TRAVEL | A Guide to Visiting Sintra, Portugal

Two words: be prepared.

When you visit Lisbon, going to Sintra is almost a mandatory step. We've all heard about or seen photos of the green mountains and the bright Palace of Pena, and all the other historical landmarks that make up Sintra and look straight out of a fairytale. I've had the opportunity to visit Sintra during what is probably the busiest time of the year, so here is my little guide if you want to plan a trip there in the future - which I highly recommend!

What is Sintra?

Sintra is a town (and in fact a whole municipio) near Lisbon, surrounded by the mountains and by the ocean on the coast. It concentrates several major sites of cultural importance for Portugal. Castle after castle, garden after garden, Sintra is a real gem and deserves to be seen. It is a very popular area with thousands of visitors each year, and you'll soon understand why. I will talk you through the places I saw there, and hopefully make you want to see it for yourself! Let's start with the most eccentric palace around...

Monserrate Palace, the exotic dream

Built in the mid-19th century, Monserrate was originally a summer residence. Its style is called eclectism, which basically means that the architecture is of mixed inspirations: Neo-Gothic, Oriental, and of course Romantic - almost all the palaces around Sintra have that particular Romantic style to them which is really difficult to describe because of its multiple influences, but very recognisable. Architecturally, this is the palace that caught my eye the most. I mean, could you do more extravagant than that?

The palace is so ornate and beautiful, the Indian and oriental inspirations for the carvings and ceilings are unlike anything I've ever seen before. The interiors are unfurnished, but the beauty of the building itself makes up for it. 
I also highly encourage you to wander around the gardens, which are divided in several areas with ponds, ruins and exotic plants of all kinds. These gardens are a bit wild, but definitely fit in with the unruly atmosphere of Monserrate.

Quinta da Regaleira and its fairytale gardens

Another dreamy location, and gardens that seem straight out of the darkest fairytales. This was probably my favourite, it is easy access from the centre of Sintra - meaning the closest landmark you can get to by foot - and the buildings, as well as the gardens, really mesmerised me. Just as Monserrate, the Quinta was built and modified over time, to materialise the architectural dreams of its owner at the time. The Palace is heavily influenced by the Manueline style proper to Portuguese architecture and dating back to the 16th century. One can only imagine the architects sketching and getting inspiration from the past to build this whimsical structure.

The inside of the palace and of the chapel (the last picture above) are as beautiful as the outside. Once you've done a little tour of these buildings, you can walk around the gardens. My top tip for the gardens of the Quinta is to take a map at the entrance, because otherwise you'll get lost. Trust me, we even got a little lost with the map. The gardens are a beautiful maze, inspired by Romantic ideals - you'll see plenty of turrets, fountains, sculptures... You should allow around two hours if you want to have a pleasant walk around without rushing. The crowds gather around the main attractions of the gardens pretty quickly, so you might need to wait in turn to get that pretty photo.

Truly, these gardens were rather impressive. It felt like being sent back in time, in a medieval, almost mystical atmosphere. One of my favourite parts of Sintra, surely the one I'd like to see again the most!

The National Palace of Pena, aka where the controversy comes in

Now, this part of the post is where I get a bit more critical... Because unfortunately, the visit of Pena didn't meet my expectations. To tell you the truth, I was so disappointed that I was almost angry and swore I'd never go there again. Dramatic I know, but I still stand by that statement today - Pena hasn't made me want to give it a second chance.
This is the most popular landmark of Sintra, the one we see a lot online and in ads. And that is for a reason: the architecture of the palace is like no other, with its bright colours and incredible towers. Admiring it from afar, it does feel like a promising place to see.

The creativity displayed here is so unique, and you can't help but look at every little detail, every turret, every mosaic, exclaming 'ooohs' and 'aaaahs' as you turn your head around. As you walk around the walls of the castle, the view gets absolutely breathtaking. The castle is so high up that the temperature drops a little and the wind seems ready to blow you away!

