Seriously, though. How did I not know about this fairy tale place until just before our trip?
When I asked my Facebook friends whether we should go to Lisbon or Porto (nothing like crowdsourcing your vacation plans, am I right?) a third place (albeit one close to Lisbon) kept coming up—Sintra. One quick Pinterest search later and I knew we had to go. So we booked our tickets for a week in Lisbon, with the intent of spending half our time in Lisbon and half in nearby Sintra.
For all of you who are similarly unaware of this magical place, Sintra is a small town about an hour from Lisbon that is full of palaces. In addition to being frequented by the Portuguese royal family, many others decided to build their own palaces in the region so they could be close to the royals while also being close to the city.
Sintra is usually billed as a day trip from Lisbon, but I can’t imagine doing it that way, especially with a toddler. Between naps and wanting to see things at a reasonable pace I would stay at least one night if you can swing it, two if you also want to go to Cascais.
So what should you be sure not to miss? Our top two* for this city were definitely:
· Palacio de Pena—This is the landmark of Sintra, the image that you see in all the photos. And while these “must sees” sometimes end up being a let down, that was definitely not the case with Palacio de Pena. Straight out of a fairy tale I loved walking up to the palace and then exploring its interior—which actually had lots to see with nice descriptions in English. And while we only went to the palace, if you have more time there is a lot to see on the grounds that we didn’t get to, including a chateau.
· Dinner at Nau Palatina—The biggest difference between traveling with a toddler and without is dinner. Since we don’t have the luxury of a babysitter while we are on vacation we generally either have to eat at 5:30 or order room service. One night we decided to keep the toddler up a little later so we could dine at this restaurant and it was so worth it. This family-run restaurant (the owner’s wife cooks and our waiter was their nephew) serves amazing comfort food and the tapas-style serving sizes means you can try out most of the menu.
*Whenever I ask for travel tips on Facebook I always ask people for their “top two” things to do in a given place. This will usually get me about a half dozen suggestions, which is enough to fill a three-day weekend assuming that we can only hit two sights per day.
We also went to:
· Palacio Nacional de Sintra (National Palace)—This was just down the block from our hotel so we stopped by on our first afternoon. Looking back through my photos I see that I got quite a few good ones there so I suppose it was worth it, but I remember finding it underwhelming. So if you have extra time, stop by, but I wouldn’t make it a priority.
· Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle)—After Palacio de Pena we walked down to Moorish Castle before going to our car. This isn’t a necessary stop (since Pena is higher up, you get most of the best views from there) but it’s easy enough to tack on to your itinerary. Plus, you can hike through the woods a bit and get some fresh air. Consider saving yourself some money though—although you’ll miss out on the view, you can walk up to the castle and see a lot without paying admission. Particularly if you have a little one, this might be a good solution because you might not be able to or want to climb the steps inside with a kid. (If you do go, leave the stroller at the hotel and take a carrier instead.)
· Cascais—After several days of hard core sightseeing we decided to take a mini road trip to Cascais. Cascais is a nice little town that I had heard referred to as the French Riviera of Portugal. Quiet in the winter, it was nice to have space for L to toddle along the nearly deserted beach. There is also an old citadel turned arts area that we wandered around. Again, it was mostly deserted but I suspect it would be quite nice in the summer and includes a number of restaurants if you aren’t into art.
· Cabo de Roca—We decided to drive by this, the westernmost point of (mainland) Europe, on our way from Sintra to Cascais. When we got there we found a bluff crowded with tourists and although there was a nice view, I don’t recommend adding this on to your trip. The road to get here is quite twisty and I felt ill most of the drive; what I didn’t realize until later is that while it is in the same direction as Cascais it isn’t really “on the way” as the alternate route is a straight shot on the highway (so little risk of motion sickness).
And stayed at:
· Sintra Boutique Hotel—This conveniently located hotel in the center of the town was a great place to stay. The breakfast is tasty, the rooms comfortable, the staff friendly, and there is parking on the street if you drive in from Lisbon like we did.
And ate at:
· Suntria—We went to this, the restaurant attached to the Sintra Boutique Hotel, when we first arrived. Some of the dishes were good, others just okay, but it was super convenient, especially since it was raining when we got there and almost nap time. This restaurant also provides room service for the hotel, so we had it again that night after L went to sleep. (Oh, the joys of traveling with a toddler—7:30 bedtime means lots of room service for mom and dad!)
· Restaurante Apeadeiro—The receptionist at the hotel recommended this place for a typical Portuguese dinner. Much more simple than Nau Palatina, it was still very tasty and much closer to the city center. (We drove but realized we totally could have walked.)
· Moules & Gin—I read about this restaurant in a post on a fashion blog that I stumbled upon while searching Pinterest for ideas of what to do in Cascais. The food is more French than Portuguese (as you might guess, moules frites make up most of the menu) but it was good and the restaurant is so colorful and cute I definitely felt like I was in a European beach resort town.
· Piriquita—One of the advantages of having a husband who went to fancy international schools is that we get recommendations from trusted locals all over the world. One of those recommendations was to go to Piriquita in the center of Sintra for travesseiros. Since breakfast was provided at our hotel we walked up to the bakery before heading to Cascais. They were definitely better than the ones we had at the hotel breakfast and I imagine they would be even better eaten warm with a cappuccino.
Toddler Travel Tips
· As mentioned earlier, Sintra is definitely a carrier city, not a stroller city. While you could get away with a stroller most places (other than the Moorish Castle) I generally don’t recommend it although we did use the stroller instead of the carrier in Cascais without a problem.
Have you been to Sintra (with or without a kid)? What were your favorite place to go and/or eat?