Sintra – Moors’ Castle

View of the Moors' Castle in Sintra from the Pena Palace

It’s almost impossible to miss the Castelo dos Mouros or Moors’ Castle in Sintra. The striking fortress, which sits high on a hill overlooking the town, dominates the surrounding landscape and is visible for miles. Its stone ramparts, towers and battlements are sprawled across the hilltop making it a formidable defensive structure.

The castle was built by the Moors in the 10th century following their successful conquest of Portugal and Spain, but it subsequently fell into a state of disrepair until it was restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century.

Tomb beside the Moors' Castle in Sintra

The Moors’ Castle was my last port of call in Sintra and after my visit to Pena Palace, I followed a trail through the woods that links the two sites. Along the way, I passed various stone structures, such as the small stone tomb above.

The tomb was built to house a number of human remains that were uncovered when King Ferdinand II’s restoration works damaged part of the necropolis at the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim opposite. The church, which is open to the public, now houses an exhibition about the castle’s history, as well as artefacts found during archaeological excavations.

When I reached the Moors’ Castle, I made my way inside and headed towards the Castle Keep (above) where I had great fun climbing the towers, clambering over walls, and going up and down various steps. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and I was in my element seeing all there was to see.

View of the ramparts at the Moors' Castle in Sintra

From the area around the Castle Keep, I wandered down towards the outer walls of the castle. The walls form a defensive ring around the hilltop, connecting the castle’s towers and the mountain’s various rocky outcrops. I ventured down onto the walkway from one of the towers (above) but it had become very windy and I found myself struggling to hold my ground. The gaps between the ramparts are quite large with a sheer cliff the other side of the wall, and as the strong gusts became increasingly frequent, I didn’t feel safe carrying on so I decided to skip the walk.

Instead I headed back down to the centre of the castle where I set about exploring the rest of it including the Royal Tower, which was one of King Ferdinand II’s favourite places. I meandered up the hill to the Royal Tower where I had a good look around, admiring the phenomenal views. The wind though was really strong here, too, and at one point, I was caught by a massive gust and had to grab hold of the stone wall at the top of the steps to avoid being blown over.

With the wind increasing in its ferocity, I decided to stay away from the towers, too, and spent the rest of my visit looking around the lower parts of the castle before making my way back down the mountain to Sintra’s old town.

View over Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean from the Royal Tower in Sintra

It’s a shame the wind was so strong as the views from the castle were incredible. From the Castle Keep, I had a great view over Sintra, and from the Royal Tower I could see for miles and could even make out the Atlantic Ocean in the distance (above). The castle was built on one of the highest points in the Sintra hills to protect Sintra and nearby Lisbon, and with its fantastic vantage points, it’s easy to see why the Moors decided to build a castle here.

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The castle is a fascinating place to explore and very different to the many castles I’ve visited elsewhere in Europe. The only disappointment was the wind – it was so strong I didn’t feel safe looking around some of the more exposed parts of the castle. But I’d love to go back on a less windy day and see all the parts I missed.

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Sintra – Pena Palace

Pena Palace Sintra

High on the hills overlooking Sintra is the kitsch, brightly painted Pena Palace. It’s a magnificent, romantic building surrounded by 85 hectares of gardens and like so many buildings in Sintra, unique. It’s one of the quirkiest, most unusual palaces I’ve visited.

Pena Palace Sintra

The palace was originally a monastery built by King Manuel I in the early 16th century. But four years after it was abandoned in 1834, it fell into the hands of King Ferdinand II. The Austrian-born king was keen to turn the old monastery into a romanticist castle, which he did with the help of the German geologist, architect and engineer Baron Wilhem Ludwig von Eschwege in the mid-1800s.

Walking trail in the Sintra hills

There are a few ways to get to the distinctive palace from Sintra – you can either catch the number 434 bus, or you can do as I did and climb to the top of the mountain. From the bottom, the palace looks as though it’s miles away and an arduous climb, but in reality it only takes 20 minutes or so along a stone path that’s carved out of the hillside. It’s a fun climb and not too taxing, with lots of steps and stone archways to pass through, and spectacular views over Sintra.

View of the Pena Palace from the Moors' Castle in Sintra

When I arrived at the palace, I headed through the main entrance and spent some time walking around the outer parts of the palace. There are lots of battlements, terraces and towers you can explore while soaking up the fantastic views. The palace is built on the second highest point in the Sintra hills and is the perfect location for a defensive structure as you can see for miles around.

Old monastery at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace is divided into two wings – the red wing represents the old 16th century monastery, while the parts painted a deep yellow denote the newer parts of the castle built by King Ferdinand II.

Pena Palace cloisters

My first port of call inside the palace was the magnificent cloisters. The two-storey cloisters are decorated with beautiful Moorish tiles and there’s a massive plant in what looks like an upturned stone shell in the centre. The interior of the palace has been left as it was when the Portuguese royal family fled into exile following the revolution of 1910 and looking around, it felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Everything has been perfectly preserved.

