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

The Monumental Palácio Nacional de Mafra- Mafra, Portugal

“Oof, you know I think we’re a little lost.”

Those words usually inspire a flurry of mild anxiety in me no matter who says them but, for some reason, as Silvia peers at her phone on some random bumpy backroad near a town who’s name I can’t pronounce, I just feel a sense of calm descend over me.

We had left the beautiful Palace of Monserrate  about two hours before this, stopping at a couple of view points along the way, most notably the Miradouro das Azenhas do Mar (the observation deck area pictured above) where we had wandered along the coastline for a bit, just chatting about the area and our plans for the rest of the day. Already Silvia had guided me around the lovely town of Sintra and toured me through the grounds of Monserrate, as well as a couple of other stops after that. But we were at a bit of an impasse now, because she still had me for next 4 hours and we weren’t quite sure what to do. Usually people picked another larger palace for her to take them to, like Pena Palace, and/or hadn’t already gone to Cabo da Roca but of course I had to be different and while she still had her last stop of the day planned, the fishing village of Cascais, she really wanted me to get the most out of the day with her.

“Ok, hey! Do you want to go to Mafra? Mafra Palace? I think you will like it.” 

I had actually looked up the Palace of Mafra on my first day in Sintra and had been interested but unfortunately it was about a 40 min drive from where I was staying and I really didn’t think the effort of trying to get out there and back would be worth it. But, if Silvia was offering to take me, why not?

And thats how we found ourselves driving along the quiet road towards Mafra, occasionally doubling back when a road sign told us we had gone the wrong way and jotting down phone numbers of any properties for sale in the area (her husband works in real estate and after I saw her take a photo of a “for sale by owner” sign, I kept my eyes peeled for them as well, a new kind of roadtrip game to play). It should have been slightly stressful, not really knowing where we were going and traveling with someone I had never met before but, honestly? It was the most relaxed I had felt in weeks. This of course, probably had something to do with the fact that just two weeks prior my whole department at work had been laid-off and I was the only one kept on from a team of about 30 people. A shocking turn of events to be sure, but once I had landed in Portugal I had been determined not to think on it, not to move on from it exactly, but at least not linger on the unexpected hole blasted in my work life. (Obviously there is something to be said for being lucky enough to not only keep my job but be able to then jet off to Europe on a preplanned trip and I really can’t overstate that enough for having enabled me to keep some semblance of calm about the whole thing and not just flip a table on the spot)

Chatting with Silvia about Portuguese culture, her family and my plans for the rest of the trip as we watched the landscape change from coastal to hilly farmland, winding our way through quiet towns to whatever Mafra would hold, it was the best kind of escape I could ask for.

Built between 1717 and 1755 during the reign of King John V, the palace was constructed per a vow the king made in 1711- in summary, he would order a great convent built if his wife gave birth to an heir. As Silvia told me, the vow must have really worked because the couple went on to have not only their first child María Barbara but an additional 6 children beyond that. Though it was originally meant to be a convent only large enough to house 13 Capuchin friars, due to the immense influx of wealth received from Brazil (a Portuguese colony at the time), construction was vastly expanded to have enough space for 330 friars. The original design was also altered to include state rooms, so in the end the proposed convent ended up serving as hunting retreat for the king as well due to it’s proximity to the royal hunting preserves in the area.

It’s hard to really explain the size of this palace in terms that can be visualized. I could tell you the front façade of the palace is over 250 meters long and stands high above the surrounding town buildings at a not inconsiderable 68 meters. I could tell you there are over 1,200 rooms built around the central awe inspiring basilica, not to mention the rare books library that houses over 30,000 books on it’s shelves. All these things don’t really make you feel the true size of how big this place is though- how tiny you feel inside- especially when you and tour guide seem to be the only people wandering in and out of rooms, only the occasional other visitor seen far ahead of you.


We spent about two hours there, slowling winding our way around from one end to the other, taking in the sumptuous gorgeousness of some rooms and the almost stark emptiness of others. I think we saw one other person visiting while we were there and I could almost imagine what it would have been like to wander these halls as if I lived there, no one to disturb me as I walked down the long halls. Silvia apologized many times for not knowing too much of the history of the palace since she rarely visited but I was just thankful she had brought me and made sure she realized I couldn’t have asked for a better guide for the day.

The library was the most memorable place in the whole palace, at least to me. The day we visited was sunny, allowing golden light to spill into the deep rectangular room, the shelves packed from end to end with books as far as my eye could see and though the area was roped off to prevent damage to the library, being able to take photos and some moments of video was enough for me to cement the visit as a complete and happy success.

We ended the trip with a visit to the giftshop so I could grab some postcards for friends as well as a book on other rare book libraries in Portugal (you can bet this inspired many ideas of future trips once I read it) and then we were back on the road towards Cascais.

Unfortunately, a perfect day from start to finish was not to be as I ended up having to cut the last part of our trip short due to some unexpected nausea and stomach cramps. I promised Silvia I would much rather just head on back to my hotel than have her try and cart me around Cascais- that though I would have loved to see it with her, it was no great loss to save it for a future trip. She was of course accommodating and even stopped at a gas station before she dropped me off to buy me a water and some Sprite to settle my stomach which I honestly just love her for. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye outside my hotel and I thanked her profusely for an amazing day, promising to leave her as high of a review as possible on the WithLocals site I had booked her through.

I ended my day sipping Sprite out on the patio connected to my rooms, one of the house cats sitting above keeping me company, reading about other beautiful libraries in Portugal and already dreaming of coming back to visit them one day.

