Sintra, the land of Portuguese Castles

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Just a short train ride from Lisbon, the charming town of Sintra makes for a perfect day trip and a great way to escape the hustle-bustle of the city. Sintra itself is a small, charming little town but the main highlights are the castles in which the town and surrounding area is literally filled! It's like being in a fairytale and you don't even have to venture too far to experience it. If you've rented a car, the drive from Lisbon is only about 30min or it is about 45min by train. Just take the Linha de Sintra from Lisboa Rossio station to the end of the line which is Sintra station and you're there. Regardless of how you get there, it is a must see, so plan accordingly! Here is what you should see and do while you're there:

Palácio da Pena - A colorful palace adorned with azulejos and perched on a hill with wonderful views. Highly recommend purchasing tickets to see this amazing place. Perhaps THE highlight in all of Sintra and my absolute favorite.

Castelo dos Mouros - A moorish-style fortress with views of the sea. Also a popular one to visit and you feel like you've taken a step back in time to the days of knights in shining armor. 

Parque das Merendas - A lovely park full of trails through what feels like an enchanted forest. Forego the taxi to Pena Palace or the Moorish Castle and instead take these trails. Quite the little workout since it is mostly going uphill but not too rigorous. Enter the park from the street called Estrada da Pena.

Sintra Town - A charming little place with cobblestone streets and cute shops, restaurants and cafes. From the train station, about a 7-10min walk. Can get pretty lively and worth a stroll through. 

Queijadas da Sapa - What's a day in Portugal without having the local pastry? Lisbon may have pasteis de nata, but Sintra has these delectable cheesecake-like tarts. You can't go wrong with the traditional and almond flavors from Fabrica das Verdadeiras so be sure to stop in.

A full day in Sintra should be sufficient to see the highlights but if you want to see more than 2 castles, I'd recommend staying overnight in the lux but surprisingly moderately priced Ritz Carlton Penha Longa Resort located in an old royal monastery just outside town in the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais. Boa viagem!

The town of Sintra

The town of Sintra

City Hall of Sintra

City Hall of Sintra

Fonte dos Mouros

Fonte dos Mouros

Entrance

Entrance

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

The walk up to Pena Palace via Parque das Merendas

The walk up to Pena Palace via Parque das Merendas

Palácio da Pena

Palácio da Pena

View from Pena Palace...the clouds are crazy!

View from Pena Palace...the clouds are crazy!

Exploring the grounds of Pena Palace

Exploring the grounds of Pena Palace

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Path to the Palace

Path to the Palace

Entrance to Pena Palace...crazy detail!

Entrance to Pena Palace...crazy detail!

Azulejos & Amazing Views in Lisboa

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My first impression of Lisbon, Portugal's capital, was that I've been to this city before even though I hadn't. The bridge looked familiar, the trolley cars going up the steep hills, the morning fog....San Francisco! Yes, that's it, this city is the Portuguese version of San Fran! Technically the bridge was constructed by the same people who designed the Bay Bridge (not Golden Gate) but the paint color on this bridge going across the Tagus, known as the 25 de Abril Bridge or simply the Tagus Bridge, is the same color as the Golden Gate making its resemblance uncanny. 

the Tagus Bridge

the Tagus Bridge

In addition to its San Fran like beauty, Lisbon gets some of its unique flair from the many buildings adorned with stunning tiles (azulejos). In fact most of my photos from this city are of azulejos and when I wasn't fixated on the tiles, I was capturing the breathtaking views from all the many hilltops (my butt and thighs were barking this entire trip, BTW). There is so much eye candy here, a photographer's dream!

Getting to Lisbon is super easy from the east coast and Portugal's national airline TAP makes a visit to this city quite enticing with its free stopover program. Since Lisbon is the airline's hub, travelers en route to Europe with TAP will naturally stop in Lisbon and have the option to stay up to 3 days to explore what the city has to offer free of charge before continuing on. Seriously, it's great for us travelers and great for the country's tourism. A true win-win!

Ready to pack those bags? If you're not convinced yet, then keep on reading about this lovely city! 