From the lower floor of the cloisters, I toured the scullery, the dining room and King Carlos’s apartments, all exquisitely furnished and decorated. Upstairs, I wandered around Queen Amélia’s apartments (above), which included her bedroom and a little tea room between her private rooms and her office where she met with her closest friends and family members.

Ceiling in the reception room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace’s reception room is an astonishing space with a scene of Islamic architecture painted on the walls by the Italian scenographer Paolo Pizzi in 1854 and an intricate vaulted ceiling featuring a plant design (above). The way the room has been decorated makes it look much bigger than it is and it’s quite striking.

Chandelier in the smoking room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I continued through a couple of galleries where there were some nice pieces of porcelain on display and then ventured inside the smoking room, which boasted an amazing chandelier (above). The eye-catching 19th century chandelier had a replica of a climbing plant wrapped around it.

The noble hall at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Continuing with my tour, I stepped inside the noble hall, a huge rectangular room with dark red furniture and brilliant statues of men holding a chandelier-like lamp (above), and the stag room, a small round room with lots of antlers on the walls. The last notable room I visited was the royal kitchen, an enormous room with lots of wooden furniture and tons of copper cooking utensils.

Gate at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Having looked around the palace, I decided it was time to explore the extensive gardens that surround it. Pena Park covers some 85 hectares in the Sintra hills and boasts more than 500 tree species from all over the world, waterfalls, lakes, hidden paths, grottoes, statues and follies.

I didn’t have time to see everything in the gardens as it was almost 3pm and I still wanted to visit the Moors’ Castle before it closed. So I decided to head up to the Cruz Alta, the highest peak in the Sintra hills. The park was a peaceful place for a stroll, and it was fun ambling around and stumbling upon its many random features, such as the statue of a warrior perched high on a rock or the classical round temple with lots of columns.

Alta Cruz in Pena Park in Sintra

The Cruz Alta is 529m above sea level and is marked by a stone cross (above). The cross is a replica installed in 2008 as the original one laid by King Ferdinand II in the mid-19th century was destroyed by lightning in 1997. By the time I reached the Cruz Alta, it was getting really windy but I made it to the top and was pleased to be able to say I’d climbed to the highest point in the Sintra hills.

Queen Amélia's garden at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I made my way out of the park and before I left, stopped off at Queen Amélia’s garden. The garden is located below the Pena Palace and is a small rectangular space featuring formal plant beds and trees. It’s a pretty little spot and was used as a vegetable garden when it was a monastery.

19th century wing at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I really enjoyed my visit to Pena Palace. Visually, it’s an unusual, quirky architectural delight and I’m not sure I’ve seen another palace that’s been painted in such vivid colours. The decor inside the palace was also quite unconventional and it was fascinating to see the palace as it was when the royal family fled in 1910.

The extensive grounds, meanwhile, were a great place for a relaxing stroll with lots of interesting features. The only disappointment I had was not having enough time to see everything. If I came again, I’d leave myself more time so I could fully explore the park.

Sintra – Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira stately home

Nestled in the lush green hills surrounding Sintra is the extraordinary Quinta da Regaleira, a stately home quite unlike any other. This marvellous home and its unusual gardens were designed at the turn of the 20th century by the Italian architect Luigi Manini.

The estate was built as a summer residence for António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian-born philanthropist and collector, and his family. Some of Portugal’s most renowned artists contributed to the project and Manini himself spent 14 years working on it. The resulting estate is a remarkable feat – a unique piece of architecture and landscaping.

Quinta da Regaleira is on the outskirts of Sintra, about a 20-minute walk from the old town. You can also catch a bus to the residence, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been open to the public since June 1998.

Overlooking the gardens at Quinta da Regaleira

When I arrived at the estate, I was given a map and it was only then I realised how big the place is. The extensive gardens stretch all the way up the hillside and are filled with fantastic follies, water features, and hidden caves and passageways.

I started my visit with a short stroll around the lower part of the gardens. Following the map, I made my way towards Leda’s Grotto, then carried on to the Regaleira Tower, following the path (above left) up to the tennis courts, before making my way back down the hill via a couple of fountains (including the Fountain of Regaleira, above right), a grotto and a little lake.

I then walked back towards the entrance via the Promenade of the Gods, a tree-lined avenue featuring statues of Greek and Roman gods such as Ceres, Hermes and Pan. Walking around I was amazed at the many elaborate features in the gardens, and I couldn’t help but admire the imaginative minds behind it and the huge amount of work that must have gone into making it a reality. If I was mega-rich and could build my own estate, this is the sort of place I’d build.

