Have you ever had the feeling of entering a fairy-tale land? Sort of going to Disneyland but every castle, gate and building are not only scenario or gift shops but rather have this magic aura, fantastic interiors and fascinating history? That's exactly what we felt in Sintra. This picturesque hilly Portuguese town is located just a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon, making it a perfect day-trip destination for those visiting Portugal's charming capital city. Or even a two-day visit since this little town surprisingly displays many interesting gems worth to be seen. We have visited it in July and while the weather was great, summer months can be a challenge with all the tourists' hoards trying to enjoy a bit of the magic of Sintra. However, we can guarantee you: it will be worth it!
SINTRA - A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME
There has been vestiges of human occupation of the area dating back to the third millennia BC. Rumor has it that Celts used to worship their moon god here before Romans conquered the region and named it "Mountain of the Moon". With their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the VIII century, the Moors built a fort castle at the top of a hill to overlook and protect the area, but lost it when King Afonso I reconquered Lisbon to the Christian Kings.
Due to a micro-climate existing in the area, it presents fresher weather in summer which attracted the attention of the Portuguese royals and their court as a refuge from Lisbon scalding summer. However, the gloominess and myth of the region was revived from the XVIII century on thanks to the ideal of Romanticism, arousing the fascination of nobility and artists who built luxurious palaces and quintas (noble estates) all around the area. This combination of different cultures, mystical hills and royal opulence stands Sintra out as a unique destination not to be missed when in Portugal.
HOW TO GET TO SINTRA?
The trains from Lisbon to Sintra leave from the beautiful and central Rossio train station and take around 40 minutes on the route. It costs 2,25 EUR each way and the first train leaves at 6.01 a.m, but there are trains every ten minutes from 7 to 10 a.m. To enjoy the most out of your day trip and not spending too much time in the lines during summer, we would recommend you to take the earliest train possible. There is a coffee shop at the train station from where you can grab something for breakfast to go and have it on your way to this magical city!
ONE DAY ITINERARY
1. Palácio da Pena
The starting point of the tour is also the most visited: Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace). As it is located on a hill, going by walk takes over 1 hour and is out of question. There is a bus line 434 hop-on hop-off to the main sights costing around 7 EUR every 15 minutes. However, when we arrived at the bus stop there was a big line and the bus was already full. Therefore, first golden tip: look for an available tuk tuk ( there were plenty going around when we visited) for the way up. It costs more, but it will save you precious time as you will get there even before the people who took the bus.
Second golden tip: buy the tickets in advance! There is a website to buy the tickets for many parks and palaces of Sintra and you actually save a lot of time since the line for buying tickets on the entrance is long and, from the entrance of the park to the castle, there still a long way up (wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for a lot of slopes). You also have a 5% discount for buying online and if you buy combined tickets to different sites of Sintra, you can eve get more discounts.
The combined ticket for the park and the Pena Palace costs 14 EUR and it opens from 10 a.m to 7 p.m (6 p.m in winter). There is one daily guided visit at 2:30 p.m costing 5 EUR more. Arriving to the castle, control your enthusiasm of taking pictures and go directly to the line to tour in the inside since it can get really long and you will be able take pictures of the outside of the palace in your way out.
The history of the palace starts in the Middle Ages when, after an apparition of the Virgin Mary, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena (pena comes from peña, a Spanish word meaning "rocky summit") was built on the top of a hill above Sintra. In the XVI century, King Manuel I, who was very fond of this sanctuary, ordered the construction of a monastery on the same site and donated it to the Order of Saint Jerome. However, the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 caused severe damages to the monastery (miraculously sparing the original chapel) and reduced it to ruins.
For almost one century, the ruins remained untouched until attracting the attention of the King consort Ferdinand II from Austria, who acquired the old monastery and the surrounding lands (as well as many other estates in the area) to transform it into a palace that would serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The construction began in 1842 and took 12 years. King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II highly influenced on matters of decoration and Symbolism such as the vault arches, the Medieval and Islamic elements and also the ornate window for the main facade.
