One of the best things about open-ended traveling is winding up in places that you didn’t know existed. Or being pleasantly surprised that a destination highly exceeds your expectations, like Sintra.
When I decided to start my 14-week trip off in Portugal, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was conveniently located as one of the closest countries to fly into from the United States. I knew it was relatively affordable, and I knew there wasn’t really a reason not to go.
What I didn’t know was how much I was going to completely fall in love with the country, especially Sintra.
If you’re planning a trip to Portugal don’t neglect this fairytale-like town, that was once a summer destination for the Portuguese’s most noble population.
For 5 Euros you can take a train less than an hour from Lisbon to this magical place. Spend the day hiking up the sides of forested and stone covered hilltops. Make your way through dark tunnels that lead to stunning grottos. Most importantly, spiral down the Initiation Well.
Traveling through that part of Europe in March was a gamble with weather. We didn’t get a lot of warm days and also dealt with quite a bit of rain. But because of that, we were able to visit popular places with less of the crowd hassle.
The day we spent in Sintra started out grey, cold and rainy. But with a place that feels like pure magic, it made sense that as soon as we arrived the sky cleared and the threat of rain disappeared. Or maybe we were just really lucky.
We soon learned that there was a bus that would take us to all the must-see spots. However, since we were working without much of a plan and the weather was clearing up (not to mention we liked the idea of adventure), we chose not to use it and walked everywhere we went.
Something I don’t recommend doing if you want to see everything. We ultimately ran out of time.
We spent our entire day exploring the Quinta da Regaleira and the Castelo dos Mouros. The rest of our time was spent wandering around, getting lost and hiking up hillside steps made of stone to some of the most stunning views of the surrounding country.
If I can tell you to go one place in all of Portugal, I would tell you to go walk the grounds of the Quinta da Regaleira, and step inside the massive Initiation Well that pictures will never quite capture accurately.
The fountains and Rapunzel towers that flood your vision in the surrounding park and palace might actually make you feel like you’ve gone back in time.
You can get lost in the damp tunnels. Make your way beneath the grounds to tiny doors and passageways. This place could make anywhere else you’ve ever been seem dull and ordinary.
After we spent time on the grounds, we visited the inside of the palace and chapel before moving on to the Castelo dos Mouros.
(Tip: If you’re running low on time, skip the palace and chapel and go on to the next place. While it was interesting to see, it was far from the best experience we had there.)
Deciding to walk the distance from one attraction to the next was both ambitious and challenging. We barely made it to the Moors Castle before it closed. There is a steep trail up the hillside that has the best views. It’s hard, but rewarding. The quickest way is obviously by bus.
The castle is atop a hillside that looks over the entire Sintra region and the surrounding forests. It’s a watch-your-step kind of place. But it’s well worth it when you reach the highest point and actually feel like you’re on top of the world.
(Fun fact, when you actually get up there you can see the Pena Palace in the distance. With a good zoom on your camera, could probably even get some decent pictures. Just in case you run out of time like we did.)
My best advice for a trip to Sintra is to give yourself as much of the day as possible. Especially if you’re only spending one day there. I would definitely catch a much earlier train from Lisbon if I had the opportunity to do it again.
Walk wherever you can because the views are absolutely spectacular and there are plenty of things to stumble onto.
The place is a living breathing Medieval world. For being one of my favorite destinations it was one of the most affordable places we went to. The only thing we paid for was roundtrip train fare and the entry ticket for the Moors Castle.
We made it back to Lisbon in time for a late dinner. Then back to our couchsurfer’s apartment in Belém where we crashed into bed from exhaustion. We were down for a few minutes before heading back out for another night in the Bairro Alto.
Not too bad for a days work I’d say.