Quinta da Regaleira stately home

Having got my bearings and familiarised myself with the gardens, I decided to explore the mansion. The house, which is built in a neo-Manueline style across multiple floors, is spectacular. The elaborate grey stone house features all manner of turrets, spires and balconies, along with lots of ornate carvings.

View from Quinta da Regaleira stately home

You can wander around the house by yourself or join a guided tour – I decided to look around by myself. The inside of the house isn’t as magical as the outside (but given how ornate the exterior is, it would have to be truly magnificent to top it). Inside it’s a fairly typical Edwardian stately home with attractive wooden ceilings and great views from the upper floors.

Quinta da Regaleira chapel

By the time I’d finished looking around the house it was lunchtime, so I headed to the cafeteria for a quick lunch. I then made my way to the nearby chapel (above). The chapel, like the house, is very ornate with intricate carvings on the outside. The inside doesn’t disappoint either with elaborate decorative features and frescoes on the walls.

By now I’d only seen around a third of the estate, so I headed back up the hill past Leda’s Grotto to further explore the gardens. I soon found myself by an exotic-looking water feature, the Lake of the Waterfall (above left), with stone bridges, stepping stones, a waterfall and a grotto. I slipped inside the grotto (above right) and found myself at the entrance to a tunnel, so I decided to follow it.

When I came out, I continued walking until I reached the Cistern, a stone terrace with a bizarre castle-like turret (above right). I climbed to the top of the turret, then made my way to the stone facade opposite (above left). Like everything else in the estate, the facade was elaborate and ornate, and featured a number of towers and doorways.

Quinta da Regaleira Initiatic Well

I passed through one of the doorways into another tunnel and followed it, emerging the other end by the Initiatic Well. I strolled around the upper paths of the gardens, clambering up shortcuts off the main pathways before turning around and going back to the well. The Initiatic Well is a 27m-deep subterranean tower surrounded by a spiral staircase. I followed the staircase down to the bottom of the well, marvelling at the dramatic sight above me.

Quinta da Regaleira Initiatic Well looking up from the bottom of the well

I then slipped through another doorway, rejoining the network of subterranean tunnels, following the passageway, which was wet underfoot in parts, for quite a while, before eventually emerging at the Grotto of the East. The underground tunnels were a little spooky, especially when there wasn’t anyone else around, but great fun to explore as I didn’t have a clue where I was going or where I was going to come out.

I loved Quinta da Regaleira. It’s one of the most extraordinary, unusual and enjoyable stately homes I’ve visited – and I’ve visited quite a few! I turned back into a child during my visit, happily stepping inside every grotto I came across, climbing the many towers and turrets, and exploring all the secret passageways. You need to set aside at least a couple of hours to see everything, but it’s worth it. A must-see if you ever visit Sintra.

Sintra and its National Palace

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Two magnificent palaces, an incredible hilltop castle and a quirky stately home are just some of the many things to do in the pretty, picturesque town of Sintra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site to the west of Lisbon is surrounded by lush, tree-covered hills in the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais and was the favourite summer destination of the Portuguese nobility.

Needless to say with so much to see and do, Sintra was at the top of my list of day trips from Lisbon. The town is just 40 minutes by train and so on my third day in Lisbon, I hopped on the train from Rossio Station.

Forty minutes later I was in Sintra and I strolled down to the old town, which is dominated by the enormous National Palace and its distinctive white conical chimneys. High on the hills overlooking the town, I could just make out the dramatic Moors’ Castle and kitsch Pena Palace.

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My first port of call was the National Palace as I was keen to get there early to avoid the crowds. But even though it was just after 10am, it was already busy with coachloads of tourists.

The enormous palace was originally founded as a Moorish fort in the 11th century, before passing to the royal family in the 12th century when King Afonso Henriques conquered Lisbon. The palace was rebuilt and extended over the centuries, and the present palace, with its distinctive shape, white walls and red tiled roofs, has remained pretty much the same since the 16th century.

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Inside, the first notable room I visited was the Swan Room (above), a large rectangular space built during the reign of King John I in the early 15th century. The room features green and white tiles on the walls, heavy wooden furniture and a beautiful ceiling painted with swans. The room is still used for state banquets today.

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I then wandered down to the central patio, an attractive outdoor space with a great view of the statuesque 33m-tall chimneys. Just off the patio is the water grotto (above), a pretty little space decorated with white and blue tiles, and stucco paintings that depict the creation according to the Bible, the four seasons and more.

Having had a good look around, I continued through the palace following the suggested route, passing the Magpie Room, which was used to receive dignitaries and ambassadors; King Sebastian’s bedroom; and the Mermaid Room, which features paintings of mermaids on the ceiling.

