What little kid doesn’t imagine him- or herself living in a fairy tale castle at some point? Maybe it’s Hogwart’s, or maybe it’s just the fantasy where your family is filthy stinking rich, but it’s an attractive idea on some level. I used to fervently wish that I was holed up in a big old drafty castle with the world’s most massive library–and my only job was to read. If I’d ever heard of Sintra, Portugal back then, I may have considered it my ultimate mecca . . . not because of the libraries but because of the insanely amazing castles in and around the town.
As part of my trip to Lisbon last month, my husband and I spent a day in Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of just less than 400,000. There was strategy involved–Sintra allegedly gets packed. Like really packed. Not just foreign tourists, but Portuguese folks, too. It’s recommended to skip Sintra on a weekend for that reason. And the earlier, the better, as far as arrival goes, too, because by afternoon things are really supposed to jam up. So, me being me, I dragged my husband out of bed at the crack of dawn to the Rossio Train Station to catch the 45 minute train ride to Sintra.
Handy tip #1: the Rossio subway stop/station is NOT the Rossio Train Station. We learned this after walking back and forth through the subway station about three times, searching in vain for a sign of the Sintra trains. The Rossio Train Station is about a block and a half away, but it is not connected to the subway station . . . so go up to the street level and ask some kindly Lisbon resident to point you in the right direction.
Our first stop in Sintra was, of course, the first open food joint we saw. I’d been told that bottled water is hard to come by outside of downtown Sintra, plus there are never enough pasteis de nata–they make an excellent breakfast. Our second stop was the National Palace of Sintra. It’s one of the few sites in Sintra that’s right in the downtown area, maybe a ten minute walk from the train station. The palace opens at 9:30 in the morning (slightly earlier than everything else), and we were there in time for the opening. It was us, and a tour group of about 20 German tourists. That’s not bad for a national monument; we were able to roam around at our leisure without it feeling crowded at all.
Interior, National Palace of Sintra
I didn’t expect to really love the National Palace of Sintra. From the outside it’s kind of boring looking. Inside, though, is another story. The Islamic influences are fairly obvious in some of the architecture, which is interesting all by itself. Add to that the gorgeous painted ceilings and tiled walls, the massive kitchen, etc, and it’s well worth the visit. Pictured to the left is the Coats of Arms room, or the Sala da Brasões. It’s a little hard to tell but the gilded and painted ceiling depicts stags with the coat of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families. The azulejos tiles around the lower part of the wall show hunting scenes. Not every room is this ornate, but a lot of them are just as pretty.
After visiting the National Palace of Sintra, we had a decision to make–namely, how to get to the rest of the places we wanted to see. If you can’t tell from the photo at the very top of the post, downtown Sintra is almost in a valley at the base of some very steep hills. If you value your sanity and feet, don’t try to walk to all the sites. There are two main options for transit: standard public transit or Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) buses.
HANDY TIP #2: The 434 bus picks up at the train station, and it goes on an endless loop through the town center, to Castelo de Mouros, to Pena Palace. It’s convenient and cheap (like a few euros) . . . which is great, if those are the only places you want to visit.
If you have a more ambitious itinerary, choose the HOHO. It’s around 20 euros for the day, so it’s more expensive; however, it goes on an hourly or half hourly (depending) continuous loop between the train station, the visitor’s center and Sintra National Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, Parque de Monserrate, out through Colares to Cabo da Roca, Convento dos Capuchos, Portao dos Lagos, Castelo de Mouros, Palacio Nacional da Pena, and Estacao de Caminhos.
Spoiler alert–we took the HOHO. Normally we hate the HOHO, but in this case the HOHO covers a ton of ground that would have been difficult if not impossible for us to get to on our own. Also, the 434 gets packed . . . packed like sardines. The HOHO buses was never packed for us, which was great. Considering all the hills you end up climbing, being guaranteed a seat on the bus is priceless.
