Portugal: Highlights of Sintra

Top 3 Must See Sites in Sintra:

For most tourists, a vacation in Lisbon is not complete without a day trip to Sintra. This fairytale town is about 15 miles from the capital and can be reached in a little less than an hour by train.

Why take the time to visit Sintra? In a nutshell, it is beautiful. The town sits just off the Atlantic Ocean atop the Sintra Mountains. Its close proximity to the coast produced cooler temperatures which prompted many royals and wealthy families to build their castles here over the centuries. In fact, there are so many unique places in Sintra that the whole town was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For us, visiting this idyllic town was a refreshing change of pace from the bustling city life in Lisbon. Below are our three “must-visit” sites in Sintra.

Moorish Castle:

It was an overcast, rainy, November day the morning we arrived in Sintra. We departed the train station and decided to make our way up the hill to the Moorish Castle on foot instead of hiring one of the numerous tuk-tuks available. The hike was strenuous and took longer than we expected, but the view from the top of the hill was worth it!

This castle was built during the Moorish occupation of Portugal, hence the name, and served as a lookout post high above the town. As we walked around the outer walls of the castle, we tried to imagine how a guard would have felt as he manned his post – very cold in the winter, we concluded!

Moorish Castle Hilltop Overlooking Sintra Portugal
Moorish Castle
Couple Inside Moorish Castle in Sintra Portugal
Exploring the Hilltop Fortress
Moorish Castle with View of Sintra Portugal
Moorish Castle with Sintra in the Background

Pena Palace:

Our next stop was the Pena Palace. This castle was located on a hilltop adjacent to the Moorish Castle. It’s vibrant colors stood out impressively against the bleak backdrop of gray clouds.

This palace, in terms of architecture and painted hues, was straight out of a Disney Princess fairytale. It was difficult to believe this place was actually real.

Few tourists were with us, making it easy to explore the palace’s hidden nooks and crannies. The timing of our visit proved fortuitous. We got to explore the palace’s exterior for about thirty minutes before a thick blanket of clouds rolled in and obscured the views from the hilltop. The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see ten feet in front of us.

We headed inside and were pleasantly surprised to find that the palace’s interior had been left exactly as the last owner had decorated it giving us a rare glimpse into the life of modern royalty.

Pena Palace Viewed from Moorish Castle in Sintra Portugal
View of Pena Palace from Moorish Castle
Colorful Exterior of Pena Palace in Sintra Portugal
Pena Palace

Quinta da Regaleira

Our final stop of the day was the Quinta da Regaleira, a former private residence turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the center of Sintra.

This expansive property contained an assortment of unique things to see including the main palace, a small but ornate chapel, a series of underground grottos and waterfalls, and the Initiation Well.

The property was quite large, and we didn’t have time to explore it all. We would recommend setting aside at least two hours to make the most of your visit.

Regaleira Palace in Quinta da Regaleira Tourist Site
Regaleira Palace
Man on Balcony of Regaleira Palace in Sintra Portugal
Balcony of the Regaleira Palace
Woman Standing in Initiation Well in Quinta da Regaleira Sintra Portugal
Initiation Well

We found that Sintra undoubtedly deserves its reputation as one of Portugal’s most popular tourist destinations. There is a plethora of activities to entertain tourists of all ages, and its close proximity to Lisbon makes a visit a no brainer.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Portugal: Wine Tasting in the Douro Valley

Porto: Gateway to the Douro Valley

Most tourists visiting Portugal begin their journey in Lisbon, it’s capital city. Just a three hour train ride to the north lies Portugal’s second best known city, Porto. This city, aside from being marvelous on its own, is the gateway into the Douro Valley. This remarkable place is famous for its vineyards and port wine. Not to mention the fact that the valley is a treasured UNESCO World Heritage site.

To make sure we got the full Douro Valley experience, my husband and I booked a guided tour. This small group tour included port wine tastings at two vineyards, lunch (with plenty of wine included!), a boat ride in the Douro River and transportation to and from Porto. Our guide also threw in a bonus mini-tour of Amarante, a charmingly quaint Portuguese town en route to the Douro Valley.