Praça Rossio

Praça Rossio

WHAT TO SEE & DO

Go for a stroll through the central Baixa district (and do a little shopping if the wallet permits) to get your bearings. Start at the northern end in the big square known as Praça Rossio and walk south towards the river ending at the impressive, scenic Praça do Comércio.

Praça do Comércio

Praça do Comércio

Venture into the elegant Chiado district and stop in Praça Luís de Camões for a coffee and Portuguese pastry. Café A Brasileira is one of the city's oldest, grandest cafés perfect for a caffeine fix with some people watching. But the highlight of this quaint square is Manteigaria for its pastéis de nata (amazing Portuguese custard pastries and I don't even really like custard). Usually a line out the door but worth the wait. Don't forget to sprinkle some cinnamon and powdered sugar on top!

Praça Luís de Camões

Praça Luís de Camões

Forget a guided tour and instead take a nostalgic ride on the yellow Tram 28. Riders are in for a treat as the tramcar screeches and rattles through the narrow streets of the city. Perfect for when your legs need a rest from all the hills! 

Visit the city's oldest neighborhood, the Alfama & take in the view from Castelo de São Jorge. You can either reach this neighborhood on foot (be prepared to walk uphill) or hop on Tram 28 (above) at either the Chiado stop or the Rua da Conceição stop in southern Baixa. Get off at Portas do Sol and the castle is a short walk (uphill). After your visit make your way down the hill through the narrow charming side streets and get your camera ready.

The view from Castelo de São Jorge, with the bridge in the distance

The view from Castelo de São Jorge, with the bridge in the distance

Admire the gorgeous views from various viewpoints (miradouros) throughout the city. Brave the super tall Elevador de Santa Justa (which looks like an old-school elevator, but outdoors) or take the yellow funicular a.k.a. Elevador da Bica to the top for views from the Miradouro de Santa Caterina. Either way, you won't be disappointed!

Experience the beautiful melancholy music native to this city known as fado at A Tasca do Chico. Located in the hip Bairro Alto neighborhood, which is full of nightlife, and often a wait to get in but worth it. While you're there order the caldo verde (Portuguese kale) soup, which was quite yummy. Note that the entire bar falls completely silent while the performers sing their tune but there are frequent breaks to talk about how amazing they are.

Beautiful façade of azulejos

Beautiful façade of azulejos

Do some souvenir shopping at Conserveira de Lisboa. This shop caters to the tinned-fish lovers in your life. Don't know any? Well that's your/their loss because these little tins actually make some tasty snacks alongside a crusty loaf of bread. The labels are super artsy and fun and the employees do a wonderful job wrapping them up in parchment paper & baker's twine.

Warm up and take a shot of Portuguese sour cherry liqueur called ginjinha at A Ginjinha. Join the locals as they congregate here after a long day at the office. If you're brave, eat the cherry on the bottom! 

the Baixa district at sunset

the Baixa district at sunset

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Cantinho do Avillez for amazing food in a cozy, upscale, trendy setting. Rezzies needed. For a little more casual, opt for Bairro do Avillez by the same chef. Specifically request to sit out back in the patio. It's lovely!

Pharmacia for yummy small plates in a quirky, fun and charming space. As the name suggests, this place has a medicinal theme incorporating a bit of the building's history as a pharmacy. Great views from this area and there is an outdoor patio for when it's nice out.

Sea Me for seafood in an upscale atmosphere. Perfect for bubbly and oysters.

Cervejaria Ramiro for seafood in a casual locals' spot.

Mercado da Ribeira for a gourmet lunch in a large indoor marketplace. The market is huge and has many great options for casual dining or with sit-down service. I recommend O Prego da Peixaria for a prego (Portuguese steak) sandwich.

Yao Pressed Juicery for when you've had too many pasteis de nata. This tiny little place makes their own cold-pressed, organic juices, smoothies & mylks and each one we tried was super fresh and tasty.

Duque Brewpub for great craft beers in the buzzing Bairro Alto neighborhood. Get a flight.

Quimera Brewpub for craft beer in a super cool space that used to be an old stagecoach tunnel. Located a little outside the city center, in the Estrela neighborhood so you will need to hop in a taxi but it's a cheap ride.

