Sintra is a wonderfully picturesque town set amongst the hills northwest of Lisbon. It received a well deserved designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. As the top recommended day trip from Lisbon its popularity is also a problem as it now attracts so many visitors that it can be extremely crowded and frustrating to visit, particularly in the summer. You can read all about the challenges of a summer visit in this post by our friends Kemkem and Federico over at Nextbiteoflife.
The cooler climate and wonderful scenery of the pine covered hills has attracted the nobility and elite of Portugal for the past several centuries, and they built lavish and extravagant palaces around the area. It is also a strategically important location which prompted the Moors to build a castle atop the hills in the 8th Century.
There are many guided tours from Lisbon but we chose to take the inexpensive commuter train from Rossio Station. You can also get a train from Oriente Station. Either one costs only €1.80 with a transit card each way (€2.10 without). Our advice is to get one by 9:00 in order to arrive at Sintra before the large crowds. The suburban railway to Sintra is now one of the most congested commuter lines in all Europe. In October when we first visited, the lines for the buses in Sintra became long after lunch and the interior of the palaces were crowded.
The train stops in the lower portion of Sintra and you can walk to the central town which is about a 1.5 km walk uphill or take the designated tourist buses. They begin at 9:30 (9:15 in high season) and save you a lot of time and energy walking up the steep hills. For first time visitors arriving from Lisbon the €5.00 package (Route 434) is probably the best option. It is a complete loop that includes three of the most popular sites: the Palacio Nacional de Sintra (€10.00), the Castelo dos Mouros (€8.00) and the Palacio Nacional de Pena (€14.00). It operates on a hop-on hop-off basis but you can only do the loop once so if you skip one you will have to pay again. On our second visit we also used the Route 435 bus which goes to 4 sites and costs €2.50.
We were on the first bus and among the first people at the National Palace. By the time we finished our visit however, several tour groups had arrived and it was getting a little busy. There are many rooms open for viewing within the palace and we particularly enjoyed the tilework.
When we visited on a damp November day, we skipped the National Palace and went straight to the Moors Castle and were rewarded with a deserted site and amazing views coming in and out of the clouds.
The old town itself is very charming and has wonderful buildings lining the streets with many souvenir shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It was pleasant when we visited but must be very congested in the busier months.
Heading up a narrow, steep and winding road in which the bus has to back and turn a couple of times we arrived at the entrance to the Moors Castle site. We had bought our tickets for all three attractions at the National Palace and in addition to saving 6% on the admission we didn’t have to wait in the lines at the ticket office.
It is a very pleasing stroll up the hill to the castle entrance where you will have your ticket validated. Be prepared for plenty of walking, and a lot of it uphill but it is absolutely worth it.
The site is well maintained and interpreted making for an informative and pleasant walk to the summit of the hill. Archaeologists have uncovered human habitation on the hill dating back to the 5th Century BC and you will see storage silos and burial sites along the way.
We were not expecting the stunning views from the castle walls. King Ferdinand II was a strong supporter of the arts and was inspired by the landscapes when he purchased large tracts of land including the castle site. The view took our breath away and reminded us of pictures we have seen of the Great Wall in China.
There are washrooms, a small gift shop and cafeteria in the castle site itself and many pleasant spots to have a picnic or just take in your surroundings. A word of advice – take the pathways to the left to reach the top of the castle and descend along the walls. The pathways are much easier on the knees as it is a large ascent. We did it this way and as we made our way downwards along the walls we were constantly meeting people out of breath coming up.
The next stop on this circuit is the fantastic Pena Palace. It was constructed in 1842 – 1854 by King Ferdinand II on the ruins of a 15th Century monastery. The Romanticist style drew inspiration from Bavarian castles such as Neuchwanstein Castle. By the time we arrived in the early afternoon it was quite busy. Another note is that the bus drops you off at the bottom of a 500m uphill climb but you can chose to take the shuttle at an additional cost of €3.00 return ticket which you can buy at the gift shop.
The contrasting colours of the castle are quite stunning and each view produces a different perspective. As you enter the gates of the palace you immediately enter a world of fanciful designs, often outlandish in nature but ultimately delightful and visually arresting.
The interior of the palace is as whimsical as the exterior. Themed rooms ranging from Moorish to Egyptian, all housing an array of exquisite paintings, ornately carved furniture and objects from across the former Portuguese colonies.
For us the views and the fantastical nature of the castle itself and the setting was what caught our attention. Wandering on the narrow turrets and walls and through the labyrinthine courtyards yielded striking views and endless photographic opportunities.
Our son and a friend visited us in early November and we wanted them to experience this wonderful town. It was a damp and cool morning when we arrived but we chose to start our day at the Moors Castle. It was practically deserted and the atmosphere was wonderful with low clouds swirling around us.
While we did not have the sweeping landscape views across the peninsula we were rewarded with occasional glimpses of the Pena Palace.
In the afternoon we took the 435 bus to the Quinta de Regaleira, a romantic palace and chapel which is renowned for its gardens and grounds. Completed in the early 20th Century the parklike grounds include grottoes, underground caves and tunnels and an enigmatic “initiation well” which you can descend to the bottom of by way of a very interesting spiral stairway.
We were enthralled with the grounds and every nook and cranny felt as if it was right out of a fairy tale. This would be the garden that inspires a child’s imagination and maybe even frightens them a little.
We only scratched the surface of Sintra and even two days did not do it justice. There are so many options within the area that you really do need a game plan before going to ensure that you get the most of the time that you have. Be prepared to lose some time in waiting for buses and lines but you can find solace in the views and surroundings while you wait.
There are many other sites in the Sintra area that look fascinating and well worth seeking out. We spent two very interesting days there and would return again – if we are here in low season!