The negative part however, comes when you step into the grounds of the castle. Crowds everywhere, noise, queues to enter the caste itself... I was very disappointed with how we visitors were managed. As beautiful as it is, the castle wasn't made to receive such a number of people at the same time - understandably. But nothing has been done to improve that. Even when queuing to buy the tickets, the wait was neverending and very uncomfortable, especially in the summer heat. 
I have to say the interiors of the castle were very disappointing as well. The route to follow from room to room was very narrow, so we ended up queuing all the way. The decor itself was rather poor, I was particularly disappointed with the walls, which were covered in trompe l'oeil wallpaper all the way through. There was no richness nor depth to the art, just a series of spiritless, meaningless rooms. I couldn't wait to get back outside and admire the view instead.

Now of course this is just a personal opinion and some might adore Pena, but if you have a particular inclination for castles and palaces like I do, it's easy to spot these little things. For me, the standards promised by all I'd read online before visiting were not met. The castle should definitely be made more visitor-friendly, because presently, I find it a very unpleasant experience.

My Tips to Visit Sintra

Book in advance the places you want to visit. Sintra has become a very popular destination recently, so try and save as much time as you can before getting there. Buying your tickets online will allow you to only queue at the entrance of each palace. 

If you want to visit all of Sintra (or at least as much as you can), you should do it over two days. We only spent one day there and ended up rushing a lot to see all we wanted, which was properly exhausting. If you really want to enjoy the different sights, arrange for a two-day visit. There are plenty of places to stay overnight around Sintra, the easiest being Lisbon, which is only a short train ride away.

Transportation to and from the different landmarks is really bad. There are buses that link the different sites but they're always really crowed, with queues waiting to go in and very unpredictable timetables. The best thing is to either go by car if you can drive, or use tuk-tuks - a bit unusual I know, but there are lots around so it's easy to catch one, and it'll get you where you want to go quickly!

In terms of food and drinks, there are cafés in all the main palaces, but I'd advise you to take some snacks and drinks with you - a much cheaper and probably better quality option.

Wear good walking shoes, and do not go there if you're not in a state to walk. Sintra is literally a mountain. Lots of steep paths, ups and downs, and the gardens of each palace are so extensive that if you want to see it all, you'll be walking all day. So heels aren't the best option to go for!

Have you heard about Sintra? Which of these three palaces would be your favourite?


BEAUTY | Autumn Nails with Sinful Colours

Time to switch to autumnal shades.

Sinful Colors is not a brand I see often on blogs, but I was gifted these two nail polishes as an early birthday present and I was really excited about it: aren't these the perfect colours for the upcoming season?
Purple shades are really versatile, and look as pretty on the nails as they do on the lips. I've tried out both shades and will be wearing them a lot in the next few months, so I thought I'd share them with you!

Sinful Colors seems a bit difficult to get your hands on in the UK, but if you have the chance, it really is a brand worth checking out. These two polishes are from the Semi-Matte Kylie range. I have to say, these do not turn out semi-matte on the nails at all. They're almost as shiny as any other nail polish, so I didn't find any matte element to it. However, the tiny gold specks are beautiful and very subtle.

Regarding the quality of the nail polishes, they stay on the nails for a good few days without chipping - and this is without a top coat. I'd advise you to go for three coats for an opaque result, because the texture is quite fluid. 
Next time you spot Sinful Color nail polishes in a shop, don't hesitate to try them out - they're really good quality and I'm glad I discovered the brand!

What is your favourite nail polish shade to wear in the autumn?


PARIS | The Hidden Gardens of Bagatelle

The one park in Paris nobody knows about.

Paris is a small city. It means that you can find little gems at every corner, which makes every wander a discovery, every walk a chance to spot new shops, restaurants, landmarks. And even though I've been around there for quite a bit now, this summer I got to discover somewhere I'd never been before: the Parc de Bagatelle. 

Hidden at the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, an area of woods at the west of Paris, Bagatelle is a little world of wonder, where you'll find a castle, a rose garden, waterfalls and peacocks. Doesn't it sound like a Disney film already?

My favourite area of the park was the Orangerie - without the oranges unfortunately - with its little house attached to it, which you can see on the first photo of this post. My other favourite was the rose garden. Hundreds of varieties scattered around, the wind spreading a soft flower scent as you walk between the bushes and topiaries.