The Pena Palace presents a profusion of different architecture and decoration styles, aligned with the exotic taste of the Romanticism period in which it was conceived. This intentional mixture of eclectic styles include: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance. The eclectic combination of styles witnessed in the towers, walls, gates, small turrets, terraces and their decoration is surprisingly harmonious and quite unique in South Europe.
The structure of the palace is divided in four main areas: the armor and surrounding walls with two gates (one with a drawbridge); the restored body from the ancient Convent with its Clock Tower (red building); the Courtyard of the Arches in front of the chapel (where you can find the wall of Moorish arches and take your picture); and, finally, the palatial zone with its cylindrical bulwark and richly decorated (yellow building).
Here is a selection of what's not to miss when visiting the inside of the Pena Palace:
- The peaceful Manueline cloister of the former monastery;
- The sea-motif Dining room in the former monks refectory;
- The beautiful Islamic-decorated Reception room;
- The vast and luxurious Noble Hall and its chandeliers;
- The Stag room with the Romantic's idealization of knights.
Once outside the palace, you absolutely got to walk around the defensive walls to get different perspectives of the park around from the peak and visit the chapel of the old monastery with its original shape and layout from the XVI century. The Romantic park around the palace is also worth exploring if you have extra time to do so. Heads up for: Cruz Alta (High Cross), the highest point of the Sintra's mountains and the Swiss-inspired Countess Edla’s Chalet.
2. Moorish Castle
Set on the top of a rocky peak amidst the lush forests of Sintra's Mountains, the Moorish Castle was built during the VIII and IX centuries, in the period of the Muslim Iberia as a strategic observation and defense point of a territory that was primarily agricultural. After various attempts to seize the control of the castle during the Reconquest period, King Afonso I was able to definitely take it from the Muslims in 1147. After the expulsion of Muslims from the whole Iberian Peninsula and as peace was being restored, there was no need to protect the population inside the walls of the castle anymore. Losing its strategic importance, it was therefore abandoned and falling in ruins, specially after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Nevertheless, it was also acquired buy King Ferdinand II in 1840 who restored the castle consolidating the walls, reforesting the surroundings and conserving the chapel.
From the top of the castle's double belt of irregular walls, it is possible to admire the town of Sintra, the Pena Palace, the ocean's coastline and the hills of the Sintra mountains complex. The internal wall depicts battlements and reinforcement of five fortified towers. In the internal part of the castle it is possible to observe a cistern, the Romanesque Chapel of São Pedro (Saint Peter) built by Afonso I after reconquering Lisbon, an Arab horseshoe-shaped arch gate and remains of houses.
The Moorish Castle is open from 9:30 a.m until 8 p.m (10 a.m until 6 p.m in winter) and the entry costs 8 EUR for adults.
3. Quinta da Regaleira
When doing our travel planning for Sintra, as we had only one day, it was quite difficult to choose the attractions we absolutely did not want to miss. After reading some tips online, we figure out one of those was definitely the Quinta da Regaleira and we were unquestionably spot on.
This romantic property belonged originally to the Viscountess of Regaleira but was acquired and enlarged by the eccentric and millionaire entomologist António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. He commissioned this project for the house and the landscape to an Italian designer and architect named Luigi Manini. The estate consists of a romantic-styled mansion and chapel surrounded by a luxurious park featuring lakes, grottoes, wells, statues, fountains and gardens.
The whole complex is open to visit from 9:30 a.m to 7 p.m (5 p.m in winter) and costs 6 EUR per person. There are options of audio guide for 3 EUR extra and guided tours for 6 EUR extra.
