This blog follows Michael Turtle as he travels around the world and tries to uncover the stories behind the people he meets and the places he visits. He digs deep into the culture and the local way of life and brings that to his readers through his writing and photos.
Mount Vesuvius is probably the most famous volcano in the world. School children across the world have read about it in their history textbooks for generations – the volcano that destroyed Pompeii!
(Some people, like me, even remember reading about it in their Latin textbooks… poor Caecilius.)
The history of Mount Vesuvius
Usually Vesuvius is discussed in the context of the eruption in 79 AD – a story of history and a natural disaster of the Ancient World.
Rarely do we mention that Mount Vesuvius is still active and one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
Since Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius, there have been dozens more eruptions. We don’t know the exact number because the historical records of ancient time are incomplete, but the best estimate is about 40 times in the past 2000 years.
In fact, Mount Vesuvius is the only volcano to have erupted in Europe in the past century. In its most dramatic volcanic event of the 20th century, lava flowed over the rim and huge clouds billowed into the air – all of it clearly visible from Naples.
It makes you stop for a moment and wonder whether hiking Mount Vesuvius really is a good idea?
Is it safe to hike Mount Vesuvius?
At a very simple level, yes, it is safe to hike Mount Vesuvius. Although it’s an active volcano, that doesn’t mean it could suddenly start spewing out lava while you’re halfway up.
Before a volcano like this has any activity, there are warning signs. Technology these days means you’re going to be able to predict an eruption at least two weeks in advance.
But there’s still a slight thrill in the consciousness of the danger this mountain poses. It makes climbing Vesuvius a bit more exhilarating than an ordinary hike up to a peak.
Hiking Mount Vesuvius
I think about that as I walk up the trail to the crater. The views out from here stretch right across the Bay of Naples and over the city itself.
It makes me feel slightly insignificant in the vastness of it all, until I’m jolted back to the present moment when I see a sign warning of rock slides. I focus on where I am and where I’m walking.
Eventually I get to the summit of Vesuvius and I can look down into the crater. All seems quiet and calm now – no lava, no gas. But the cracks along the inside are reminders of the force that has spewed out of here in the past.
After walking further along the top of the mountain, with the crater of the volcano down to one side, I can look over to the ruins of Pompeii. Thousands of people died down there when this volcano erupted – but today, I have conquered it.
I stand proudly on top of Vesuvius and I don’t let it scare me. Nature may be much more powerful than I am, but I can still be above it all.
How to climb Mount Vesuvius
The sense of pride at the top of Vesuvius is coupled with a sense of achievement. Getting to the top is not easy – physically or logistically – but I like to think that adds to the reward.
If you are interested in hiking Mount Vesuvius, then there’s some information you’ll need to know.
Regardless of which form of transport you use to arrive (and I’ll discuss that shortly), you’re going to have to climb up the last bit yourself. The trail is wide and relatively safe – but it is longer and steeper than you might expect.
Winding up the side of the volcano in switchbacks initially, the path then follows uphill around the edge until you reach the edge of the crater.
It took me almost 30 minutes to walk the whole way – you will need a moderate degree of fitness and it may take you longer if you’re not used to hiking uphill.
The easiest way to get to the starting point for the hike is with a tour or transfer. If you’re coming from Naples, I think this is the best one.
There are some other options – from Naples and other places like Rome and the Amalfi Coast – and I’ve put them here for you:
You can drive yourself up Vesuvius but you will have to leave your car at the lower parking lot (only buses and other tours can use the higher parking lot) and that will add another 30 minutes of walking along the road to your trip.
If you want to use public transport to get to Mount Vesuvius, the best option is to catch the Vesuvio Express bus from the Ercolano Scavi station of the Circumvesuviana train.
To get to the station, you can catch the Circumvesuviana, which runs between central Naples and Salerno. It’s a pretty awful train (dirty, unsafe, crowded) so the other option is to get the much nicer Trenitalia train to the Portici-Ercolano station about 2.5 kilometres away, on the other side of the Herculaneum archaeological site.
The Vesuvio Express bus leaves about every 40 minutes. A ticket costs €20 and that includes the €10 entry fee that everybody would have to pay at the top anyway.
Once the driver drops you off, you’ll have about 90 minutes until you need to come back and meet the bus. This is enough time to walk up, explore the edge of the crater a bit (in my case, also have a beer) and then walk back down.
The other option you might consider is hiking all the way from the bottom of Mount Vesuvius to the top. Let me give you one bit of advice about that – don’t do it!
