Less than 30 km away from Lisbon, hidden in woodlands, you will find the fairytale town of Sintra, with its rainbow palaces, century-old castles, exotic gardens and breathtaking sceneries. Once a sanctuary of the Portuguese royalty, this region is nowadays a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited tourist attractions of Portugal.
We visited Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon, but once we arrived there, we felt like a world apart from Portugal’s bustling capital city, as Sintra is an oasis of peace and greenness. As we knew there is a lot to see in Sintra, we arrived there around 9 a.m. and parked in a parking lot located between Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle. We visited Portugal in May, when there aren’t so many tourists, so we were sure, we will find a parking spot, but if you visit Sintra in high season, the best would be to travel by public transport as there isn’t much space for parking.
Park and Palace of Pena
From the parking lot, we headed directly to Palace of Pena, the most visited attraction of Sintra and therefore with the longest queues. When we arrived at the entrance, although it was still early and the park just opened for the public (the park opens at 9:30 and the castle at 9:45), there were already more than 40 people waiting to buy tickets. We also bought the tickets directly from the entrance and chose a combined ticket (costed €22 with discount) for Park of Pena, Moorish Castle and Monserrate Palace. As we weren’t sure on which day the weather will allow us to visit Sintra, we couldn’t buy them online, but if you want to skip the queues, especially in high season, maybe you should consider doing it (you will also have a 5% discount from the price of each attraction). If you nonetheless want to buy them directly from Sintra, go to the ticket office located at the entrance of Moorish Castle or Monserrate Palace because these are less crowded than the one from Palace of Pena.
As we don’t find the interior of palaces extremely interesting, we purchased tickets only for Park of Pena, which gave us access to the gardens and yards of the palace. To get to the palace from the entrance, you have to climb an inclined pathway and you can choose either to walk or to go with a dedicated bus (for a fee) which takes you there in a couple of minutes. We chose the first option and took a lovely 15 minute walk to the palace.
Once I spotted the palace, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Although I saw pictures of it, seeing it in person is a totally different thing. After visiting some of the most beautiful castles of Europe, like Chambord or Neuschwanstein, I was pretty sure, that no other castle or palace can impress me anymore. How wrong I was! This palace is so colorful, grandiose and magical, that it makes you believe it just popped out of a Disney movie (it is even more impressive than the Sleeping Beauty castle from Disneyland!!!).
This Portuguese masterpiece was commended by King Ferdinand II, who considered it to be the “crown of Sintra region” and after seeing it, I can totally agree with him. The construction is divided into multiple sections, each having a different style, among them the Manueline and Moorish styles and it is regarded nowadays as one of the greatest examples of Romantic architecture.
Mesmerized by the beautiful Pena Palace, we continued our visit with the Moorish Castle (although technically, it is not a castle but a fortress), which is just a short walk from Pena.
The castle was built by the Moors in the 9th century and due to its strategic place was used as a defense of the town of Sintra. After the reconquest of Portugal by the Christians, the castle was abandoned until the 19th century, when King Ferdinand II decided to restore what it remained of it.
If you want to visit these ancient ruins, just remember to wear comfortable shoes, as you will have to climb hundreds of stairs to get to the top of it. It took us more than half an hour to climb this wall that resembles the “Great Wall of China”, but our effort was rewarded once we took a look at our surroundings. If we looked above, we had a splendid view of Pena Palace and if we looked below, we could see the entire Sintra, including the National Palace of Sintra and Quinta da Regaleira.
Quinta da Regaleira
Once we were done enjoying the views from atop the Moorish Castle, we drove to Quinta da Regaleira and after spending about 10 minutes searching for a parking spot, we were on our way to visit the famous estate. As it is run by another foundation, we had to buy tickets for it separately. The tickets costed €6, were available at the entrance and included also a map of the domain.
We begin our visit with the Guardians Gate and the Waterfall Lake and after crossing the lake on some wet rocks, we found ourselves in a tunnel, we didn’t even know existed. I was so excited when I realized there is a system of tunnels and underground walkways and we can explore them!
After having fun discovering where the tunnels lead, we surfaced through the Unfinished Well and headed directly to the Initiation Well, the most well-known place from Quinta da Regaleira. The Initiation Well contains nine platforms, which are said to be “reminiscent of the Divine Comedy by Dante and the nine circles of Hell, the nine sections of Purgatory and the nine skies which constitute Paradise” and according to the legend it was used by the Masons for initiation rites.
The estate, commended by the wealthy businessman Carvalho Monteiro in the 20th century, has, beside an enormous park filled with an extensive network of tunnels, grandiose towers, mystic wells and mysterious grottos, also a gothic palace and chapel that we visited in a rush, as it was getting pretty late.
We spent more than 3 hours in this place and felt it wasn’t enough time to really enjoy all it has to offer. I couldn’t stop being amazed, as at each turn, we found yet another spectacular spot. I can’t even say what I liked the most, but what I can say is that if I’ll one day return to Sintra, I would undoubtedly do it for Quinta da Regaleira, as I think it is the most magical of all. Although it is not as eye catching as Pena Palace, nor as painstakingly decorated as Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira charmed me with its playfulness and mystery.
From Quinta da Regaleira, we drove to the last palace we visited in Sintra, Monserrate Palace. The Palace’s architecture is a blend of Moorish, gothic and Indian styles and its surrounding is home to different species of plants from all over the world, making it one of the richest botanical gardens of Portugal.
As the palace is about 4 km away from the city center, it is not very popular with tourists and this was easily visible from the moment we arrived there. The parking lot was almost empty and only a handful of people were visiting it.
Even though I don’t regret visiting it as it had its charm, I can’t say it was as spectacular as the other ones. If I’m being honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I loved the stunning Moorish and Indian decorations of the palace and its lush gardens, but at the same time I found it to be kind of small and empty (in about 40 minutes we have visited the entire palace and the gardens). However, if you like Moorish architectural style and want to visit a less crowded place of Sintra, than this is the perfect spot for you.
Although we were able to visit all the sights we wanted in a day, I highly recommend you plan 2 days for visiting this magical place, as our day was a bit too hectic. If I would have to do it once again, I would definitely reserve 2 days or at least 1 and a half (with a sleepover in Sintra), as I would have liked more time to linger in some of the places we visited, check out also the National Palace of Sintra and Convento dos Capuchos or take a walk in the city center.
Have you visited Sintra? Which palace did you like more, or which would you like to visit?