The British Museum and A Walk Around The City- London, England

There’s a lot of cities that have been featured at one time or another at the top of my ever changing bucket list. London has definetly been one of those that has come and gone, never firmly staying on there for long enough to really make the time to visit. Nothing against the city of course, if anything it’s probably a product of knowing too many people from the rest of the UK who have never had much to say in favor of London. An old friend from the south of England just sort of shrugged when I asked if it was worth visiting, another from Manchester advised the Lake District was a much better venture and the most enthusiasm someone living in London itself could give me was “Sure yeah, there’s a bunch to see I guess.”

When we planned out this trip, starting in Sintra and then adding in stops on the way, of cities I’d always dreamed of seeing like Prague and Budapest, we decided to add London as the last stop on the journey, both as a sort of cherry on top of major European cities visited and as a low pressure way to end the trip since neither of us was overly invested in trying to see everything London has to offer.

And London does indeed have plenty to offer. Though I can’t say I fell in love with the it the way I did with Lisbon, there is a vibrancy that is unique to the city and I can easily understand why so many people consider London a personal favorite and visit time and time again.  We spent the most time at the British Museum (because of course we did, if there’s a giant museum around you can bet thats gonna be my first stop of the day) and then we did a self guided walking tour around the most popular sights of London before finishing up at what I think is probably the single most touristy thing we did on the whole trip, the London Eye. We lucked out and happened to ride up just as the sun was setting though so, honestly, it was incredible and one of the highlights of the day. Seeing London spread out below us as the sun set a brilliant orange on the distant horizon? Perfect way to end the day.

The British Museum

Trafalgar Square

Buckingham Palace

Westminster Abbey

Palace of Westminster

View of River Thames

View from the London Eye

All in all London was a perfectly satisfying way to end the trip and while i’m not sure if we’ll ever visit the city again given all the other places i’d dearly love to venture to, it definetly held it’s own place as one of the great cities of Europe.
~m

Ruin Bars, a Chain Bridge, and Chimney Cakes- Budapest, Hungary

We took the train from Prague to Budapest, out of a bit of a romantic notion of getting to travel across the countryside and while the ride was decidedly long it was still much more enjoyable than stuffing ourselves into tiny budget airline seats (especially when sometimes it feels like the crew might just push the plane off the runway in an attempt to save some fuel).

It was well into the evening when we arrived and after doing a quick currency exchange (from Czech koruna to Hungarian forint) we caught a taxi to the Airbnb we would be staying at on the Buda side of town, just across the river from the beautiful parliament building.  We could see it shimmered a brilliant gold above the dark waters of the Danube and even though it was freezing we huddled out on the apartment balcony taking in the view. Finally though, it was time for rest as we had an early morning planned the next day, a one on one tour of the city with a local.

The next day Brian and I bundled up and got ourselves ready for 4 hours of walking around and exploring the multifaceted history of Budapest. We met up with our WithLocals guide Andras the next morning at Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), which was honestly a pretty perfect place to start a tour. Andras was an incredible guide, both for his knowledge of the city’s history and his insight into more modern topics- as a local journalist it was fascinating to get his opinions on local politics and some of the governments most recent controversial laws that had been passed (less than a week after we had visited, massive protests brought much of the Pest side of the city to a standstill).

Andras took us to countless places, starting on the busy metropolitan side of Pest and then over to the more quiet Buda side where we parted ways near Matthias Church.

Hősök tere  (Heroes’ Square)

Interior Details of the Széchenyi Thermal Baths

 Interior Detail of the Hungarian State Opera

Ruin Bar (near Dohány Street Synagogue)

View from across the river of Buda Castle

Várnegyed (Castle Quarter)

Mátyás-templom (Matthias Church)

The Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion)

The sun was setting by the time we parted ways with Andras, with him wishing us the best of luck on the rest of our trip and us thanking him for a lovely time. I can honestly say we wouldn’t have seen half of all the places he took us to and it was invaluable to get the opportunity to explore the city with a knowledgable local, so thank you Andras! After saying good bye, Brian and I stayed in the area a little longer just enjoying the amazing view over the city and wishing we had more time to spend here.