Although there is technically a path marked within the Vesuvius National Park, it usually has locked gates blocking the way. The only guaranteed trail is the road that all the cars and buses go up and that’s really long and pretty dangerous.
You might think it should be an easy question – but it’s actually quite complicated. It depends on how you define it.
If you’re talking about the main building plus the ground, then the Palace of Versailles in France takes the title. But if you think the ground need to be enclosed within a wall, then it’s the Summer palace near Beijing in China that takes top spot.
Some people judge it by floor space. In that case, the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest in Romania is the largest. If you restrict the floor space definition to ‘royal’ sites, then it’s the Royal Palace of Madrid in Spain.
So where does Caserta Palace near Naples in Italy fit into all of this?
It often claims to be the largest palace in the world – but by what definition?
Well, it turns out Caserta Palace is the largest in the world by volume. In other words, taking into account not just the floor space but the height as well.
The history of Caserta Palace
Arriving at Caserta Palace, the volume of the building is not immediately obvious. The facade is large – and prominent because of all the empty space in front of it – but it doesn’t give away the true size hidden behind.
It’s only when you go through the front gates that the scale is revealed. The palace is built like a grid with four outer wings and then two internal wings that cross in the middle, forming four enormous courtyards.
The size is no coincidence. Caserta Palace was built by the Bourbon Kings of Naples in the 18th century. At this point in history, the House of Bourbon – which ruled many of the great European powers over the centuries – had the wealth (and the ego) to build something this grand.
In 1752, construction began on Caserta Palace or King Charles VII of Naples. He had expressly asked for something that was modelled in the Palace of Versailles in France – only bigger!
Visiting the Royal Apartments at Castera Palace
Although the Palace of Versailles was used as inspiration, the general architecture is quite different and, if you looked at it from the outside, you wouldn’t see too much resemblance.
The similarities come in two main ways – the first of them being an interior designed to overwhelm.
To get into the Royal Apartments to see the inside of Caserta Palace, you first have to walk up an enormous flight of steps called the Grand Staircase of Honour. The amount of marble is astonishing, and it has large statues and a painted dome.
Although the staircase is considered to be one of the highlights of Caserta Palace, it is just an appetiser for the rest of the tour. As you go through, room by room, the opulence is disorienting.
There are the enormous antechambers with chandeliers and painted ceilings. You’ll then come through to the Throne Room, long and high, covered in gold, with the throne at the far end.
As you go through bedrooms and other private spaces, the rooms become smaller but no less ornately-decorated – there are gaudy light fittings, paintings, sculptures, stucco and frescoes.
It can take a while to walk through and see the Royal Apartments at Caserta Palace – although not quite as long as I expected. You see, the building has five floors and 1200 rooms! However, the section that is open to the public is only a fraction of that – about one quarter of one floor.
The Park at Caserta Palace
To see Caserta Palace properly, you also need to see the park – and it could easily take longer to explore than the main building. If you thought the palace was large, the park will really impress you with its size.
From the rear of the palace building, the park stretches out into the distance, a long line towards and then up a hill. From the palace to the end of the park is almost three kilometres long!
The first part of Caserta Park consists of large lawns with a thin forest on the edges. Statues are spaced around the edge, half-hidden in the foliage, looking inwards. If you were to venture along one of the paths into the forest, you’ll find a pond or small buildings.
The main element of the park follows the straight line that stretches outwards – a seemingly-limitless water feature. Water flows slowly down the long thin pools until it hits fountains or falls and cascades over into the next.
To explore it, you can walk (or jog) or hire a bicycle. There is also a bus that will take you to the far end (and back), if you prefer.
Is Castera like Versailles?
The park is the other way that Caserta is like Versailles. Because what the Bourbon Kings created here is more than just a royal palace. It’s effectively a new city.
The reason this site was chosen, 30 kilometres inland from Naples was intentional. It was designed to be away from the coast so it could not be attacked from the sea. And it was also to make it peaceful and efficient away from the political strife and chaos of Naples.
Around the palace a city was developed to accommodate the palace’s workers and all the bureaucracy of the government. Other industries were also moved here to give this new city its own economy, to help make it sustainable for the families that would call it home.
And so, much like Versailles, there was a new centre of power in the kingdom with its own army and commercial prospects, easier to defend and easier to rule from. It added yet another layer of grandeur to the palace.
Visiting Caserta Palace
One of the things that surprises me as I explore Caserta is why it is not more famous.
Sure, lots of tourists visit and it can get crowded in busy periods – but you won’t find anything like the queues at the Palace of Versailles. I also get the feeling that an average person may never have even heard of it… and the same can’t be said for its French counterpart.