The mansion itself presents a facade depicting exuberantly Gothic pinnacles, gargoyles, a turret topped with a weather vane emblazoned with the cross of the Order of the Christ and an impressive octagonal tower which offers a panoramic terrace. The luxury in the decoration of the rooms is very remarkable, especially the King's Room with portraits of the monarchs of Portugal and a beautiful timber ceiling and also the Hunting Room displaying a massive fireplace with splendid carvings of hunting scenes.
Also built in the Manueline style, the chapel presents a complex iconography based on scenes from the life of Mary and the Christ. It also displays symbols from the Temples which add for the mysticism of the place. There is a subterranean passage in the crypt of the chapel connecting the chapel with the main villa located down the hill.
However, the highlight of Quinta da Regaleira is undoubtedly its mystic garden full of symbolism regarding alchemy, masonry and the Knights Templar. Designed by Italian architect Luigi Manini, the garden presents an initiation quest for paradise based on the idea of Dante's Inferno: to get to heaven you must pass through the mundus inferus (underground world). In this sense, there is an impressive set of dim-lit (some would say even scary) underground walkways and grottoes leading to the pearl of the garden: the Initiatic Well.
This 27-meter "subterranean tower" accessible through a monu-mental spiral stairway presents a hollowed space full of esoteric vibe representing the end of the initiation journey through the connection between the underground and the heavens which would only be possible by the initiation rituals to the order, held in this place.
4. Igreja de São Martinho
Going back to the city center, you will pass through Igreja de São Martinho (Saint Martin Church) and will probably not even notice it. This sober-looking temple contrast with all the colors and luxury of Sintra but it has been around since the XII century. Besides its numerous palaces and states, Sintra also offers a colorful, cute and buzzling old town at the feet of the hills. The narrow and steep alleyways are full of restaurants and souvenir stores and the home of a mouth-watering delicacy, traditional from Sintra.
Piriquita is a pastry shop which was originally founded as a bakery in 1862. Its name come from the nickname given by the King Carlos I to the wife of the baker: periquita (parakeet) due to her not very prominent height. Rumors have it that the same King Carlos I was the one encouraging the couple to bake the pastry he enjoyed during his summers in Sintra: Queijada (a small pastry prepared with cheese or cream cheese, eggs, milk and sugar). Upon immediate success, the bakery turned into a pastry shop and has been attracting visitors and locals to taste its delicacies ever since. We recommend also trying the Travesseiro (pillow), a delicious pastry stuffed with a cream made of eggs and almond that would match perfectly with a cup of coffee.
Piriquita has two stores which are open everyday (Unit I is closed on Wednesdays and Unit II on Tuesdays) from 9 a.m to 8 p.m.
6. Palácio Nacional dE Sintra
After such a busy day, you can sit a bit to admire the best-reserved medieval residence of the Portuguese royalty: the Palácio Nacional de Sintra (Sintra National Palace). Originally built to be the residence of the ruler of the Islamic Moorish Taifa (emirate) of Lisbon, it was first mentioned in the X century, making it a millennial construction. However, most of its current looks come from two building campaigns: the first one, ordered by King John I in 1415, is responsible for the facade and its entrance arches and mullioned windows in Manueline and Moorish styles and the conical kitchen chimneys characteristic of the building. The second one, ordered by King Manuel I in 1497, created the Ala Manuelina (Manuel's Wing), to the right of the main facade, which can be witnessed by the typical manueline windows. During this second campaign, it was also built the Sala dos Brasões (Coats-of-Arms Room) with its impressive wooden domed ceiling carved with the 72 coats-of-arms from the King and the main Portuguese noble families.
If you still have time to visit, the entrance costs 10 EUR and it is open from 9:30 a.m to 7 p.m.
Sintra offers a great variety of attractions which would be impossible to visit in just one day, especially during the busier summer days. However, if you have extra days and want to explore more of this mythical town, you can check the Monserrate Palace and its incredible garden; the royal Queluz Palace or the more modest Franciscan Convent of the Capuchos.
And now it's your turn to share with us how was your visit to Sintra and what you think can definitely not be missed.