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One of the most impressive rooms in the palace is the Heraldy Room. This square room with blue and white tiled walls has an incredible vaulted ceiling (above). The ornately decorated 16th century ceiling features the Portuguese royal family’s coat of arms; the coats of arms of King Manuel I’s eight children from his marriage to his second wife Maria; eight stags; and the coats of arms of 72 of the most powerful families in Portugal at the time. The palace is home to lots of unusual painted and decorated ceilings, but this is by far the most spectacular.

I continued through the palace, visiting the bedroom where King Afonso VI was kept prisoner for nine years by his brother Pedro II in the late 17th century and the Chinese pagoda room. This room is so-called because it’s home to an incredible miniature Chinese pagoda. Then it was on to the Palatine Chapel, which boasts some wonderful frescoes on its walls.

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Towards the end of my visit, I ventured inside the striking Arab Room, which has green and white geometric-print tiles on the walls and is dominated by a bronze fountain in the centre of the room (above).

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Then it was on to one of the most striking rooms in the palace, the incredible kitchen underneath its iconic chimneys. The 15th century kitchen is huge, with white tiled walls, a number of hearths, two massive ovens and lots of copper cooking utensils. It’s a fantastic space and quite unlike any other palace kitchen I’ve seen.

The National Palace of Sintra is a superb building but I came away feeling underwhelmed. When I visited, there were lots of tour groups who would crowd into the rooms for long periods of time, making it difficult to see what there was to see. Waiting them out, meant getting stuck behind them for long periods again in the next room, so I found myself skipping ahead to get past them and not really taking the time I needed to appreciate what I was seeing. Looking back at my photos, the palace is an incredible building but there were so many tour groups I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I’d love to go back and see it again, preferably when it’s quieter.

 

Lisbon – Belem

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With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a palace, a museum and a café famous for its pastel de nata, there was no way I was spending four days in Lisbon without making a day trip to its western suburb of Belém on the banks of the Tagus River. The easiest way to get to Belém is to hop on a tram, which takes half an hour from central Lisbon, and I caught the number 15 tram from Praça da Figueira, next to Rossio Square.

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém

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Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is reputed to be the best place in Lisbon for pastel de nata, so it was my first port of call when I reached Belém. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, looked a little intimidating from the outside as there were lots of tourists milling around. But most of the tourists were buying pastries to take away with them so I headed inside to see if there were any spare tables and found a maze of rooms with plenty of empty tables to choose from.

The café was a wonderfully relaxed place. Old fashioned and charming, it had a red tiled floor, and blue and white tiles on the walls, and wasn’t remotely snooty or pretentious like some of these famous cafés can be. The service was good, too – quick and efficient.

I ordered the pastel de nata and when the Portuguese custard tarts arrived they were incredible – a delicious combination of warm, creamy custard surrounded by a crisp, flaky pastry. They weren’t too sweet either and there was icing sugar and cinnamon on the table for topping the tarts. It was the perfect way to start the day.

Mosterio dos Jerónimo

Having had my pastel de nata fix, I headed up the road to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo. I wrote about the magnificent monastery in my last blog post as it was such an astonishing building I felt it deserved its own post. Then I wandered through the Praça do Imperio gardens on my way to the Torre de Belém, a 20-minute walk away.

Torre de Belém

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Built on the banks of the Tagus River by King Manuel I in the early 16th century to protect Lisbon from a sea invasion, the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings and is featured on lots of the city’s tourist memorabilia. There was a long queue to get into the tower when I arrived, but luckily I’d bought a combined ticket at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, which meant I was able to bypass the long line of people and stroll right in.

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The stone tower is pretty and features lots of ornate carvings, some of which are very Moorish, and the viewing platform at the top of the tower provides great views over Belém (above, with the Ajuda Palace high on the hill in the background) and the Tagus River. However it’s quite small and doesn’t take long to look around. I left feeling rather underwhelmed. It was okay but there wasn’t a huge amount to see, and I didn’t feel it justified the 40-minute round trip from the monastery.

Ajuda National Palace

Nestled in the hills overlooking Belém is the astonishing Ajuda National Palace. Built by King John VI in the early 19th century, the palace wasn’t completed as planned because the royal family had to flee the country in 1807 when Napoleon invaded, spending 14 years in exile in Brazil.

As I approached the enormous palace – a 20-minute walk uphill from central Belém – I couldn’t help thinking it looked rather shabby and in need of some love. But I was pleasantly surprised when I went inside and found it was packed with remarkable treasures. The palace was quiet and there weren’t too many other people around – I’m not sure it’s on many tourists’ radar – which meant I could take my time wandering around and looking at all there was to see. And there was a lot to see.

The palace was home to the Portuguese royal family from the mid-19th century until the end of the monarchy in 1910, and became a museum in 1968. Two floors of the palace are open to the public and there are lots of rooms – all lavishly decorated – to visit, including the king’s and queen’s bedrooms, the audience room, the music room and the throne room.