After heading back to our Airbnb apartment to drop off the bag of souvenirs I had picked up and also some groceries, we took a breather and then decided to head back out into the city again, crossing the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge for the second time that day, back over to the Pest side of the city to do some utterly touristy things like ride the Budapest Eye, check out the Christmas market by the incredible St. Stephen’s Basilica and share a yummy kürtőskalács (chimney cake).

Eventually even the temporary sugar high wore off though, and our sore feet reminded us we’d basically spent the whole day walking. We had plans to wake up early the next day to head to Vienna for a day trip so it was definetly prudent to head back and get some rest but we did get some lovely views of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge as we walked across it one last time and in the near distance, the positively glowing Parliament building.

An almost completely perfect day in Budapest even if our feet were pretty much killing us by the time we made it back to our apartment. There is a mysteriousness and almost dark elegance to Budapest that’s hard to describe but, I can honestly say I don’t think any city has enthralled me more. All it’s hidden areas, the deep history steeped into it’s buildings, the unexpected Art Nouveau touches in the architecture amid the more gothic of structures, the modern clash of political turmoil atop the ancient history of this city by the Danube… even just the intensely different vibe from one side of the city to the other, it would be hard for anyone not to fall in love with Budapest, even just a little.

~m

If you’re interested in having your own local guide when you visit Budapest, this is the WithLocals link you can use to get $15 off any private tour you book through them. And nope i’m not sponsored by them, I just honestly loved being able to use them and legit can’t praise the guides I had enough.

Old Town Square Christmas Market- Prague, Czech Republic

My time in Prague began with a 6 hour stay at the airport while I waited for Brian’s flight to get in but as there’s not anything very interesting about that (apart from a VERY large and tasty cup of coffee from Costa ) I’ll start with our visit to the old town Christmas market instead. Neither one of us had been to one before so this was a new experience for both of us and it was the perfect start to our 3 day stay in the city.

To say it was a magical experience would almost be an understatement and even now Brian still talks about visiting other Christmas markets in Europe since he enjoyed this one so much.

The Old Town Square Christmas market (Staroměstské náměstí) runs from late November to early January, open from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. with the food stands open 10 a.m. – midnight. There’s plenty of other Christmas markets around town but since we were staying at an Airbnb just a few blocks away from the old town we figured we would see this one first. Though there’s plenty to buy here, from delicate glass ornaments to puppets and embroidered lace we mainly focused on the food stalls while we took in the lovely experience of being surrounded by the gorgeous old town buildings and twinkling lights everywhere.

We grabbed cups of hot cider and mulled wine, tried a taste of almost everything the stalls had to offer and managed to snag one of the coveted standing tables posted around to pause for a moment and eat. Be prepared for random strangers to come by to share the table with you as there are many more stalls selling food than there are available places to enjoy said food, but everyone keeps it friendly so its just an added part of the experience. After we’d had our fill of snacks and treats (roasted chestnuts!) we wandered down the streets and headed towards the Vltava river. We stopped by Mánes Bridge first, looking out towards Prague Castle before heading to the famous Charles Bridge.

The beautiful stone gothic bridge has been on my list of most highly anticipated places to visit since I first began dreaming of visiting Europe and though it was certainly crowded, it was a highlight of the visit for us. We couldn’t stay too long as it started sprinkling rain and neither one of us had brought umbrellas but as we had an early start planned for the next day we didn’t mind heading back to our apartment, crossing back through the Christmas market one more time.

Altogether, a pretty perfect December night in Prague.

~m

Miradouros, Elevadors, Ascensors and Azulejos- Lisbon, Portugal

After staying in Sintra for 4 full days, I woke up late in the morning of my 5th day in Portugal, packed up my luggage, made sure I hadn’t left my rooms a mess and checked out of the villa I had been staying at to head into Lisbon for the next 3 days.

