where a mall would have escalators.
~ Bairro Alto & Chiado Districts ~
Bairro Alto and Chiado are two closely related districts of Lisbon. The Chiado is the popular shopping and theatre district of Lisbon, which has a selection of historic monuments, traditional shops and interesting cafes and restaurants. The Bairro Alto is the nightlife capital of the city. There are a few hungry restaurant touts on street corners, but for the most part it is slow and civilized. On the side of the hill facing the river, the shops are international and modern. As you walk away from the river they become older and smaller, a reminder of the time when ‘artisan’ meant poor. I walked past shops selling a multitude of different items as well as the bars and shops that you find everywhere. It’s a unique style of commerce that has almost completely disappeared in Northern Europe. Eventually, of course, legs tire so I search for a wine and tapas bar to have a rest and a snack. Taxis are cheap but the public transport here is amazing – the metro is clean, quick, and efficient and the new modern trams are fun.
Pictured: the many trams in Bairro Alto
~ WHERE TO EAT DRINK + SLEEP ~
One of my favorite activities is hunting for places to stay and Hostel’s that inspire me. For our first few nights, Sasha and I stayed in a adorable airbnb in central Lisbon that had beautiful views of the main street and the ocean. While airbnb is a popular choice for many as of late, I would more so suggest to look into quaint or family owned properties and support the businesses locally where you stay. Instead of giving back to a corporation, you can have peace of mind that you are helping to contribute to where you are traveling – which in some cases, the locals could really use the support. Even though we had these places already set up, I researched a few places just for fun. Upon returning I would gladly stay in a hostel or small apartment again, but here are some more luxurious and romantic hotel locations I found for those who prefer that hotel life:
Hotel Lisboa Plaza A boutique hotel with tasteful public rooms and an air of unassuming luxury. The guest rooms are a little small but there is a fine terrace. Travessa do Salitre 7 (http://lisbonplazahotel.com). Doubles from €130
Pousada da Cascais, Fortaleza da Cidadela Set within the walls of a 16th-century citadel, 30 minutes’ drive from Lisbon. Avenida Dom Carlos I, Cascais (www.pousadas.pt). Doubles from €150
Heritage Av Liberdade Hotel An 18th-century hotel in the heart of the city. Ask for a room on the top floor, as these have the best views. Avenida da Liberdade 28 (www.heritageavliberdade.com). Doubles from €163
THINGS YOU NEED TO TRY!
Bacalhau – For a country with an unbelievable amount of fresh seafood, it may seem odd to some that one of their national dishes is dried salted codfish. Being that I live in Norway this is not unusual for me, and as I learned most, if not all, of the salted cod they use comes from Scandinavia. It’s delicious and not at all what you think. I brought back many tin cans of it to enjoy on a cold day when I’m missing the Portuguese sun.
Canned fish galore
Sardines – You simply cannot pass up the sardines while in Portugal – not to mention how much the cans themselves are beautiful. The store fronts who sell them are beautiful with tons of color. Even if you don’t like these small fishes, the shops are worth the trip. I have always loved sardines of all kinds, but the canned sardines found in Portugal are unlike any i have had; large, so fresh, and canned with multiple different ingredients and oils. They also have many delicious varieties of pate and roe, also in artful cans. I brought back 8 cans of assorted types because they are just that good! Some good porto, sardines in olive oil, and some fresh baked bread at a table in the sun is what life is all about.
Pasteis de Nata – The most famous food in Lisbon and they taste heavenly! Pasteis de nata is a golden puff pastry circle with a barely firm yet rich custard in the middle. You can never go wrong with custard. Apparently there is a centuries old copyright on the recipe and it is a secret with the local bakers. They are in nearly every coffee shop and corner in the city, you just have to find the best one! Sprinkled with a little cinnamon…you are guaranteed to end up eating more than 1.
Lisbon is a city of seven hills, and therefore a city of spectacular views. Views out across the River Tagus, sweeping towards the Atlantic; views across the city itself, labyrinthine neighborhoods of narrow streets roofed in terracotta tile, grand neoclassical buildings painted bright colors, architectural landmarks from the Moorish castle to the iconic bridges…the list goes on! It is only natural then, that with either a early start to the day or after a long day of walking and exploring you should reward yourself . There are certain drinks that are not to be missed!
Coffee – The coffee in Portugal is delicious, dark, and strong. I had many an iced coffee with a little soy milk to start my mornings while in Portugal, as well as a mid day pick me up. You’d be wise to bring back a couple bags of beans (which I regret not having room for). If coffee is your drink of choice, take a moment to relax in some of the amazing coffee houses scattered about Lisbon.
Port wine – “Vinho do Porto” is a registered trademark that ensures that the wine came from a certified producer from Porto/ Douro region, much like “Champagne”. This wine is perfect anytime of the day, as an apéritif, or simply as dessert. There are four types; red, white, tawny, and ruby. We had the tawny and ruby, as well as tried the white, though it was not to my liking as much. We made sure to carry some in our packs for hikes as well as for sipping whilst sitting by the ocean.
Vinho Verde – This delicious white wine was my absolute favorite drink while in Portugal. This light, crisp, and fresh wine originates from the far north of Portugal and is a relatively “young wine”, which is what it’s name ultimately translates to. It may be rosé or white, which was what I preferred the most, and is perfect for sipping while sitting in the sun listening to some authentic Portuguese music.
Ginjinha – This sweet cherry liquor is delicious, and definitely an apéritif or to be enjoyed with dessert. There are lots of little shops and bars specific to the drink setup just to serve this sweet liquor, and we happened in on a random one while leaving Losbon’s biggest food hall. I would suggest checking out Ginjinha sem rival or A ginjinha for a more relaxed atmosphere and more education on the sweet drinks history.