If you’re planning to visit Caserta Palace, it’s an easy day trip from Naples with a direct train that stops right in front of the main entrance. I would suggest going a little later in the day to avoid the tour groups that tend to come first thing in the morning.
If you would like to skip the line and/or have a guide to tell you all about the palace’s fascinating history, I’ve got a few options for you here:
However you go, give yourself at least a few hours to wander through the Royal Apartments at your own leisure and then explore the park. The largest palace in the world (by volume, remember) deserves at least that!
Where is Caserta Palace?
Caserta Palace is about 30 kilometres north of the centre of Naples. The official address is Viale Douhet, 2/a, 81100 Caserta. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Caserta Palace?
The easiest way to get to Caserta Palace by public transport is on the train. There is a direct train from Napoli Centrale that takes about 45 minutes and costs €3.40. You can check the timetable here.
When is Caserta Palace open?
Caserta Palace is open from Wednesday - Monday but is closed on Tuesday.
The Royal Apartments are open from 08:30 - 19:30 with last admission at 19:00.
The park opens at 08:30 all year but closes at different times (with the last admission an hour before closing time).
In January, it closes at 16:00.
In February, it closes at 16:30.
In March, it closes at 17:00.
From April - September, it closes at 19:00.
In October, it closes at 17:30.
In November and December, it closes at 15:30.
How much does it cost to visit Caserta Palace?
Admission to the Royal Apartments and Caserta Park costs €12 for a regular ticket and €6 for a concession.
You can also get admission for just the park, which is €8 for a regular ticket and €4 for concession.
In some ways, Naples was what I expected – dirty, chaotic and dangerous. But, in this story, I’ll tell you why I still came to love this Italian city.
Inside, the Santa Chiara Church in Naples is beautiful in its grand simplicity – a vast serenity with elegant stained-glass windows and an earthen-coloured tiled floor.
Outside, its walls and doors are covered in graffiti. Not the hip street art that can give a neighbourhood a contemporary atmosphere. I’m talking about the overt vandalism of sprayed names and rude messages.
And here, in this one spot in the centre of the historic centre of Naples, the entire city has been captured.
Begrimed and neglected on the outside; resplendent and colourful when you go a bit deeper.
Is Naples dangerous?
For as long as I can remember, Naples has not had the best reputation for tourists. There are its associations with the mafia, people always talk about the city’s trash problem, and it’s certainly supposed to be inefficient compared to the major cities in the north of Italy.
I arrived expecting to find that these stereotypes were just tales that get perpetuated by people who have never been – only heard about it secondhand.
I had assumed that some of the other negatives stories about Naples were no longer relevant – that they described how the city used to be, not how I would find it now.
I was wrong.
There is no denying it – Naples is dirty and Naples is dangerous. Everywhere you go, bins overflow with trash and streets have rubbish just piled up against the wall or in the middle of the square.
Walls are covered with scrawled graffiti, gardens are full of weeds, historic buildings are falling apart.
And the crime level is relatively high, with tourists particularly targeted. Pickpocketing, bag-snatching, muggings. This is a reality in Naples – I can promise you – and certainly more than anywhere else I’ve been previously in Italy.
(This is probably a good point to remind you that I always suggest you have travel insurance and I recommend World Nomads.)
But, you know what? Despite all of this, I have come to love Naples.
The real Naples
For every criminal targeting tourists, there are thousands of warm and generous local residents who you’ll meet as you explore Naples.
For every pile of trash, there’s an impressive piece of architecture behind it.
For every wall of graffiti, there is an opulently-decorated church on the inside.
In fact, it’s the chaos and the grit that I think endeared Naples to me right from the start. While cities like Florence or Siena in the north are certainly beautiful, they also come across as a little artificial and a little too clean – as though they have been created just for the hordes of tour groups who visit each day.
With Naples, there is no doubting the authenticity of what you are seeing. This is a city with texture – the good and the bad.
What’s somewhat hard to reconcile is that there are some absolutely gorgeous urban vistas in the city: around Piazza del Plebiscito, for example, or up at Castel Sant’Elmo. But then there just seems to be such a disregard from local authorities and residents to keep their city beautiful.
One of the things I think must be going on is a love of the luxury of life, more than ornamental considerations. (When you see how people drive here and how close pedestrians seem to come to death all the time, perhaps it makes sense that you would want to live in the moment.)
