Howdy all, and I hope this Thursday finds you well. Today I am looking at the day trip undertaken last year to Sintra and surrounds from Lisbon, Portugal. Sintra is a very popular destination for tourists who travel to Portugal, a town in the mountains with a castle, but also a region with multiple castles/palaces to visit. The mountains are thick with forest, and honestly, it’s a truly breathtaking part of Europe.
I guess when you travel to Portugal you have two choices if you want to visit the Sintra region – the first is to do it on a day trip from Lisbon, either by tour as we did or you could try and do it yourself, as there is a train to Sintra town, and there are buses that go from each location to the next. I would say if it’s a day only you have, going on a ‘tour’ – and in fairness, really what we had was a set itinerary and a driver, we weren’t walked around the places we went. The other option is to say in Sintra somewhere. There are a couple of pousadas I think in the region and plenty of other options. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to have your own car to be fair and then you are in control of your own pace. This way you could spend over a day and a half and get to all the places you really wanted to.
We had a tour, and we paid 50 Euros per person. On reflection, it was a good price. We organised through the lady who owned our Air BnB, and she and her husband run a tour agency called ‘Thunder Ocean’. I guess naively I was expecting either the lady in question or one of her employees to be taking us, but in fact we were subcontracted off to another agency.
We were just three people on the tour, I think four or five would be the maximum as it was done in a 4WD. I mean, they may have had bigger cars too or minivans depending on the day. There was a bit of a mix up too the driver/guide was expecting there to be three in our party instead of two, and so the tour may not have even gone ahead with only three if they’d not made this mistake. As a result, he seemed quite grumpy and unhappy for the first part of the day, but thankfully he brightened up as the day wore on.
We were picked up at around 830am and we were off, picking up our other tour member in the centre of town before we hit the freeway and left Lisbon town. We had a pretty set itinerary, which personally I struggled with because there were only three of us, and none of us had set ideas about exactly what we wanted to see on the day, and yet I asked for a little flexibility and was denied when I asked if we could see a particular castle which was in Sintra but not on the tour. I wanted to see the Quinta De Regaleira, apparently a very ‘different’ and somewhat bizarre palace. It is renowned for this amazing well, with steps around its circumference allowing you to walk down it.
In short though, after two castles the tour took us out to the coast on the way back to Lisbon with a couple of stops one the way, instead concentrating the whole day on Sintra and its palaces. Which I guess is fair enough, who wants to see castle after castle after castle? Well, I would have been ok with that lol!
So we arrived in Sintra, and it’s a delightful little town in the mountains. Yes, it’s also very hilly as you’d expect. Here was the first castle too, which didn’t look like that much from the outside. That was the Palacio Nacional de Sintra. There were also a couple of bakeries, and we grabbed a custard tart or two to keep us going, before heading to the Tourist Office. We could buy tickets to the individual palaces here, which is what we did.
What actually did was buy a combination ticket to the two castles (re:palaces) we knew we were to visit, the Sintra Palace as above, and the crowning glory across all the hills, Pena Castle. What this does is save you a couple of Euro – well, 5%. We also got another 10% of the price because we had Lisbon Cards – like the Barcelona card, the Lisbon card is a card you pay for and it gets you free entrances or discounts to multiple places, and free public transport too. It was last minute that we realised it got us a discount here, and we were pretty happy about that!
What I’m going to do is summarise the rest of the day, and then I will single out the different castles of Sintra for you, including a couple which we didn’t actually get to visit.
So we had our tickets, and we weren’t sure what to do exactly, but we had time, our driver was in the car and we told him we were going to visit the Palacio National de Sintra. He was still a bit grumpy and we didn’t know exactly what we were supposed to do. He just stopped in Sintra and told us to come back in 30 or 60 minutes or so. He was then annoyed that it would put us behind schedule, so we were confused if we were supposed to see anything really.
The palace was pretty impressive on the inside. It was hard to know what to expect from the façade, but once inside we were surprised by just how big it is. It took the best part of an hour I think to get through, and we were moving quickly. Then it was back in the car and along the winding road. At the top of a hill we could see the Castle Mouros, which was a much more ‘castle-like’ (as opposed to ‘palace’) than the others. This one also looked really interesting, and it would have been nice to find a way to squeeze it in.
Instead though, the next one was Pena Palace – the ultimate in Sintra palaces. It’s also on the top of a mountain, with extensive gardens/grounds surrounding the place. THIS was where we ran into an international cavalcade coming up the mountain to see the Pena Palace. I’ve recounted it before – see one of the links above to the day trip where I talk about it. But, in short we had to wait until the cars pulled up – black cars, and Benjamin Netanyahu was escorted into the palace. And then I – almost – bumped into him twice whilst explore the palace. This was the most popular (and very packed indeed)
From there it was lunch time and we enjoyed lunch at Toca de Julio in Colares. Then we headed out to the coast and to Cabo de Roca. This is the most western point of Europe, and as you might imagine it’s another spot on the tour which all the tours are doing, so plenty of people. The coastline is actually really rugged, you’re on top of cliffs and the views is rather spectacular, and it was definitely worth a stop.
