Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Lisbon vs. Sintra: Apples to Apples

Lisbon Skyline From a Park

Lisbon Skyline From a Park
 Photo: Oleksandr Kravchuk

My first experiences with Lisbon were hardly encouraging. I arrived via bus late at night and found myself in a large, dingy transportation station, eventually finding my way to a small alcove filled with cabs. My driver spoke just enough English to insist he knew where my destination was, though as soon as I got in his cab he began to sidle up to every other cab at the station, one at a time, so he could ask their drivers if they knew how to get to my hostel.

Apparently none of them gave my grizzled drier the right directions. While he managed to get me to the general area of my hostel he ended up (politely) driving in circles up and down terrifyingly steep hills until I finally told him to stop, paid him his money and headed out to find my night’s accommodations on my own. I don’t think he was trying to milk me out of an enhanced cab fare, I think he simply didn’t really know where to go and his pride prevented him from giving up.

And it’s not like I had a much easier time finding my hostel on my own. I walked those murderously vertical hills over and over again, my frustration, and yes my night-time fear, building with each step. I kept wandering until reaching the top of one particularly absurd incline I found a gyro sandwich shop still open where relief washed over me. I wasn’t excited because I knew this shop was near my hostel, I was excited because the kabob offered some semblance of home and security. I walked away from the shop and found a small park whose position at the top of this painful hill gave it an unbelievably gorgeous view of the city and its bay, a view I enjoyed while wolfing down my sandwich. The gyro felt familiar and it gave me the assurance I needed to work my way down the hill, take a chance down a poorly lit (re: completely unlit and beyond sketchy) alley where I found my hostel and crashed for the night in some of the swankiest low-cost digs I’ve ever stayed at.


Night and Day?

Silhouette of women by a museum window

Silhouette of Women by a Window
 Photo: BM iphone

The funny thing is the light of day didn’t do much to change my opinion of Lisbon. It’s natural to feel out-of-place, unwelcome, and threatened by a new foreign city when you arrive at night, especially when you don’t speak the language, and only hold the vaguest notion of where you’re supposed to rest your head among its confusingly twisted streets. But the next morning, the new city will usually seem transformed into a welcoming, friendly place. Walking around the next day I still found Lisbon both slightly unwelcoming, non-interested, yet with some unexpected treasures. As a capital, Lisbon sees more travellers than anywhere else in the country. But the fact that Portugal hosts only a fraction of the visitors to Europe’s more popular hubs, reflects the city’s complex attitude towards out-of-towners.

In other words- if you feel like Lisbon is keeping you at arm’s distance you’re not alone, and you shouldn’t take it personally.

There’s a lot to say about Lisbon and all of it is contained in my sad-sack first night and day in the city. Lisbon is dirty but weirdly welcoming, filled with familiar comforts without bending over backwards for travellers, occasionally inconvenient but often worthwhile, frustrating and vaguely menacing yet filled with moments of unexpected beauty, and, above all, it’s a real bargain.

Much like all of Portugal, Lisbon offers its visitors faded glory, the fruits of a long-since crumbled empire that’s managed to hold onto enough of its former grandeur to make it a must-stop destination for travellers looking for a grittier sense of nobility than the polished tourist attractions of Spain, France, and Italy.


Apples to Apples

Now, Lisbon does offer everything you’d look for in any other European capital city. Within Lisbon’s walls you’ll find museums, you’ll find more castles and cathedrals than you could ever hope to rubberneck your way through, and you’ll find delightfully tacky yellow trams navigating an endless procession of hills that appear too steep for wheels. You’ll find winding stone streets developed well before the advent of the auto, you’ll find public baths and bistros, you’ll hear rustic folk songs being sung and you can dance until dawn any night of the week.

Lisbon can offer you everything you would even expect from a stereotypical European trip, though all viewed through a slightly smeared lens. No gallery in Lisbon rivals the Prado Museum in Spain. The city’s winding streets are often so steep that an afternoon stroll can leave you recovering for days. The dance parties are just as likely to be a small gathering of a half dozen people and a DJ bouncing on an outdoor dance-floor as a properly cramped, crowded and sleazy European disco.

Whether all of the above appeals to you or not is a personal decision, but there are reasons why first-time travellers tend to frequent other capitals before making their way to Portugal. To appreciate Lisbon you need to expect a little less pampering, enjoy the random experience, and the challenging reward more than the average first-time Eurotripper.


And Then There is, Sintra

Aerial view of the Sintra National Palace as seen from the Moorish Castle

The Sintra National Palace, Seen From the Moorish Castle
 Photo: David Sim

For many travellers, especially most first-time travellers the main reason to visit Lisbon (aside from the city’s low prices) lies in the city’s proximity to a host of other must-see destinations, many of which lie a short, convenient train ride outside of the city. All of the beaches and small old-school fishing villages surrounding Lisbon offer simpler and easier pleasures than Lisbon, but if you were to only visit one regional attraction surrounding Portugal’s capital, you owe it to yourself to check-out Sintra.

Despite its popularity, it’s still easy to understand why many people consider Sintra one of the world’s hidden treasures.

The town of Sintra is composed of a few moving parts that all add up to create a feeling best described as “enchanting.” Even to someone who recognizes the careful construction and maintenance that goes into keeping such a gem polished.

When you arrive at Sintra, you’ll find colorful palaces that would look more in place in the Middle East than the western edge of Europe. You’ll find the ruins of tremendous castles and forests that showcase Portugal’s craggy, misty countryside to great effect. And lying beneath all of this you’ll find the sort of small-town-lost-in-time you’d expect to find once you remember Sintra traditionally played the role of summer-home for generations of Portuguese and Moorish nobles.

If any aspect of Lisbon presents itself as nothing-but-welcoming. it’s a trip to Sintra. At Sintra you’ll experience the eclectic and masculine qualities Portugal is known for without having to deal with edges that bite. While Lisbon probably isn’t right for the first-time traveller, Sintra certainly is.