One night, at almost 11 o’clock, the entire neighbourhood where I’m staying erupts in noise with shouting and banging. People are hanging off their balconies screaming, cardboard boxes are being kicked in the street, bottles are being smashed.
The local football team has apparently scored a goal just in time to win an important game.
It’s not the fanaticism that surprises me – that happens everywhere. It’s the noise and the mess that it creates… and that everyone is getting involved! The entire neighbourhood, as a community, has been caught up in emotion with no consideration for the chaos that’s caused.
But I get caught up in it too, the longer I spend here in Naples.
I like that I have to push my way to the bar to get a coffee just like all the locals do.
I like that there’ll be a bit of performance about ordering a pizza but when it comes it will be one of the best I’ve ever eaten.
I like that simply crossing a threshold can take you from hot bright hectic streets and into quiet historic buildings with centuries of amazing art.
I like that every cafe serves an aperol spritz.
So, did I like Naples?
Even the best relationships have some bad times, don’t they? Moments of conflict that just need some forgiveness. Annoying character traits that just need some acceptance.
That’s the way I see Naples. I am glad I have this city in my life now and that we’ve had this time together. It’s not perfect – but at least it’s real.
I’ll have lots more stories about Naples and the things you can do around it coming up on the blog in the next few weeks. So stick around and join my newsletter if you would like updates!
Let me share a bunch of tips on how to save money in Lisbon by using the Lisboa Card to get the best value out of your time in the city.
I have come across a lot of city cards in my travels. It often seems like a good idea to get one if you’re thinking of doing some sightseeing. But sometimes, when you actually do the calculations, you realise that maybe buying one wasn’t such a great idea.
So, the question in this case is: Is the Lisboa Card worth it?
The answer is easy. Yes! A big yes!
I don’t think I’ve ever used a city card that offered such amazing value. No matter how you look at the Lisboa Card, it is worth getting for at least some of your time in Lisbon.
The tiles in Lisbon are one of the defining elements of the city. This is the history of the azulejos and how they almost disappeared in the 1900s!
I don’t think you can appreciate the beauty of Lisbon without considering its Portuguese tiles. They glitter on the facades of apartment blocks, dazzle in the public squares, bring colour to the interiors of churches, and even make a trip on the metro more entertaining.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, it’s been less than 100 years since tiles made a comeback in Lisbon.
Tile Museum Lisbon (Museo do Azulejo Lisboa)
At the Tile Museum Lisbon (Museo do Azulejo Lisboa), you can trace the story of the decorative feature. Room by room, their styles develop and their uses change. From decorative, to artistic. From artistic, to practical.
The tiles are known in Portugal as ‘azulejo’. Although the word is derived from the Arabic ‘az-zulayj’ (meaning ‘polished stone’) it wasn’t actually the Moors who brought the tiles here, as many people think.
It wasn’t until the 15th century, after the Moors had retreated to North Africa, that the use of tiles was imported from neighbouring Spain – mainly because King Manuel I had seen them in Granada and wanted to decorate his palace at Sintra the same way.
These first designs, as you can see at the Tile Museum Lisbon, were simple. Still beautiful, no doubt, but the patterns were formed just with geometric patterns and a limited colour palette.
Over time, the Portuguese artists added their own touches – animals, plants, even humans. The simple patterns were replaced with vivid scenes of history and fiction, telling tales from the Age of Discoveries and from The Bible.
Lisbon’s Tile Museum is housed these days in the building of the former Madre de Deus convent. The site was chosen because the convent was famous for its stunning displays of azulejo.
Part of the museum is the convent’s church and on the walls inside you can see incredible examples of how Portuguese tiles were used to tell stories. The scenes here are vivid representation of famous Catholic stories.
You’ll notice that the tiles in the Madre de Deus church are blue and white. People often think that these are the standard colours of Portuguese tiles because they are so prevalent – but they are actually just the fashion of a certain period.
With trade increasing between Europe and Asia after the discovery of the sea route by Vasco da Gama, Asian art became very trendy in Portugal. These tile displays were influenced by one of the most popular types of this art – the Ming Dynasty porcelain from China.
Tiles in Lisbon
You only have to walk the streets to realise that there are many more hues in use with the tiles in Lisbon than just blue and white. So many of the residential buildings through the city are covered in patterned tiles, full of colour, a wall of art.
The use of azulejo on the outside of buildings was extremely popular in the 18th and into the 19th century and the production of tiles in Portugal reached a peak. It was partly about the art – the aesthetics were certainly appreciated by the general population – but it was also about practicalities.
