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Sintra is one of the most popular day trips from Lisbon, and it’s easy to see why. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to several architectural & historical gems, including the Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace, as well as the beautiful Sintra-Cascais Natural Park & Cabo da Roca. There was so much to do there that I actually split it up into two separate day trips, since I had already booked an Airbnb for my entire stay in Lisbon. On my first day trip to Sintra from Lisbon, I went to Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace.
My day trip to Sintra began at Lisbon’s Rossio train station. When I arrived, the station was absolutely mobbed with day trippers. This was my first lesson when it comes to taking a trip to Sintra: get your tickets ahead of time if you can. I ended up doing that for my 2nd day trip. The queues for the ticket machines were long, and since so many people were visitors who didn’t know how to work them, the whole process took even longer. Ticket prices are a reasonable €5 for a roundtrip ticket on a reloadable card. Despite this delay, I thought I was still going to manage to make a 10:10am train, only to find out that it had somehow left early. I had to wait for about 30 minutes for the next train, but at least this meant I got a seat.
The train ride from Lisbon to Sintra takes about 40 minutes. Along the way, I learned my second useful tip of the day: a bobby pin is useful for creating avocado toast. I learned this from the girl sitting next to me, who may have been the daughter of McGuyver.
Arriving at Sintra’s train station doesn’t necessarily make for the best first impression. The area is pretty enough, but between those arriving by train, tour buses, and everything else, its jam packed. I began my walk into the historic center of Sintra.
I was not the only one doing this walk, not by a long shot. It’s a pleasant winding road, lined with art & viewpoints across the city. What makes the walk annoying is that there are massive tour groups doing the same thing, and the tour guides don’t remind them that other visitors & locals exist and might need to get past them.
The center of Sintra is filled with pretty, narrow alleyways. These too were packed with people, but there’s no way for them not to be, given how tight they are.
I skipped the Sintra National Palace, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to get to everything in one day in Sintra.
It was lunchtime, so I decided to get some food before beginning my hike to the Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace. I found a restaurant called Tascantiga just on the edge of the center of Sintra. They specialize in local Portuguese tapas (known as petiscos). I treated myself to a feast of fried codfish with peppers & chorizo, cheese from Azeitão with figs & smoked ham, fried sausage balls seasoned with chestnuts, and roast black pudding with thinly sliced pineapple.
After lunch, it was time to head up to the Castle of the Moors. It’s a steep journey, so most people arrive by bus. However, I had decided to hike up. I expected that I was going to be following the road, but there is actually another, far more picturesque way up. I actually found out about it by complete accident. As I was starting up the road, there was a man passing out maps. The maps showed a different way up to the Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace.
The trail leads through Vila Sasseti, a beautiful villa & gardens located below the castle. Google doesn’t show it as a walkable path, but it indeed is, which is why there is someone passing out maps to people who are walking out of the center of Sintra. As you might imagine, this still doesn’t lead to many people doing the hike, so it’s a pleasantly quiet experience.
Even if you don’t want to do the full hike up (or more intelligently, down), Vila Sasseti is still worth checking out. The lower parts include a beautiful garden path with shady plants, streams, ponds, and views across Sintra. There is a cafe & restrooms along the way. It’s so much better than walking along some road packed with tour buses taking people up to Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace. It’s also faster, though it’s a steeper ascent.
Along the way, the path gets narrower & steeper past the Vila Sasseti. Penedo da Amizade, just above you, is a popular spot for rock climbing.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself meeting up with other trails at the Parque da Pena Lakes Entrance. It’s busier here, but it’s a great viewpoint for seeing the Castle of the Moors high above you & then all the way out to the sea. Yes, high above you. You’ve climbed this whole way, but there’s still a lot to go as you head into the castle grounds.
There’s a combined ticket for the Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace. It’s still €20.90, which is quite steep – pun intended. There should be a discount if you’ve walked up the mountain to get there. They’re both so wonderful that I had no problem paying the price, but be forewarned that it’s not the cheapest day out. The prices don’t seem to be dissuading many people from visiting.
