It’s hard to believe we’ve been in Lisbon for three weeks already. We have about 10 days left here, and we’re somewhere in between never wanting to leave and being ready to explore the next place. That being said, plans are already in the works for a return trip to Portugal this summer.
If you’ve been following along thus far, it’s evident we’ve had absolutely no shortage of things to do, see, eat and drink in Lisbon, but we had been told since arriving that a day trip to Sintra was a must. And we couldn’t agree more.
While you can easily see the main attractions in a day, Sintra’s laid-back, charming atmosphere could have easily seized us for several days. With its glittering palaces, mist-soaked forests and Romantic architecture, this ancient mountain village brought out the fairytale-loving kids in us.
Set amongst the hills of the Serra de Sintra (Sintra Mountains), Sintra’s cooler temperatures and shady exotic gardens made it the perfect summer destination for Portugal’s overheated royals.
John I started the tradition with the Palácio Nacional, one of the best preserved medieval palaces in Portugal. Situated right in the center of town, this was Portugal’s most lived-in royal palace. It was extensively used between the 15th and 19th centuries, until the monarchy dissolved in 1910.
We didn’t tour the inside, but we did stop to admire the Gothic-styled exterior.
Next up, the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle).
The Moorish Castle is steep (literally) in contrast to the ostentation of the palatial residences surrounding it. It is a huge crumbling fortress perched high above Sintra with breathtaking panoramic views of the valley leading all the way to the Atlantic.
It was built by North African Moors in the 8th and 9th century, during Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula, and used on and off for the next 500 years.
At the very top of the hill is what we considered to be the superstar of Sintra – Pena Palace.
By far the most unique palace in Portugal, and probably in the world, it was originally built as a monastery that was irrevocably damaged by the Great Earthquake of 1755. It remained largely untouched for decades thereafter.
King Ferdinand eventually acquired the monastery in 1838, and set about transforming the ruins into a palace that would serve as a summer getaway for the royal family. Construction was completed in 1854, and the palace is reflective of the King’s ‘creative’ personality. It is bizarre and beautiful, with exuberantly decorated towers topped with bright golden domes, and no shortage of ornate tile mosaics.
Each section of the castle seems different from the last, and the interior rooms are just as lavishly designed as you would think.
With miles of trails, the palace gardens are a fantastic place to get lost. We didn’t get to hike as much as we wanted to due to the weather, but we’ll just add that to our list of reasons to come back.
The remainder of our afternoon was spent wandering the quaint streets of the historic town center. While all of the castles and tourist areas have their own restaurants and cafeterias, the food is overpriced (7 euro for an orange juice) and not that great. We passed by some cute mom-and-pop restaurants with promising-looking menus, but ended up settling on a quick (but delicious) pastry snack at a pastelaria before catching the train back to Lisbon. Somehow, aliens took over our brains and we didn’t try the famous queijadas de Sintra (Sintra cheesecake pastries), but they are on that ‘must come back to Sintra’ list!
Some general tips for visiting Sintra:
We are by no means public transportation experts, but this was a really easy trip. Trains depart for Sintra from Lisbon’s Rossio Station every 15 minutes or so, even on weekends. The cost is about €4.30 round-trip, and you can use your viva viagem card. If you don’t have a card, you can purchase tickets fairly easily at a machine, but you may need to wait in line for a few minutes. (Side note – if you’re in Lisbon for a week or more, get a viva viagem card.)
We went on a weekday in the off-season (February), but I’ve heard Sintra is jam-packed in the summertime. If you are going in peak season, just do an extra meditation in the morning and pack your patience because you’ll be dealing with a lot more tourists. We’ve heard it helps if you try to get there early in the day and avoiding weekends at all costs.
The Bus Situation:
Technically, those with glutes of steel could hike up the hill to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace, but you better have good travel insurance if you plan to do so. It’s a heavily trafficked, Prius-length wide road of switchbacks and blind corners. Goes without saying there’s no sidewalk.
You also don’t want to drive there because parking is a nightmare and, again, you have to drive on the really scary road. I mean, guys, there are FULL SIZE commercial busses going up and down this road BOTH WAYS. And they aren’t afraid to hit you.
Said commercial bus is the #434 Tourist Bus, and it’s the best way to get around Sintra. It stops right outside the train station and runs on a loop to the center of town, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. It’s €5.50 for a loop ticket that you can use all day, or €3.50 for one leg of the trip. It’s an easy walk from the train station to the center of town, but you definitely want the bus for the trip between town and the Moorish castle (for all the reasons I listed above: glutes, no sidewalks, kiss of death). It’s a really short, easy-ish walk from the Moorish castle to Pena Palace, too, so there’s really no need to wait on the bus for that part. Plus, if you turn around every once and a while and look at the terrified faces of your co-riders on the bus behind you, you get a good laugh.
The Wallet Situation
It was about €35 for both of us to visit the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. The National Palace is another €9 per person. The restaurants seemed to run a bit more in Sintra compared to Lisbon, but if you avoid the tourist traps (i.e. menus in 27 different languages, someone outside trying to get you in, etc.) you’ll get more bang for your buck. For the budget travelers out there, we spent just under €100 for the day, including the train ride, loop ticket on the bus, *overpriced* breakfast, Moorish Castle, Pena Palace and a quick lunch (i.e. no wine). Overall, we would 100% recommend Sintra to anyone staying in Lisbon for a week or more. You can do it on a budget, but there are certainly plenty of opportunities to splurge if it’s ‘treat yoself’ day! #itsalwaystreatyoselfday