When buildings were being constructed, people realised that tiles on the outside helped protect against damp, kept homes cooler in summer, and even reduced noise coming in from the street.
But, as is often the case, as soon as something became common, it lost its value. The elites of Lisbon became less interested in tile art because it was seen as lower class – no longer something that adorned churches but covered the homes of poor people.
From a civic perspective, azulejo had fallen out of favour by the beginning of the 20th century.
There was something in the 1950s that occurred that is credited with making Portuguese tiles in Lisbon cool again. Something that I have already written a bit about – the construction of the Lisbon Metro.
The azulejos tiles revival
When the first stations of the Lisbon Metro were being built, they authorities asked local artist Maria Keil to design artistic wall coverings for them. She chose to decorate them in tiles – and this began a tradition that would see every future metro station decorated with incredible tile art.
From each viewpoint, you see their spires. In the public squares, they dominate. On the main roads, they command attention.
In Lisbon, churches are an integral part of the city. They are still used by a large part of the local population; they form the foundations of many communities; and (as I discover) they are very useful for directions when you’re walking around.
But for visitors, the great thing about the Lisbon churches is that they are sights in themselves.
There are dozens of churches in central Lisbon (most Catholic), tracing the story of religion in a country where it defined an empire and still has a huge impact on daily life. Church and state may have been officially separated in the early 1900s but the Catholic hierarchy still wields a heavy influence.
What I find interesting in the art of Lisbon’s churches is how the figures are portrayed in much more benevolent expressions than those in neighbouring Spain.
I’m told that the reason saints are more often portrayed as calm and forgiving, rather than pained and judgemental, is because of rural traditions. The Portuguese, more than the Spanish or Italian, incorporate into their beliefs traditional and peaceful elements of folk spirituality that sit outside official Catholic doctrine.
But, like most of this part of Europe, the interior decorations of Catholic churches demonstrate the importance in the structure of the religion. Elaborately-carved chapels, golden walls, enormous murals, intricate sculptures and vibrant stained-glass windows – it’s all here on display.
If you’re visiting, I would suggest you spend some time to go into Lisbon’s churches. It’s quite easy to do and you’ll probably find yourself walking past many of them as you do some sightseeing around the city. Conveniently, many of them are also on the route of the Tram 28.
I’ve chosen 16 churches in Lisbon that I think are the best to visit, giving you the highlights but also a range of artistic and architectural styles. They are also all free (except one) to go into. You can see them on the map here:
To give you a sense of Lisbon’s churches, have a look at the collection of 360 degree photos that I have put together for you below. Spin around and you’ll be able to feel what it’s like to stand inside each of them.
With these photos, go on a journey through centuries of religious art in Lisbon and Portugal.
Lisbon Cathedral is often just called the Sé and is the most important Catholic church in the city. It’s also the oldest church in the city, having been built in 1147.
It’s been modified over the years and now has a mixture of styles but it’s predominately Late Romanesque architecture. You’ll notice that the interiors are relatively bland and most of the stone inside is uncovered.
Basílica da Estrela
Basílica da Estrela is one of the largest churches in Lisbon and has a giant rococo dome on top of it. The dome and the two bell towers on the facade are quite easy to spot from many of the city’s viewpoints.
It was built from 1779 on orders from Queen Maria I and you’ll find her tomb inside. Behind her tomb is the entrance to a room that has a special baroque nativity scene with over 500 figurines.
Igreja Santa Maria de Belém
Although Igreja Santa Maria de Belém is part of the Jerónimos Monastery complex, I have listed it here because it actually has a separate entrance and is free to go into.
Like the monastery, construction started in 1501 and it was designed to be a spiritual refuge for sailors and explorers before they set off on their journeys. There are a lot of things to see inside the church but make sure you don’t miss the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões.
Igreja de São Roque
Igreja de São Roque is on one of the main streets in Bairro Alto and it’s easy to find. Construction started here in 1555 and it was one of the first Jesuit churches in the world.
The most spectacular thing about the church is the interior, which is full of gold and marble. The chapels on either side each have their own special style of decoration but the highlight is the Chapel of St John the Baptist.
Igreja de Santa Catarina
I almost missed Igreja de Santa Catarina the first time because it doesn’t have an obviously-grand facade on this main street, but the interior is incredible.
It’s decorated in the baroque style with lots of gold and there’s a beautiful stucco rococo ceiling. One of the most important elements is the monumental organ which is a masterpiece of gilded woodwork.
Igreja e Convento da Graça
The best reason to go to Igreja e Convento da Graça is for the Graça viewpoint at its entrance, but make sure you go inside as well. Although the original church was on this site since 1291, the new one in the baroque style was built after the 1755 earthquake.
