Four Days in Portugal: Sintra and Lisbon

Alfama Lisbon at sunrise

Have you ever come back from a holiday or vacation and felt like you needed another one just to get over the first? That’s how it often feels after a visit back to the UK. I love seeing friends and family, spending time in old stomping grounds, and eating all the fish and chips I can get my mitts on. I truly relish every trip, but there’s no doubt that trying to fit in seeing everyone and never spending more than a couple of nights in the same bed can take its toll. 

Combine that with M and I realising how much we took our proximity to other European countries for granted when we lived in Bristol, and we have come up with a solution. Essentially – time and finances permitting – we tack on a trip to Europe whenever we go back. In 2017 it was Iceland just before Christmas, and this time it was four days in Portugal. We arrived late in the evening on New Year’s Day and headed straight for Sintra, about a 30 minute drive east of Lisbon.

Hotel Lawrance SintraWaking up in a four poster bed to views of terra-cotta roof tops and rich green fields was an utter delight, and a perk of traveling to the region in the off-season. We stayed at the five star Hotel Lawrence in Sintra – something that wouldn’t have been possible on our budget during the summer months, when Lisbon and Sintra are most popular with tourists.

Lisbon in particular has been the ‘it’ European city break for a couple of years now, and I felt conflicted for the short time we were there. Carrie wrote about the gentrification of the city in a post last summer and it’s true – the locals are being priced out of historic neighborhoods, and during our walking tour there our guide explained how challenging it’s been for the city to cope with such a huge influx of visitors over the last couple of years. 

It’s partly for that reason, and partly because we didn’t want a city-only holiday, that we chose to spend most of our time in Sintra. Sintra is a charming UNESCO World Heritage Site home to castles, palaces and beautiful cobbled streets. It’s only a 30 minute drive from Lisbon, so we decided to stay there for three nights to take advantage of the town’s rich history and countryside walking opportunities. 

Sintra Moorish CastleWe read books, marched up the Sintra Mountains to walk around the 11th century Castelo dos Mouros, ate delicious seafood at Tacho Real and Incomum (the tasting menu was delicious, and a bargain to boot) and ate plenty of pastries. We weren’t planning on visiting Sintra National Palace but we had a few hours to spare one afternoon so decided to join a walking tour of the grounds. The palace has had many iterations and was used by the Portuguese royal family and their guests as a summer retreat up until the 1930s. This history contributed to a stunning interior of gold ceilings, beautiful tiled walls (azelujos) and diverse decor.

Sintra is definitely worth your time if you’re thinking about visiting Lisbon, and trains travel regularly between the two. We decided to rent a car at the airport because we arrived late in the evening, but in the end we really only used it to get to and from the airport.

After a relaxing three nights in Sintra, we headed into Lisbon, staying one night at Memo Alfama in the Alfama district. The hotel was stunning, with a rooftop bar and pool, and views out across the city’s famous tiled rooftops. One of my favourite things about staying there, brief as it was, was the hotel’s free walking tour of the neighborhood. As the oldest area of Lisbon, Alfama is rich in history and it’s through this walk we learnt how much the recent boom in tourism has effected locals.

As we only had a day and a half in Lisbon, I wanted to fill our time as much as possible – I think this is partly why M says he prefers beach/countryside holidays now! In addition to the walking tour, we walked to Belém Tower, explored the street art and boutiques of LX Factory, visited Santa Maria de Belém church, got up to watch the sun rise over the rooftops, marched up to the top of Miradouro da Senhora do Monte and spent time browsing at Feira da Ladra, one of Lisbon’s weekly flea market. (I’m still thinking about the vintage mechanics boilersuits I saw there and didn’t make an offer on.) Not to mention eating at Santo António de Alfama, scoffing as many pastel de nata as possible, and stopping to marvel at every tiled wall we passed. It was a lot. 

Portugese azulejosAs packed as the schedule was both destinations felt very laid back and the people very friendly – given this, plus the country’s rich history, I’d definitely love to come back to Portugal in the near future. That being said, speaking to our guide in Lisbon and seeing tourists swarming to get a photo of the city’s iconic yellow trams made me realise I should think carefully about how my dream travel destinations impact the people who live there.

As part of the immigration process we’re going through we aren’t allowed to leave the USA for the next few months, so we’re already thinking about what parts of the States we can explore next. I’m thinking Hawaii…

Sintra National PalaceSintra National Palace gold cielingBelem monumentPastel de nata at LX FactoryLisbon azulejosView from Miradouro da Senhora do MonteSintra National Palace swan ceilingAlfama rooftops


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