To be fair, though, I went to this destination at very different times of the year. My first visit occurred in the dead of winter (which is still much more friendly temperature wise than the UK!) where our walking was accompanied by mist, drizzle and a chill.
This time, I was there in summer. My mum and I were together on our first trip but, since we were back in Lisbon, we couldn’t resist the chance to show our new companions – my sister and my boyfriend – why people always talk about Sintra.
|I mean, look at it: why wouldn’t you want to come back to this?|
If you’re in Lisbon, this is a day trip that will be recommended again and again. And even as you walk a few metres away from Sintra’s train station, the reason for the praise will become apparent. Directly ahead, a mountain looms above, covered in vegetation yet with a few rooftops of otherwise obscured structures just glimpsed between the treetops. As the road winds into the centre of Sintra, you’re treated to views of fantastic palaces, colourful houses and public artworks.
Unsurprisingly, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are traces of human habitation stretching all the way back to the Neolithic times and the Romans also spent some time here. Fast forward to now, and the town seems to be filled with castles, parks and monasteries.
If you’re also planning to go up to Sintra for just a day, it’ll be difficult to know where to start. While there are so many wonderful places to see in the town and its surrounds, there are three spots that, in my opinion, can’t be missed.
With its two conical towers rising up above it, you’ll notice Sintra National Palace from a fair distance away.
Its unique appearance and pristine white walls work to conceal the palace’s age. There has, in fact, been a palace here since the 11th Century. Construction began during the Moorish era of this part of the country and many additions and amendments have occurred over the following years. What we see now closely resembles the palace as it was in the 16th Century.
Passing through the courtyard, filled with people posing for photos and carts selling popcorn, it honestly felt like we were entering another time period entirely as we moved into the palace.
|The palace’s grand ‘Swan Room’.|
Sintra National Palace is not only a favourite with tourists, the Portuguese royals held it in their affections too, resulting in the fact that the palace was continuously occupied from the 15th to the 19th Centuries.
When you walk through the rooms of Sintra National Palace, you’ll be able to spot the influences of all of the palace’s former inhabitants. There’s the mix of architectural trends – Manueline, Moorish, Gothic – as well as the decorative styles and quirks found in each room. No single chamber resembles the next, and the best part of visiting this palace is that you’ll never know what to expect.
|An exquisite Moorish-inspired room.|
|My sister hides out in a tiny doorframe.|
|One of the opulent bedrooms.|
If you’re expecting the sobriety of royal castles you might find elsewhere in the world, it’s best to throw away that notion quickly. In this palace, you will find grandeur but also a fair bit of eccentricity thrown into the mix!
The Swan Room, for example, is so named for the 27 swans (with gold collars no less) painted onto its ceiling. The bird theme continues in the Magpie Room, where a former king was once spotted kissing a lady-in-waiting. To appease his queen and to appear as not having a preference for any specific woman, he had a magpie painted for every lady of the court.
|So. Many. Magpies.|
|The Galleon Room.|
|Just a single example of the many tile-based artworks you can find in the palace.|
When not exploring the rooms and the furniture within, these give way to interior courtyards, full of pillars, arches and azulejos – the latter being the tiles Portugal is famous for.
The highlight of the self-guided tour is discovering the secret of the palace’s two ‘towers’. The punctuation may have given it away, but these aren’t towers at all. Positioned directly above the kitchens, these two gigantic chimneys used to regulate the smoke and heat from the royal cooking activity. One thing’s for sure; seeing these makes every other chimney in the world look extremely underwhelming.
|Look out for the colourful, detailed ceilings.|
|I reckon this chandelier would look rather lovely in my flat.|
|Not a bad view.|
Sintra National Palace is the perfect introduction to Sintra and its many charms. And, if you keep an eye out for the views outside the palace windows, you’ll be able to see the next stop on the itinerary.
My first visit to this castle happened in the wintertime, when we had chosen to hike all the way up. Our most recent adventure was on a much hotter day, so we opted for a quicker way to ascend the mountain: the bus.
Perched precariously on the mountain summit, Castelo dos Mouros, or Castle of the Moors, will be one of the most beautiful castles you’ve ever seen.
|The walls of Castelo dos Mouros.|
|With fortifications creeping up the mountainside.|
A ramp leads you up and through the formidable fortress walls, which will soon become your new walkway for the next hour or so. It’s up on the walls that you’ll recognise the scale of this particular castle, as well as the photogenic surroundings in which it was built. Be prepared for the walk, though, as the walls consist of uneven surfaces and plenty of steps.