The chapels on either side are not overly gaudy but the detailed figures in them are quite beautiful. Make sure you go up into the area near the altar where a figure of Christ carrying a cross is kept – it’s used in Easter processions.
Igreja de Santo António
Igreja de Santo António is right next to Lisbon Cathedral and it’s easy to see both of them at the same time. It’s quite a small church with simple decoration but it’s extremely important because it was built on the spot where Saint Anthony of Lisbon was born.
You can go down into the crypt to see the exact spot of his birth but there is not too much to see there.
Igreja do Menino Deus
Igreja do Menino Deus is often closed but I manage to find it open on a Wednesday morning. It was built by King João V in 1711 and is full of stunning artworks that he commissioned.
The church is in the baroque style with carved and gilded woodwork in the chapels.
Igreja dos Anjos
You might think Igreja dos Anjos is quite new from the exterior, which is only a hundred years old. But it was built to house a much older interior that used to be in a church that was knocked down to build a road.
The gilded woodwork is from the 1600s and some of the paintings are from the 1500s. It’s quite a small church that doesn’t get many visitors but there’s a lot of history on display.
Igreja de São Domingos
This is one of my favourite churches in Lisbon because of the atmosphere inside. Igreja de São Domingos was first built in 1241 and was once the largest church in Lisbon.
Inside, it looks damaged – and it is. Although it survived two major earthquakes, it was devastated by a fire in 1959. Although structural elements were restored, the effect of the fire was left on the columns and many of the walls.
Igreja Paroquial do Santíssimo Sacramento
There are two significant things to know about Igreja Paroquial do Santíssimo Sacramento, which was built in the 17th century. The first is that it has beautiful ceiling paintings done in the 18th century. The second is that it’s the only church in Lisbon where mass is done in Latin.
The ceremony might be a bit too heavy for you but pop in and see the ceiling.
Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha
Although the interior of Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha is lovely, it’s really the facade of this church that makes it noteworthy.
This portal in the Manueline style was built in 1496 and is the only part of the building that survived the 1755 earthquake. It includes figures of nobles and religious clerics and is similar to the carvings at Jerónimos Monastery.
Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Encarnação
Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Encarnação is on the main square of Chiado and is one of the main landmarks of the district.
Inside is an impressive sculpture of Our Lady of the Incarnation, done by famous Portuguese sculptor Machado de Castro. The other important element are the beautiful paintings on the ceiling.
Igreja do Santo Condestável
Of all the churches I’ve included in this list, Igreja do Santo Condestável is by far the newest one. It was opened in 1951 and is in a more suburban part of the city, just to the west of the Basílica da Estrela.
I have recommended it because it shows the modern style of Portuguese churches – still grand and imposing but with less bright decoration. The highlight artistically is the stained-glass windows.
Capela do Cemitério dos Prazeres
If you take the Tram 28 route (either by carriage or walking), you will finish at Prazeres Cemetery. Inside the cemetery, you’ll find this small church, Capela do Cemitério dos Prazeres.
I have recommended it particularly because it has an exhibition space on the upper level which is usually free to enter and has interesting temporary collections on a range of topics.
Igreja do Antigo Convento de Madre de Deus
The final church I am mentioning here is the only one that is not free – but it is included for free with a ticket to the Tile Museum.
The Tile Museum is housed inside the old Madre de Deus Convent and this is the church attached to that. Built in the early 16th century, what makes it so spectacular is the tiled artwork along the walls of the church.
If you have any other Lisbon churches you would like to recommend, please let me know in the comment section below.
This Lisbon district along the Tagus River was developed for the Expo in 1998 but has taken on a life of its own in the 20 years since then. I think it’s worth visiting to see the incredible modern architecture.
500 years after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama found the first sea route from Europe to Asia, his homeland wanted to do put on a series of special events to commemorate his famous voyage. The biggest event of them all was the Expo ’98.
Exactly 500 years to the month that Vasco da Gama arrived in India, Expo ’98 opened in Lisbon. Over the next 132 days, about 11 million visitors came to the event.
It was held at a specially-developed part of Lisbon along the Tagus River. An area that, unlike many Expo venues, has managed to become even better since the end of the event.
What is Park of Nations Lisbon?
Park of Nations Lisbon (or Parque das Nações) is now the name of the area where Expo ’98 was held.
The five-kilometre long stretch along the river had been used from 1942 for docking the hydroplanes that flew to the USA… until jets replaced them. Then it became an unattractive industrial area full of factories and container yards.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t too hard to convince the city and national authorities to knock it all down and start again.