To explore the Parc de Bagatelle, I'd advise you to take a photo of the map at the entrance, so that you're sure not to miss any of the little curiosities hidden here and there. Like this beautiful, pastel-coloured pagoda, complete with majestic peacock pausing right in front.

However, there's nothing wrong about getting lost in the little pathways, as you'll always find pretty flowers and plants to look at. We made our way to the Château de Bagatelle, curious to see what that castle was all about. Of course, we almost got lost on the way. And I got distracted every time we saw a peacock, because how can you not want to stop and stare at them?  

As we followed this path surrounded by strange statues and lush vegetation, we found ourselves in front of the castle. It is small, but still a pleasant sight to see - and it's pastel pink. Somehow I feel like it was made just for me. (Bold statement, I know.)

Yes, I unintentionally dressed just like the castle that day.
The Château de Bagatelle, which is in fact more like a country house, was built in 1777 on request of the comte d'Artois, who then became King Charles X of France in the mid-eighteenth century. Its style is Neo-palladian, inspired from the Renaissance architect Palladio who built wonderful houses and palaces in Italy. You can also see buildings of this style in England - Chiswick House right outside London, for example.
I wish we could have seen the interiors, but I think - don't quote me on this - it is only possible to get in with a guided tour. Which must make the experience even more special!

After observing the castle from all its angles, we went back on our walk, looking for the waterfalls.

Of course it is only an artificial waterfall, but it translates so well the eccentricity of the people who commissioned these extravagant gardens. I don't know about you, but if I had a garden, I would absolutely love for it to have a waterfall and little ducks swimming around. 
After a last stroll between the peacocks and after admiring the gigantic sequoia tree of the park, we left Bagatelle. We spent almost a whole day there, and I'd highly recommend the restaurant - there's only one and it's a bit more on the expensive side, but the food is really good.

Now that I am back in England, I'm hoping to discover plenty of beautiful gardens and places to make you discover - this is my favourite type of posts to make!

Where do you like to go for a little outdoors adventure?


TRAVEL | A City Break in Lisbon

A couple weeks ago, an unexpected trip happened, that took my to Lisbon for the first time. You may not know this, but I am from Portuguese descent. My mother was born of Portuguese parents, and my dad emigrated from Portugal when he was eighteen. I have thus spent many summers, when I was younger, in our little village high in the mountains, but I never really got the chance to see the capital.
Now that I've finally seen it, let me share with you some of the highlights of that short stay, starting with a walk to the heights of Lisbon...

Castelo São Jorge: the best views in town

Lisbon is a city built on hills and heights. There are numerous miradouros around, high points that give you multiple vistas on the typical orange roofs and colourful buildings. The best view, however, I found at Castelo São Jorge, the medieval castle that stands high above Lisbon. The climb up there involves a lot of stairs, and rather unusual streets.

Meeting the locals, too.
Go to the castle in the morning, ideally getting there before 10am. You'll avoid the queues that gather around noon, and have all the time in the world to explore. Once you arrive at the castle, you'll arrive to a big open space, greeted by a view over the whole city.

Once you've admired the view, you can learn about the history of the castle. The medieval fortress was built on top of the hill to have a good overview of the whole city and the river. In the museum, you'll find artifacts dating back to the Roman times, and around the fortress itself you'll have plenty of space to explore its courts, statues, and towers. And again, walk around the high defensive walls to see the city from above, in every single perspective you could imagine.

The Castelo São Jorge is a must-see if you've got a few days in Lisbon. You see if from below when you wander around town, and the views from above are truly worth climbing up all these stairs.

Go to Belem and try the original Pastel de Nata

Belem is a famous area or district of Lisbon, where you'll find beautiful landmarks and one of the most praised Portuguese treats: the pasteis de nata. They are little custard tarts, traditionally eaten with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on it. The pasteis were created in Belem, and that's where you'll find the house that makes the best pasteis de nata, according to pretty much everybody.

To go there and get some of the precious little pastries, you'll have to be patient. Queues there are a bit mad, and you'll feel bad for the people who work there as if they were in a factory, but eventually you'll get your hands on the pasteis. I'd suggest buying a little box of four.

