An easy train ride from Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, the town of Sintra feels like something out of a Portugeuese fairy tale.
Sintra is definitely worth a trip from Lisbon if you have a day to spare, although you really can’t see all its magic in a single day. Still, we spent the better part of a day exploring the town and its surrounding castles, starting with the colorful Pena palace and its expansive park grounds.
Sintra, with its higher elevations and cooler temperatures, served as a popular summer retreat for the Portuguese nobility and elite, which explains the prevalence of the lavish castles and palaces there.
The most popular of the town’s castles is the Pena Palace, whose colorful walls draw tourists like moths to a lightbulb. The 19th-century palace was built on the foundation of an old monastery, designed as a lavish summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The bold colors, intricate stonework and stunning tile facades were built in an eclectic mix of styles and influences, giving it a unique architectural style all its own.
Travel Tip: If you’re want to visit the Pena Palace, get there early and go there first. It’s the most popular attraction in Sintra, and therefore the most crowded, especially on weekends and during high season in July and August.
To get to Sintra from Lisbon, take a 7:20 or 7:40 train from Lisbon’s Rossio station (about a 40 minute ride), get in line for the first 434 bus up the mountain (bus service starts at 9:15am, or you can flag down a tuktuk for a private ride up the curvy mountain road). If you’re not waiting at the gates when the palace opens at 9:30, you’re going to be stuck among the throngs (which makes any attraction, no matter how beautiful, much less enjoyable). Also, buy your entry tickets online ahead of time, so you only have to wait in one line at the top rather than two.
We definitely made the right call getting to the Pena palace early in the day. At least we did something right, even if the rest of our day went downhill (literally and figuratively) from there.
The inside of the palace wasn’t nearly as extraordinary as the exterior (with the exception of the kitchen, all that copper 😍 and that LIGHT!), so if you are short on time you can definitely get away without purchasing a palace entry ticket (just a park entry). While you would miss some lovely views from the higher points in the palace, you’d still have access the courtyards, terraces and outer walls.
When you accidentally wear a dress that matches the castle walls perfectly, you stop and play fashion blogger for a few minutes. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be abandoning food for fashion any time soon!
The forested castle grounds cover over 200 hectares and are full of hidden surprises around every corner; if you have more than one in Sintra, definitely take more time to explore them (I hear the view from the High Cross is particularly beautiful although we opted to skip the steep climb).
We made our way down through the grounds towards the lower entrance by the duckhouses. From there we easily found the trail that led us up to the Moorish castle (a fairly easy 30 to 45 minute hike).
While the Moorish castle was interesting, it was very nearly the end of us. The day had become quite warm, and all that walking in direct sun just about did us in. We made our way around the castle walls like dutiful tourists, then beelined to the concession stand as we were famished (and by concession stand I mean a tiny shack that had a few cold sandwiches and a sad vending machine). Tables were scarce, so we sat down with a nice couple from Chicago who offered to share their table. After devouring the sandwich and chugging an entire bottle of water, the woman commented that I was starting to look a bit better, “you were bright red when you sat down,” she said.
Good to know I looked the same way I felt.
From the Moorish castle it’s another 45 minute hike (all downhill, and quite steep in parts) to the historic town of Sintra. A pretty walk, but we probably should have just taken the bus.
Once in town, we stopped into the quaint Piriquita for a snack, trying out the travesseiros (almond filled pastries) and cheese pastries called queijadas, and devouring another (much better) sandwich. The water was out in this part of down (we just can’t win, can we?) so the cafe wasn’t running at full capacity. I think we were lucky to get a glass of orange juice.
Still exhausted, we didn’t stay long in the town itself, although it is quite cute (and equally as crowded). We made our way back to the train station (about a 20 minute walk from the town center) and hopped on a train back to Lisbon were we promptly took a nice long nap.
(From the train station as we were leaving… you can see the Moorish castle up on the hill, which shows you just how high the castle sits – the Pena palace is on an even higher hill behind it).
Overall we enjoyed our day in Sintra, I’m glad we went, but were we to do it again, we’d do a few things differently:
Skip the Moorish castle. Especially if it’s hot and sunny. The main appeal of this castle is the view, both of the town of Sintra and of the Pena palace, which, at 11 in the morning was really not that great (I think it might be better in the afternoon when the sun is to your back).
Go to the Quinta da Regaleira instead. I regret that we didn’t get to see this gorgeous palace, but the castle of the Moors zapped all our energy. Who knows, we may have even found time for a third palace, in which case the Sintra National Palace would have been my choice over the Moorish castle.
Use the dang bus. We hiked from the Pena Palace to the Moorish castle, and from the Moorish castle down into town, and then again from town back to the train station. The bus pass you get is good all day, so we should have used it more, despite the crowds. (Note there are two different bus routes to the various castles, so if you want to see the Quinta da Regaleira, for example, you’ll need the pass that gives you access to both routes).
Pack snacks. And water. I always have a granola bar in my purse, but this is one situation I wish I had packed more sustenance. The food options at the palaces are few and far between. Eat a big breakfast, bring snacks and water with you, and plan on eating a big meal in town in the middle of the day between castle visits.
I hope our travels take us back to this fairy tale town some day, as I feel like it deserves more than the few hot and harried hours that we gave it.