The name ‘Castle of the Moors’ told us who built it, but the mind boggled when we learned that it’s been standing here since the 9th Century. It was originally built to protect the population, but later fell to Christian forces. In the centuries that followed, the castle’s importance declined and, thanks to a few natural disasters, fell into ruin.
|The view (and a familiar palace below).|
The ruins remained this way until the 19th Century, when Ferdinand II decided to resurrect the castle’s fortifications. Of an artistic persuasion, he was adamant that the result of the renovations would be something akin to Romantic-era ruins.
So while you won’t find any impressive interiors here, there’ll be much to keep your eyes – and cameras – occupied. There’ll be the views of Sintra and the rest of Portugal sweeping off far into the distance. There are the bright flower gardens within the castle complex. There’ll be a splash of colour here and there from the other structures located on the mountain.
|In the castle gardens.|
|And a glimpse of the next stop on this Sintra itinerary.|
After spending even a few moments here, I felt like the castle belonged in some sort of fantasy epic, like my beloved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books. The castle has been inspiring artistic folk for decades, earning mentions in stories as well as countless renditions in drawings and paintings.
Once you get enough of your own creative fix (don’t miss out on climbing the castle’s tallest tower to do so), it’s time make your way to the last spot on this day trip schedule. Just like at Sintra National Palace, the next attraction can be seen from the Castle of the Moors: Pena National Palace.
Out of all of my Sintra must-visits, this one will take you the longest.
That’s because Pena National Palace is set within 200 acres of garden and woodland. Set aside a few hours for this spot alone – you’ll need it!
After walking (there’s also a bus) the path up to the palace, we turned the corner and couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. Whether you’re approaching Pena National Palace in the mist or in broad daylight, nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of this specific palace.
When I was busy editing photos for this post, my housemate saw these and commented that they looked like something out of Disneyland. She’s not far off, but, fortunately, there are no dressed-up cartoon characters in sight.
|Pena National Palace.|
|With a closer look.|
Declared one of the official Seven Wonders of Portugal, Pena National Palace started its life as a humble monastery in the 15th Century. Things continued this way until a lightning strike (!) and an earthquake (!!) reduced the monastery to ruins. Our friend Ferdinand II acquired the land in the 19th Century and set out to build a summer palace for the royal family.
He commissioned architect Ludwig von Eschwege, who drew inspiration from the Manueline and Moorish styles, as well as from the great castles he visited along the Rhine River. What resulted was something that seems to run far away from the idea of muted, formal architecture. And if you were wondering about the colours of the palace – it’s been repainted in its original shades.
|Domes, arches and gateways – the many shapes of Pena National Palace.|
|And the bright colours continue in the interiors.|
|Sumptuous ceilings are present in this palace too.|
From just one quick look, it might appear that this palace is just a haphazard mix of styles and influences, but as you make your way through the different areas, it will start to feel like every single detail has been thought out. There are the numerous statues, all symbolising a different myth, the lookout points that seem to showcase the whole country beneath it, as well as each piece of furniture and other decor, somehow perfectly blending into the room they find themselves in.
Pena National Palace won’t be like any palace you’ve been to before. It’s a structure almost bursting with the creativity that first dreamt it into being, with a handful of quirks and the surprise of an unexpectedly refined and sedate room appearing every now and again.
|A surprisingly more subdued colour palette in this room.|
We took our time discovering each room and imagined what the royal family once got up to during their summers in the palace. Although most footfall at the palace comes from the many tourists visiting on a daily basis, it is still occasionally used for state events.
I know I sound like a broken record, but since the palace is perched on a big old rock on top of a mountain, the views are pretty spectacular.
|Not too shabby.|
If you’ve still got a few more hours before your train back to Lisbon, take the time to explore the grounds. Apart from its centrepiece, you’ll be able to find a number of smaller monuments and pavilions, in addition to the wooden Chalet of the Countess of Edla.
Top tip: If you’re planning to visit all three of these sites, purchase a multi-site pass from your first stop. This will shave a few euros off the overall price. In terms of transport, you can catch a bus from the train station or Sintra National Palace to access the mountain sites. These services can be infrequent, though, especially during the winter months.
Having visited in both extremes, would I recommend a visit to Sintra during the summer or winter? I won’t say, as weather seems like a poor excuse to hold off a trip to Sintra. Its colourful fairytale structures only seem to brighten up a misty, cold winter’s day, while these only appear more vibrant when the sun’s at its highest intensity.
As mentioned earlier, many artists have found their imaginations stirred in Sintra and, with sites like the ones listed above, we fell victim to this affliction too.
I’ve already vowed that the next time I’m in the vicinity, I’ll be having a longer stay in Sintra, as there is so much to see in this one destination. But, if you’re only there for a day, the three sites I’ve chosen will leave you just as enchanted as we were.
If you’d like to retrace our steps, take a look at the map below.