It’s pretty hard to visit Lisbon and not take a day trip out to Sintra. When chatting around the hostel it was not a matter of “if” but “when.”  I went on the day where four other dorm-mates agreed to my ambitious plan of buying the day pass to tackle Sintra, Cabo da Roca, and Cascais all in the same day. We made a wake-up pact to ensure our early departure and dismiss any guilt around making a bunch of noise early in the morning.

Catching a train was easy (they leave every 20 minutes) and the day passes even gave us free use of the bus which was much more enjoyable than climbing the steep hills up to our first destination, the Palácio da Pena.

Sintra was a traditional summer getaway for Portuguese nobles. Nestled high in the mountains, the cool breezes were a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the city. I, however, was not there in the summer and didn’t appreciate the wailing gales coming off the Atlantic, especially considering that I had yet to acclimatize to the European chill after months in the sweltering tropics.

We found refuge in the castle’s stunning interiors where elaborate furniture and ornaments were on display. Sometimes I’d pop out for shots of the castle exterior or its panoramic views, but mainly I was happy staring at old chandeliers and ornamental furnishings.

We briefly strolled through the castle gardens but our hearts (or rather stomachs) were set on warm pastries. Sintra is the birthplace of its own little gems. Our first stop was Sapa, the bakery where queijadas originated before moving on to Piriquita for its travesseiros. Both were decent, but nowhere close to the pastel de nata.

Rejuvenated by the pastries and caffeine, we visited the the Quinta da Regaleira and sought-out its famous underground passages and mystical well whose stairs lead up from the proverbial pits of hell into the light of heaven.

Alas, the heaven we climbed up to was cold and rainy so we set our sights on Cabo da Roca and hopped on a bus which was then driven at breakneck speeds on windy mountain roads by a maniacal driver who seemed oblivious to the fact that half of us were standing up and holding on for dear lives. (Maybe we never climbed out of the well?)

The journey paid off with the stunning sunset light illuminating the western-most point of continental Europe and its barren landscape sculpted by the fury of the Atlantic winds. We all had some fun being pummelled by its force and were lucky enough to catch the last bus to Cascais.

But by the time we got to Cascais the sun had set and all we cared about was finding real food in a warm restaurant before getting on a train back to our warm showers and suddenly luxurious dorm bunks.

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Sintra + Cabo da Roca

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Lisbon

The Fado Truck

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An e-mail had suggested that I should make a day-trip out to Obidos. I’d heard there was a chocolate festival going on in a nearby town during the days I was in town. When I figured out that the chocolate festival was in Obidos, it was kind of a no-brainer.

Obidos is only about 80km away and busses run on a semi-regular basis for less than €8, so I made my way to the bus station fantasizing about an old medieval town made of chocolate.

In the end, the chocolate festival was disappointing due to a noticeable lack of free samples and very little to do given the fact that we had to pay to get in, but walking-off the calories along the old city walls ended up being far more enjoyable than stuffing my face with mediocre chocolate anyways.

At least the chocolate festival gave me the excuse I needed to visit this beautiful medieval town and for that I’m grateful. The town is a perfect size for a day-trip since you can pretty much see all of it in a few hours and there are plenty of shops and cafes to enjoy. Hopefully these pictures will give you the excuse you need to visit even without the promise of sweet indulgences.

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Chocolates In Óbidos

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There are two reasons that you’ll be urged to visit the suburb of Belém.

The first is that it is home to several of Lisbon’s museums, which are all free on Sunday mornings. Never one to pass on free culture, I hopped on a tram to see the famous Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower only to realize that the free admission comes at the price of being surrounded by all the other cheapskates lining up with you.

The second and most likely motive is that it’s the home of the famous pastel de nata, that sweet egg custard held in a flaky pastry shell that Portugal and some of its former colonies have become known for. Pastéis De Belém is said to have started selling these treats in 1837 after the liberal movement closed down all the religious institutions and the monks who had been expelled from the monastery down the street had to start selling their perfected pastries.

The place always has huge lineups, but it moves fast and assures that you are getting an egg tart that is straight out of the oven. I can confidently state that they were the best egg tarts I’ve had in my entire life, and I say “they” because one is definitely not enough.

But there’s something you might miss between Belem and Lisbon if you’re not careful. It’s called LX Factory and it was one of my favourite things in the city. This abandoned industrial site was reclaimed by a group of ambitious artists, architects, and designers who converted the old factories and warehouses into boutiques, concert venues, restaurants, galleries, studios, shared workplaces, and of course a giant library with a resident mad scientist who lives upstairs.

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Belém

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Lisbon reminds me of the cute girl in high school who everyone had a crush on but no one dated because they worried that if she became too popular she’d lose the essence of what made her so desirable. I’m not even sure I should post this because she might realize how popular she could be and start prettying herself up for richer suitors as did her friends, Paris and London. She’s unpretentious, she exudes a balanced aura of underground edginess and refined beauty, she likes niche music played in cool bars, and she bakes the tastiest desserts.

A warning: you will be tempted to eat pastries every time your stomach starts to rumble. The famous pastéis de natas are everywhere and you’ll rationalize it by saying, “this will just tide me over until I find a real restaurant.” It’s a dangerous lie. What’s worse, you’ll want to wash it down with ginja, a sour cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup that you can then eat. You’ll be enticed by every listing in The Purple Foodie’s dessert-heavy “Eating In Lisbon” list. Your taste buds will be happy but your stomach will hate you.

Your blood sugar levels will look like a rollercoaster unless you save room for some of the more protein-rich savoury treats like grilled pork sandwiches (bifanas), cured ham (jamón), salt cod friters (croquete de bacalhau), or the must-try seafood rice (arroz de marisco).

If eating-in is a viable option, you’ll find plenty of fresh produce to at the markets and you’ll also be able to get acquainted to one of my new favourite Portuguese delicacies: preserved fish. I always considered canned fish to be a utilitarian source of protein until I chanced-upon a tin of canned tuna with chickpeas on sale at a local market. What was originally part of a budget-conscious hostel dinner led to a spending-spree at Loja De Conservas, a store dedicated entirely to tinned fish from Portugal. This place will change the way you feel about canned sardines, I promise.

The good news is that you’ll be able to work-off these calories trudging up Lisbon’s steep cobblestone roads. It’s called the city of seven hills for a reason! Bring a good pair of walking shoes because what looks like a short jaunt between neighborhoods on a map may end up being closer to the hike you did last summer.  Sure there are some funiculars but they’re expensive and frankly I’d rather spend the money on a tasty treat that I just bought myself for all the calories I burned walking up the hill. The hills and stairs also force you to slow down and appreciate the little details like the intricate tile facades that cover most buildings.

You’ll probably end up climbing up to the castle at some point and the entrance fee does pay-off with some stellar panoramic views of the city, but unlike other cities whose birds-eye-views come with a price tag, Lisbon provides plenty of free lookouts that allow you to admire this shy beauty from afar (and hopefully on a full stomach).

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The Grand Lisboa

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