The Ultimate 1-Day Sintra Guide: Tips on Maximizing your Time and which are the Best Castles to See on a Lisbon Day Trip to Sintra
Sintra is one of those destinations which seems too magical to believe it’s real. It’s a charming town, full of fairytale castles, historic battlements and a rich tapestry of cutesy stores and gourmet cafes. There is SO much to do here, but for many, they only have one day to spend here. I remember when I was researching day-trips to Sintra from Lisbon, I felt overwhelmed by the choices and options and didn’t know how much time I would need or how many things I could fit into my one day. After finally deciding on what we wanted to see, and working out the kinks for myself on our trip out there, I’ve compiled what I think is the best itinerary for your day-trip to Sintra. This itinerary features all the great sights, some time to relax, the best ways to avoid the crowds (as much as possible) and have fun exploring along the way! The itinerary takes us first to Pena Palace, then on through the lush palace gardens which lead us up to the ruins of the medieval Moorish castle. After touring these ancient stone walls, we head to the “millionaires manor” otherwise known as the Quinta da Regaleira. Once thoroughly mindblown by these fantastical castles its time for a wander through the old town of Sintra where we’ll stop for dinner and dessert before heading back to Lisbon. The blog post is broken up in each section of the itinerary, so if you want to skip to a specific portion, there are links to everything below.
How to Get to Sintra
Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon by trains leaving from Rossio station. The trip requires no transfers and takes around 40 minutes. The round trip journey costs just 4.50€, making it one of the most cost-efficient day trips. While there are trains out to Sintra almost every 40 minutes, I would HIGHLY recommend getting the train before 8 am. The train schedule changes slightly throughout the year, so I didn’t want to give you an exact time but leaving before 8 am means you’ll arrive before 9 am giving yourself plenty of time to get to your first destination with some time to spare before it opens. Sintra seems to explode with tourist buses as the morning wears on so early really pays off. Any chance of being tired is worth it for the experience of arriving at Pena Palace without having to wait in huge lines and fight the enormous crowds to see what’s around you. Also, be sure that you either have a metro card loaded with funds that you can tap on and off the train or buy your train tickets in advance. Even super early in the morning, there was a line up at the ticket counter, and we were happy to have our pre-loaded metro cards which meant we could just tap right on, ensuring we made it onto the train in time. It was surprising how critical those few minutes were in the outcome of our day.
Purchasing your tickets in advance for Pena Palace and the Moorish castle is recommended. Adult tickets into Pena Palace are 14,00€ for exterior and interior tours or 7.50€ for park and exterior of the palace only. The Moorish Castle costs 7.60€, but when you buy online, you’ll save 5%. By taking care of this step in advance, you’ll save on time upon arrival and booking online also gets you 5% off! Tickets are valid for the entire year so even if you buy them and plan on visiting one day which gets rained out you can easily change things around without being beholden to ticket dates and times. You can also purchase them on your phone and show the e-ticket, no need for printing out the physical document. The Quinta da Regaleira ticket line is significantly less busy, and you can just buy those tickets at the gate. Since it’s the last destination of the day, it’s nice to leave it as an option in case you’re too tired, or you decide to spend more time elsewhere. Tickets into Quinta da Regaleira costs 8€.
There are two options for the Pena Palace admission. One is to simply tour the exterior of the palace and royal gardens. The other option will get you entry into the interior of the castle. If you are confident, you’ll arrive early and are keen on seeing the rooms inside then go ahead and buy that ticket. But the line up to get inside can get insanely long. They need to control the number of people who enter the buildings (something which isn’t monitored outside), so this often results in lengthy queues. We were there as close to opening as possible, and even we had to wait about 20 minutes to get inside. When we left the line looked to be almost 2 hours long. While I thoroughly enjoyed touring the interior, there is no way it’s worth 2+ hours of waiting in line. If you think you can miss the interior, the gardens and the exterior ticket is an excellent option since I think the best parts of the castle are the exterior anyway. It will save you a few euros and potentially a lot of time. If you did purchase a ticket for the interior tour but the line-up to get inside is gigantic, I would advise coming back right before closing when the crowds have cleared out.
When to Visit Sintra
Sintra is always busy. Yes, the winter will most likely be the least busy, but it’s also chilly and can be a bit grey. Since most of the things to see are outside, it’s not always the most comfortable time to explore. The height of the summer holidays is equally as miserable but instead because of the intense heat and crowds. Springtime is the happy medium of pleasant weather and medium crowds. Monday-Thursday is reliably the best chance you’ll have to see a small reduction in groups. Avoid holidays when possible as these bring in the Portuguese tourists. As mentioned before the earlier in the morning you arrive, the better chance you’ll have at beating the bus tours, which are the most significant crowd control issue.
Pena Palace is open all year round except December 25th and January 1st. During the Summer (March to October) the palace is open from 9:45 am until 7:00 pm (last entry 6:15) and the park is open from 9:30 am until 8:00 pm (last entry 7:00 pm). In the Winter (October to March) the palace & park are open from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm.
