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This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I wasn’t always a firecracker. In fact, there was a brief period in childhood (which I’m embarrassed now to admit) that I wanted to be a princess.
And no, not a fearsome warrior princess who throws fireballs. A Disney princess who sings. I wanted to be the Little Mermaid, dress up in pink frilly dresses, and twirl around the room singing “Part of Your World.”
These days, you’re more likely to find me hiking a mountain in cargo pants than twirling in ballgowns. But from time to time, those princess tendencies sneak back in, sometimes when I least expect it.
This is exactly what happened when we went to Sintra, Portugal. For the first time in decades, I was transported back to my childhood, and surrounded by romantic, gothic castles, I swooned.
It is said that Hans Christian Andersson, who lived here at one point, was inspired to write many of his timeless fairy tales.
Having been to places like London, Edinburgh, and Neuschwanstein in Germany, I thought I was a now a seasoned castle-connoisseur.
Sintra proved me wrong.
If you want to get your breath taken away by a legit castle, go to:
Quinta da Regaleira
The castle itself is just a backdrop to the surrounding grounds, which had treasures hidden in every corner.
The first surprise came in the form of grottos:
As we explored the winding secret pathways, our eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness, I couldn’t help but imagine the lair to an entire family of gnomes wearing pointy hats, their tiny black boots scampering around in their cave home.
After we came out of the grottos, our eyes straining against the bright sun, we came across a peaceful lake, surrounding a tower in the middle.
I was tempted to yell “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” but that would’ve made me look crazy, so I instead, I just sat around, talking to the pigeons and asking if they’d seen Rapunzel.
From the lake, we headed for the most intriguing treasure of all, “The Initiation Well”. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get closer and peer down into it, you’ll notice that it’s not filled with water.
Instead, a swirling staircase leads you deep underground. As you walk down the winding stairs, you’ll notice that there are 9 spirals—which we were told symbolizes the 9 circles of Hell. So, as you leave the earth and enter Hell at the bottom, you’ll enter a labyrinth of caves.
I half expected to see a fire breathing dragon or a 3-headed dog at the bottom, but all I found were hordes of tourists, snapping their cameras.
Which, I guess, is some people’s personal version of Hell.
Walking around the grounds, exploring hidden caves, miniature lakes, and gothic fountains, I felt like I’d wandered into a fairy tale the whole time. Too bad I couldn’t find a puffy sleeved coat and a shirt with frilly collar to get Wanderer to play the part of the prince.
Palace de Pena (aka “The Queen’s Fart”)
How did this flamboyant disney-eque castle get such a classy nickname? Explanations vary amongst the locals, but the version we heard is because of the impenetrable cloud that hangs over it—apparently the castle represents the queen and the cloud her fart?
Maybe their queens don’t eat enough fiber? Or too much fiber? (I forget how it works)
Anyhoo, this weird castle is the jewel in Sintra’s fairy tale crown and can be seen from miles away because it sits atop a hill:
You can also get a great view from the courtyard:
After exploring the fart castle, make your way to:
If you enjoy Moorish architecture, this place reminds me of the Alcázar in Seville. Lots of intricate details, romantic archways, makes you want to re-enact the scene where “Prince Ali” meets Princess Jasmine in her Sultan’s palace in Aladdin.
If you still haven’t gotten enough of Moorish architecture yet, head for the Moorish Castle. With lots of stairs leading to breath-taking views, if like me, you over indulged in one too many francesinhas, this is the perfect Stair master to work it off.
Queluz National Palace and Gardens
It’s easy to imagine Belle with her nose in a book, traipsing around this opulent masterpiece and the best thing about this palace was how deserted it was. With perfectly manicured gardens and stately rooms, I was reminded of a mini Versailles, but while I was here, we only came across a handful of other travellers.
My favourite part of this palace is the garden, where you could wander around for hours singing Disney songs to your heart’s content.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
We ran out of time and didn’t get to see this attraction, but if you get the chance, go check out this sprawling museum.
It was in Sintra that we had one of our favourite meals in Portugal. For a measly 11 Euros, the lunch special (executive menu served from 12-3pm) at Incomum by Luis Santos gives you an appetizer, main, dessert, and red wine!
Do you see now why I love Portugal? Great prices, great weather, and a landscape that’s diverse enough to include wine valleys, sandstone beaches, fairy tale castles, and metropolitan cities. What more could you want?
If you do go visit Portugal, instead of crowding overrated Lisbon like all the other tourists and cruise goers, take a train and head 30mins outside the city to Sintra. You’ll be glad you went.
Here’s how much we spent in Sintra:
|Cost in USD/couple
|Cost in CAD/couple
|This 3 bedroom Airbnb with balcony had a ton of space and was smack dab in the middle of downtown. We could get to pretty much all attractions (except for Queluz National Palace) by walking. I suspect this would've been a better place for an entire family since we didn't even use 2 of the rooms. The reason why it was such a good deal was because the decorations and furniture were outdated–as in you feel like you're in grandma's house. Never the less, it was very comfortable and sparkling clean.
|$24 CAD ($5 for eating out, $19 for groceries)
|We only spent 4 days here and ended up cooking most of the time since we were saving our pigging out for Lisbon. The only time we ate out was with a German reporter who flew here to write up our story. He was kind enough to take us out to lunch–which is why I deliberately found the Incomum executive lunch special.
|Transportation is surprisingly high even though we were walking distance or a short bus/train ride to everything because we decided to go back and forth to Lisbon to pick up hot pot ingredients. You'll likely spend less.
|Over 4 days we spent around 50 Euros for all attractions because we bought it ahead of time online and got a discount. Expect to spend around 10-13 Euros per person per entry.
|We bought some shampoo and that was about it.
|We loved Sintra and can't wait to go back. If you want to live inside a fairy tale, this is the place to be!
Would you go to Sintra? Did you have a favourite Disney character growing up?
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