A year-round destination
It is well worth taking the time to visit Sintra even if you only have one day to spare out of your trip to Lisbon. It is a true escape for the heart and soul from the bustling, noisy city streets. Approaching Sintra by train from Lisbon is the best way to appreciate why it has such a reputation for romance and jaw-dropping scenery. At first, the apartment buildings and urban sprawl of Sintra pass by the window just like any other major town or city in Europe, providing a glimpse of local everyday life. But as you get closer, those green forested hills you saw in the distance, moments before, turn out to be immense dramatic mountains that stretch down to cradle Sintra's centre of cobble-stoned streets and beautiful old buildings. Inescapable for your eyes and impossibly high up, emerging from the rocky outcrop of the tallest peak, is an imposing castle, complete with towers and battlements straight out of a medieval fairytale.
This is Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish fortress built in the 8th Century to keep a watchful eye over the Portuguese coast and surrounding lands. My initial thoughts were "even if I just get up into that castle, I'm delighted I came here!" Yet, it is only a scratch on the surface of what Sintra has to offer.
A short walk from the train station into Sintra-Vila (Sintra Village), the sights and sounds of nature abound. There are touts for rickshaws, private taxis and bikes to take you to palaces, castles and gardens but nobody hassles you - a clue to the peaceful and laid back mood of serene Sintra. If you have the legs and the fitness it is possible to walk to all of the sites but the hills are very steep and your time is better spent in and around the sites themselves as there is so much to explore in each one. Take your time, breath in the mountain air and get used to slowing down in order to take it all in! It really would be a shame to rush through any of it. With two or three days to spend in Sintra it is absolutely possible to see everything and still feel relaxed. If you have only one day, however, then it’s best to get there early in the morning and hit the sights straight away. There is a handy bus route (no. 434) that runs all day between the train station, Sintra-Vila (Sintra Village), Castelo dos Mouros and Pena Palace which are the main tourist sites. Winding its way up into the mountains (you’ll be glad you didn’t walk when you realise how steep the ascent is) this €5 bus journey lets you hop on and off in one direction although it’s a relatively easy and pleasant walk from Castelo dos Mouros to Pena Palace.
A morning walk on the walls of Castelo dos Mouros is sure to shake any Lisbon-related party cobwebs off from the night before! It offers outstanding 360 degree views of Sintra and the surrounds and all the way to the coast. Immerse yourself in its Moorish origins and crusader conquest, explained in the information posts along the ramparts and in each of its towers. Even though it has been extensively renovated, it feels like stepping back in time 1000 years. The visitor’s centre provides refreshments and take the time to peruse the ancient artefacts that have been uncovered over the years. Don’t miss the ancient underground cistern which is purportedly the burial site of a Moorish king.
Pretty Pena Palace
Pena Palace is next on the route and again the views from its walls are eye-popping! The building itself is quite possibly the most Disneyesque sight I have ever seen. Candy coloured walls, princess turrets, seashell covered gods that guard entrance ways and opulent royal living quarters that seem like they were only just vacated the other day! I really don’t think I can justify this place with words – it literally has to be seen to be believed. I highly recommend being here for the sunset though, the colours of the palace and its lush gardens are only enhanced by the golden hour and it’s very romantic. Don’t miss the mini-palaces for ducks in the garden’s pretty lakes.
A short video through Pena Palace
Eating out in Sintra
If you must leave Sintra that evening but looking for dinner after all that walking then do flash a little extra cash (only a little) for Romaria de Baco – it is well worth it. Delicious tapas-style food in an intimate setting with a wide selection of wines and ports expertly selected for you by the friendly, helpful staff. If you have time beforehand to grab a Super Bock (The Portuguese beer), head to Byron Bar Cafe do Paco in the corner of the main square. It’s a cozy, family-run old-school bar which you could easily see Lord Byron himself quaffing a few in! Then get really sad and cry as you head to the train station to leave beautiful Sintra!
If you’re staying the night then explore the narrow quaint streets around the village and keep an eye on the castle lit up against the star-strewn sky after dark. In fact, after dark the whole village is eye-catching, especially the National Palace of Sintra, bathed in soft light, which you can look forward to visiting the next day.
Sleeping in Sintra
Accommodation options are wide-ranging from hostels to five-star hotels. We stayed in a lovely little guest house called Sintra Central Guesthouse and it was truly a little slice of heaven. Only around a fifteen minute walk from the village down into a sleepy rural valley with stunning views of the castle above, we were welcomed warmly by our host and instantly at home in the lush surrounds of the guesthouse gardens. You will be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the nearby stream in a beautifully decorated en-suite bedroom and in the morning, presented with home-made bread, yogurt, honey and jams and local free-range eggs for breakfast. It is a small place so booking in advance is recommended especially in high season.
Quinta da Regaleira is a must-see and is thankfully only a short ten minute walk along the main road out of the village. It is a vast estate of secret gardens, hidden underground caves, mysterious grottos, magical pools and gothic towers that serve to enhance the intricate and ornate architecture of the estate’s extravagant villa. The initiation well at the centre of the complex is on the wish list of an increasing amount of photographers and I would speculate is the highlight of the estate for most visitors. It can be approached through a series of underground walkways or from the secret entranceway above ground, following its moss-covered stone stairwell, winding 27 meters down to the pink and white tiled floor depicting a Rose Cross. The inspiration for its construction is supposedly Dante’s nine circles of hell and was used in masonic rituals during the 20th Century. Whether you emerge into the light or the darkness from the well there is plenty more to explore in both directions and it's worth trying both! Secret trails, hidden benches with tantalising views and an avenue of renaissance statues to the Greek gods combine to leave you filled with wonder. We unfortunately didn’t get time to get inside the villa itself but by all accounts it is said to be equally inspiring.
One more night
Staying another night? Then head to Caldo Entornado attached to the Moon Hill Hostel for traditional Portuguese food that’s given a modern twist and presented beautifully in funky, trendy surrounds. Reasonable prices (including wine) and delicious deserts will round off your day to perfection! We didn’t stay at the hostel but it is certainly on our list for our return trip – it looks like a cool place to stay and very close to the centre of the village. For a quick, tasty and convenient bite before getting on the train head to Casa das Queijadas de Sintra. Lovely toasties and a cold beer if you want to raise a final glass to Sintra!
If you just can’t bear the idea of going home (like me) then take the bus to Cascais along the coast and get the train from there back to Lisbon. If you have the day, you really should, it’s a great way to squeeze in a visit to a stunning seaside city. We did just that, click here to read about it.