(If you ask me if you really need a full week to experience all that Sintra and Lisbon has to offer I would just say it honestly depends both on what you want to see and your pace. I usually only devote 2-3 days to any one place/region I visit but there was so much I wanted to see here AND I also wanted to give myself plenty of time to relax as I had been overly stressed at work so this worked out the best for my budget and timeframe) 

After dropping off my bags at Brown’s Central Hotel (centrally located just a coupled of blocks away from the famous Santa Justa Lift) I took an uber to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. The uber driver was a guy around my age and we talked a bit about my travel plans, Real Madrid and the museum I was headed to visit. His exact words were “Ha yeah i’ve never been to it, we have a ton of those at home, never thought about visiting a museum for them.”  He had a point, as pretty much almost anywhere you go in Lisbon, there are azulejos everywhere, but as this was all new to me and I like going to museums, I figured even if I could see azulejos for free all around me, getting a deeper dive into their history couldn’t hurt.

As seemed to be the case almost everywhere I went on this trip, from the Moors Castle to Queluz Palace to the Mafra Palace, it was pretty empty inside the museum and I got to take my time going through the exhibits, reading all the placards and walking down the beautiful quiet halls. The museum is housed in the former Madre de Deus convent which adds to the interesting history you get to walk through- the sacristy specifically was an unexpected delight to get to visit. One of the first things I learned when I visted was that though I had assumed the name “azulejos” had something to do with the color of the tiles (blue), in reality the name comes from the Arabic word الزليج “Al Zellige” meaning polished stone. Finding their history linked back to Byzantine mosaics was also really interesting to me given my mild obsession with that part of history. Though the museum is a little out of the way from other points of interest there’s plenty of transportation that will get you there and I do think it’s a fascinating place to visit before you start exploring Lisbon if only for the way it opens your eyes to the details that surround you.

After about 2 hours at the museum, I headed back to the hotel, getting dropped off a couple of streets away so I could take my time walking back as well as check out the Santa Justa lift (also known as the Elevador de Santa Justa), the massively popular urban lift in Lisbon that is also the only remaining vertical one since all the rest like the Elevador da Glória and the Elevador da Bica are actually funiculars. I got to see the first of these other elevadors the next day when I went to meet up with my guide for the day at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and coming up the street was the Elevador da Glória (first photo below).

Praça do Comércio

Traveling solo (and being a sometimes anxious person), I had decided to book two tours through WithLocals in Lisbon, the first one specifically one that would take me to the hidden gems and provide me with insights to this city I’d never been to before. I had so much fun with Silvia on the tour she had taken me on earlier in the week so I was feeling optimistic about the guide I would have for this one and coincidentally enough Silvia ended up joining up her morning tour with ours- it had worked out in such a way that the couple Silvia was taking a tour with that morning was also the same couple my new guide had an afternoon tour with and Silvia persuaded her to join up with.

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour that combined history with foodie stops that went a little something like this: a history lesson on Lisbon as we overlooked one of the high viewpoints in the city, cheese and chorizo paired up with a glass of red wine followed by exploring the streets of the Bairro Alto and looking at examples of azulejos on buildings, delving into the history of Carmo convent and the Santa Justa lift before heading to a local shop for a Ginjinha (a sweet liqueur made by infusing ginja berries in alcohol) break, walking into a bustling bakery to taste some pastels de nata and then finally ending at Praça do Comércio.

It was an unexpected way to spend the day but definetly a unique way to explore Lisbon with not one but two locals and a Korean-American couple from Chicago who were nice enough to ask if I wanted to tag along for their afternoon tour to Belém. I had already decided I wanted to save Belém for another visit though, so instead I bid them goodbye, thanked my guide for the day for her historical insights and hugged Silvia tightly as I was sure this time it really would be the last time we would see each other (unless she’s still working as a guide the next time I visit!).

My last tour started bright and early the next day at Praça do Comércio, where I was to meet Luis to go on his specialized “Nostalgic Tram 28 & City Walk”. An affable guy he lamented the fact that the day looked like it was gearing up to rain down on us soon but was determined to make the most of the day and show me the sights. We started out beneath the Arco da Rua Augusta, built to commemorate the cities reconstruction after the devastating 1755 earthquake and then walked down Rua Augusta towards the stop for the tram. The streets were still quiet and calm in the morning, few people getting on the tram with us making for pretty chill ride up to our first stop, the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. Miradouro means viewpoint and while there are many in Lisbon, this one was one of my favorites that I visited, overlooking the colorful Alfama neighborhood and the waterfront.