River Running through small Portuguese Town of Amarante, Portugal
Amarante, Portugal
Stone Church Next to Bridge in Amarante Portugal
Church in Amarante

Guided Wine Tasting Tour of the Douro Valley

Douro Valley Vineyards

There is no shortage of fine vineyards in the region, ranging from huge international companies like Croft or Taylor Fladgate to small, locally-owned and operated establishments. We visited one of each and imbibed on excellent port at both venues. Below are a few snapshots of our experiences:

Iron Gate Leading to Vineyard in Douro Valley Portugal
Port Wine Cellar in Family Owned Vineyard in Douro Valley Portugal
Couple Wine Tasting at Croft Vineyard in Douro Valley Portugal
Croft Port Samples at Wine Tasting in Douro Valley

Boat ride on the Douro River

After touring one vineyard and downing a scrumptious lunch, we were ready for a break! Fortunately, our tour guide was familiar with tourists and the effect mass consumption of port would have on us. He scheduled our boat tour right after lunch giving us all the opportunity to sit back in a port induced bliss as we watched the beautiful Douro Valley float by.

Overlook of Vineyards and Douro River in Douro Valley Portugal
Stone Bridge View from Boat Ride on Douro River

Douro Valley Tour Tips:

Here are our top tips for exploring the Douro Valley:

1) Take a Guided Tour: Let an experienced local pick out the vineyards you visit and arrange all the logistics for you. Your day will be much more enjoyable if you don’t have to concern yourself with these details.

2) Take a Boat Trip on the Douro River: The Portuguese sure know how to have a good time! Trust us, you’ll need a break between port tastings. What better way to relax than to experience how port was historically transported from the Douro Valley to Porto and then on to the rest of the world?

3) Let Someone Else Drive: Makes perfect sense for a wine tasting tour, right?! In order to get the biggest bang for your buck and enjoy your Douro Valley experience to the fullest, make sure you don’t have to get behind the wheel at the end of the day.

Outdoor Wine Tasting Tables at Croft Vineyard in Douro Valley Portugal

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Portugal: Top 5 Experiences in Lisbon

We made the decision to travel to Portugal on the fly. After a long year jam packed with many travel adventures, we decided to squeeze in one last week-long trip to Portugal in November.

Lisbon, Portugal had come highly recommended. It was described as a city with all the quaint, traditional charms one can expect from Europe, but was not such a popular destination that it was overrun by tourists. We found that all of this was true.

Anyone who has a fondness for travel in Europe would be enthralled by the sites, museums, cafes, and proud culture Lisbon has to offer. As a bonus, we found that Portugal was far less expensive on the whole than its more well-known European counterparts, like France or Italy.

Here are our favorite experiences from our week in Lisbon:

1) São Jorge Castle

Set overlooking the heart of Lisbon, this historic castle is a must see for anyone spending even just one day in Lisbon.

The castle is a focal point for the city. Your eye can’t help but be drawn up to admire its regal perch overlooking the city.

We visited first thing in the morning and had the castle grounds largely to ourselves. We wandered over to an archaeological dig in the middle of the complex where experts sift through the layers of history on this prominent hilltop.

We were able to take a guided tour of the archaeological site to learn about its prominence in history. The site contained remnants from a Phoenician House (700s BC), a wealthy Moorish House (1100s AD), and a bishop’s house (1500s AD). We also learned that the castle had been stormed and taken from the Moors in 1147 AD.

View of Sao Jorge Castle and Lisbon from Santa Justa Lift
View of São Jorge Castle from the Santa Justa Lift
Inside Sao Jorge Castle Walls in Lisbon Portugal
São Jorge Castle

2) Belém: Monument to the Discoveries, Jerónimos Monastery & Belém Tower

After a day of touring the heart of Lisbon, we recommend venturing to Belém for the day to learn about Portugal’s famous explorers who helped shape Europe’s Age of Discovery.

