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Beyond Lisbon: Discovering Porto and Sintra

Lucy and Misako journeyed beyond the popular destination of Lisbon to the beautiful cities of Porto and Sintra. Luckily, they gave us the down-low on exploring these unique cities so that we could share their insider scoop with other StudentUniverse travelers looking to travel for cheap.

Let me begin with saying, I was totally unprepared for the exact level of mind-blowing that Portugal threw into the game. I would consider myself fairly well-traveled. I have a list of must-see cities and dream destinations, all researched, Pinterested, and complete with a fantasy Airbnb flat for future me who will be spending four hundred big ones a night like it ain’t no thang. Anyway, nowhere on my list did I consider going to Portugal. I had never even really googled it. How did it slip my radar? Sure, I hear people talk about it sometimes and I think, “oh, how exotic and rugged!” Don’t ask me why I choose those two adjectives to depict a place I now know deserves a whole slew of glamorous SAT-word type descriptors. And, while Lisbon is certainly the popular kid in the group, we discovered a few more low-key cities we’re high-key obsessed with.

Porto

Did you know that Porto is where Port Wine comes from? Was it that obvious? Because I didn’t know until I got there. It’s a city about three hours north of Lisbon by train. It’s tiny, it’s hilly, and it’s one thousand percent magical. I was lucky to be traveling with a friend who speaks Portuguese and knows a little about the culture, so I had a built-in tour guide for my time there. I had done a little research and scoured some travel blogs to find out what I should do in Porto, but soon realized it’s a city that welcomes you to mosey around and stumble upon all the hidden treasures waiting for you.

First of all, the architecture is stunning. We emerged from the metro around 1am our first night and came face to face with a huge blue and white tiled church standing nobly on the corner of a steep street corner. I gasped audibly and giggled like I was seeing a celebrity crush. (I share this embarrassing information with you so you can know I’m serious about the beauty of this city). The magnitude of old architecture is whimsical and stupefying. Porto wears its history proudly. From the Church of Saint Francis to Livraria Lello – the famous book store that inspired J.K. Rowling’s creations – there are awe-inspiring structures everywhere. If you fancy a long walk to the North end of the city, you can gaze upward upon the Casa da Música, a major concert hall, café, and restaurant with an impressive modern facade.

There’s an air of nostalgia that encapsulates this humble city, and they’ve got a culture to match. We spent our days waking up late, enjoying a lazy café de saco with warm croissants, and sitting out on the sunny streets to take it slow and let the day come to us. That’s what people seem to do in Porto; enjoy. It’s a slow life, best enjoyed with a Super Bock at lunch, followed by a bottle of wine with roasted chestnuts for dinner. If you can, cross the magnificently striking and knee-shakingly high Dom Luís I Bridge and pay five euros to take the Teleférico de Gaia one way down to the riverbank around sunset. You’ll technically be in Vila Nova de Gaia, not Porto, but you can gaze upon her across the river and fall into a warm and fuzzy waking dream of this whimsical city. Speaking from experience.

How to get there? Take the Comboios train from Estação do Oriente in Lisbon to the São Bento station in Porto. And don’t fall asleep on the ride! The views are top notch. Getting over to Europe is the hard part. Once you’re there, it’s easy and cheap to travel and hop over to a new city every few days. Make traveling easier on yourself and book with StudentUniverse for cheap flights to Europe.

Sintra

Honestly, I don’t know how to do this town justice simply by writing about it. Sintra is a town west of Lisbon, about thirty five minutes by car and an hour by train. It’s bursting with historical richness; brilliantly colorful houses and shops at the base of town, majestic castles surrounded by mystical romantic gardens, and notorious bakeries with pastries to die for.

 

I decided to go to Sintra on the day trip my hostel was offering about fifteen minutes before they left. I piled into a van with seven strangers and we set off for Sintra with our cameras and a hilarious tour guide. Most people arrive in town and head up the winding mountain road to Pena Palace. If you were ever going be truly shaken by the beauty and grandeur of a historic landmark, this would be the one to do it.

The palace boasts Romanticist architecture and is painted in vibrant chunks of yellow, red, and blue. You can tour each room and feel like you’re living in the same intricate luxury of the former royal family. At the top, there’s a vast view of the whole city below, stretching all the way to Lisbon on one side, and the ocean on the other. Afterward, we walked down through the palace gardens and discovered the hidden lakes surrounded by mossy structures and enveloped in a thin layer of fairytale fog.

>We enjoyed a classic Portuguese lunch in town, followed by some famous “Pastel de Nata” at a local bakery, and set off to explore the secret gardens at the Palace of Sintra. The Palace itself is beautiful and simple, but what’s really intriguing are the grounds surrounding it. Make sure you have a map, because this huge stretch of land will suck you in and get you all turned around. There are underground tunnels, deep wells, and spiraling stairways leading you to all sorts of secret caves and mossy lakes in the park. I felt like I had stepped into a page of Peter Pan as I hopped across the stepping stones behind the waterfall of a bright green pond, hidden behind a high stone wall and covered with fog and dewey trees.

Have I sold it enough? If you’re in Lisbon for more than a couple days, make visiting Sintra a must on your list. Just bring sneakers, an umbrella, and an appetite.

If cheap flights aren’t enough to convince you to see Porto and Sintra, StudentUniverse also offers discounts on hotels and hostels so that students don’t have to break the piggy bank to see the world.

*If you stay at the Traveller’s House hostel like I did (which I highly recommend) you can join their weekly day trip to Sintra and Cabo Da Roca. If you are doing your own thing, take the Linha de Sintra from the Rossio station in the middle of town.