Sintra has that fairytale quality I associate with Disneyland. But unlike its more glossy counterpart, every turret, castle and park is old, authentic and beguiling. Portugal has the real life version of the thing. Sintra is the kind of place that Walt Disney wishes he could have made up. People love Sintra, and it’s not hard to see why.
Horse-drawn carriages clop across cobbled streets, vendors sell lip-smackingly good custard tarts, and on the vibrantly hued buildings hang signs for the local delicacy, Ginjinha, a sickly sweet liqueur served in a chocolate cup which people seem to either love or hate. (Personally, it made me want to vomit)
The atmosphere of this compact little place, decked out in vivid shades of yellows, reds and blues, verges on twee, but manages to come down on just the right side of touristy. That said, I did go mid-week, I can imagine weekends would be a nightmarish time to visit.
Slap bang in the main square sits the Palacio Nacional, dominating the town with its two strange and beautiful conical towers. Looming high above and casting a watchful eye over the goings on below are the ornate Palacio da Pena and the foreboding medieval Moorish Castle.
Portuguese royalty vacationed here during the stifling Iberian summers in order to escape from the heat and grime of Lisbon, leaving extravagant palaces and castles in their wake. Their creations, brash and exquisite, have long outlasted them, turning Sintra into one of Lisbon’s most popular day trips.
Even Lord Byron raved about this lovable little town in the mountains. “Perhaps in every aspect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial.” And if Sintra was good enough for Byron, I was there in a heartbeat.
My eyes didn’t know what to look at first.
But first, let me get this out of the way – Sintra is not a cheap trip. The striking buildings all have considerable admission charges – I’m talking an average of €7/8 per attraction – and there are heaps of them. Visit enough and you’ll be left out of pocket soon enough. Unlike it’s larger neighbour to the East, Portugal doesn’t seem to do student discounts – or any discounts really. There are some combination tickets available which can save you a few Euros, but on the whole, Sintra isn’t a budget day out.
But here’s some good news, you can still wander around Sintra’s attractive streets, eat some scrumptious local fare and view the attractions from the outside for free. I didn’t for a second feel as if I’d missed out by not stumping up to explore every single palace and castle in depth. Simply put, Sintra is just a great place to be.
Conscious of the less than abundant contents of my bank account, I decided to choose just one attraction to explore thoroughly, plumping for the Moorish Castle, or as it’s known in Portugese, the Castelo dos Mouros, where the admission price was a somewhat hefty €7.
There is a tourist bus (and a snazzy looking locomotive) which you can take up to the top of the hill to the Castle – or alternatively, you can use your feet. The walk is pretty daunting, but being a glutton for punishment, as well as being shamed into it by my much more physically fit boyfriend, I opted to trek to the summit. Unless you’re an avid hiker (or an idiot, like me) it might be a safer bet to put your ego aside and take the quicker and more comfortable bus. Your legs will thank you later. If not, good walking shoes are a must.
Leaving the bustling town square behind and marching up the wooded path away from the crowds up to the Castle was lovely, albeit exhausting. The incredibly steep slog to the top took about an hour, but I was rewarded with splendid views and blissful silence, even in peak season.
Castelo dos Mouros is something that Disney might have dreamt up. Sprawling, hewn from grey stone, complete with flags fluttering in the wind and with an incredibly scenic view over Lisbon, I felt like I might be in Skyrim. (First and last geeky reference of this post, I promise)
Legend has it that once a year the Castle’s occupants would light an enormous bonfire, the flames of which could be seen by people for miles around, to reassure them that they were well protected.
Standing at the top of its highest turret, I felt like I could see to the ends of the earth.
For those with disabilities or who have trouble walking, it might not be the best choice for a visit as the steps are winding, narrow and in some places, more than a little crumbly. Similarly, for anyone with a touch of vertigo, it might be a tad scary. I’ll admit that I may have shuffled down more than one lot of precarious looking steps on my bottom…
After a fantastic day of enjoying Sintra I stopped off in a little park, which was home to the creepiest looking animals I have ever seen, full stop.
I’m pretty sure that camel is on drugs.
Can Sintra be done on a day trip? Absolutely, but you might need to be selective about which attractions you want to visit, I ended up spending three hours at the Moorish Castle alone. If you’re really stretched, taking the tourist bus will save you time. If you prefer to take things at a slower pace (or if you just don’t want to leave) you’re in luck, the town is home to several hotels.
Just as I was leaving I stumbled across one of these – the last thing that I expected to see in Portugal!
How to get to Sintra
Getting to Sintra couldn’t be easier. Simply hop on the train at the grand Rossio Station. Return tickets cost just €4.20. The journey is a speedy 40 minutes breezing through Lisbon’s suburbs. Lonely Planet told me to get off the train at Portela de Sintra stop – and I ended up having to take a 20 minute uphill hike to the town – upon my arrival discovering the much closer Sintra station. Damn you Lonely Planet! Make sure you don’t make the same mistake – get off at Sintra – NOT Portela de Sintra. Trains leave at regular intervals throughout the day.