Elevador da Bica

Elevador da Bica

Fresh, cold-pressed juices

Fresh, cold-pressed juices

Cobblestone streets

Cobblestone streets

WHERE TO STAY

Memmo Alfama or Santiago de Alfama for charming, boutique properties in the city's oldest neighborhood.

Bairro Alto Hotel to be a little closer to the action without losing the lux boutique feel.

Also to note is that Airbnb is a great option in this city. Many offer private terraces with outstanding views of the river. Specifically look for one in the trendy Bairro Alto neighborhood or next door in the sophisticated Chiado neighborhood. 

Stay tuned for my next post, which will feature a place out of a fairytale that makes a great day trip from Lisbon. As always, obrigada for reading. Bom dia!

Colorful buildings

Colorful buildings

Azulejos in the Alfama

Azulejos in the Alfama

Windy roads in the Alfama

Windy roads in the Alfama

Lisboeta streets

Lisboeta streets

Praça do Comércio getting ready for Christmas

Praça do Comércio getting ready for Christmas

Andalucía Parte Dos: The Sizzling City of Sevilla

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No trip to Southern Spain is complete without visiting Andalucía's capital city of Sevilla. It is the perfect blend of city life with laid back country charm and "real Spanish culture." To give you an idea of "culture" this is where flamenco originates and perhaps where you'll find the best tapas culture. While Barcelona gets the popular vote, Sevilla gets the cool vote. A trip to Sevilla might even have you contemplating a move to Spain! Regardless, I recommend spending a few days here, 3 or 4, but it's easy to stay longer. The best way to get around is on foot although there is a metro system if you need it. Stay in a central neighborhood and you definitely won't have to worry about taking public transportation. Sevilla is also well-connected by train and plane making this place a no-brainer. Here is what you cannot miss in this fantastic city!

Plaza de San Francisco

Plaza de San Francisco

WHAT TO SEE & DO:

Real Alcázar - If you only see one thing in Sevilla, let this royal Muslim palace be it. The Moorish architecture is spectacular so be sure to take your time wandering through all the different rooms, patios, etc. End your visit with a stroll through the expansive gardens.

Cathedral & Giralda - Perhaps the largest Christian church in the world, this one is not to miss, even if churches aren't your thing. Be sure to climb to the top of the Giralda (bell tower) for a view of the cathedral below and take a stroll through the Patio de los Naranjos (orange trees). Do not attempt this in the same day as the Alcázar, too much sensory overload!

Plaza de San Francisco & Plaza Nueva - I always recommend visiting a city's main square. In Sevilla this is it. Come here to find your bearings (and crowds).  

Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza - Another highlight of this delightful city is the famous bull ring where it all began. Despite the sad fate of the bull, the culture and history behind this tradition is fascinating. I recommend taking a brief tour which is super informative and makes you appreciate the art and the talent of the matador. Bullfighting season takes place March/April to late September incase you want to brave it. 

Plaza de España & Parque de Maria Luisa - If you're looking to escape the crowds head to this square and the tranquil park surrounding it. You can walk, bike, snooze, take a rowboat through some canals, tour the building or do it all. Perfect for siesta time.

Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria - This emotional style of music and dance is best appreciated at a performance in an intimate setting where you can feel the stomp of the dancer's feet. This cultural center is a great place to do just that. Reserve tickets in advance.

Shopping - Lastly, if you're looking to do a little shopping (antique fans, Flamenco dresses or a sombrero make excellent souvenirs) take a stroll down Calle Sierpes. For shopping of the food variety, visit Mercado de la Encarnación. This modern, mushroom-shaped structure with multiple food stalls is hard to miss. 

Adorable buildings...white with yellow trim everywhere!

Adorable buildings...white with yellow trim everywhere!

