Portugal Part 2: Unusual Tours

Okay, so where did we leave off?

Ah yes, in part 1 we had just left Porto by train and we were on our way to Lisbon.

We arrived at our destination that afternoon and we were so glad to see our hostel (no teasing jokes this time about our reservation either which was appreciated).

Due to the bookings and our length of stay, we were actually upgraded to a room with a GORGEOUS view of the water and for 5 nights, we only had two other roommates in an 8 person room.

We were excited to call this place home for the next few nights.

Our view from the hostel

At times when we’re travelling, we often crave something familiar. For two nights in a row we ate at the most amazing burger place called A Cultura do Hamburguer (don’t judge us). The food, service and wine were all amazing.

On our second day, we relaxed in the hostel because Greg was feeling under the weather and we wanted to be kind to our tired legs; especially because we had signed up for a half-day trip to Sintra the following day.

Sintra was something people kept mentioning to us. “Oh, you’re going to Lisbon? You MUST go to Sintra! It’s so amazing.”

So when we saw our hostel advertising a day trip for 20 Euros/person to make 3 stops we jumped on the opportunity to check out this “must see”.

This is about when chaos started to ensue.

From the get-go, we had no idea what was happening.

When I went to pay for the both of us, our hostel reception had to call ahead and book our spots on our behalf because we didn’t speak Portuguese. This took 6 hours, and 3 separate phone calls to secure our spot after which the receptionist informed me that it was actually 25 Euros each and they only accepted cash (5 Euros more each than what was originally advertised).

No worries, right...? This stuff happens! [Insert nervous laughter]

The day of the trip no one seemed to know who was picking us up or where. We sat in reception for about 30 minutes before a frantic man found us and told us to follow him up a hill.

We took a small, broken-seated van with close to 750,000 km on it with 5 other people to Sintra Village. We sat in the middle row of seats but couldn't fully sit back with all of our weight without the seat reclining and squishing the people sitting behind us.

Amazing. This road trip had turned into an unexpected ab workout.

By this point in our travels, Greg and I had been on a handful of tours and were used to some direction and background before each stop.

This was not the case with our guide.

He chatted quietly to the person sitting directly next to him, but no one else in the van had any idea what we was saying until after about an hour he announced we were almost in Sintra City Centre.

“Okay, I’m going to give you about 45 minutes. I will meet you at this spot. Please don’t be late. Have fun.” We obediently left the van and just looked at each other.

The gist of our conversation was basically “um, so we have 45 minutes to do... what?” We didn’t do any prior research because we had expected the experience to be more directed.

Okay cool. Let’s explore and buy something to eat.

The town was small so the amount of time given made sense, we were just hoping for some pointers to make sure we appreciated as much as we could.

We returned to the meeting spot and climbed back into the van to be transported to stop #2: Quinta da Regaleira. The drive there was beautiful. It was warm and sunny, and the roads were windy with lush trees on either side.

Suddenly we slowed down and our driver said something like, “Okay, this time you have 2 hours. You can buy your tickets up the hill to get in. Make sure you ask someone for a map or you will get lost. I’ll meet you here.” A map? An entrance fee? Where ARE WE and why wasn’t this included in the price?

The people from our van scattered so we didn’t even have a chance to ask someone where it was we were being dropped off. Determined to make the most of this wacky trip, we continued to climb the hill until we walked onto the grounds of… something.

Our experience with the ticket office was unfortunate. It was a combination of a language barrier, crowds of people rushing to get in line at once and too many things in my hands.

The short version is I paid for the both of us, was handed a couple of receipts with a pile of change and was ushered away quickly without any instructions.

We were confused and tried to figure out where we were supposed to continue walking when we met a security person collecting tickets. I handed him the papers that I had, and he demanded that we give him one more.

I didn’t have anything else, so I started to ask him what else he needed for our entry. He interrupted me and started to taunt us in a sing-song voice, “One plus one equals two. You need TWO tickets.”

“Okay, I only have these papers. Should I go back and ask it to be reprinted?” I asked desperately.

“No, no. You need TWO tickets. One plus one equals two.” Then he started to laugh at the hopeless looks on our faces.

We went back and got it sorted with the lady at the cashier (who was frustrated that I had "lost" it) and then went back to the security person at the gate. We handed him both papers this time and he continued to laugh at how mad I was.

Breathe Krystal. It’s a beautiful day and you’re here (WHEREVER THAT IS) for two hours. Let’s enjoy it.

We learned that there weren’t any maps available despite our driver's instructions, just ones displayed throughout the grounds, and unless you had data on your phone to download your own (which we didn’t) it was like a giant scavenger hunt.

Despite everything, the place turned out to be pretty special.

After a few minutes of walking around, I calmed down and we started to enjoy the intricate palace grounds, the secret underground passageways, the mysterious wells and the gorgeous fountains.

Quinta da Regaleira was like a giant labyrinth on a hill overlooking Sintra. Walking around, we were imaging how effective this set up would be to confuse anyone who would consider attacking the grounds. Without the garden maps we would have easily been wandering around in circles.

At one point, we found a boulder that hid a giant well (pictured above). Later on we discovered a hidden cave and we ended up at the bottom of the well looking up to where we stood before. From that same cave, we also came upon a waterfall that opened up with stepping stones so that you could “walk on water”.

What the heck is this place?

We learned afterwards that the wells were used for secret initiation rites, so that by walking down the well and reemerging through a cave it was to simulate death and then being reborn.

