trip report: sintra
For part one of our trip to Lisbon, click here.
Lisbon itself can certainly entertain you for weeks on end, but I had heard a day trip or overnight to Sintra was well worth the 45 minute train ride. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which should give some indication of how magical it is. In the 1800s, it became famous for the jaw-dropping European Romantic architecture used in the construction of massive castles and villas. Many are still privately owned (which is crazy in its own right), but there are many more that are now open to the public.
It is very doable to visit Sintra with a day trip, but we opted to spend two nights at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais because a) I wanted to stay in a palace and b) that much train travel in one day with a toddler is no one's idea of a vacation. While the hotel was definitely incredible, it is worth noting that Sintra isn't really bustling once the last few buses and trains of tourists hit the road back to Lisbon. Not many restaurants or shops stay open that late and taxis are few and far between. The latter is important to note because the roads around Sintra are not very intuitive: in order to eliminate traffic from the town center, certain roads now only run in one direction, which means that a journey that should only take about five minutes can take around 20. If you do stay at Seteais (which I definitely recommend), you're better off walking to town than driving yourself or taking a cab.
We got there around dinner time and had our first meal at Bacalhau na Vila. As you might be able to discern from its name, it served a lot of cod. Like, pretty much only cod. And it was very good for what it was, but I'm just never going to be that excited about cod. If we ever go again, I'd love to try Incomum, which gets a lot of love from food writers.
Anyway! The next morning we were up bright and early to meet our guide Liliana from Lisbon Explorer. I have learned, after years of traveling, that there are certain cities or countries where hiring a private tour guide and driver is absolutely worth the cost. Sintra is certainly one of these places, since the drives between estates are windy and sometimes long, plus working with a guide here often means you skip the ticket lines, saving you very valuable time. Toddlers self-implode about every four hours, if you didn't know.
Our first stop was just a quick walk from the hotel to the Quinta da Regaleira, a pretty bonkers estate built by a guy who was really into the Masons and the Knights Templar. The coolest spot on the property is definitely the well at the end of a spiral staircase, which was inspired by Dante's Inferno, but there are kooky hidden tunnels and viewpoints scattered all over.
From there, we stopped at The National Palace, which if you're really into history is worth seeing, but not as aesthetically cool as Quinta. The coolest part of that tour, for me, was seeing the massive kitchen.
It is definitely worth stopping in Sintra town (across the plaza from the palace), to eat at the famed Piriquita bakery, though. Founded in 1862, it produces some of the finest versions of queijadas, a insanely good cheese-based pastry native to Sintra. They also make the equally addictive travasseiros here, a custardy almond pastry. Just get one of everything.
The most famous of the Sintra estates is certainly the Pena Palace, which was built by the "Artist King" Dom Fernando II. It mixes a bunch of different architectural styles, including Moorish, Gothic and Manueline (an elaborate style native to Portugal). Between its location on top of a mountain and its stunning colors, it is certainly one of the more breathtaking sites on any trip to Portugal.
Liliana was not only fluent in English, but extremely well-versed in the history and architecture of all the properties we saw. I ask a lot of questions on tours, and she was a veritable fount of knowledge.
Our last stop was the Queluz Palace, which is most famous for its elaborate, Versailles-like gardens. Honestly, by this point in the day, Avvie had had enough, so we kind of sped-walked through the whole thing. But it's very pretty, even under the clouds.
Our last dinner was at Romaria de Baco, recommended by the hotel. The meat and cheese plates were very good, entrees a little eh.
The next morning, rather than schlepping all our stuff back to the train station to head to Lisbon, the hotel recommended that we just take a cab straight there. It didn't end up being that much more expensive than the train and it was certainly nice not to have to juggle all the bags, plus the stroller, from station to station. Since we were actually flying out of Lisbon that evening, the hotel was also kind enough to let us stash our bags at their sister property in Lisbon. We had originally planned on renting out lockers at the train station, so this ended up being free and a lot safer. Something to keep in mind if you're planning a similar route!