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte

The next stop was the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a viewpoint located up a gently winding hill in the Graça neighborhood and one that most people seem to miss as it’s near to another viewpoint, the Miradouro da Graça. Senhora do Monte provides gorgeous views of the Tagus River and the Castelo de S. Jorge as well as fantastic views of the city itself (you can see the burnt gothic ruins of the Carmo convent just next to the Santa Justa lift there in in the above last photo). We enjoyed the view for a bit up here before starting the walk back down the hill to the tram to take us back to our previous stop so that Luis could take me through the winding colorful streets of Alfama.

I had read that Alfama was one of the more interesting and unique neighborhoods of Lisbon but nothing compares to walking down it’s maze like streets with a local. Luis talked to me about the history of the neighborhood as well as some more recent topics (Airbnb featured prominently in our conversations about local real estate especially given how he used to work in the hospitality industry). As we walked, the rain finally started to come down a bit and the already quiet streets turned even quieter and suddenly it felt like it was just me and Luis, exploring Alfama all by ourselves.  Leisurely we made our way towards our last stop in the area, Lisbon Cathedral, at times stopping right in the middle of the empty streets just to look up at street art painted on the side of buildings or especially eye catching azulejos.

I didn’t take any good photos of Lisbon Cathedral as it was very crowded (probably where everyone went when it started raining?) but it was an interesting way to cap that section of our tour and then we were getting on the tram one last time, headed towards the Barrio Alton and the Elevador da Bica.

The rain had well and truly begun to come down by this point and while Luis and I each had our own umbrellas we choose to huddle under one as to be able to navigate the slippery streets better (and so I could actually hear him as he told me about the area and its history). Making it to the Timeout Market-Lisbon just a little soaked, we concluded our tour with a hug and well wishes and then we each split off, him to head home and me to check out the food and interesting shops (I can’t recommend Toranja enough btw). I grabbed a burger, a tasty desert and then headed out in the downpour to catch a ride back to my hotel to relax for a bit and then begin the tedious process of repacking my luggage to leave Lisbon the next day and head to Prague.

I don’t know that I could name a favorite European city, but if pressed I could tell you my top 3 and Lisbon is neatly nestled between Florence and Salzburg as the ones I would dearly love to visit again and soon. With Lisbon, even having spent a week in and around it, I still have a dozen places I’d like to visit and revisit and if that doesn’t tell you how wonderful the city is, i’m not sure what could. The culture, the history, the architecture and especially the people who allowed me to see deeper than the touristy gloss, it all made for an incredible part of a trip I’ll never forget.

~m

Beautiful Sintra and the Park and Palace of Monserrate- Sintra, Portugal

The day started early as my body had yet to regulate itself to it’s new Portuguese time zone and I was up at the painfully early hour of 530am. The sun hadn’t even risen yet and to be honest I laid in bed for another good hour just being lazy and reading through texts my bf (who was still back home in Texas) had sent me the night before and browsing tumblr. Finally though, I got up and started to get ready for the day which I knew would be lengthy as I had booked a tour through WithLocals for a full day of sightseeing in and around Sintra with a lovely lady named Silvia.

She would be picking me up at 830 in her van and then it would just be me and her for 8 hours, the agenda being very loosely situated around exploring the town of Sintra, checking out one of the castles or palaces there, driving out to Cabo de Roca and then ending the day at the fisherman village of Cascais. Or at least, that was the plan but of course, you know with me things rarely ever go to plan (but I will say even before I start, this was one of the most amazing and fun experiences I’ve had and except for one unfortunate turn of event on my part, there’s nothing I would go back and change).