As you might imagine, after having glanced at the HOHO loop, our next stop–and the place I was most excited about–was the Quinta da Regaleira. This place has had a million owners of the years, but the castle and most the buildings were built in 1892. It’s almost like a little treasure hunt to find the symbols in the architecture that relate to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. That’s not even the coolest part, though–that honor goes to a series of hidden tunnels, one of which leads to the Initiatic Well (pictured to the right). Another branch leads to caves behind a grotto with a little pond.
The grounds are really amazing–so big that it would take hours to investigate the entire park and buildings. What was lovely about it is that Craig and I were nearly alone. Sure, there were other people exploring the Quinta, but we rarely ran into any. The grounds are above the town somewhat, so the views are really pretty, too.
We considered skipping some of the sites that are further outside of town. After all, we only had one day to see everything we had to see in Sintra. But between all the hill climbing we’d been doing in Lisbon, the walk to and through the National Palace of Sintra, and hiking around the Quinta, we needed a rest–the bus through Colares (a beach area) was about 45-ish minutes long and very beautiful. Interesting, too, mostly because the roads are so narrow. I can’t imagine driving them myself . . . around every corner, I expected a car to plow right into the front of the HOHO bus.
Capo da Roca–a very windy cape which forms the westernmost extent of mainland Portugal and continental Europe–was the next stop. We had the option of staying for an hour until the next HOHO bus showed up, or stopping for 15 minutes. Aside from admiring the view, though, there’s not a lot going on at Capo da Roca. We could have killed an hour at one of the severely overpriced restaurants nearby, but 15 minutes was more than enough time.
Another 45 minutes on the bus (back toward Sintra) put us at the Castelo de Mouros, or the Castle of the Moors. Good thing we had some time to rest our aching feet–Castelo de Mouros is pretty much a climb straight up . . . and then more climbing. The castle was initially constructed in the 8th or 9th century, and since then it’s been damaged and rebuilt a time or two. The 1755 earthquake did some damage, and in 1838 there was an effort made to preserve what was left of the ruins. Stairs ring the battlements, but they’re not just any stairs–on one side of the steps is a toothed wall that goes up to just past my waist (I’m 5’2″), but the other side of the steps has only maybe a foot high lip. Did I mention the stairs just keep going up? There were more than a few times I thought it entirely possible that I might get bumped off the short side of the stairs and plummet to my death. Of course, the views were amaaaaazing.
I’m not going to lie–I could have happily taken the HOHO back to the train station after hiking around the Castelo de Mouros. Between the fear that had curdled my stomach and the insane amount of hiking we’d done that day, I was beat. But there was one more stop, and it was one I had to do. It was the fairytale castle. The one of my dreams.
Yes, Pena Palace.
HANDY TIP #3: For the love of all that’s green, stop into the gift shop just inside the gates of Pena Park and buy a pass to ride the Pena bus. Instead of hiking up to the castle (after a full day of hiking), ride the bus to the castle–and all over Pena Park. You’ll be able to see much more throughout the park without crying or permanently damaging your feet or swearing, etc. You can’t buy the pass at the gift shop at Pena Castle, so right inside the gates is your only option.
As I said, by the time we got to Pena Palace, we were both cranky. Neither of us wanted to take another step. But this is Pena Palace, future home of my reading habit.
Interestingly, while Pena Palace is beautiful from the outside, inside is a bit boring. I guess that means more nooks and crannies for me read in, eh?
We arrived at Pena Palace around maybe three or four in the afternoon, and it was much more crowded than any other place we’d been to that day. Not packed solid, but moderately crowded. It was April, though, which isn’t exactly high season. And back at the train station afterward, it was almost deserted again.
HANDY TIP #4: Don’t even bother with gift shops at any of the sites (except at Pena to buy the internal bus pass). They all sell the exact same things, and none of it is very interesting.
All in all, Sintra was absolutely worth visiting, although in retrospect I wish we would have stayed overnight in Sintra and spent two days seeing the sights. I also credit taking the dreaded HOHO bus with introducing me to Colares. It would be a great place to spend a few days on our next trip to Lisbon. And hey, a bonus: Colares is perfectly flat.