Some of the rooms are quite unusual – there’s the pink room, so-called because all the walls and furniture are pink, which is filled with porcelain figures. The oval archers room is an unusual shape and the state dining room, with its two long rows of ivory-coloured tables and chairs, is jaw-droppingly grand. State banquets are still held here and the room was laid out as though ready for an event.

Other notable rooms included the painting studio, which features beautiful wooden furniture, and the billiards room, which is home to some rather inviting wooden chairs. I loved the Ajuda Palace, it’s the epitome of a hidden gem – an all-but forgotten palace tucked away in the hills, a little rough around the edges, but a delightful experience inside.

Museum of Electricity

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My last stop of the day was the Museum of Electricity, a renovated power station on the banks of the Tagus River. It’s a striking building – all industrial red brick and grey metal. I headed upstairs to the second floor of the cavernous building, which was hosting a photography exhibition. The museum often hosts art exhibitions and when I visited, it was hosting an excellent exhibition of contemporary photos from around the world that depicted sport, nature and people going about their everyday lives.

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Having checked out the exhibition, I wandered into the Tejo Power Station boiler room, which features lots of wonderful metal contraptions, machines and pipes (as above) and teaches you how boiler rooms work. As I walked around I could hear the sound of the engines whirring, which made me feel as though I was inside a working electricity station.

The Museum of Electricity is home to lots of machines with detailed explanations about how they work and the role they play in making electricity. One of my favourite displays featured black and white photos of the sub-station and the various men who once worked there. The photos were fascinating and I was especially taken by one photograph of a man inside his tool warehouse. I also enjoyed an exhibition about some of the leading players in the discovery of electricity such as Thomas Edison, André-Marie Ampère and Alessandro Volta.

At one point, I followed a sign to go inside a furnace, and as I climbed the steps to do so, I could hear the furnace crank up. Inside I walked across a red hot coal walkway and everything around me was a fierce red and black. I then walked downstairs to a large room where the ashes came out from the furnace and there were models of two men collecting the half-burned coal from the funnels above.

The museum was great and one of the most curious museums I’ve visited. I was expecting a fairly conventional electricity museum and until I got there, was unaware it also hosted art exhibitions. The photo exhibition was excellent, but I really enjoyed seeing the power station and learning how they make electricity. It was a well thought-out, fascinating place.

Lisbon – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

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Built by King Manuel I of Portugal in the 16th century, the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of Lisbon’s most popular landmarks. The huge monastery, which is affiliated with the Order of St Jerome (hence its name), is situated in the western suburb of Belém and is the resting place of Portuguese monarchs and poets, as well as the legendary explorer Vasco da Gama.

Having read that the monastery is often heaving with tourists, I arrived bright and early before it opened at 10am and was glad I did as the queue to go inside was already enormous. I queued up in the sunshine for what seemed like ages, taking the opportunity to admire the ornate carvings on the monastery’s exterior and watching tour group after tour group bypass the long line, before I eventually got to the front of the queue and bought my ticket.

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Inside, I headed straight for the monastery’s cloisters. The 16th century cloisters, which are a classic example of Manueline architecture, are split over two floors. I wandered out onto the grassy quadrangle in the centre of the cloisters for a better look and was taken aback by the abundance of intricate, ornate details carved into the stone.

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The cloisters are one of the most superb pieces of craftsmanship I’ve seen. They’re also really photogenic and I found myself taking a ridiculous amount of photos, waiting patiently for the many visitors around me to move so I could snap as many tourist-free shots as possible.

Having walked all the way around the ground floor, I moved upstairs where I took a look inside the Church of Santa Maria from the balcony that overlooks it. The church is home to the tombs of King Sebastian and Vasco da Gama, along with various other Portuguese royals. You can enter the church from the ground floor, but the queue to go in was enormous and having already spent ages queuing, I decided to skip it and enjoy the view from the balcony instead.

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The balcony offers a great vantage point from which to view the church (above) and I got a good look at its architecture, including the 30m-wide vaulted ceiling and could just make out the high altar at the far end, too. It’s a beautiful church but seeing how many people and tour groups were milling around down below, I was glad I was viewing it from the relative quiet of the balcony.

I then spent some time exploring the upper floor of the cloisters. Like the ground floor, the upper level is filled with ornate carvings and there are lots of interesting features to photograph, so I had a good look around, taking even more photos as I went.

After seeing all there was to see, I went back downstairs where I wandered around the different rooms that lead off from the cloisters, such as the sacristy, the library and the refectory. The refectory (above, left) is a long, empty rectangular room with pretty blue, yellow and white tiles decorating the walls that depict scenes from the Bible such as the feeding of the five thousand and Joseph’s life in Egypt. The library, meanwhile, is home to an interesting exhibition about the history of the monastery, Belém and Portugal called A Place in Time.

