If you’re spending time in Lisbon, you must, MUST, take a day trip to Sintra. In fact, I’m sure if you asked anyone who has ever been to Lisbon (or Portugal more generally) what to do there, this will be at the top of their list. Without trying to sound too hyperbolic, the area looks like it has been plucked out of some kind of mythical fairy-tale. This may perhaps have been enhanced due to the nature of the weather while I was there – clouds were hanging low and made the mountainous fortresses look like castles in the sky.
First things first: Sintra is by no means a secret. It is mentioned in pretty much every guidebook with glowing reviews (for good reason), so if you have an aversion to crowds, you'll need to get there early and have a plan. Many hostels and tour companies in Lisbon offer guided day trips, but they all arrive in Sintra a little late in the day for maximum enjoyment. If you follow what I did, you should be able to enjoy the best of the sights before the town becomes crawling with people. I visited Sintra in the peak of summer and still managed to enjoy a relatively peaceful time there.
The train to Sintra leaves from Lisbon's Oriente station and takes about an hour to get to Sintra station. Keeping in mind that the attractions don’t open until around 9am, try to aim to arrive at the station at least by 9. Directly outside the station is a bus stop that does a loop to all of Sintra’s major attractions. I suggest you buy a ticket and go directly to your first stop: Castelo dos Mouros. Of course, you can do this in any order you like, but Castelo dos Mouros deserves to be seen in a quiet atmosphere. Keep in mind that although it’s a relatively short journey, it will be uphill on a windy road, so take precautions if you suffer from travel sickness (as I do).
Once getting off the bus, you’ll be able to go and directly buy your ticket entry to Castelo dos Mouros. I’d recommend buying the combination ticket that also offers entry to Palácio da Pena, as it’s right around the corner and definitely worth visiting.
The walk through the forest to reach Castelo dos Mouros is truly beautiful, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be stopping for photos every 10 seconds. The greenery is broken up by the most magnificent hydrangeas, which I’ve never seen in such great numbers or in such lovely colours in my life. Don’t ignore your camera, you’ll want to remember this.
As you enter the castle proper, you’ll be able to walk along the wall and have an amazing view of the world beneath – or, if you’re me, you’ll see a bunch of clouds that occasionally disperse for long enough to have a glimpse of the view.
Next on your itinerary should be Palácio da Pena as it’s right around the corner from Castelo dos Mouros. After exiting Castelo dos Mouros turn left and head along the road until you spot the entrance to Palácio da Pena (a walk that should take no longer than 10 minutes). By now crowds will be starting to gather, so this is where the combination ticket comes in handy as you can stroll right into the grounds. It’s a mildly steep climb to the castle, not incredibly strenuous, however, this is a bus available to take you up for €2.
The castle itself looks like something out of Aladdin, you can definitely see the Moroccan influences here and the effect is nothing short of breathtaking. The colours are vibrant and look spectacular amongst the greenery. You could spend hours wandering through and around the palace grounds!
When exiting I jumped in a cart out the front that would take me around to my next sight, Quinta da Regaleira. This was an experience in itself as the driver would eagerly point out local sights and interesting facts about Sintra as we zoomed through the narrow streets.
One part of the gardens that you cannot miss is The Waterfall Lake. This peculiar little area looks fantastical, as though it’s the entrance to a witches lair or perhaps where you’d expect to find fairies.
As I left Quinta da Regaleira it was heading into lunch time and the central area of Sintra was buzzing. While I was a little tired after my early start and lots of walking, it was worth it to be able to experience a relatively quiet Sintra!