Monument to the Discoveries

Our first stop was the Monument to the Discoveries. This colossal structure dominated the shore of the Tagus River, paying homage to explorers such as Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. Be sure to buy a ticket to go up to the roof of the monument. You’ll be treated with some spectacular views of the Jerónimos Monastery and the Belém Tower!

Monument to the Discoveries in Belem Portugal
Monument to the Discoveries

Jerónimos Monastery

Next, we visited the Jerónimos Monastery where we saw Vasco da Gama’s tomb. It is believed he spent his last night at this monastery before setting off to become the first European discoverer to sail to India.

We also toured the monastery’s cloisters – the monks living quarters. This part of the complex boasted beautifully carved stone work and a serene central courtyard for prayer and contemplation.

Jeronimos Monastery in Belem Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery
Woman Inside the Cloisters at Jeronimos Monastery in Belem Portugal

Belém Tower

The Belém Tower was the final stop on our day trip to Belém. This fortress was built in the 1500s on an island in the middle of the Tagus River. It’s purpose was to guard the mouth of the river and protect the city of Lisbon just upstream.

In 1755 Lisbon suffered a horrendous earthquake which caused the Tagus River to be redirected from its original path. This explains why the Belém Tower is now situated on the river’s shore instead of at its center.

The Belém Tower is also regarded as the embarkation point for the great explorers of the Portuguese Renaissance. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Belem Tower on Tagus River in Belem Portugal
Belém Tower

3) Dinner at a Fado House

Fado – the sorrowful, soulful music of Portugal – is an integral part of Portuguese culture. You can’t walk through the streets of Lisbon without hearing its dramatic rhythms pulsating from storefront radios or from live fado houses late into the evening.

We decided we wanted to see a live fado performance and asked our hotel for venue recommendations. They assured us that O Faia was the best and secured a reservation for us.

At Fado houses there is only one round of seating and the singers perform between courses. It is customary for everyone in the restaurant to be silent and stop eating during the performance.

As the first singer began her lament, the beauty, sadness, and longing in her voice filled the restaurant, captivating the audience. There was something enthralling about the entire ambiance of the evening: the delicious food, glass after glass of vinho verde, and the melancholy of the fado music itself. It was a night we will never forget and an experience everyone visiting Portugal should seek out.

4) Praça do Comércio at Sunset

The Praça do Comércio is situated along the Tagus River in the heart of historic Lisbon. We often found ourselves meandering through the plaza between visiting tourist attractions, watching both tourist and local alike enjoy the square in whatever way they thought best. The Rua Augusta Arch on one side of the square prompted endless selfies while the waitstaff at the square’s outdoor restaurants bustled to and from trying to please their customers.

The Praça do Comércio truly came alive at sunset. People gathered along the river facing westward to watch the sun finish its descent through the sky. The soothing sounds of water lapping against the stone, the toasts of friends indulging in a bottle of wine together, and the joyous squeals of laughter from children splashing in the water filled the atmosphere.

Relaxation and contentment were the expectation here.

View of Praca do Comercio from Rua Augusta Arch in Lisbon Portugal
Praça do Comércio

5) Port & Pastries

Lastly, no trip to Portugal is complete without trying at least one glass of port wine and one Pastéis de Nata, or Portuguese egg tart. These culinary treats are impossible to miss in Lisbon, and if you’re anything like us, you’ll indulge in them at least once a day (if not more!).

In truth, I was too busy eating the pastries that I didn’t pause to snap a photo of them!

Port Wine Tasting Samples at Croft Vineyard in Douro Valley Portugal
What better way to end the day than with a sampling of Port…

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

England: A London Layover Tour

On our most recent trip to Europe, we were fortunate enough to be able to redeem our American Airlines miles for two round trip flights to Italy. Using our miles to pay for the flights greatly reduced the cost of the trip, but we did have to jump through a few hoops to make it happen.

When using airline specific miles, travel options are becoming increasingly limited. Direct international flights are virtually impossible to find. In order for us to get to Italy, we had to stay overnight in either London, Paris, or Madrid before we could catch a flight to Florence the following morning. Previous adventures had already taken us to Paris and Madrid, so we chose to take our extended layover in London, England. We picked a flight that gave us a full 24-hour layover to ensure that we would actually have enough time to enjoy the city.