The monastery is fantastic and if it wasn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed my visit. As a keen photographer, I left with a crazy amount of photos. The only downside was the huge number of visitors. I’m not sure there’s ever a quiet time to go, but I’d imagine early morning or late afternoon are probably the quietest times if you’re planning a trip.

Top tips

  • The best way to get to Belém from central Lisbon is to hop on the number 15 tram, which you can catch from Praca da Figueira. You pay for your ticket on the tram.
  • As I’ve already said, get there early or really late to try to beat the queues – you’ll still have to queue for a while, but it won’t be as busy as going in the middle of the day.
  • The monastery is free to visit on Sunday mornings (which probably means it’s also stupidly busy).
  • If you’re planning to visit the Tower of Belém, buy a combined ticket for the tower and the monastery, and you’ll be able to stroll past the queues for the tower.
  • Stop off for a breakfast of pastel del nata at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém before you go. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the monastery, popularised the Portuguese custard tarts – enjoy them warm, dusted with icing sugar or cinnamon.

Cascais

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“If you’re going to Lisbon, make sure you go to Cascais,” said my father before I headed off to the Portuguese capital.

Cascais is a small fishing town on the Atlantic coast to the west of Lisbon, renowned for its beaches and charming character. The town had been one of my beach-loving father’s highlights when my parents visited Lisbon and despite not being much of a beach lover, I decided to take a trip to see what all the fuss was about.

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Cascais is a 40-minute train ride from Cais do Sodré station and after my visit to the Oceanarium, I made my way to the train station to spend the afternoon by the sea. The train ride is great as the railway line follows the coastal path, passing the resort of Estoril along the way, and providing fantastic views over the ocean. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast and as we made our way down to Cascais, the train steadily emptied with each passing station as the crowds of people who got on the train at Lisbon gradually got off, heading to the various beaches that line the coast.

I arrived at Cascais a little after 2pm, and having not yet had lunch, was famished. As someone whose life is often ruled by her stomach, my main priority was filling that gaping hole. My plan was to grab a quick sandwich before exploring the town and its beaches. The plan seemed full proof, but I hadn’t anticipated that it would take around 40 minutes to find a sandwich shop.

Cascais is full of cafés, bars and restaurants, some of them off-puttingly touristy with plastic menus and waiters accosting you in the street, many offering big meals and sit down service. This was the last thing I wanted, so I ignored all the entreaties to have lunch and instead walked up and down the streets looking for something lighter and quicker, until I eventually found a tiny shop selling sandwiches where I bought a tuna and salad baguette that I promptly devoured.

Happy I’d finally eaten, I made my way back through the town towards the beach, looking at the various sights and shops I passed along the way. Cascais was busy that afternoon and the beach, which was much smaller than I’d anticipated, was heaving with people so I decided against spending time there with my book and instead, having seen almost all there was to see in the town, decided to explore further afield.

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Around a 20-minute walk outside Cascais is a series of caves known as Boca do Inferno (hell’s mouth in English) for the sound the waves make when they crash against the rocks. You can reach the caves on foot by following the coast road to the west of the town, so I made my way out of Cascais, past the Palace of Cascais Citadel and through the marina, where I was amazed at how many expensive-looking yachts and boats were moored there.

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Just outside Cascais, I came across the Santa Marta Lighthouse (above), an intriguing square-shaped white and blue tiled watchtower. I stopped off to climb its 8m-tall tower, admiring the stunning tiles that line the inside of the lighthouse and the beautiful views from the platform at the top. The lighthouse is fantastic and a great place to unwittingly stumble upon. There’s a museum attached to it, too, but as it was getting late, I decided not to stop and look around, but instead to carry on to the caves.

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A little further along the coast, I reached the Boca do Inferno. The caves are carved into the coastline and there’s a small cove you can look down upon from the cliffs above. On the day I visited, the sea was calm and there weren’t too many waves crashing into the caves so I didn’t hear any otherworldly sounds. There were also a lot of other tourists, some of whom were clambering over rocks they probably shouldn’t have been clambering over as they didn’t look too safe, and I had to patiently wait my turn to get close enough to see the caves.

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The Boca do Inferno is a pretty part of the coastline, but nothing spectacular and the sort of scenery you see regularly along the coasts of Wales and Scotland. Needless to say, it was nice to look at, but I was a bit puzzled as to why it’s such a tourist attraction as it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the name suggests. After stopping to look at all there was to see and take a few photos, I headed back to Cascais to catch the train back to Lisbon.

All in all, I was rather underwhelmed by Cascais. It’s a fairly average fishing town and I’m not entirely sure why it’s often listed as one of the top things to do when visiting Lisbon. It’s a pretty enough place, but very touristy, which takes away from its charms, and its beaches are disappointing. I may just have been grouchy with hunger pangs when I arrived, which coloured my view of the town, but Cascais was the one place I visited during my Lisbon trip I could happily have skipped.

