Tree house in the She Pines

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, set among mountains, forests and the sea — with its intoxicating combination of quaint and magical — is one of this country’s must-see cities. With the sun shining, it was only about a half hour drive from Cascais to our hotel in the neighboring town of Sabugo.

When traveling, many factors — location, cost, amount of mid-century-modern furniture in the lobby, etc. — go into deciding where I’d like to stay. This, I’m excited to report, is the first time that I’ve picked a hotel based on its name alone.

While it took some careful navigating to locate, we soon found ourselves at the door of “The She Pine Tree House Hotel,” a small bed and breakfast. We were greeted by one of the friendly owners, Luis, who brought us into the bizarre living room, decorated with just an overwhelming amount of stuff. Drawings, books, pillows, plants, overload.

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With a big day in Sintra planned, there wasn’t much time to take it all in, so after dropping off our bags, it was back in the car. Twenty minutes later, we were in the heart of the old town, dodging massive tour groups all jostling for entrance to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra.

Of Moorish origins, the palace dates to the early 13th century and is best known for its conical white chimneys. It houses quiet courtyards filled with orange trees, some of the oldest azueljos (relief tiles) in the country and the Swan Room, adorned with Manueline frescoes of 27 gold-collared birds.

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The crowds were a bit much to handle, so we made our way through rather quickly and then embarked on our climb to Castelo dos Mouros, a mist-enshrouded ruined castle from the 9th century. Rising 1,200 feet above us, the walk was a bit intense, although we felt more deserving of the experience than those bus-bound other tourists.

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From the Great Wall of China-esque walls, we spied the Palacio Nacional da Pena sitting on a nearby hill. Passing through a park of the same name, we hiked to the entrance and, after a quick lunch of warm goat cheese salad, were completely blown away.

While the colorful and detailed exterior was impressive, it was the interior where this palace really shone. Room after room featured centuries old porcelain, furniture and oil murals. It was as if Queen Maria II, for whom the place was commissioned around 1840, was still living there.

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Continuing on our palace binge, we hopped in the car for one last stop that our hotel keeper said should not be missed: Quinta da Regaleira. This villa was built in 1892 for a Brazilian coffee tycoon who clearly had a thing for crazy carved stone structures.

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Back in the Corsa, our whirlwind day in Sintra continued west to the sea. Cabo da Roca, a sheer 450-foot cliff, is the westernmost point in Europe, and as Charlotte so acutely pointed out, I’ve got a serious need for geographical tourist sites.

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Back at House of She Pine Tree, Luis made a nice home-made meal that we enjoyed with some of the other guests before retiring to that bizarre living room with a carafe of red wine.

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A stop in the Costa del Sol

Cascais, Portugal

With a slight headache, we caught a taxi to the airport this morning to pick up our rental car. Neither of us can drive stick, which left limited options. In fact, only one agency (a German company called Sixt) had a car to offer — a hot blue Opel Corsa 1.2, an engine, we would learn, that might have had another life in a tractor or lawn mower.

Our destination for the day was Cascias (pronounced Kush-kaish), a town that has skyrocketed from sleepy fishing village to a popular summer destination for the residents of Lisboa. In most major capital cities, escaping to the beach and ocean can make an afternoon’s drive. In Portugal, it takes about 30 minutes to reach the Costa del Sol.

We parked and checked into Hotel da Vila, a super colorful place in the heart of the old town.

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The receptionist pointed us toward a lively pedestrian drag nearby where we found a touristy seafood restaurant with outdoor seating. A grilled piece of swordfish and bottle of water later, my hangover had magically vanished.

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An Audi-sponsored regatta race was wrapping up on the waterfront, so we walked down to the shore to check it out. Charlotte, with her impeccable fashion sense, wore just the right outfit.

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Although town and the marina was bustling, many of the shops were closed since it was Sunday. So we settled for walking around, resting with gelatos on benches and enjoying the warm sun.

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Our dinner at a local Thai place was questionable — was there tomato sauce in our pad thai? — best to just stick with the local cuisine. But sunset drinks at the uber-trendy Farol Design Hotel, with its whack chandelier and sweeping views of the Atlantic, proved the perfect nightcap.

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Really. Perfect.

DIY: Steak edition

Lisbon, Portugal

After a solid 12-hours of sleep, we were up early this morning to take Tram 15 into the city center. We had two strong bicas and a pastry at Confeitaria Nacional, a pasteleria that has been around for a couple of years (well, since 1829). At this early hour, it — as well as the surrounding Praca da Figueria — was just waking up.