The important thing, though, is that they didn’t just build a site for the Expo. They planned a much longer-term strategy that would rejuvenate the area in the Park of Nations to become a new hub in the city for business, recreation, and housing.
Visiting Park of Nations (Parque das Nações)
For a visitor to Lisbon, Park of Nations (Parque das Nações) has some particular sights that may be of interest – but I would argue that they are more suited to families than people who want to see the culture of the city.
There’s the Lisbon Oceanarium, a large site with excellent displays of sealife.
There’s the Pavilhão do Conhecimento, a science museum focused on children.
You’ll also find the cable car that takes you on an 8-minute ride from one end of the park to another.
And there’s the Vasco da Gama Tower, the tallest building in Lisbon.
Even though the attractions are of high quality, I don’t think they are particularly authentic Portuguese experiences and I wouldn’t suggest making the effort to go and visit them. But there is a good reason to go to Park of Nations – to see the architecture!
Modern architecture at Park of Nations (Parque das Nações)
The buildings and the public art at Park of Nations (Parque das Nações) creates an open-air gallery full of modern creations. Not only are there the architectural works that were designed for Expo ’98, there are also new buildings that have been created to fit into the landscape.
The theme for Expo ’98 was “The Oceans: a Heritage for the Future” and you’ll notice that many of the original buildings have used that theme in their design.
The Vasco da Gama Tower, for instance, which looks like a old ship’s mast with a crow’s nest on top.
Or, for another example, the twin apartment towers São Gabriel and São Rafael that were named after – and resemble – two of Vasco da Gama’s ships.
Rather than tell you about each of the things to see at Park of Nations, I’m going to leave you with some more of my photos of the architecture. At the bottom of the post, I have a bit more information about how to get to Park of Nations and how to find the architecture and art.
How to get to Park of Nations (Parque das Nações)
The easiest way to get to Park of Nations in Lisbon is with public transport. There are excellent transport links that were put in for Expo ’98. The best way is probably to catch the metro to Orient station. And, on your way, check out some of the amazing Lisbon Metro station art.
Once you’re there, it’s easy enough to just wander around and see the main sights. You will notice some large boards with maps that mark out the key buildings and artworks. I have put a copy of that below, so you can do some advance planning.
If you’re only in Lisbon for a couple of days, I understand that you might have better things to do with your visit. But if you’ve got a bit of spare time or you’re coming back for a second trip, perhaps consider spending a couple of hours at the Park of Nations. It shows a different modern side to the city and the collection of modern architecture here really is quite incredible.
This mystical land of Sintra, just a short trip from Lisbon, takes you on a journey through centuries of opulent artistic creations.
I take my first steps down the Initiation Well here at the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra. This deep hole in the ground has a spiral staircase around the edge and I continue down, deeper and deeper.
It gradually gets darker. Looking up, I can see the circle of light at the top where I came in. It’s 27 metres above me. This strange inverted tower, full of symbols of ancient cults and mysticism, has me in its grasp.
I am now truly underground and a tunnel has opened up in front of me. I decide to follow it, head bowed, through the darkness, not quite sure where it will lead. All I know is that this is a part of the Sintra day trip experience – a mysterious journey into an almost-magical realm with constant marvels and surprises.
Thankfully, though, most of the journey in Sintra is above ground, not in the long dark tunnels of the Quinta da Regaleira. Because the highlights of Sintra are found in its lush green mountains full of romantic palaces and fairy tale estates.
The history of Sintra
To understand what Sintra is, think of it as a huge district (about five times the size of Manhattan) where the royals and wealthy of Portugal have built grandiose homes over the years.
For centuries, they have created their own little domains with opulent buildings and vast gardens full of amusements. Many of them are still privately owned today. But the best ones are now open for us to explore.
Although you can find more than 1000 years of history at Sintra, I think it’s easiest to think of its development in three important stages.
The first stage in the history of Sintra that’s worth mentioning is the few hundred years from the 9th century. This is the period when the Moors occupied different parts of the Iberian Peninsula and were in constant conflict with Christians.
With battle after battle, the region of Sintra changed hands back and forth between the Moors and the Christians. Many of the buildings constructed during this period would form the foundations for the palaces that would come later. The most famous sites left from this period is the Moorish Castle, which I’ll talk about shortly.
The second important period is from approximately the early 1400s until the 1600s. This is the time when the Portuguese Royal Family decided to make Sintra their holiday retreat.