Main courtyard of the Alcázar

Main courtyard of the Alcázar

Outside the bull ring

Outside the bull ring

Flamenco show at Casa de la Memoria

Flamenco show at Casa de la Memoria

WHERE TO EAT:

El Rinconcillo - Your typical old-school tapas bar and the oldest in the city. Come here for a snack before dinner and be prepared to elbow your way to the bar. But it's so worth it. (Calle Gerona, 40)

Bodega Santa Cruz - Another great traditional spot for tapas, especially for montaditos (mini sammies). Located near the Cathedral and a popular spot for lunch. Again, be prepared to use those elbows to get to the bar. (Calle Rodrigo Caro, 1A)

Casa Morales - Yet another delicious traditional tapas near the Cathedral. They have some larger plates as well (also good to share) that are very worth trying like pig knuckle and beef cheek with rice. Surprisingly super yummy. (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11)

La Brunilda - Delicious, creative tapas in a more modern setting. Located near the bull ring, it's perfect for lunch after your tour. (Calle Galera, 5)

NOTE: Tapas are great for just a snack or an entire meal. If you're looking to fill up, do as the locals do and hop from tapas bar to tapas bar trying various delights. Wash them down with some sherry, vino or a caña of beer and you've got yourself a perfect meal (pretty inexpensive too but not all all cheap on culture).

Such a fun tapas bar!

Such a fun tapas bar!

WHERE TO SLEEP: 

Hotel Alfonso XIII (Calle San Fernando, 2) or Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza (Plaza Jesús de la Redención, 2) if you're looking to splurge. The former is as grand and luxurious as they come, located in a historic building worth visiting even if you aren't staying there and the latter is your traditional whitewashed townhouse with a stylish rooftop terrace & pool and a quaint cobblestone courtyard that's tough to pass up. 

Hotel Casa 1800 if you're looking to save a bit but not give up on style. Decor in this boutique hotel is rustic & more traditional with a splash of luxury. Like its other location in Granada, this place won't disappoint and gets excellent reviews. (Calle Rodrigo Caro, 6)

NOTE: In addition to the traditional hotel stay, an Airbnb rental is also a wonderful option. Look for a place in barrio (neighborhood) Santa Cruz or El Centro, preferably with a balcony and you will actually enjoy times spent in the apartment!

P.S. One more thing worth mentioning. Don't forget a day or half-day trip to Ronda to visit the famous bridge, Puente Nuevo. The teeny tiny town is also filled with cute places for lunch but beware of the siesta hours...this place follows them strictly and you'll find that not much will be open during those hours! But if it's good enough for the former first lady and her daughter then it's good enough for you and me :) Buen Viaje!

Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda

Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda

Entrance to the Alcázar

Entrance to the Alcázar

Another beautiful courtyard in the Alcázar

Another beautiful courtyard in the Alcázar

Charming interior of the Alcázar

Charming interior of the Alcázar

Hallways inside the Alcázar

Hallways inside the Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

Intricate detail inside the Alcázar

Intricate detail inside the Alcázar

The gardens of the Alcázar

The gardens of the Alcázar

Andalucía Parte Uno: The Captivating Towns of Córdoba & Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

Blossoming orange trees. Sizzling flamenco. Breathtaking Moorish architecture. Narrow streets adorned with colorful flowers. Warm sunshine. Tapas, tapas and more tapas. I could go on all day about the wonders of this beautiful region in Southern Spain that is not to be missed. While a stop in Sevilla, the capital city of Andalucía, is a given be sure not to overlook some of the smaller towns like Córdoba and Granada which are known for their interesting Islamic history. A night or two in each is all you'll need (save most of your visit for Sevilla since it is a larger city). Fortunately, the high-speed train easily connects Madrid to Sevilla and even Córdoba. To reach Granada, it's a short drive or bus ride through the pleasant countryside. 

The town of Córdoba is rather small and very relaxed. I don't mean this in a bad way but there isn't a whole lot to do here so one night should be sufficient provided you arrive early enough to have the full day to explore. Just two hours away by car or bus and nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the scenic town of Granada. Relatively speaking, it is similar in size to Córdoba, maybe a little bigger, but has a more hippy vibe thanks to the many gypsies that reside in the hills. There is a bit more to do here so I recommend two nights so you can spend one day touring the spectacular Alhambra and one day wandering town soaking in the culture or hiking the mountains. 