Yes, we went to Starbucks to eat our pastries. Some habits are just too difficult to give up on.
Always try to eat the pasteis straight away, while they're still warm and soft. The custard inside was really good, not too sweet contrary to what I feared. The perfect mid-afternoon treat when you've been walking around under the sun and need a sugar kick. 

In Belem, walk near the river to admire the boats in the harbour, and you'll get to approach two emblematic monuments of Lisbon. 

This is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, literally the Monument of the Discoveries. Created in the 1940s but set up in Belem in 1960, it is tall, impressive white monument that celebrates the brightest spirits of Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. At the time, Portugal a country of avid explorers, with navigators who discovered territories as far as America and India. There are statues on both sides, and they look as if they were going to come to life, lift their swords and march on.

Not too far from there, another monument stands tall on the river bank: the Torre de Belem. A medieval tower built in the 16th century to mark the entry to the harbour, and to protect the town from the river. It is a UNESCO classified site, and an eerie location to take photographs of. The light changes depending on the time of day, and gives you a different perspective on the tower.

You can visit the tower, but again be prepared for crowds, especially in the summer. If they're one thing I learned about Lisbon, it is that it's really popular destination at the moment. And that's for a reason, after all!
There's more to see in Belem, but that is coming right up in the next part of this post...

Lisbon, between old and new

During my trip, I found that there are two sides to Lisbon. The first one you see is the traditional side, with the crumbly buildings, the walls covered in old azulejos, the tiny restaurants from which you can smell grilled fish and sea produce, the churches and paved roads. Visit the Alfama district, behind the Castelo São Jorge, to find the narrowest streets, lively and loud, where locals and travellers alike meet and eat in the smallest restaurants, where, if you're lucky, you'll find fado singers in the evening. 
Lisbon is also full of beautiful buildings that show its glorious past. Among them, make sure to visit the Jeronimos Monastery, with its bright cloisters and intricate decors...

If like me you enjoy the typical porcelain tiles that, all over Portugal, cover the buildings, head to the National Museum of Azulejos. It is housed in a former convent, where you can still see a beautiful church, covered from the floor to the ceiling in gold and tiles. 
You learn about the history of the azulejo, with some examples of different styles and designs, from as early as medieval times to contemporary interpretations of the art.

This museum is a real feast for the eyes, and when we went there it was almost empty. The perfect place to escape the crowds, and that you wouldn't find anywhere else in the world.
Speaking of, the National Museum of Coaches in Belem, is also one of a kind. Makes you want to ditch the Ferrari for something more... theatrical.

(Sadly, I don't own a Ferrari. I don't even know how to drive, so I guess it's not a big loss on my part.)
In the museum, you'll find carriages from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Royal carriages used by Portuguese princesses, coaches given as presents from other countries, fire engines, children's cabriolets... Some of these look like they're straight out of a BBC period drama. I had never seen such an extensive collection of carriages, it is quite unique so don't miss it if you're in Lisbon.

But Lisbon is not a city stuck in its past. It is resolutely modern, where young people (and older folks too) get together for drinks and to dance the night away, where the walls covered in tiles sit right next to walls covered in street art.

The place that impressed me the most in Lisbon was the Parque das Naçoes. It is an area built for the Expo 98, an exhibition that took place in 1998 and revolved around the ocean and its key role in the future of humanity. Since then, the place has expanded and is now a district where you'll find skyscrapers, a big shopping centre, an oceanarium, gardens, and so on.

Parque das Naçoes is a wide area, so I'd suggest to take a whole afternoon to explore it. You could always go shopping afterwards, and have dinner in one of the restaurants facing the cable car and the river. By the way, if you're fine with heights, I highly recommend the cable car. It gives you the nicest view of the whole area, and takes you from one part of the Parque to the other.

I feel like no matter what you're looking for, you'll find it in Lisbon. The city has developed and grown, and with it the possibilities of entertainment and leisure - you won't get bored there!
If there was one piece of advice I would give, it is to avoid visiting in the summer. Seems obvious, but I never thought Lisbon was such a popular destination and that it would be so crowded. But that's for a reason - it's an awesome city for a little holiday break!

Have you ever been to Lisbon? Would you consider visiting?