On our way back to Lisbon our late afternoon/dusk stop was in the very agreeable coastal town of Cascais. We had a good hour here if not more and went for a walk down the coast – still within the confines of the town, and back. It looked like it would be a nice place in warmer weather to spend a few days. The water front was very beautiful and the town itself was very cute.
From there it was back to Lisbon. Night had fallen and we got back around 7pm. By the end of the day we were having much more amiable and detailed chats with our driver which was nice. It had been a good day, but I ask myself – would it have been better just to do castles? I think if we took out a stop in Cascais we would have had a shorter drive back to Lisbon, so the time saved there may have allowed us to see the Regaleira de Quinta AND the Mouros Castle if we were lucky. Mind you, not everyone loves palaces THAT much. I enjoyed the day and can’t complain too much, it was certainly worthwhile. Now, for your indulgence, here is some info on five palaces/castles of the Sintra area –
Castles of Sintra
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
The Palacio Nacional de SIntra, located in Sintra Town was the first palace/castle that we visited. It was really interesting, and although we moved quickly through it, it still took a good hour to explore and appreciate.
There is a square in front of the palace where you enter from. The palace itself is somewhat precariously built on the side of the mountain, will a deepish valley to one side and the town to the other. It’s not at the top, if you look up you may catch a glimpse of the Mouros Castle. From the right angle you will see two large smokestacks as part of the castle, which do seem out of place I guess. They take the smoke and heat away from the palace kitchens.
The castle itself I found was built in several stages with different influences, work starting in the early 15th century. There is a strong Arabic/Moorish influence in this palace, and some of the rooms have amazingly detailed decorations on the walls and ceilings. Even later, 16th century additions still referenced the Moorish style, mixed with azuelos, these amazing blue and white tiles that Portugal is famous for.
As a visitor you walk your way through the palace. I think there are audio guides you can take, but honestly after Spain both my wife and I were really over the audio guides. The information is so overwhelming it felt nigh on impossible to retain anything of value. There were a few visitors, but it wasn’t the tourist season per se.
Pena Palace is probably THE palace to visit if you’re just visiting one on your visit to Sintra. It’s not that far from the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, however the road to get to the top of the mountain goes around the mountain a bit, and a couple of kilometres as the crow flies actually becomes nearly 12 by road.
The site of the palace was considered holy from the Middle Ages, a chapel was built on top of it, which became a monastery, which was all but destroyed and abandoned, and eventually they decided to build a palace on the site, which was completed in 1854. Today it sees visitors from all over the globe and is UNESCO Heritage listed.
As a visitor it’s very impressive. The views are part of the experience, the entrance is well below the palace presumably at the edge of the grounds, which include several manicured gardens, forest, and many paths you can take up to the palace itself. Or pay 3 Euros to take a bus.
Whilst the palace is decked out magnificently, sadly you cannot take photos whilst inside. You come out onto a balcony or two and can take photos of the views, but inside it’s no cameras. Unless you are cheeky like me and leave your little action camera on as you walk the controlled tour path through all the rooms. It is brilliantly done and an amazing palace.
You can see more of it on my vlog, in this post – Trams, Elevators & Palaces – Lisbon and Sintra
Regaleira de Quinta
The Regaleira de Quinta is a palace we didn’t get too. We drove past it annoyingly and it is supposedly quite a characterful place. It was built from 1905 but in a somewhat gothic style. It’s built on 4 hectares of land, mostly park surrounding the palace. On top of the aforementioned ‘Initiation Well’ – well below it actually, connecting to it, are tunnels. The park is also full of grottos. It looks really interesting to me!
The Castle of the Moors sits on top the mountains. It seems to be quite big from all accounts and has proper castles walls that run along the top of the mountain. The oldest of the palaces mentioned in this post, it dates back to the 8th-9th centuries. The walls look like they are in pretty good nick and from below we could see them and a turret or two. As we drove around we would catch glimpses from time to time.
Palacio de Monserrate
This one I don’t know much about, we didn’t see it or have it pointed out when we were in Sintra. Built in 1863 and influenced again by Moorish tastes and Romanticism, this looks very pretty too. It looks well worth a visit!
Thanks for popping by today, and I hope that once travel becomes a thing again, people get to go to Portugal and see these amazing castles and the mountains of Sintra. Take care wherever you may be of course – and May the Journey Never End!