I have to admit that I am in love with Portugal, because of its nature, high and impressive cliffs with pristine quiet beaches, friendly and helpful people, its culture, heritage, history, diverse architecture and so much space all around, if you know where to go.
And I am especially in love with their traditional ceramic hand painted tiles which you can find in-and outside many buildings, as well as ordinary houses all around Portugal and Spain. They are called ’’azulejos’’, were traditionally used for temperature control and decoration which the Portugese learned from the Moors, and I have photographed at least 30 different ones while I was there!
I have been to the Algarve and Lisbon already several times and loved it, as well as many other tourists and travelers, but what I didn’t know yet were the other beautiful sights in around Lisbon and down the East coast, until now.
Next to Lisbon there are at least 4 sights I can highly recommend when you are going on vacation in this area, or even on a city trip to Lisbon for a few days! Make sure to grab a bus, train or rent a car to check out these nearby must visits, which are all within less than an hour’s drive from Portugal’s capital.
1. Everybody who’s been there loves Lisbon, and what’s not to love about such a diverse city with it’s historic and colorful buildings, unique trams and many impressive viewpoints in the various quaint neighborhoods of the city.
One of these less known but unique neighborhoods is Belém, with its many historic sights and the famous bakery Pastéis de Belém, which has been the best place to buy the traditional Portugese pastéis de nata, since 1837. This pastry is actually just a creamy egg tart with crispy bottom cup, created by Christian monks in the 18th Century, but it is very tasty and a must try for everyone visiting Portugal.
As there is so much to tell about both Lisbon and Belém check out my blog post with the top 5 reasons to fall in love with Lisbon.
2. Around Lisbon there are many heritage sights and nature parks, one of which is Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais. At the beginning of this nature park there is a very special town called Sintra, famous for its 19th-century historic estates, palaces and castles which made it an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can fill a whole week with visiting all of the monuments and the town, but to narrow it down here are a few of my favourites: Pena National Palace and the adjacent Moorish castle on top of the hill towering over Sintra.
Pena National Palace is one of Portugal’s most visited monuments and has been repainted and restored to its former colourful glory at the end of the 20th century. Classified as one of the seven wonders of Portugal it is also one the most important examples of 19th-century Romanticist architecture. As a historic summer residence for the royals, and still being used for many government and state occasions nowadays, it has great historic and national value, but most of all it is just very pretty and diverse!
Admittedly it is a bit opulent and over the top colorful, but it is so special to witness such eclectic architecture from up close. It combines many architectural styles including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, Neo-Renaissance styles as well as Moorish and Medieval elements all next to each other. This must have been the inspiration for palaces and castles in many fairytales!
The Moorish castle is a Medieval castle taken from the Moors by the Christians after the fall of Lisbon, because it was such an important strategic point above the town. It was built in the 8th and 9th century up the hilltop next to the Pena National Palace, both facing each other and overlooking the historical town of Sintra. A visit to both monuments and Pena Park, a beautiful exotic nature area all around the palace, can be easily combined.
Good to know is that both are popular places, so it is wise to visit them in the morning. As they are situated high up the hill above Sintra I advised to either drive all the way to the top of the hill, where there are many parking spaces nearby the palace. Or take a taxi, tuk tuk, or bus 434 from the town which will cost you €5 per person for a return ticket.
You can also walk up through the beautiful nature area of the national park, like we did, with amazing views along the way. But as the paths are steep and winding know that this will easily take you 1 hour upwards and 30 minutes back down, and of course some stamina:)
3. At the foot of the hill in between the Royal Palace of Sintra and the Palace of Seteais you will find my third favourite called Quinta da Regaleira. This is one of the principal tourist attractions of Sintra and also a Unesco World Heritage site. It comprises of a romantic Gothic palace and chapel with extensive beautiful, well maintained gardens with various amazing sights such as grottos, fountains, lakes and many historic structures all around the Quinta.
The park has many tunnels, most of them leading to the Initiation Well. This is one of the most exciting elements of the park and is actually a subterranean tower of 27 meters deep. You can reach it either by tunnel ending up almost on the bottom of the well, or access it from the top and experience the whole of it by walking the monumental spiral stairway up or down.
4. Also a very special experience is a visit to Cabo da Roca, a cape which is the most Western tip of mainland in Europe. Directly facing the Atlantic Ocean, with cliffs of 100 meters high and rugged surroundings it feels quite impressive and the nature and views in each direction are absolutely stunning.
If you are a nature lover like me, you will notice the ground vegetation of succulents lighting up and covering most of this area up the cape. It is so pretty and green, I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of it!
If you drive towards and back from the cape you will pass by a few small towns, one of the cutest and most nearby is Azóia. Here we found a small authentic Portuguese family restaurant called Refugio da Roca, which I can highly recommend.
Make sure to have dinner here if you want to experience a real authentic Portuguese meal and friendly service. Do try their grilled dishes, almond pie and flan dessert, all homemade by family recipe and o so tasty!
5. For my last favourite must visit in this area I want to mention Arrábida National Park and Sesimbra. As we were staying in a beautiful holiday home in the middle of this park we enjoyed the views and relaxing in the quiet nature surroundings, but naturally we did some exploring in this area South of Lisbon as well.
This national park is on the list for Unesco World Heritage Site nomination and is very quiet and diverse. As I love nature, but also beaches, I really enjoyed the small town Sesimbra on the Western edge of the park. This an important fishermen’s town, with some of the most beautiful and quiet beaches I have ever seen in Europe. It is a popular diving location and has a wonderful esplanade with many traditional fish restaurants.
I can recommend this area and Sesimbra especially if you are interested in the less touristic areas of the Lisbon region. This town has a lot of historical features, such as a castle up the hill, the church in the town centre and Fortaleza de Santiago, a 17th century fortress along the beach, built as part of Portugal’s coastal defense. Nowadays you can visit it from the inside as well, and from its terrace look out on both sides of the town’s promenade. It even offers a great panoramic café-restaurant, so appropriately called Fortaleza, with of course wonderful views.
The area on the coast below Sintra called Cascais and surroundings is amazing as well. Beautiful quiet beaches and small colorful towns. For more details, pics and inspiration on this area go to the wonderful blogpost of: Arzotravels.
>> Sintra, Portugal