Outside, we hopped onto vintage Tram 28, for a rambling ride up one of Lisbon’s many hillsides to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, the city’s highest lookout. From this vantage point, we could take in the red tile rooftops, the Golden Gate-esque bridge crossing the Rio Tinto, the tolling of church bells. Essentially, Lisbon.

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It was hard to overlook the iconic Castelo de Sao Jorge sitting on a nearby hillside, so after quick stop at the Saturday morning Feira da Ladra market, we made our way in that direction.

The castelo dates back over 1,600 years. It was used by the Visigoths in the 5th century, Moors in the 9th century and royals in the 14th to 16th centuries. We explored the shaded courtyards, cobble-stoned streets and towers, staying far from the unprotected edge.

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Back outside, we got lost among the Alfama district’s back alleys and unmarked streets. This is an area that shows working-class life in the country’s capital, with old women hanging laundry to dry and children playing in the small, leafy squares.

We managed to find the , the fortress-like city church built in the 12th century, that was still decoratively festooned from a visit a few days ago by the Papa.

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It was time to refuel — and our guidebook suggested Pois Café, an Austrian-run neighborhood spot with a kind of Village bohemian feel to it. After a couple of sandwiches and Coke Lights, we continued descending downhill until we hit the waterfront and sprawling Praca da Comercio.

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Deciding where to head next, we realized that our city map was sponsored by El Cortes Inglés, the amazing Spanish department store that required a visit. A short metro ride brought us to the 8-story behemoth, where we ended up buying a nice vino roja, freshly baked rolls, goat’s cheese and Jamón ibérico to snack on later.

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Back at the hotel, we rested up for what we knew might be a big night. We started by taking the gold-plated elevator to the trendy lounge of the Bairro Alto Hotel, with its view of the twinkling lights of the riverfront. A couple of beers later, it was onto a dinner at Sul, hyped by Lonely Planet as a “fixture on the late-night dining circuit.”

The dish of choice was an essentially “grill your own steak.” Ingredients: raw filet, salt, seasoning and a hot as heck stone. Result: Completely delicious.

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In the center of Lisbon’s social scene, we hit several (many) of Bairro Alto’s bars, staying out too late and more than making up for last night’s weak performance.

Óla, Lisboa

Lisbon, Portugal

With the threat of another ash cloud shutting down Europe’s airports having temporarily subsided, we boarded our flight for Portugal a little after 8 p.m. US Airways was flying a jet from what felt like 1980, with seats crammed into every space and no entertainment options (three old school televisions hanging from the ceiling). Still, the flight was cheap and left on schedule.

We arrived in Lisbon just about 6.5 hours later, at 8:25 a.m. local time, not having slept much thanks to the talkative family sitting behind us that was oblivious to the fact that maybe other passengers might want to get a couple minutes of sleep. At the carousel, my bag was possibly the last off – but thankfully made the connection in Philadelphia.

(Side note: props to US Airways! Their planes suck, they charge for headphones and beers, don’t give out any sort of amenities like eye masks or earplugs, but are cheap, arrive on time and get bags to their final destination.)

We hopped in a cab for the 20-minute ride to our hotel in Belém, a pretty, seaside neighborhood on the city’s outskirts. Our room at Jeronimos 8 was on the small side, but we didn’t anticipate doing much in it besides sleeping, so it was fine. Plus, the lobby had a lounge-like space and there were some recliners outside on the patio for us to chill out on.

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Battling jet lag and a line snaking out the door, we started our morning at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, a bakery dating to 1837. It’s best known for the pasteis de belém, crispy pastry shells filled with custard cream, baked at 400 degrees then doused in cinnamon and powdered sugar. After demolishing four of them and some bicas (espressos), we were tempted to order another round but held off.

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Just down the block was Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which was commissioned to commemorate explorer Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498. The first monastery of many that we’ll visit in this country, it was impressive, with intricately carved stone columns (that Charlotte loved) and a serene cloister which monks used to cross in silence.

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A short walk to the shore, we visited the Padráo dos Descobertas, a monument inaugurated in 1960 on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death. Standing 150 feet tall, it features all of those textbook explorers that departed not far from here, including da Gama.

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Passing fishermen, we walked further to the Torré de Belém, a World Heritage-listed fortress that epitomizes the Age of Discovery (according to Lonely Planet). It was built back in 1515 and has survived the years to offer tourists like us panoramic vistas of the sea today.

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With the lack of sleep starting to catch up on us, we blazed through the Museu Coleccao Berardo, a free contemporary art museum with some bizarre exhibits, and the Museu Nacional Dos Coches, a sweet place with a huge collection of dank old school carriages, including some seriously blinged out rides.

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Back at the hotel, we decided to take a nap. It was around 5 p.m.

Little did we know that we wouldn’t awake until the following morning.