At 6:00am on April 29, 2018, we arrived at London Heathrow, groggy from lack of sleep but excited to explore a new city. We dropped our luggage off at our airport-based hotel and jumped on the Underground for the hour-long ride into the city. We got off at Hyde Park Station and made our way to Buckingham Palace.

We arrived at Buckingham just in time to witness the Changing of the Guard. Hordes of people crushed against the gates trying to get a glimpse of the guards and their colorful uniforms. Since we arrived as the ceremony was taking place, we had no hope of competing with all the selfie-sticks or getting a front row view. We battled the crowds, took a selfie of our own, and passed irritated security guards as we traversed the area in front of the palace. As luck would have it, we ended up in the perfect location for viewing the guards as they finished the ceremony and exited the compound.

Aaron and Annie in front of Buckingham Palace London England
Aaron & Annie in front of Buckingham Palace

Next, we headed to Westminster Abbey, a church famous for hosting royal weddings and coronations over the centuries, including the coronation of the current Queen Elizabeth II and the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A plethora of important historical figures are also entombed within its walls: King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I, and the two York princes who mysteriously disappeared from the Bloody Tower following the death of their father King Edward IV. Since our one-day layover tour occurred on a Sunday, the church was closed to tourists and we did not get to gaze upon the remarkable history within its walls.

Westminster Abbey London England
Westminster Abbey, London

We passed by London’s infamous red telephone booths and the double-decker buses as we headed toward the Thames River. Much to our disappointment, the clock tower of Big Ben was covered in scaffolding, which left only the face of the clock visible. Fate decided that we could not possibly get the full London experience without a dose of rainy, cold weather. As we arrived in front of Big Ben and the Parliament Building, the skies opened and unleashed a torrent of rain.

View of Big Ben and The Parliament Building from across the Thames River
Big Ben & The Parliament Building

We crossed the Thames River and began to walk toward the Tower of London, our main attraction for the afternoon. As we passed beneath the London Eye, the winds picked up and the lashing rain caused one of our umbrellas to snap in half. Resigned to a cold, windy day in the city, we popped in for two hot espressos before completing our walk to the Tower.

The Tower of London, founded in 1066 AD, is a historical gem in British history. It has served several roles over the centuries, most notably as a royal palace, a prison, and place of execution during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Tower is now a museum that preserves this rich history. It is also home to the Crown Jewels, a not-to-be-missed sight displaying an impressive collection of gemstones, precious metals, and ceremonial objects steeped in history.

We ventured through the White Tower, marveling at the building’s stonework and trying to imagine the castle bedecked in the palace finery of the Elizabethan era. We plunged into the bowels of the Bloody Tower to view the instruments of torture reserved for enemies of the state. Finally, we walked over the spot on the Tower Green where executions of noble prisoners took place, including that of the infamous Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII.

The White Tower in the Tower of London
White Tower – Tower of London
View of Tower Bridge from Within the Walls of the Tower of London
Within the Walls of the Tower of London

All of this historical touring had worked up our appetites, so we decided to cross the Tower Bridge and find a traditional English Pub for dinner. Along the way, we whet our appetites with a cup of hot, roasted honey peanuts sold by a street vendor on Tower Bridge. The warmth and savory flavor of our appetizer was the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of touring outside in the elements.

Eventually, we did find a pub that suited our tastes and sat down for the most British of meals: beer and fish and chips.

With full bellies, we ventured back into the streets of London. Darkness was beginning to fall as we purchased two tickets for a boat ride on the Thames River, the last tourist activity of our layover tour of London. It was fascinating to imagine how the Vikings felt as they sailed up the very same river when they first arrived in the city in the 9th century. How different the city must have looked back then?

The London Eye Viewed from Thames River
The London Eye

As the boat glided smoothly across the water, I reflected on our brief taste of this magnificent city. Did we see enough? Did we experience the real London? Do we want to come back?

