This is the fifth in a series covering my extended Labor Day weekend trip to Hamburg (and Lisbon). You can check out an overview here.
Since my flight from Lisbon to New York wasn’t until 5PM, I figured I could really maximize my overnight layover in Lisbon. It turns out I was a bit ambitious, alas. I had been to Lisbon for a few days about five years ago, but the one place I’d wanted to go to that I hadn’t made it to on that trip was Sintra, a town outside of Lisbon. I made it, but it was too rushed to really enjoy Sintra.
My 18 hours in Lisbon started out dramatically, as the Uber I was in from the airport was rear-ended about halfway to my hotel. I was okay, but the driver just told me “the ride is over” and I got out in the middle of a street at around 11:15pm. At first I figured I’d walk the remainder of the way to the hotel, but since it was late and Ubers are cheap in Lisbon, I got another one for the last half a mile or so.
I had booked a room at the Holiday Inn Lisbon, not needing anything fancy given how little time I anticipated staying in the room. I did not book directly, as Booking.com had been running a promo where you got $40 back off a $80 stay; the rate was 86 EUR so that would make the stay very affordable. I had emailed the hotel in advance because of the late arrival and included my IHG Rewards Club Platinum membership number, not expecting to get any IHG Rewards Club benefits. But at check-in, the friendly agent seemed to be expecting me and told me I’d been upgraded to a suite.
Now, look, the Holiday Inn Lisbon is not a luxury hotel, nor is it recently renovated. But it is perfectly fine, and was clean and nice. My room was on the 9th floor, an “Executive Floor.” It was a bit oddly shaped, with a smallish living room with a dorm-like blue furniture, including a couch and two arm chairs around a small coffee table (but no TV), and a desk and office chair.
The bathroom was in a little hallway to the left of the living room, and the bedroom was straight ahead. There had been a turndown service, with chocolates on the pillow, and robes with apples on the bed. There was also a little weird dinette table with newspapers spread on it, along with a dresser/desk combo, with a bottle of water and a Segafredo coffee machine. The furniture was definitely dated to the mid-90s, and the bed was extremely soft. There were no outlets next to the bed and it all felt fairly random.
The bathroom reminded me of hotel bathrooms from my youth in terms of style, though it had potpourri and a bidet. There were both pumps of soaps and such in the shower, as well as individual ones at the sink. One negative was the bath mat towel was extremely dirty.
In the morning, I woke up and discovered a great view from the suite. I called down to the front desk and asked for late checkout, with the plan of coming back and showering and changing before heading to the airport. They offered 2pm, and I figured I could make it work. And then I was off to Sintra around 9am.
Sintra is a city about 25km from Lisbon, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its 19th century Romantic architecture, with castles and such. It’s also surrounded by a national forest and mountains. It’s a very popular trip for a day for those visiting Lisbon. I thought it wouldn’t be super-crowded since it was already early September, but, nope. I made a few mistakes which I’ll flag as I go through.
You can do a guided tour from Lisbon, but I just took the train. It was a clear sunny day in Lisbon and a really nice 15-minute walk to the Entecampos rail station. The commuter rail ticket was 5,50 EUR roundtrip, and the trains run every ten minutes. By 10:08am, I was in Sintra.
The most common way of getting around Sintra if you’re not on a tour is the 434 public bus, which runs a loop from the train station, into town, up the hills to the palaces, and back. The distance between the sites are generally not walkable, but the buses are crowded and slow. I couldn’t find the bus at first, but was directed to a different side of the train station and there were buses lined up. I got on the 2nd one and paid 5,50 EUR for a ticket for the day.
It was about a ten-minute ride to the center of town, where the first main sight, the Palacio National, is located. I should have just stayed on and rode farther given my time constraints. It was completely overcast and I decided not to go in the Palacio itself and save the 10 EUR. I walked around the little town a bit but there wasn’t much to see. It was packed with Japanese and older white-haired tourists, and was very gimmicky – something I didn’t miss in Hamburg. I did get two small pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) and a coffee. (They are so sweet – I could’ve survived off one.)
Unfortunately, waiting for a bus to take me up the hill was a mess. The buses that were coming from the train station were absolutely packed and very few people could get on. And people were very rude, cutting the queue that was formed. I couldn’t get on the first bus and the next wasn’t coming for 15 minutes. A French older couple shoved themselves in front of me but I was not going to wait for a third one. I cannot imagine how crazy this situation would be on a summer weekend day.
I hadn’t gone in anywhere yet, and was already worried about time, so I skipped the next stop- the Moorish Castle. The bus continued up a very steep winding road and I got off at the next stop, the Palacio Nacional da Pena. There, I bought a 14 EUR ticket which got me entrance to the palace itself and the grounds. It was a very steep climb up to the palace, but it was really pretty and there was some clear sun for the first time all morning.
Unfortunately the lines to get inside the palace were insane, so I decided to just spend 45 minutes wandering around the forest itself, which was much more relaxing and kind of mystical, with fog rolling around.
By the time I got back to the entrance, a huge line had formed for tickets and I had a ten-minute wait for the bus. It was 12:10 by the time I was on my way back to the train station, and there was oddly a lot of traffic driving through Sintra. There are lots of one lane roads and long lights, and the roads are so narrow there is barely room for the bus. Tourists were crossing in the middle of the street, tour buses were blocking the road, and the bus driver stopped to chat with every bus driver we passed. This meant I just missed a train as it was pulling away, and I had to wait twenty minutes for the next one, and I was getting tight on time.
At 1:34pm I got to the Roma Areeiro station in Lisbon, and I took an Uber back to the Holiday Inn, arriving at 1:43. My key didn’t work, so I had to head back down and get it reactivated, so obviously no shower and change before 2pm checkout. Bottom line: probably not a good idea to try and do Sintra in a half-day from Lisbon.
I had plenty of time before my flight, though, for lunch in the city. On the Uber back, I had seen a plaza with people eating outside near the Holiday Inn and wandered in that direction. The restaurant turned out to be “B’perfect Burguers,” which was underwhelming, but cheap food, in a really pretty setting. I sat outside and had a burger and a bottle of water for 7 EUR, before taking a ten-minute, 4,50 EUR Uber ride to the airport.
I do need to get back to Lisbon for a longer visit, and would love to explore more of Portugal. Sintra may not be a great half-day trip, but if you’re not rushed and have a full day, it is easy and worthwhile. For my purposes, the Holiday Inn Lisbon (one of two Holiday Inns in the center of town) was more than adequate, but I really didn’t experience anything other than the room.
Next up, the conclusion of my Labor Day trip: flying TAP Air Portugal business class from Lisbon to JFK, and the new TAP lounge in Lisbon.