It doesn’t take long to get from Lisbon to Sintra, even back then, and so the cool hills were the perfect summer escape from the heat of the capital.
Different rulers left their own marks on the landscape of Sintra and used the palaces and gardens for various purposes. The most important construction of this time was, without doubt, the iconic National Palace of Sintra in the centre of the town.
Perhaps the period that most defines Sintra these days is the period in the 18th and 19th centuries when the idea of Romanticism took over the area. It became the first centre of European Romantic architecture as a new generation of wealthy and artistically-minded people moved here and created new estates.
With a mix of design influences from across the world, with bright colours, and with some playful artistic embellishments, Sintra was transformed into a playground. I think it’s this period that has come to define the fairy tale land that visitors are looking for on a visit to Sintra… including the Initiation Well where I began my tale.
How to see Sintra in one day
So, as you may be able to tell by now, there is a lot to see at Sintra. The large area takes a while to get around and there are impressive sights scattered throughout it all.
It would be very easy to spend two or three days seeing the main attractions – but I know that many people only have limited time to spare and a Sintra day trip from Lisbon is the only option.
With that in mind, I have put together my suggestions for the best way to spend a day in Sintra. This itinerary will take you to all the biggest sights and explain the easiest way to do it independently.
The only word of warning I would give is that most visitors do a very similar itinerary because it is the best and most obvious way to see Sintra in one day. If you are prepared to leave knowing you didn’t see the biggest attractions, you can still see some amazing sights but with much smaller crowds.
Still, I’ll concentrate now on the best way to spend a day in Sintra and see all the main sights. I’ve put all the locations I’m going to talk about on the map below.
How to get to Sintra from Lisbon
I’m going to assume that you’re coming from Lisbon. It’s really easy to get from Lisbon to Sintra and I would recommend you take the train.
It leaves from Rossio station and takes only 40 minutes. There are relatively regular departures but some are direct and some will involve a change. You can see the timetable here.
The trip costs €2.25 each way but you’ll need to buy a transit card for €0.50 if you don’t have one already, making it a return cost of €5 total.
However, this train line is included for free in the Lisboa Card. I would highly recommend getting the Lisboa Card if you’re going to Sintra for the day. Even if you just get the 24 hour card, the whole day will cost you only €29.30 as opposed to €48.50 if you pay for each ticket individually (these calculations include all the transportation as well).
If you are also doing some sightseeing in Lisbon – maybe following my guide to the best things to do in Belém, for example – you could get the 48 hour or 72 hour card to save even more!
If you’re looking for the best neighbourhoods in Lisbon, consider exploring the authentic area of Graça for local food, cool street art, and the best views of Lisbon.
The waiter, standing outside the restaurant having a smoke, waves at me as I walk past. We stop for a chat and he asks me when I’ll be coming back for another meal. Tomorrow sounds good… I’ve not got much planned.
This is what it is to learn about a new local neighbourhood. I think you only really know the area when you reach the point that it also knows you in return.
When you’re getting to know Lisbon, it helps to think of the city as a collection of neighbourhoods. This isn’t just useful for navigating your way through the streets. It’s also a good way to explore the culture of Portugal’s capital because each neighbourhood has its own personality.
The main tourist areas of Lisbon are easy to identify – Baixa, Bairro Alto, Ciado and Alfama are the main ones. But you don’t need to go far from the centre to find neighbourhoods that are authentic and relatively untouched by the impact of tourism – but still full of things to explore.
I think one of the best local neighbourhoods in Lisbon is Graça. It’s the kind of area where the locals sit on the street to drink their coffee, store owners stand in doorways to talk with the passers-by, and you have to constantly dodge dogs and shopping trolleys as you walk along.
Yet there’s also a young population that lives here because of lower rent prices and it’s had a bit of an impact in recent years with cool street art and some new restaurants.
I have spent quite a lot of time around Graça during my time in Lisbon and have put together a guide to help you explore the best things to see and do in Graça.
How to get to Graça
To get to Graça, there’s no avoiding the uphill. Graça is actually the highest point in Lisbon and no matter which direction you’re coming from, you’re going to have to head up some pretty steep slopes.
If you’re coming from the central Baixa area, the walk is only about 20 minutes or so, if you’re not too worried about the hills. You can either come the direct way up from Martim Moniz Square through Mouraria, or come the slightly longer way to the south of St George’s Castle and past Alfama.
You can also catch the Tram 28, which passes right through the centre of Graça. But, as I have written about previously, there is normally such a long queue to get on that it may not be worth it.