Our Takeaway from our time in London: I concluded that what really mattered is that we’d visited the city and allowed it to make its mark on us. No, we didn’t see or experience enough of what London has to offer. Of course, we’ll have to come back. Was our layover visit worth it? Totally.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Italy: Lost in the Vatican

Vatican City, the smallest sovereign nation in the world, was a not-to-be-missed site on our trip to Rome, Italy. Aside from the site’s historical and spiritual draw as the home of the Pope and the formidable center of Roman Catholicism, the Vatican boasts a phenomenal collection of art and historical artifacts in the Vatican Museums, the crown jewel being Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It also houses St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest cathedrals in the world, built on the site where Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was crucified upside down and where his sanctified bones remain today. For believers, the Vatican is one of the most holy pilgrimage sites in the Christian world. For non-believers, it is an impressive tourist attraction, designed to show off the wealth of the Holy See, that has shaped much of the Western world for centuries.

View of St. Peter's Basilica from Tiber River Rome Italy
View of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Tiber River

From a practical standpoint, we decided to book tickets to the Vatican Museums in advance to avoid waiting in a lengthy queue. We discovered that the only way to facilitate this for the day we wanted to visit was to buy a combo package: a ticket to the museums plus breakfast inside the Vatican. The tickets were more expensive, but we figured eating a meal at the Vatican sounded like a unique experience. Plus, the combo ticket gave us the added benefit of early entrance to the museum before it opened to the public.

On the day of our reservation, we felt pretty good waltzing up to the front of the long line and gaining early admittance. The breakfast was a decadent spread of pastries, eggs, breakfast sausage and bacon, croissants, and endless espresso, which we ate with gusto, gearing up for the next few hours of touring.

After breakfast, we began walking through the opulent rooms, ogling at the wealth and beauty surrounding us. Gold trim framed the windows and ceilings, marble in all colors covered the floors, and fabulous paintings, maps, and statues decorated each room.

Inside the Vatican Museums Rome Italy
Inside the Gilded Halls of the Vatican Museums
The School of Athens Painting by Raphael in the Vatican Rome Italy
The School of Athens by Raphael
Inside the Vatican Museums Rome Italy
Mosaic Floor in the Vatican Museums

Ten minutes into our tour, Aaron informed me that he needed to use the restroom, so we picked up the pace, following signs to the nearest facilities. Along the way, I paused to take a few photos but made sure to keep Aaron in sight. He arrived at the restrooms about thirty steps ahead of me. Since we were there, I ducked into the ladies’ room, taking advantage of the facilities as well.

When I came out, Aaron was no where in sight, so I assumed he was still indisposed. I waited in the room just outside for thirty minutes before losing my patience. I sent a tour guide into the men’s room to make sure my husband was alright. To my dismay, the tour guide came out and informed me that there was no one in the restroom.

It was then that the first flutters of panic arose in my stomach. Aaron had left me. But why? Where was he? Then the more frightening thought occurred: I was alone.

Now, logically, I knew that the Vatican was extremely safe and had a world-class security system. I also knew that it was small in area, which meant that we would find each other eventually as long as we stayed within the Vatican Museums. This was easier said than done.

By this time, the museums had opened to the public and throngs of people surrounded me. My fear of losing my husband quickly turned to anger. Before we got separated, the Vatican was relatively empty, allowing us to stroll through at a leisurely pace, but now, I could barely move through the crowded halls. Why hadn’t he just waited outside the restroom?!

I decided the Sistine Chapel was the most logical place to wait for my husband to find me, since everyone eventually passed beneath Michelangelo’s masterpiece on their Vatican tour. So, I reluctantly joined the crowds and followed them there. I also turned my cell phone on and tried to call Aaron. No luck.

Twenty minutes later, after gazing steadfastly toward the heavens and marveling at every inch of Michelangelo’s artistic genius, we finally connected via phone, and Aaron agreed to meet me in the Sistine Chapel. It was our very own Vatican miracle.

Many of you are probably wondering why it took so long for us to find each other. The short answer is that I didn’t turn on my phone sooner because I believed Aaron was taking his sweet time in the bathroom. Obviously, I was wrong.

