Imagine a fairy tale town where castles and bright, rainbow-colored palaces are perched on hills like birds of paradise parading their exquisite plumage. Within the valleys, charming turrets rise high above the treeline sparkling in the sun. This romantic fantasy land is real. It is Portugal’s prettiest city and only a 40-minute train ride outside of Lisbon, yet feels like a world away.
Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and if you’re planning a few days in Lisbon, we recommend taking a day to explore Sintra. We visited Sintra on a clear, sunny day in early October. We’d been warned that Sintra’s high elevation and coastal location make it prone to frequent fog. We know several people who visited in Spring and experienced a thick blanket (yet, they still recommended it as a highlight of their Portugal trip).
October in Portugal didn’t disappoint for many reasons, not the least of which is fewer tourists, and we can now include clear skies at Sintra as a benefit to visiting during this time of year. On a clear day, the views are unmatched!
Getting to Sintra: To get to Sintra from Lisbon, take a surface train out of the centrally-located Rossio station. A couple trains run per hour and it only costs a few Euros. You can use your Viva Viagem card if you purchased the “zapping option.” More details on the transit card in our Lisbon blog.
Getting around Sintra: When you arrive in Sintra, we recommend getting an all-day pass on the #434 bus (cost is 6,90€ pp). You can certainly walk from the town center up to the castles and palaces, but it is estimated to take an hour and the ascent is steep. This is only recommended for serious hikers. Save time and conserve energy by taking the bus up the hill. Walking between palaces is doable, and there is a Pedestrian Path map you can pick up when you purchase tickets to visit a palace.
The #434 bus makes a loop that stops first at the Moorish Castle then Pena Palace and finally the National Palace before going back to Sintra town center. You can get on and off the bus all day (just keep your receipt handy so you can show the driver).
If you plan to also see Monserrate palace or Setatis you can purchase an all-day pass for 15€ that provides access to the #434 bus line as well as the #435 which services these palaces. We didn’t have time to see Monserrate but it looks incredible. We recommend arriving in Sintra early to get the most out of your day.
There is a small discount for purchasing a combination ticket to see the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. With the combo ticket, admission was 7,60€ pp for the castle and 13,60€ for Pena Palace.
The Castelo Mouros (Moorish Castle), pictured above and below, is an extraordinary relic that dates back to the 10th century. On clear days it offers incredible views of the entire land and sea, including a privileged view of the Pena Palace perched like a gem on a nearby hilltop.
This was a military fort built by the Muslim populations that occupied the Iberian peninsula between the 8th to 12th century. It had been invaded by Vikings at one point, and eventually it was conquered by King Afonso Henriques in 1147 ending the Muslim rule. Between that time and the 19th century is a bit of a mystery, but in 1839 restoration efforts began and in 1995 the Sintra Hills where the Moorish Castle and so many other incredible palaces are located was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage, Cultural Landscape.
After spending an hour or so enjoying the views and walking the ramparts, we hopped on the bus and made our way to the romantic Pena Palace.
Pena Palace is the crown jewel of Sintra. It is the most famous of all the region’s castles and palaces. The palace and its grounds are considered to be the best examples of 19th century Portuguese Romanticism.
The extraordinary colors and blend of cultural influences seem to have been dreamed up in a fairy tale. There is simply no place like it anywhere else.
During Medieval times, a monastery stood where this Palace is today. There are a few parts of the Palace, such as the chapel and the cloister that are from the original monastery. Their original design and aesthetics were maintained.
The Monastery was purchased in the mid-19th century (after the extinction of the religious order) and a “New Palace” was created between 1842-1857 by the King.
The Manueline Cloisters are an original part of the 16th century Monastery decorated with Hispano-Arabic tiles.
From gorgeous tiles and picturesque terraces to unforgettable embellishments like the Triton, half-man, half-fish Allegorical Gateway of the Creation looming over you as you walk through a passageway, Pena Palace is an absolute delight!
Surrounding the Palace, the natural environment of Pena Park is also quite noteworthy with historic gardens, trees and a botanic collection from all over the world. We didn’t spend nearly as much time exploring the forests and gardens as they deserve as we were eager to find a mysterious Masonic initiation well we had heard about located in Sintra on the Regaleira estate and we weren’t quite sure how long it might take us to get there and find it.
After departing Pena, we took the #434 bus and disembarked a few minutes later at the Sintra National Palace. If you purchased access to the #435 bus, you can reach the Regaleira Palace via that bus line, but you don’t need to take a bus. We asked some locals how to find the well from the nearby National Palace, and were informed it is an easy 7-minute walk. They pointed us in the right direction and we saw signs for Quinta da Regaleira that kept us on the right path.
This eclectic estate is first-rate, and was a surprising and welcome delight as we hadn’t seen or heard very much about this palace when researching and planning for Sintra. What we had seen was an image of one of two peculiar wells, or “inverted towers” that are located on the estate and while little is know about them they are believed to have been used for Masonic initiation ceremonies.
The “wells” were never used for water. A winding staircase leads down to nine platforms which are believed to symbolize the nine circles of hell from Dante, or nine layers of purgatory. At the bottom of the well is a compass over the cross of the Knights of Templar. The bottom of the well leads to a maze of underground tunnels that were lit for the benefit of tourists, but likely were not lighted during whatever secret society ceremonies once took place here.
We were told that reaching bottom represents death, the underground tunnels are hell, and the goal is to find your way to water which symbolizes rebirth. There are a couple dead end pathways, but if you choose the right tunnel you find your way out to a small waterfall and lagoon, where you can walk across stones that lead safely back to the living world.
Of all the places in Sintra we visited, this may have been my favorite because of its mysteries and oddities.
The palace was closed for renovation while we were there, so we never got a glimpse inside, but the sprawling estate is a wondrous journey through time and culture with the most unusual and intriguing artistic embellishments throughout the property blending Moorish, Egyptian, Gothic, Christian, Masonic and Rosicrucian features.
Towers, grottos, lagoons, wooded footpaths, gazebos, statues and gardens are a wonder to discover within this enchanting park environment.
We rounded out our day here and felt fully fulfilled. Though, admittedly our bellies were not. With so much to see and do, we explored straight through lunch and were eager for a bite to eat by 4:30 p.m. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find one restaurant serving at that hour in the small village of Sintra. Travel Tip: pack snacks!
While we could have easily squeezed in sightseeing at one more palace, we decided to head back into Lisbon for dinner, and hope that some day we will be back to see more. Sintra is simply sensational.