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

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