A day trip to Sintra

On our second day in Lisbon, we took a day trip out to the small town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains leave regularly from Lisbon’s main train station on the hour, with the ride taking about 35 minutes.

Once we arrived in Sintra, we were surprised to find that all the sights were quite far apart, so we bought tickets for a ring road bus. We were reluctant to do so as we always like to “do it ourselves” but this time the bus was a lifesaver, as we found ourselves atop a mountain just 15-20 minutes later, a walk that would have taken us nearly half a day at such a steep incline.


The Moorish Castle as seen from Pena Palace

Our first stop  was the Moorish Castle, which wasn’t part of our original plan, but since it was on the bus route, we decided to hop out. The fortress was built around the 9th or 10th century by the Muslim population, which occupied the Iberian peninsula at that time, and was later surrendered after the Conquest of Lisbon.

The Castle reminded me of none other than Rumelihisari – which sits on the banks of the Bosphorus and served as an Ottoman fortress – but this one was on a much grander scale.


The Portugese flag flies atop the castle keep

Just like our visits to Rumelihisari, I found the fortress rather frightening, with its steep staircases and treacherous heights. I opted to play it safe while Gurkan traipsed to the highest points, and sometimes, even stood atop the fortress walls. At one point, I ducked out of sight, knowing that I couldn’t stand to watch him stand precariously on the edge.


The fortress is perched high above the valley below


A view from the fortress’ Royal Tower

Our next stop was Pena Palace – King Ferdinand’s colourful summer residence, and probably the most well-known of all of Sintra’s attractions. The palace was constructed in the 1850s after the King acquired the land, which was the site of an old monastery built centuries earlier.


Pena Palace seen from the Moorish Castle

Just like at the Moorish Castle, the palace is perched atop the mountains, so be prepared to walk up a steep incline from where the bus drops off in order to get to the castle entrance.

We were hot and sweaty by the time we reached the entrance, so we first set out for the palace terrace, where the air was crisp and fresh with a tinge of the Atlantic Ocean, and the geometric reds and yellows were sharp and vibrant against the bright sky.


The colourful Pena Palace up close

The terrace walk was also one of the quieter moments of the day, as many of the visitors had headed directly inside the palace. It was a nice opportunity to take a moment’s pause from the sightseeing rush of the day.


Along the terrace walk


Looking out

The interior was an even more eclectic mix than the garishly-coloured exterior, with an architectural style which clearly drew on  Eastern influences, which can be seen in the arched gateways and inner courtyard.


Moorish archway


Inner courtyard

The rest of the castle’s interior was less than exciting and much like you would expect: chamber rooms, chandeliers, and other luxurious items, but the last room on the tour – the kitchen – was a dream. With well-appointed copperware and plentiful natural light, it was a kitchen fit for a king (or alternatively, his kitchen staff).


After Pena Palace, we jumped on the bus and headed back into town for a quick lunch before visiting the Quinta da Regaleira residence, which is a short 10 minute walk from the town’s centre. Known for its whimsical gardens featuring underground tunnels, hidden waterfalls, and other labyrinthine structures, the residence seemed otherworldly.


The lush green of summer

The gardens were expansive (in fact, we didn’t even have enough time to make it to the residence) and as it was sweltering hot, we were drawn to the cool tunnels.

At one point, we entered a dark tunnel which dove into the ground, feeling along the damp walls to stay on the path, only to come out minutes later at this small pond. Other times, we found ourselves on winding paths that emptied out into hidden waterfalls with drawbridges and stepping stones laid across the water.


A small cave within the “Labyrinthic Grotto”

The Quinta da Regaleira is perhaps best known for its Initiation Well that plunges 27m into the ground, and which can either be accessed through a tunnel at its base or from a non-descript top entrance. We arrived via the underground tunnel after finding an entrance at the aptly named “Portal of the Guardians.”

After just a few minutes underground, we found ourselves peering up out of the darkness.The well is supposed to make the relationship between heaven and hell “intensely felt” according to the map we were given, and it was indeed an eery feeling to be caught so far beneath ground, peering into the light, a middle ground or a Dante’s inferno of sorts.


Looking up from the base


Looking down after reaching the top

Although there is plenty more to see in Sintra such as Monserrate Palace and Cabo da Roca – continental Europe’s westernmost point – we opted to head back on the train to be able to spend the evening in Lisbon, complete with more custard tarts, a bit of port wine and just by chance, one of the best steaks I’ve had in a really, really long time.