When it comes to picking destinations, I often select a location because I have been given positive recommendations or I have been inspired by images online or on the TV. In some cases this has left me underwhelmed. This was not true in the case of Sintra.
I had window shopped Sintra on Pinterest. I initially thought Sintra was a only castle, in particular a castle with a really cool well that you could walk down. It turns out that Sintra is a town in the region of Greater Lisboa, Portugal. I also discovered that the few hours I had there weren’t nearly enough.
Sintra's significance as a city
The township of Sintra is UNESCO listed due to its important architecture and significance historically. It is legendary in Portuguese history and was an ancient strong hold for medieval rulers. Today much of its ancient structures still stand and are mixed in with more modern buildings that have been erected over time. It is the sight of battle, important marriages and controversial deaths. It is both visually, historically and culturally stunning. Best of all, it is a day trip out of Lisbon!
What to see
There are many fairytale castles in Sintra.Unfortunately I only had a few short hours in Sintra (this is not enough – a day would be much better) and happened to visit on their busiest week of the year (2nd week of August). Because of this, the tourist bus that takes you around to the main sights had about a 45 minute wait. If you get stuck in the same predicament, I am going to share more with you about the best castle to visit without the bus. But for now, here are your options.
Tourist Bus 434 costs 5 Euros for a full loop and will easily take you to all of these sites and then drop you back in the main part of town. More information can be found here: www.sintra-portugal.com/guides/sintra-bus-434.html
By far the most colourful, the Pena Palace is popular for its colourful facade. Located at the top of the hill above Sintra, it provides stunning views. Built in the 19th century it isn’t as old as some of the sights, but is listed as one of the 7 wonders of Portugal. You will need to catch the bus to this site as it is quite a walk from the main part of town.
The Moors Castle
The Moors Castle is a short walk from Pena Palace. The Castle of the Moors is a military outpost constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries. More rustic in style, it is a stone fortification, featuring turrets, towers and perimeter walls that can be climbed. It provides wonderful views, with Sintra, Mafra and as far as Ericeira visible on a clear day.
The National Palace of Sintra
Located in the centre of town, this is one of the easiest sites to explore. It is wonderfully preserved and has been an inhabited royal residence since the 15th century. It is a blend of architectural styles, but what most stands out are its oast house like roof structures which rest over the giant kitchens below. Home to many feasts, these chimneys were built over the entire kitchen rather than just the fire places.
Quinta da Regaleira
Whilst the National Palace of Sintra is a great choice, and very close to town, my pick is the Quinta da Regaleira You can upgrade your bus pass to include the 435 bus (12 Euros in total), however it is an easy 10 minute walk out of town.
This property features a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park with lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, tunnels, caves and a vast array of unique constructions. What is most notable is the initiation well, a 23 metre inverted structure with a spiral stair case around its perimeter. It can be viewed from above, entered mid way through one of the many tunnel systems in the park or you can begin from the bottom up. Images of this well were what first drew me to the park, but as you’ll see it offers a lot more
If you are looking for more things to do in the area, or are staying in Lisbon, Christopher Rudders from Rudderless, has written an excellent post called 48 hours in Lisbon that is worth a read.
The main draw card for visiting this site – an subsequently the Pinterest image that piqued my interest, is the initiation well. Build to connect the forces of earth with the land, it is a well like structure with a mosaic floor and stone spiral stair case. I decided to enter from the caves leading from one of the grottos. It was quite crowded and I edged my way through the system to emerge inside the well. I was around half way down. It was quite an easy walk to the bottom, with mottled sunshine from above findings its way down below. Despite the number of people, it was quite a relaxing place to be and definitely lived up to its online image.
Exploring the initiation well
Once I’d reached the bottom I was able to spend a few minutes alone to look up and enjoy the view. Being at the bottom had a certain kind of serenity. I enjoyed my moment before I set out through another cave system, over some stepping stones and over a bridge to explore the remaining 5 hectares of land.
The structures throughout the gardens are quite Asian in their feel and the trees quite lush and jungle like. Several times I felt I could have been at Angkor Wat, or an Asian temple. It was definitely a unique and different feel to the rest of Sintra. The paths are well signposted and you can enjoy walking on wider paths or snaking through the trees. I enjoyed a combination of both, stopping to look inside grottos and climb look outs as I cam across them.
Once I had tired of walking, I decided to visit the palace. More of a mansion than a palace, the building was quite different to that of the rest of the grounds. Very grand and ornate, I spent about 30 minutes exploring before it was time to head back to town and get some lunch.
The round up
Whilst there are many compelling places to visit in Sintra, Quinta da Regaleiras diversity and ability to hold your attention for a couple of hours is definitely worth it. At 6 Euros for an adult (4 if you’re a teacher!) it is also great value.