After stuffing myself full of the delicious breakfast that was brought to the room (cheese, ham, pastries and strong coffee), I was just wiping the crumbs off my shirt when there was knocking on my door and I was informed Silvia had arrived- she was lingering behind the housekeeper, a friendly smile on her face that turned down for a sec when she spotted my bare arms.

“Ooh make sure you grab a jacket or sweater, it can get a little cold!”

Grabbing my jacket and bidding a goodbye to the housekeeper I rushed out, ready to start the day with Silvia. She introduced herself and her white van and seemed to have enough enthusiasm to power 10 pep rallies. Basically, she was lovely and any indecision I have about spending the whole day with her was erased by the time we were heading up the mountain road to find a good parking spot from where to explore the twisty streets of Sintra.

We grabbed coffee and pastries at a local cafe while she got to know me a little better and gathered our plans for the day- she was of course delightfully puzzled as to why I was traveling by myself but didn’t press me with questions and instead asked what palace or castle I had chosen for us to visit that day. I had picked the Monserrate Palace to leave for last, both because it seemed like the one with the least amount of walking required (maybe it’s silly but I didn’t want to embarrass the hell out of myself huffing and puffing to a seasoned veteran of the area while clambering around the Moors castle or making our way up the steep climb to Pena Palace) and because it was the one I was least interested in- that way if my guide had turned out to be a dud, it wouldn’t ruin the trip for me. Silvia was more than happy for us to make our way to Monserrate after touring Sintra, though she advised she didn’t know too much of it’s history as overwhelmingly people usually asked her to take them to Pena Palace. As she said, “It will be a fun change from the usual!” 

After finishing up our coffee and pastries we set out to walk around the quiet streets of Sintra, the town still just barely waking up and making it the perfect setting for us to take a leisurely stroll while I snapped photos here and there as Silvia told me some of the towns history. We walked to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra which would end up being one of the major sites I didn’t make time to visit (something to do next time I visit) and from there walked around the central square of São Martinho in the historic centre.

I wish I could recount every detail Silvia told me regarding Sintras history, as it’s truly fascinating and contains so much intrigue, speculation and drama that I could easily see it spawning an HBO series but, my brain is only so useful and when presented with the choice of memorizing historical details or taking in one of the most enchanting towns i’ve ever visited, the choice was clear. What I do remember is Silvia telling me how Sintra’s popularity has waxed and waned through out it’s existence but it’s never completely disappeared, it’s particular appeal to the rich as a retreat allowing it to endure even after the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Personally, if I had the means, I know I wouldn’t hesitate to at least vacation here every chance I got, never-mind constructing yet another grand estate to the join the overflowing bounty of already existing ones.

After spending about an hour and 1/2 in Sintra we made our way to Monserrate, the palatial villa with gorgeous landscaped gardens that was constructed to it’s current design in 1863. It’s a bit of a walk from the entrance down to the palace itself but the day was lovely and the gardens are beautiful, an interesting mix of rigid landscaped areas with more wild spots interspersed here and there. Once you catch a glimpse of the palace though, there’s nothing else that will grab your attention- though all of Sintra seems to be influenced by Romanticism and Moorish Revival architecture, even after having seen the rest, I was moved to silence by the gorgeous mixture of the two here.

Though the palace is empty of furniture and collections, there’s more than enough to take in. From the ornate ceilings, carved columns and the abundance of interactive information available about it’s history, I’d say there’s enough to see within the palace to justify a visit. When I visited with Silvia there were about maybe 3 other groups of people and we had plenty of time to just marvel at the details in the architecture and read the infographics regarding Francis Cook, the English merchant who owned the property and engineered it’s construction. Eventually though, we were ready to head out and Silvia guided me to the gardens to make our way back to her van, our many other planned stops for the day clamoring for attention.

We stumbled upon the ruins of an old chapel on our winding way out, and of course I had to wander inside and take a look, Silvia taking a seat on a log outside to catch her breath a little. She was amused by my enthusiasm for ruins of any kind, especially with how I had enjoyed the ornate opulence of the interior we had just left and then gamely thanked me for giving her a good idea of something to potentially show other visitors one day. We left, a little sweaty from the walking but laughing and energized for our next destination.

~m