~m

Btw, if you’re at all interested, this is the WithLocals link you can use to get $15 off any private tour you book through them (and I in turn would get $15 to use as well, which hey, thats nice). If you do end up going to Lisbon and Silvia is available as a guide for a tour you’re looking at, I can’t recommend enough that you book her. She was so knowledgable, friendly and just one of the loveliest people i’ve ever met and I honestly would love to go back and take another tour with her. (No i’m not sponsored by them btw, I just honestly loved being able to use them and legit can’t praise the guides I had enough)

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

The Bridge of Sighs and a Beautiful Goodbye – Venice, Italy

I feel like I write the phrase “it was like something out of a dream” so often on this blog that people must think i’m always half awake when I travel, but the truth is that though I would consider myself a writer of at least some skill- there’s always places that I visit that truly do leave me without the necessary adjectives to describe them in any way that does them justice.

We woke up early that last day to wander our way down the quiet and still sleeping streets to make it to Piazza San Marco and get a chance to see it one more time before we left. Not only did we get spared from the constant drizzle of the days before, but there were absolutely no crowds yet and apart from a couple of other dedicated photographers walking around trying to get their best shots, the area was fairly deserted compared to the last time we had been there.

(credit to the bf for taking the photo of me standing in front of Basilica San Marco, I would almost say he’s looking to challenge me for title of head photographer on our trips  )

The previous two days that we’d made our way to see the Bridge of Sighs, it’d been fairly impossible to try and get a good shot because of the crowds but that morning, we had the bridge that overlooks the canal it’s suspended over all to ourselves. After I had finished looking at the beautiful coastline and the islands on the other side (and wishing we had maybe a little bit more time to make it over to explore them), we walked up to the bridge and there was just one guy there, trying to take a good selfie of himself in front of it. He saw us and asked very nicely if we would take a photo of him and I enthusiastically obliged and snapped two photos from him, after which he thanked us with a big smile and walked off to admire the canal coastline himself and suddenly we had the view of the Bridge of Sighs all to ourselves.

A really rather popular tourist attraction in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs is a beautiful enclosed arch bridge built in the 17th century as a way to connect the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace. The general consensus seems to be the name of the bridge comes from the idea that convicts crossing the bridge to the prisons would get one last glimpse of the lagoon through the covered windows and heave a despairing sigh but…. historically there doesn’t seem to be much credence to this. Personally I can attest that the view is limited from inside the bridge as the glass panels are very cloudy and also crossed with steel bars on the inside, but I can also say that if I was crossing any bridge as a prisoner, I would probably let out a good number of sighs no matter what.

The walk back to our hotel was unhurried as we had already packed up the night before and had our transportation to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station arranged by the staff, so we had plenty of time to marvel at all the unique and beautifully colored buildings that surrounded us.

Once back at the hotel we tucked into breakfast and then time seemed to rush on by until suddenly our water taxi was there and it was time to check out and begin the journey to Rome.

A thrilling and beautiful ride on a lovely water taxi, bright morning light streaming in through the windows as the city rushed by us made a pretty perfect way to say goodbye to Venice.

~m

The Doges Palace and the Rialto Bridge- Venice, Italy

Having already purchased tickets that granted entrance to the Doges Palace at the Correr Musuem, we were able to get in past the long line that snaked around the building, saving us a whole world of wasted time and enabling us to get more out of our last full day in Venice.

The Doges Palace is a must-see if you’re visiting Venice, so I could easily understand the long lines outside and also justify the way the interior was more than a bit packed in. And what, exactly, is the Doges Palace? This is the question the bf had when we first made plans to visit, and I couldn’t easily provide an answer since I hadn’t really researched it much up to this point (for shame right?). Basically, the Doges Palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice who was the chief magistrate and head authority of the Most Serene Republic of Venice from the years of 697–1797. They were elected for life and served as the civil and military leader and as such, their surroundings reflect this.

Taken from the visitor website to the Palazzo Ducale, this helps give an idea of what the general tour of the Palace will consist of : “the Museo dell’Opera are located at the ground floor; what used to be the palace’s kitchens are now partly occupied also by a space for temporary exhibitions. The visit to the upper floors starts in the extraordinary courtyard, from where you pass up to the Loggia on the first floor (where the Doge’s Apartments are located) and then to the Institutional Chambers, throughout the first and second floors. The visit finishes with the Armoury and Prisons.”

The change of scenery from the Armoury over to the Prisons is an almost jarring one, and one that begins by crossing through the famous Bridge of Sighs.

I do have to admit though, as weird as it probably sounds, our favorite part of the visit was to the prisons rather than through all the grand opulence of the palace. For me it was the great contrast between the two that made it all the more interesting and especially seeing the cells and even some of the artwork the prisoners had made. We spent the longest time here, lingering in the narrow corridors until eventually we made our way back to the Palace over the Bridge of Sighs once more and exited out to head towards the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of 4 bridges spanning the Grand Canal and a top recommended sight to us.

We walked our way through some more winding streets, making idle plans for the rest of the day-pizza and some gelato perhaps? All morning there had been a somewhat steady sprinkling, but for just a few minutes as we looked over the bridge to the Grand Canal, the rain let up enough for us to enjoy the view.

Satisfied with having successfully seen everything we had planned to that day, we headed back into the maze of streets to find a good souvenir shop I could buy some postcards for friends at and then afterwards hopefully procure some tasty gelato to cap our last full day in Venice. The next morning we would wake up at sunrise to take in some of the early morning light and give our farewell to this first stop of our trip, and head on to Rome.

~m