Lisbon – Parque das Nacoes and the Oceanarium

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When I was doing my research looking for things to do in Lisbon, the one place that consistently received top billing was the Oceanarium. Oceanariums aren’t typically top of my to-do-list (castles usually are), but this one had such great reviews I was keen to experience it for myself. And so, on my first full day in the Portuguese capital, I decided to pay it a visit.

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The Oceanarium is situated in the Parque das Nações or Park of Nations on the banks of the Tejo River in the north-east of the city. The park was built as part of the Expo 98 exhibition and is a modern, clean space with interesting artworks and quirky design features, as well as a row of flags representing nations from around the world. There’s also an enormous cable car that runs alongside the river to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the site.

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To get to the park, I caught the metro to Oriente station, and from there, headed down towards the waterfront. I had a great time walking around the Parque das Nações, seeing all there was to see and I particularly liked the unusual artworks, such as the statue above and the multi-coloured striped benches, as well as the beautiful views across the river.

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Having spent 40 minutes walking around the park and taking lots of photos, I made my way towards the Oceanarium. The Oceanarium is based in a huge modern square building that seems to float in the middle of the park’s Olivais Dock. There’s also a fun plastic figurine of a diver whose head bobs above the surface of the water just outside it (above), which made me smile.

The Oceanarium opened in 1998 as part of the Expo. Split over two floors, it features a variety of marine creatures from cold water, tropical and temperate environments.

The main attraction, and the one that captured my attention almost as soon as I walked in, is the enormous tank in the centre of the Oceanarium that traverses both floors. It’s a huge space and is home to lots of different marine creatures including sharks (my favourites), sunfish and rays.

The tank dominates the attraction and as I made my way through the site, I was repeatedly drawn to it. It was fascinating and I’d find myself mesmerised as I watched the creatures gliding through the water and interacting with each other, never quite sure what was going to appear next.

Aside from the enormous central tank, the Oceanarium has numerous tanks devoted to particular types of marine creatures, such as jelly fish and sea insects, as well as tanks featuring creatures from specific parts of the world. I enjoyed looking at the weird and wonderful creatures that call our oceans home and finding out more about them. There are some incredible species living in our waters that unless you’re a deep sea diver you rarely get a chance to see up close.

There’s also a series of rock pools home to creatures such as star fish and sea anemones, as well as birds such as puffins and penguins. I wasn’t expecting this element to the Oceanarium and it was great to see the wildlife in a different environment. I really like penguins, so I spent quite a bit of time watching them waddling about on the rocks and playfully swimming in the water.

Every so often, a human being in a wetsuit would appear in the pools and tanks, staff from the Oceanarium who were tending to the marine life. I enjoyed watching them at work and I was quite envious of them getting to swim with the animals. I’d have loved to have been able to get in with them.

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I really enjoyed my visit to the Oceanarium and was glad I’d made the decision to go. I now understand why it’s so highly rated as a visitor attraction as it’s one of the best aquariums I’ve been to. It was fascinating to see so many marine creatures from all over the world together in one place and the marine life seemed to be well cared for, the staff were very attentive towards them. If you’re in Lisbon, it’s well worth visiting.

Lisbon

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Cool, laid-back, friendly are just some of the words I’d use to describe Portugal’s capital city Lisbon. It’s home to fantastic food, beautiful buildings and delightful views, and there’s loads of culture, both old and new, to soak up. As such, the hilly city is the perfect place for a long weekend.

I’d been dying to go to Lisbon for a long time, partly because I’d never really been to Portugal before (the day trip across the Galician border doesn’t count) and partly because I’d heard excellent things from friends and colleagues. Needless to say, I was very excited about my four-day city break.

After flying into the city from Bristol, I hopped on the metro and headed to my hotel, the Hotel Lisboa Plaza. Having checked in, I then set off exploring. My hotel was just off the Avenida da Liberdade, the large tree-lined boulevard that cuts a swathe through the city centre, connecting the Parque Eduardo VII to the central Rossio district.

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I followed the avenue down to Rossio Square, the city’s most famous square, where I stopped to admire the large fountain and the enormously tall statue of Dom Pedro IV, after whom the square is officially named. The square is surrounded by lots of grand cafés, as well as Rossio train station, and is a good place to orientate yourself.

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I then headed south towards the Baixa district. The area is laid out in a regimented grid pattern, the original district having been destroyed by the massive 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The buildings are beautiful and I enjoyed walking around, getting my bearings and admiring the classical architecture. Bright yellow trams are everywhere in the streets around the Rossio and Baixa districts and I learned pretty quickly to keep an eye out for them when crossing the roads.