Walking Lisbon, regardless of where you are going, you have to look both down and up. Not only are the old buildings walled with beautiful mosaic tiles but the walk ways are nearly just as beautiful. So take your time walking and truly enjoy the artful craftsmanship all around you.
Once we had a few good days in Lisbon, we decided to head over to the opposite coastline of Sintra to stay at The Almaa Sintra Hostel. I used Hostelworld and Lonely Planet for the best and most honest hostel reviews. Sintra is an easy day trip from Lisbon that will fulfill all of your castle-related dreams. The lush mountains boast both strong rocky fortresses and delicate pink palaces where soldiers and royals could survey their land. The town of Sintra has three major castles with a few accessory castles thrown in there as well – all are stunning. Even though we went in November, Sintra was still a tourist hub. We were incredibly thankful that our hostel was off the beaten path and not close to the city center at all. Aside form the busy inner city, the weather was amazing in November and the city is truly beautiful.
Pictured: Beautiful Almaa Sintra Hostel
Palácio da Pena
Both the inside and outside of this palace are absurdly beautiful and strange and it honestly looks like something ripped out of a Disney movie. The palace was constructed as a vacation home for King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Maria II and is a classic example of 19th Century romantic architecture. Unfortunately we only viewed the castle from the gates as we opted out due to so many tourists as well as a lot of construction going on with updates (7 rooms were not viewable). We went mid afternoon and definitely suggest going early in the morning when they open at 10am. Entrance into the palace will cost you around 12 euros for a adult 6 euros for children (they also have family packages).
Castelo dos Mouros
High above Sintra sits this enormous crumbling fortress with views stretching out to the sea. The fortress was built in the 8th and 9th century and suffered damages during a earthquake in the 18th century, though it has since been restored. Pena Palace is definitely the showstopper but I really enjoyed this castle more for it’s impressive views and history. You can look down on Sintra and the view is incredible and the park walk through is beautiful.
Unlike the other two castles perched high in the hills, this palace sits smack in the center of town. It was the official royal palace for half a millennium and is the best preserved medieval palace in Portugal.
Tips for Visiting Sintra
It’s really easy to get to Sintra from Lisbon. Simply hop on the train in Lisbon at The Central Train Station callled Rossio Station (buy your ticket via machine at the entrance, the cost is about €4.30 for a round trip ticket). Trains leave every 15 minutes or so, even on the weekends. The journey takes about 40 minutes.
Beautiful Rossio Station
Getting Around: Technically you CAN walk to Palácio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros, but I would only recommend it to the most dedicated hikers. By foot it has to be at least a hour of nearly straight up hill trekking on a narrow, heavily trafficked road, and on a hot day you will be cursing every bus that passes you by.
Likewise, there is no point in shelling out a ton of money for the Hop On Hop Off Buses that are advertised everywhere outside the train station. Unless you are planning to explore the area extremely in depth, there are only three real stops you’ll need to make. Instead jump on the 434 bus which stops right outside the train station. It makes only 4 stops: the train station, Castelo dos Mouros, Palácio da Pena and downtown Sintra. For €5 you can take it all day.
Adorably quaint train station in Sintra
Tickets to visit the palaces are certainly not cheap, but they are definitely worthwhile. Prices vary depending on age, time of year and how many of the palaces you visit (you get a discount for purchasing more than one ticket at time). You can view all the prices as well as a “price simulator” here. You can buy tour tickets online or at the entrance to each of the castles.
The castles each have a food court, but the food is overpriced and frankly not particularly tasty looking, so you are better off eating lunch in Sintra’s old town. Most of the restaurants are touristy and overpriced here too, but there are a couple of bakeries where you can buy a decent sandwich for cheap. Must try – the queijadas, a tiny but delicious cheesecake and travesseiros, a rectangular pastry filled with egg cream. So good! For coffee and pastries check out Cafe Saudade near the train station.
On our second to last day in Sintra we decided to hike, with no real plan as to where we were going – all we knew was we wanted to get to the coast line just north west of where we were in Sintra. We ended up walking for a few hours and nearly 5 miles to the lovely city of Colares.
Sintra-Casais Natural Park
This very small town is a civil parish along the coast of the municipality of Sintra having only one grocery store, one pet store, two restaurants/bars, and a butcher. Upon arriving in Colares we opted to find a place to rest and happened upon the loveliest little restaurant and bar called Colheita 71 Mucifal, located in the very heart of this small village center. It was here, sitting on the patio in the sun with a glass of vinho verde and my good friend Sasha, that I heard Fado for the first time – Fado is traditional Portuguese folk music having instruments like guitars and mandolins and with one Fadista singing poetic lyrics related to darker elements of love, death and sadness. It’s incredibly expressive, and though I did not understand the language, the Fadista’s singing and emotion moved me to tears. An experience I will never forget.
Once we left the village it was nearly an hours walk to the coast, and night fall was upon us. Upon reaching the coast we headed straight to the cliffs to catch the ocean as the sun was coming down – it was great timing as we got to watch all the surfers catching the best waves of the day. After the sun went down and our jackets came out, we decided to stop in at a small local place called Crôa for a coffee while enjoying the sounds of the ocean and to map out our route home by bus.
Upon walking in they had a plate of barnacles on display, yes, those weird little things that grow on rocks and on the hulls of old ships. This particularly strange – yet apparently delicious – type of shellfish is something that people cannot get enough of around here: called percebes, or goose barnacles. I regret not having tried them as I’ve read they are reminiscent of a mildly briny oyster, but taste like heaven. We stopped into a hotel next to the bus stop and had a quick cocktail to end the evening. It was an incredible and adventurous day of hiking, a great last day in Portugal that I will forever remember. Sometimes it’s just more fun to get out and just get lost – and I would get lost in Portugal again any day.