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

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)