Here's my list of what not to miss in these towns:

CÓRDOBA

  • The great beauty of the Mezquita. This structure was once a mosque from the days this region was under Muslim rule. It has since been converted to a Roman Catholic church and although the minarets became bell towers, the Islamic architecture remains.
  • The picturesque streets of La Judería. Also known as the Jewish Quarter, this area is filled with heaps of instagram-worthy shots of narrow, quaint paths, and windows decorated with blooming flower boxes. Be prepared to get lost, in a good way.  
  • A caña or two at Bar Correo. When you need a break from roaming the streets of the Jewish quarter, stop at this tiny spot for a beer or two. You know you're at the right place when you see loads of locals congregating outdoors enjoying their midday siesta.
Orange trees outside the Mezquita in Córdoba

Orange trees outside the Mezquita in Córdoba

GRANADA

  • A breathtaking visit to the Alhambra. The Moorish architecture of this old Islamic fortress composed of royal palaces, courtyards, gardens, military buildings, and a fortified wall is simply spectacular. This place is huge (you can easily spend an entire day wandering the grounds) so it's best to have a plan of what you want to see. Don't miss the Palacios Nazaríes, which is a timed entry but the highlight of the entire complex. Tickets can be purchased online but they book up months in advance so be sure to plan ahead.
  • An authentic hammam experience at Al Andalus*. Enter the dimly/candle-lit rooms adorned with beautiful tiles and intricate mosaics, sip on some herbal tea or fruit-infused water and soak in the Arabian baths of varying temperature (first warm, then hot, then cold...it's wonderful for the detox pathways). Even the locker rooms are relaxing and luxurious with heated tile floors. Upgrade to the package with a massage, you won't regret it. Reservations a must, but can be easily arranged through their website.
  • Bocadillos and boquerones at Bodega La Mancha. This place is conveniently on the way up to the Alhambra, so you can take your sandwiches to go and snack on the way.
  • Aperitivo and tapas at La Tana. The wine list is long and the snacks tasty. This cozy tavern is tiny and fills up quick, so arrive early to grab a seat at the bar.
  • Modern tapas and larger plates at La Botillería. Pretty casual, comfy atmosphere and some of the best food in town. Don't miss out on the oxtail and ham knuckle, which are phenomenal. Conveniently located around the corner from La Tana.

*A note about the baths: they are public but don't worry-- there are rules in place that everyone actually follows so guests can have a pleasant experience (i.e. everyone must wear a swimsuit, whisper quietly, no phones/cameras, etc). It is so worth venturing a little outside of your comfort zone though for the unique experience.

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

WHERE TO STAY

In Córdoba, the boutique hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío, a restored old mansion with a beautiful courtyard, swimming pool & spa, is a lovely choice. Each guest receives a complimentary session relaxing in the Roman baths so don't forget your swimsuit!

The lush courtyard of the hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío in Córdoba

The lush courtyard of the hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

And in Granada, you can either splurge on the stylish lux hotel Hospes Palacio de los Patos which, similar to its sister hotel in Córdoba, is located in an old palace OR you can save some euro (more for tapas!) and go with the Hotel Casa 1800, a tasteful boutique hotel centrally-located in a 17th century building. The complimentary soft drinks, snacks and afternoon tea was a nice touch. Upgrade to the suite if you can and you'll be blown away by all the space.

The courtyard/tea room at Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

The courtyard/tea room at Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Enjoy the rest of the photos and stay tuned for Parte Dos, which will be all about the city of Sevilla!

Buen viaje :)


Buildings in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

The Mezquita in Córdoba

The Mezquita in Córdoba

Entrance to the Mezquita in Córdoba

Entrance to the Mezquita in Córdoba

Narrow streets of La Judería in Córdoba

Narrow streets of La Judería in Córdoba

Plaza de las Tendillas in Córdoba

Plaza de las Tendillas in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

A fun spot for a beer in Córdoba

A fun spot for a beer in Córdoba

The Cathedral of Granada

The Cathedral of Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Part of the Alhambra in Granada

Part of the Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

One of the many courtyards in the Alhambra in Granada

One of the many courtyards in the Alhambra in Granada

Incredible detail in the Alhambra in Granada

Incredible detail in the Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

Views of the Sierra Nevadas from the Alhambra in Granada

Views of the Sierra Nevadas from the Alhambra in Granada

Views of Granada from the Alhambra

Views of Granada from the Alhambra