Sintra is just outside of Lisbon and was about a 3 hour drive from where we were staying in the Algarve. I figured a day trip would be sufficient to experience both the beaches and culture Portugal had to offer. I knew Sintra would be beautiful and I was still shocked by how instantly I fell in love with this place. Hilltops, beaches, palaces, castles and picturesque streets make Sintra a must see for anyone that appreciates beautiful views and history. A day is not enough time! A three day weekend would be perfect. Once we actually got there I felt rushed and stressed out because I immediately knew a day would not be long enough. This was partly because early September is still high tourist season in the area. October or May would be a good time to go when its warm but less hectic. While the drive to and from the Algarve was very easy; driving through the village and mountains of Sintra during high season is not for the weak. Most rental cars are going to be a manual and you will be making frequent stops and be parking on very steep hills. Ben is an excellent driver and we still had a couple scary moments.
Palace of Pena
A national monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pena is a must see when in Sintra. It started out as a medieval monastery but was transformed into a castle in the 1800’s by King Ferdinand. It is surrounded by forest and gardens that you can get lost in while exploring but we didn’t have time to explore anything other than the palace itself.
In high season parking is hectic. Coming up the mountain you will see cars parked all alongside the road and I started to worry that the parking lots were full. The problem with passing a full parking lot is that the roads are all one way. That means missing your opportunity to park would require you to continue up the mountain, head back down, drive back through the city and repeat. So when we came upon a parking lot across from a building with a line out front we pulled in and squeezed ourselves into a technically legal spot.
After spending 20 minutes in line and purchasing our tickets for the palace and the shuttle that takes you to the top of mountain, I asked when the shuttle would arrive. I was then informed that this was NOT the main visitor center and that we could walk 30 minutes to the palace or we could walk 15-20 minutes to the main visitor center and catch the shuttle there. Instead of walking back to parking, loading the kids back into the car and then searching for more parking up the road…I made the decision that walking 15-20 would be “lovely” and we set about our way. Terrible mistake. It was hot. It was humid. I had a child strapped to my body. And it was all uphill. I don’t mean your normal everyday hill. This was a very steep incline up the mountain road with cars whizzing by. We got sweaty. The kids got cranky. The adults fought. Good times.
When we reached the shuttle area we had to wait in another line in the hot sun about 20 minutes for a shuttle to get us. Then we were finally off to see the palace! Looking back I’m not sure how I could have planned differently. It was just crazy and hectic being high tourist season (even being a Monday), plus the ages of our children (wanted to be carried the entire way). This is why I mentioned going when the area is less busy if I have the opportunity to go back. The congestion was confusing but the moral of this story is make sure you park closer to the main visitor center.
And in the end I felt the same way about this experience as I have in many other stressful travel situations. It was all worth it. I think the little girl inside of me was screaming “I’m on a mountain top… in an exotic palace!” It was at this point Carter decided to take a nap so I was able to take in more of the experience than I usually would. It was so architecturally intricate and colorful and unique. I regret not bringing a lens that could zoom out to show more of the castle.
There was a balcony walk that allowed you to walk alongside some portions of the castle from the outside. Also a beautiful terrace that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. This is where we stopped for a good while to enjoy the breeze. Ahhhhhhh
After exploring the palace for a couple hours we had to get going to our next excursion. We drove back into Sintra and found a restaurant called Incomum. It ended up being perfect for us since it was on the fancy side but we were able to eat outside on a table next to the street which kept the boys entertained as we ate through our courses. They waved to all the cars and people watched. Beautiful little area! I got some FRESH grilled seafood that is seriously lacking in England. I cant express how much I miss shrimp, crab and scallops.
Quinta da Regaleira
Another World Heritage UNESCO site: Quinta da Regaleira is an estate that’s equal parts romantic and haunting. There is so much to explore here. Gardens, wells, fountains, grotto’s, tunnel’s and a chapel make up this magical and mysterious compound surrounding the main house.
The entire reason I chose to come to this estate was because of a beautiful picture of a stairwell I found online when looking through photos of Portugal landmarks. I think everyone that visits this estate comes with the intent of getting a similar shot of this beautiful structure. What I didn’t realize is that it is actually a well. A subterranean tower that sinks 27 meters into the earth with a hallowed staircase. From what I understand the well had nothing to do with water and more to do with symbolism, philosophy, and the relationship between heaven and earth. There are 9 platforms that represent the 9 circles of hell, 9 sections of purgatory and 9 skies of paradise.
We entered the well via the underground tunnel which brings you in at the middle. We let the kids get a look and then I asked Ben to take the kids outside to harass all the cats lounging in the nearby garden. Because 1.) That’s all they cared about anyway, and 2.) sometimes when I spend a lot of time planning something and countless hours daydreaming of a location…Mama needs to have a minute to appreciate it. This was one of those times.
What made this well special for me is imagining the initiation rites and rituals that may have taken place there. I know some mysterious stuff went down here. And if you want to get a perfect shot up or down the well with no tourists visible in the shot you will need to have some patience. You may not see them here but there were about 20 other people wanting the exact thing I wanted. I ended up taking hundreds of pictures in order to get just a couple decent ones. While at the bottom you will look up and see heads poking out at every level. At the top you can see anyone in the shot that is walking up. PATIENCE. Also another reason to come outside of the summer!
The inside of the main house was like being in a fairy tale. Probably my favorite interior of all the castles and estates I’ve seen thus far in Europe. The detail. The extravagance. It was all very creepy yet romantic at the same time. Unfortunately, I did not get many shots of the amazing interior as this was also the time Carter decided to blow out his diaper so badly that it was dripping down his legs. SO….we had to make it a quick walk-through out of there. That’s travelling with toddlers.
We left as the sun was setting and it was a good way to reflect on the long, imperfect, yet faultless day.
One last thing I want to add: Portugal has playgrounds at their rest stops. Why is this not a thing EVERYWHERE? Thank you, Portugal. Not just for the playgrounds, but for being a gem of a country I never thought I would see.