In the hour or so that we were separated, Aaron had called me over twenty times. It turned out that when he came out of the restroom and didn’t see me, he assumed that I had continued on. It never occurred to him that I had gone into the restroom as well.

Aaron had spent the next hour running, literally, through the vast museum halls looking for me. He canvassed the whole area asking guards along the way if they had seen a lost woman looking either put-out or on the verge of tears. He even left the museums to search for me in the crowds out front and had to talk his way back inside since his ticket had already been used. He feared that I had been kidnapped, a belief that was only reinforced by the fact that I wasn’t answering my phone.

After hugging for a long time in the Sistine Chapel, we decided to walk through the museum again since neither of us had really seen it yet. We held hands the entire time. We also bumped into one of the security guards who had helped Aaron in his search. Upon seeing us, a smile broke across his face as he excitedly exclaimed, “Oh good. You found her!”

At the end of our second pass through, Aaron led me to a side exit out of the Sistine Chapel that led straight into St. Peter’s Basilica, allowing us to bypass the lengthy queue to enter the church. This little shortcut was a brilliant discovery Aaron made while frantically trying to find me. It was perhaps the greatest benefit of getting “lost” in the Vatican.

Main Altar inside St. Peter's Basilica Rome Italy
Main Altar Inside St. Peter’s Basilica
Michelangelo's Pieta Inside St. Peter's Basilica Rome Italy
Michelangelo’s Pietà Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

Our takeaway from this experience: Always establish a meeting point at each site you visit in case you get separated. And, it wouldn’t hurt to keep your phones on either!

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

The Story Behind Our Blog’s Name

“Travel Bug” – It’s a phrase almost everyone has heard. It is a phrase that has a wide range of connotations. It conjures images of many different desires relating to travel: from the dreamer who longs for the warmth and sunshine of the beach but can never quite align the stars to make the vacation happen, to the adventurer who dons an enormous down coat and sets off on a trek to Antarctica.

For some, travel is an essential part of life. It inspires the soul and invigorates one’s passions for knowledge, experience, and adventure. For others, it is a nice escape from the every day routine but not essential to a fulfilling life.

I was raised by a family who lived and breathed for travel. My grandmother traveled so much that my dad likes to say she traveled around the world, not once but twice.

Grandma at Great Wall of China
My Grandma – Great Wall of China

My parents were both avid travelers in their own right as well. My mom spent extensive time backpacking across Europe, soaking in the sites from Ireland to Turkey. My dad spent two years hitchhiking through Europe, spending much of his time in Sweden, Paris, and Greece.

My parents traveled extensively together too. They embarked on countless road trips around the continental United States and spent a month touring the Hawaiian Islands.

Clearly, there is a long history of “travel bugs” in my family.

My parents love to regale us with stories from their travel experiences. Sometimes the stories border on the unbelievable, like the one where my mother hitchhiked from Munich to London by herself. Or the fact that my dad lived in a roofless stone hut for months in Mykonos, Greece. One of my personal favorites has to be where they boast about sleeping in their rental car for the entire month they were in Hawaii!

Often their stories relate to how different traveling was “back then”. My parents reminisce on how hitchhiking was the norm and felt perfectly safe. They describe youth hostels that cost less than a dollar a day. Some provided stellar accommodations. Others forced you to leap across a giant water puddle to reach the bed.

One aspect of my dad’s stories that captured my attention was the one travel accessory that accompanied him on all his adventures: an orange backpack.

He loves to tell the story of how his old backpack broke during the course of his travels, forcing him to acquire a new one. He intended to purchase a forest green or an ocean blue pack to blend in with the environment. However, when he went to buy a new one, the only color option was bright orange.

At first, he was unsure of the bold color but quickly came to love it. Now, he says, he will never choose a color other than that fateful orange hue.

So, in honor of my dad and the insatiable “travel bug” passed down through the generations, we decided to name our travel blog “Orange Backpack Travel.”

Orange Backpack with Sleeping Bag

We hope that we can channel our family’s travelling spirit to inspire others and pass the “bug” down to the next generation.

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel