Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with amazing architecture from the 12th to the 19th Century, and is only about 40 minutes away by train. Going there as a day trip was the first recommendation we received when asking locals what we should do during our stay. Needless to say, we took the trip. Twice. And it was definitely worth it.
Pena National Palace
On the top of the hill overlooking the town, the Pena National Palace seems like a real-world Disney Castle, complete with crazy colors, towers and a drawbridge. Walking through the palace, you get a sense of the history from period furniture from the time various Portuguese royalty resided here. The brightly colored architecture outside is really the star of the show. The extensive gardens were fun to walk through (and get lost in), and have an amazing variety of plants, including giant sequoia.
Castle of the Moors
The Castle of the Moors, a fortification dating back to the 8th century. It is now mostly ruins but is striking in its position on the cliffs over the town of Sintra. Viewing it from in town below, I couldn’t help but think of how rough it must have been for invaders attempting to capture the castle with its high stone walls after a near vertical climb up the hill.
Quinta da Regaleira
Our favorite of all the palaces, the Quinta da Regaleira estate, can be reached on foot from the center of downtown in less than ten minutes. The mansion is an architectural wonder designed by Luigi Manini, and is worth exploring, but the real gem is the surrounding grounds. Towers with narrow spiral staircases are dotted around the grounds, challenging some of our less height-friendly team members (Jen). Hidden grottos and underground caverns built into the limestone, some behind waterfalls, made exploring the grounds a real adventure. The chapel is decorated with crosses of the Knight’s Templar, and there are other symbols of Masonry in various architectural elements around the grounds. We spent hours discovering little hidden passages, only giving up when our legs gave out from climbing up and down the steep hills.
Wandering through the grounds we saw beautiful small structures with towers to climb for stunning views.
Beautiful, ornate fountains often hid entryways to hidden passageways. What is that behind the fountain?
There are a couple of wells on the property, called Initiation Wells, that are more like underground towers. They’re one of the favorite landmarks of the Quinta, and were supposed to be used in mystic ceremonial rituals. Climbing the spiral staircase inside the main Initiation Well was a great workout and an unexpected adventure we won’t forget.
Palace of Sintra
In the center of downtown, the Palace of Sintra is immediately noticeable from its two unique cone-shaped towers. Dating back to the Muslim occupation of Sintra, this palace was occupied by Portuguese royalty as far back as the 13th century.
Village of Sintra
After climbing up and down hilly gardens, steep paths, and lots of stairs of the various gardens and mansions, it’s worth taking on a few more stairs to explore the downtown center of Sintra. In additional to the usual kitschy souvenir shops, there are plenty of little restaurants and Port wine shops in the narrow, hilly streets. We grabbed a quick lunch on an outside patio with a nice view of the town. Afterward, we couldn’t resist trying a sample of Ginja, a famous Portuguese liqueur made from sour cherries, served in shot form, often in a little edible cup made of dark chocolate. Delicious.
Getting To Sintra
Trains leave the Rossio Station in downtown Lisbon every 15 minutes during the week, and every half hour on weekends. It was a good thing they depart so often, since a huge backup at ticket booths resulted in us missing our planned train. The trip itself was quick and comfortable, if not particularly scenic, at least until we got close to town and seeing some glimpses of the fort on the mountain.
Getting Around Sintra
As we exited the station, numerous tour operators were standing, offering various tours of every sort of the estates. Other options for exploring included the typical open-air Hop On Hop Off Bus, Tuk Tuks (when did these all start getting exported from Asian cities?), the public bus, and walking. We had already decided on the bus to the mountain top estates – there are two options #434 takes you up the mountain, and #435 to the lower areas. With the exception of the Mansion do Pena and the old Moorish Fort at the top of the hill, though, most of Sintra can be easily explored on foot.