By now it was early evening, so I decided to walk up to the Bairro Alto district, up the hill to the right. The Bairro Alto district is home to lots of narrow winding streets – and I found myself getting a little lost here. There are lots of unusual shops, as well as tons of bars and restaurants, and I ambled around soaking up the atmosphere and casing out possible places to eat.

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With my tummy rumbling, I decided on Petiscos no Bairro (above), a small hip-looking restaurant on the Rua da Atalaia, for dinner. The restaurant is teeny – it’s not the sort of place you could take a large group of people. But it had a cosy feel, the staff were really friendly and they had clams on the menu.

Clams are one of Lisbon’s speciality dishes and I was keen to try them. The clams, which came in a garlicky coriander sauce, were amazing. It was one of the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten and I was so happy with my choice! I had quite a large bread basket with my meal and I happily polished off the whole lot, using the bread to soak up every last drop of the delicious sauce. For dessert, I had a Portuguese rice pudding, a cold rice pudding with cinnamon on top, which was nice, but didn’t quite match the perfection of my main. If you’re ever in Lisbon and like seafood, I can’t recommend Petiscos no Bairro highly enough.

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Feeling suitably full and happy, I wandered up the hill to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a small park high on the hill with great views of the city. I then meandered back down to my hotel where I stopped off for a nightcap of dry port, along with tea and homemade biscuits (above), in the bar before bed.

Top tips

  • The easiest way to get from the airport to the city centre is to take the metro – it’s really easy to navigate (there are only four lines) and cheap!
  • Lots of the pavements around central Lisbon are polished cobblestones and they’re quite slippery. So wear shoes with a suitable grip as I kept sliding all over the place in my sandals.
  • I found Lisbon sunny but very windy, so I wore suntan lotion every day because the sun was strong enough to burn even though it didn’t feel particularly warm. The wind also meant I had a few ‘Marilyn’ moments in the summer dresses I’d packed – in hindsight, shorts would’ve been better!
  • I visited Lisbon as a solo traveller and found some bars and restaurants were unwilling to serve me because I was by myself. Some went out of their way to accommodate me and were fantastic and I’ll mention those as I write about my trip, but it’s the one place I’ve travelled in Europe where people were taken aback I was travelling alone. One bar I went to would only serve me the beer they had on tap because letting me have any other drink (eg a glass of wine) wasn’t worth the hassle for them as I was by myself. So if you are travelling to Lisbon by yourself, be aware you may need to try a few bars or restaurants before you’ll find one that will serve you.

London – Wellcome Collection

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The Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road is one of my favourite London museums/galleries and is, in my opinion, one of the capital’s most underrated. When one of my friends suggested we visit it after our recent afternoon tea, I happily agreed.

The museum houses a series of unusual objects collected by the Victorian philanthropist, entrepreneur and science patron Henry Wellcome. It’s also home to a permanent collection that explores the human body, science and medicine.

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Our first stop on arriving was Medicine Now, one of the permanent collections, that explores a series of ideas about medicine and science since the 1930s. The exhibition is filled with lots of interesting objects, including a transparent model of a woman where you can light up different organs in the body. We had great fun learning where the different organs were, some of which weren’t where we expected to find them! There was also a plastinated body slice on display, which was fascinating, and we spent ages debating whether or not it was a man or a woman.

We then had a look around the temporary exhibition, A Museum of Modern Nature, which runs until 8 October 2017. The exhibition features a series of objects, donated by members of the public, that represent what nature means to them. Some of the objects (such as antlers donated by wildlife expert Chris Packham) made perfect sense, others were far more abstract. My favourite item on display was a research chart compiling the daily behaviours of a group of apes and I spent ages poring over the records trying to decode some of the activities featured.

The second permanent collection, Medicine Man, features a series of objects collected by Henry Wellcome on his travels. It’s a curious mix of artifacts that includes a toothbrush that allegedly once belonged to Napoleon, masks from different parts of the world, a lock of George III’s hair, very painful looking Victorian forceps and other medical instruments, and Japanese sex toys.

There’s also a series of paintings – some of which, including one set in purgatory, are downright bizarre. The collection’s eye-opening and fascinating, and there were lots of cries of ‘look at this!’, as well as debates as to what various objects were used for.

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Before leaving, we headed upstairs to the Reading Room (above). It’s a lovely space, surrounded by bookshelves filled with books you can borrow and read in one of the comfy looking chairs or bean bags, and tables featuring board games. There are also a few paintings and objects on display, including another plastinated body slice. It’s a very relaxing space and I could easily have sat down with a book and settled in for an hour or two.

I’ve been to the Wellcome Collection many times and I never tire of the curiosities on display. Each time I go I find something new I hadn’t noticed before among the quirky and intriguing objects Henry Wellcome collected on his travels. If you’re looking for a museum in London that’s a little different to the norm, add the Wellcome Collection to your itinerary.

Info
Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Free
10am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday, (open until 10pm on Thursdays)

wellcomecollection.org