I continued up the hill toward the Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros). The path is uphill, as you’d expect, but it’s broken up with some things to see along the way, such as the ruins of Islamic houses, a tomb, a little museum inside a church, and the necropolis.
It’s stunning how the Castle of the Moors has been built into the landscape of Sintra. I’ve never seen anything like it. The walls meld with the mountain itself.
It also had the most trees of any castle I’ve been to.
There was also a restroom for Jabba the Hutt.
The obvious choice when visiting the Castle of the Moors is to head to the highest point. This tower has panoramic views across all of Sintra. You can see all the way to the coast & the Atlantic Ocean, while also getting a great view of Pena Palace on the other hill.
I then headed to the North Tower, which was the castle keep. Both of these trails are nice loops, so you get to see everything without backtracking. There’s also enough room that any crowds get spread out. All of the trees help to make for a fairly peaceful experience. That is, aside from the guy who was walking around whistling the “Game of Thrones” theme, which was already in my head, so it only added to the experience.
After visiting the castle, I headed back down the hill to the Pena National Palace. At the entrance, there were huge queues for the buses, so keep that in mind if that’s how you plan on getting around Sintra. By this point, I had done quite a bit of hiking, so I rested at the coffee shop at the entrance. I had some local specialties – butter cookies called areias and a cheesecake tart called a queijada. The latter was sweet, and it was almost like an apple pie.
Then, it was time to continue hiking uphill. There is a bus that will take you to Pena Palace for €3, or you can walk along roughly the same path, save for a few shortcuts. The walk isn’t particularly bad, especially compared to some of the other hikes in Sintra.
The National Palace of Pena is a completely different architectural experience from the Castle of the Moors. The colorful complex was completed in 1854. It was built in the style of 19th-century Romanticism, which combines a variety of style elements. The resulting buildings have an eclectic, yet inviting feeling. It all feels much more modern than it is, yet somehow even older than it is.
Clouds had started to roll in, so the walls were not lit up as brightly as they could be. Still, you can get an idea of how colorful Pena Palace is.
There are so many different levels, towers, and viewpoints at Pena Palace that it begins to become a bit of a maze. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to take in every little detail.
One of my favorite parts of the Palace of Pena was the Triton Terrace, which incorporated several gorgeous carvings into the doorways and façades.
The tiles inside the passageway were also interesting.
There’s plenty to see both outdoors & indoors at Pena Palace. I alternated between the two, as by this point the clouds had turned to a full-on fog & wind. I was in shorts & didn’t have a jacket because the weather in Lisbon had been warm. This part of the coast of Portugal, just a few miles away from Cabo de Roca, the westernmost point in Europe, has a microclimate that’s rather similar to San Francisco, resulting in the possibility of weather that is wildly different from the conditions an hour away.
Despite feeling massive from the outside, the rooms of Pena Palace are rather intimate. The place felt like somewhere that people actually live, rather than some sterile opulent building. Some parts were undergoing restoration work that you could actually see in progress, which was cool to see.
Even the Great Hall felt lived in.
As for the Stag Room, well, that felt more like it formerly had life.
The final part of my visit to the National Palace of Pena was the Wall Walk. This perimeter walk follows the outside of the palace, giving views across Sintra & the surrounding park toward the Castle of the Moors. By this point, the grounds were much quieter. Most of the tour buses full of people making the day trip from Lisbon had left.
Then I headed back to the center of Sintra. In contrast with when I visited around lunchtime, it was nearly deserted. I regretted that I wouldn’t be staying in Sintra overnight, as the place completely changes when the hordes are gone. At the very least, consider staying for dinner & drinks, and then taking one of the last trains home.
Instead, I made one more stop at a local bakery called Piriquita II. The bakery is famous for another Sintra delicacy: the Travesseiro pastry. The name translates to “pillows”, and that’s just what they are. Pillows of puff pastry filled with an almond & egg cream. Served warm, they are delicious, especially with a cold fog rolling in.
Sintra can be done in a day trip from Lisbon, but there was plenty more that I wanted to see. My first day was spent visiting the architecutral wonders of Castle of the Moors & Pena National Palace, but I would return for another day trip to the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park & Cabo da Roca.