The two hours went by fast, and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the meeting spot to head to our last stop of the day.

Luckily, our “guide” felt a little more chatty at this point and explained we were about to visit Cabo da Roca-- the most Western point in mainland Europe, and up until the 14th Century, was thought of as the “edge of the world”.

The view was breathtaking, and made this weird day of exercising our patience-- worth it.

A little later than we normally do when we arrive at new place, we did one of our favourite free Sandeman Walking Tour to date of Lisbon. Our guide, Jorge, was hilarious and playful about the country’s long-lasting feud with the Spanish. He also explained that Sandeman's does their own organized trip to Sintra-- something we wished we had done with them instead.

Throughout our walking tour, he emphasized that the views of the landscapes in Lisbon are amazing and mainly free if you look in the right places.

One of the hidden gems we were shown on our tour

We liked his tour style so much, he easily convinced us to also do his tour of the Alfama district later that afternoon.

We had never heard of Alfama until earlier that day, so we weren’t sure what to expect. It turns out that Alfama is a mess of narrow streets, crooked buildings and traditional Portuguese living.

The stark contrast between this neighbourhood and the design of the city centre in Lisbon is the result of a devastating earthquake/tsunami/fire that hit Lisbon in 1755. The city centre crumbled and was rebuilt in a grid for easier navigation. Alfama, primarily located on a hillside, remained untouched by this natural disaster and ultimately still reflects the old style of Portuguese architecture.

The grid of central Lisbon versus the Alfama district on the hillside

On our tour, Jorge explained how the economy in Portugal can be challenging for locals to thrive. As a result, some have come up with creative ways to make money that authorities have turned a blind eye to. This included one woman making moonshine in her house and selling it out of her living-room window.

Being supportive of local entrepreneurs we, of course, bought a couple of shots from her.

This unusual 3 hour tour (turned Portuguese drink crawl) ended with us drinking “green” wine in a basement bar under a cathedral, and us racing down the hill and against the clock to meet two Canadian friends for dinner, Josh and Liv.

It was amazing to see these friends from Waterloo, also on a similar journey to our own. The two hours we were with them FLEW by as we all had so many stories and questions for each other (they also have a travel blog called Introverts Abroad that you can check out here).

On our last day in Lisbon, we checked out of our hostel at 10 am and had 10 hours until we needed to catch our bus to Barcelona. We decided to walk along the waterfront to see Lisbon’s own “San Francisco Bridge” (true story it was built by the same architect), enjoyed some beers and mentally prepared for our first overnight bus experience.

Lessons Learned for Portugal:
  • Read reviews of tours before booking them! We learned this the hard way. If the tour doesn't have a website or can't be found on sites like TripAdvisor, proceed with caution.

  • Always check the weather and bring a coat. Portugal is a coastal country and can be windy/rainy

  • Bring comfortable walking shoes (there are lots of hills and the cobblestone streets make the ground very uneven)

  • If you do Sandeman Free Walking tours, keep the loyalty card that they give you! It was in Portugal that we were able to start redeeming our "stamps" for discounts on tours (see in cost breakdown below)

Recommendations PORTO:
  • Go to BASE for outdoor drinks and order a “Porto Tonic”

  • Do a free Sandeman Walking Tour

  • If you want to taste Port wine and learn a little too, Sandeman also offers a great experience

  • Eat a Francesinha while in Porto! You can find them elsewhere in Portugal but we were warned that they're not as good

  • Visit the Portugeese Centre of Photography AKA the Camera Museum (for FREE views of the city and interesting displays in a former prison) or alternatively, you can pay to climb up Clérigos Tower

Recommendations LISBON (Lisboa):
  • Try an egg tart at one of the local bakeries (pastel de nata). They're delicious and melt in your mouth

  • Do a free Sandeman Walking Tour

  • The Alfama tour with Sandeman is also an interesting option to explore a less touristy area (however, we felt this tour was a bit too long), so we'd recommend that you avoid doing this tour and the walking tour both in the same day. Otherwise it's about 6 hours of walking and it's very hilly!

  • Rent a car or take an Uber if you want to visit Quinta da Regaleira and/or Cabo da Roca, they are beautiful spots that can easily be enjoyed on your own (if you know why you're there- ha ha). If you'd like a more guided experience, there are many affordable tour options as well

  • If you're looking for an hostel in the centre of Lisbon, we really enjoyed Lisb'on Hostel

Cost Breakdown for 10 days in Portugal (in CDN$):
  • Flight from London to Porto for two via Ryanair: $223.04

  • Transportation: $119.67= 74.74 (train from Porto to Lisbon) + 44.93 (3 Uber rides to/from train stations)

  • Accommodations: $496 (Two different hostels for a total of 9 nights)

  • Food: $360.37 = 300 (dining out, drinks etc.) + 60.37 (groceries)

  • Attractions: $140.04 = 25 (tips for walking tours) + 75.68 (Sintra "tour") + 18.15 (surprise Quinta da Regaleira admission fee) + 21.19 (Redeemed stamps for 50% Alfama tour) + 0 (Redeemed stamps for Wine Tour in Porto)


Portugal is an underrated, beautiful country that is often overlooked when people are considering travelling to a warm destination. There's plenty to drink, eat and explore without having to break the bank to enjoy it!

So, what are you waiting for?

Saúde! (To your health!)


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