Picturesque day trips from Lisbon
When travelling, I love to get a real feel for the country by visiting a few different places. We had no excuses when we went to Portugal, as the country is relatively easy to travel around thanks to its size and its amazing public transportation system.
So, on our recent adventure, we had four and half days to make the most of the country. I'd estimated that what I wanted to see of the capital city's highlights could be done in half that time. I was thus left with two days to play with. It was difficult to focus on only a couple of places, but I eventually settled on Sintra (which is a 45 minute train ride away from Lisbon), and on Obidós (which is one hour and a half away by car). And I am so glad I did!
A day in Sintra
The charming town of Sintra lies on the edge of a National Park, and boasts multiple fairy-tale like castles. Tourists throng to this destination for hikes in its lush forests and along its rugged coastlines, but also, and primarily, to visit the spectacular castles and mansions which dot its hills. With only one day to explore, we chose to focus on the top three attractions the town offers: the Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle, and Quinta da Regaleira.
Pena Palace is, in my opinion, a marvel of architecture. The palace as we can admire it today was built on the ruins of a 12th century monastery. It was commissioned by Ferdinand II, or the King-Artist, as he is more popularly known across Portugal. The project went from restoration to a more artistic creation. The palace's unique architecture features Medieval characteristics (crenellations, towers, drawbridge), Moorish qualities (Azulejos, circular inner-courtyard) and even Greek mythological aspects (Triton gateway), to name a few. The striking colours of the monument's outside really draw the eyes, but the interior is equally magnificient. I was in awe of the sheer complexity that can be found in the palace's many rooms. From wood-carvings on the ceilings, to tromp-l'oil paint on the walls, and from the richly adorned furniture, to the innumerable exotic artefacts.
Needless to say, this is a must-visit on any Portuguese itinerary. We spent about two hours visiting the castle and wandering the gardens, which are equally impressive. I especially enjoyed the lakes, where swans and ducks swim around. It is very peaceful and a perfect picnic location in the warmer months.
Our next stop, only about a 5mn walk from the lakes, was the Moorish Castle. This is a 10th century fortification, looking out to the neighbouring towns, all the way to Lisbon and the Atlantic ocean. The castle walls snake around a hilltop and the incredible views were our main reason to visit. The structure itself is, in most parts, in ruins but it is fairly safe to walk around. We probably spent a bit more than an hour walking around the castle walls, taking in the views.
Our last stop of the day was the quirky Quinta da Regaleira. It belonged to a rich merchant when it was first sold in the 19th century to Carvalho Monteiro who hired an Italian architect to carry out his vision. The result is rather eccentric, with a mix of styles spanning Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline architecture.
For me, the best part of the visit was wandering around the gardens. The extensive gardens are lush and shadowy, with various sculptures, fountains and a maze of underground grottos. It also boasts a few structures such as a lovely Gothic looking tower where the palace can be admired from, as well as the famous "initiation well" with its winding descending stone staircase.
Tips to make the most of your day-trip in Sintra
Firstly, a word of warning. Whilst Sintra is an incredibly beautiful destination, it felt to me like it is a victim of its own fame. Many tourists throng to the small town to enjoy the sights, in high and low season! This means that prices are quite a bit higher than any other parts of Portugal (at least this was our experience).
The train to get there from Lisbon was very cheap and convenient. We left from Rossio train station which seems to have trains scheduled about every hour. Rossio train station is the start of the line, and Sintra is its terminus. We arrived there early (8.45am) and are very glad we did! From the station, the castles are a steep 50-60 minute hike through the forest. So, unless you are prepared, with appropriate hiking clothing and backpack, I would recommend taking the "local" bus. This bus is pretty expensive at 11.50 euros per person (but it is a hop-on hop-off service for the full day). Even though we visited in January, there were many tourists around and the buses were full. We had to wait for two very full buses to leave before we could get into one, and this situation only worsens as the day advances.
For the visits, the tickets are on the expensive side, especially for the more budget travellers. I highly recommend purchasing tickets online in advance. Not only did this save us money (there was a 25% discount available on some tickets when purchased online), but it also saved us time when we got there as we avoided long queues.
Lastly, even though we wanted to make the most of our bus tickets, we realised that the best option, if able, was probably to bus up the hill, and then walk our way down into the historic town. This is just because there were more long queues for the bus and many people had to wait for several buses to drive by before they could hop on one.
Despite all this, I cannot recommend Sintra enough. For me, this was a real highlight of my time in Portugal!
Road-trip to Obidós and Nazaré
On our second day-trip, we decided to hire a car from Lisbon and go on a little road-trip around the Portuguese countryside. I had come across the small medieval town of Obidós in my research and had read many excellent accounts from other travellers of their time there. So I was quite keen to discover this "lesser-known" destination.
The view upon arrival is a sight to behold; The castle becomes visible as one approaches the town, and then the full view shows the small town encircled by the castle walls very clearly. Not an everyday sight, especially for Aussies!
We parked outside the town and set off to walk on the castle walls (which is a free activity!). The views are lovely over the old town inside the walls and over the surrounding vineyards outside of them.
The town itself is very small but full of charm, with little cobbled streets, tiny restaurants and colourful souvenir shops. We explored the town's cute alleys, and enjoyed some relaxed window-shopping. One of the must-do's in Obidós is tasting the sour cherry liqueur they produce - the Ginja de Obidós. There are many places this can be tried at around the town, most places offering a small sip of it in a little chocolate cup.
This was a lovely day-trip, but, and this may be an unpopular opinion, but I thought that the town, though very charming, did not seem very authentic and felt a little too touristy. I certainly spent less time than I had anticipated there, so I would recommend coupling this with other nearby towns as a day outing. Thankfully, this is what we did. I had planned to also visit the famous surfing town of Nazaré in the hope to see the huge waves which, in January, can reach up to 30 metres high, according to my research.
Sadly, we did not see such giant waves, but enjoyed the fresh air and the beautiful sights. Nazaré has a lovely main beach area with a dramatic cliff edging into the ocean. At this time of year, we had the beach mostly to ourselves, and enjoyed a leisurely walk.
This was a welcome break on our drive, and allowed us to experience different facets of Portugal as we had not been to the beach. Though I am sure it is much nicer in Summer, I enjoyed walking along the ocean, and discovering this sleepy town. With more time, one can also visit more towns along the coast such as Peniche or, Cabo de Rocha which is the most westerly point of mainland Europe.