The Moorish Castle is open all year round except December 25th and January 1st. Last entry 1 hour before closing time. In the Summer (March to October) the hours are 9:30 am until 8:00 pm and in the Winter (October to March) the hours are 10:00 am until 6:00pm.
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira is open all year round except for December 24th and 25th and January 1st. On December 31st the opening hours limited. During the Summer (April to September) the hours are 9:30 am to 7:00 pm and in the Winter (October to March) they are 9:30 am to 6:00 pm.
Arrival in Sintra
There are two (well three) options for getting around in Sintra. The first is to take the public buses, primarily bus #434, which services most of the tourist attractions you’ll be visiting in Sintra. This bus tends to have pretty big lines up at the train station stop since everyone getting on needs to purchase their day ticket, and that slows things down and bit. But once you have your pass, it’s super easy to jump on and off throughout the day. Tickets for this bus cost 5€ for a 24-hour pass.
The second option is jumping in an Uber. Ubers are a great way to get around Sintra but be warned that because some of the streets are one way, up a long and winding hill, some drivers might take a while to get to you or might cancel frequently. The Uber ride from the train station to Pena Palace is around 6€ depending on the time of day and the weather. If you’re travelling with 3 or 4 people, Ubers can actually save you some money compared to the bus pass since in this itinerary you don’t need to use transportation more than twice. If you haven’t used Uber before, download the app and use my referral code rds9f to get $5 off your first ride!
The third option is to walk. Walking from the train station to Pena Palace is a pretty long journey, but if you’re keen to do some hiking, this is a great opportunity. Just leave yourself some extra time to hike up to the castle and still arrive at the gates for 9:30 am. Walking to and from the other points in our tour is a great way to actually save time and see some beautiful things along the way. While some of this tour will be on foot, it’s been tested with people of all fitness levels and ages so no need to worry. If you feel like you need to take a break, remember that taking a seat, literally anywhere in Sintra, will always result in one of the most spectacular views you can get anywhere in the world.
Pena Palace opens at 9:30 am, and even before this, the crowds are lining up outside the gates to get inside this magnificent dwelling. Looking at this sumptuous and over the top architectural masterpiece, it’s hard to imagine that this site was once the spot where a very modest monastery once stood. The Hieronymite monastery was built in 1503 in honour of the Virgin Mary who is said to have appeared at the top of the mountain in a vision. After falling to ruins over the years due to religious upheavals, King Ferdinand II, who had been in love with this spot ever since he was a child, decided to buy the buildings and the surrounding lands. Construction of the new royal estate began in 1838. Ferdinand was obsessed with the romanticism, in both art and architecture, and he wanted his contemporary summer house to feel like something out of a storybook. Oddly enough the construction of the palace was taken on by a mining engineer, Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege. Perhaps this was because both the Prince and his wife wanted to have their full say in the design of the castle and yet they needed Eschwege’s planning prowess in helping them achieve the look of a castle sprung forth from the rocks. There really is no one style to be found here. Instead, it’s a patchwork quilt of influences and themes. Ferdinand wanted to include Medieval and Islamic elements as well as Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Manueline. The Manueline architecture was the most iconic style in Portugal at the time. It was the millennial pink of its time.
While the entry gates are located just off the roadside, the palace itself is a fair bit uphill from the main entrance. There is a mini-bus which runs up to the top, but it costs 3€ and more than the money, the line you need to wait in to get onto the bus is a huge inconvenience. Although a little long, the walk up is actually quite enjoyable. If you have mobility issues, just take it slow and spend the extra time resting in between spurts admiring all the beautiful flora and fauna in the garden.
At the top of the hill, the golden yellow walls, blue tile and red painted exterior of the palace begin to emerge from the trees. Seeing this palace in real life is nothing like seeing the pictures. I really don’t think they can do it justice. There is something about walking up those cobblestone steps, which makes you feel like you’re walking into a fantasy.
The entryway into the castle is called the Door of Alhambra. It was inspired by the Alhambra Door of Justice in Granada, Spain. The doorway is covered in brightly painted tiles, decorated with a variety of elegant leaves. Ferdinand wanted this gateway to be the place where his visitors left the real world behind and stepped into his dream world.
Open passing through the archway we step into the ‘Coach Yard’. This was as far as horses and carriages could come and guests would make their way up to the palace on foot. Standing here we can look up at the ‘Monumental Gateway’. The gateway’s design is a blend of architectural elements found all over Lisbon and which the Prince wanted to see incorporated into his palace. The facade is covered in diamond-shaped stones which are a reference from the Casa dos Bicos in Alfama. On either side of the top of the gateway, we have gored domed, completed with rope-like decoration, the same was on the famed Tower of Belem. The exterior is finished in a series of round balls, reminiscent of the Cunhal das Bolas in Barrio Alto. In the centre of the arch, on the very top, is a pair of crossed swords atop the helmet of a knight, with a plume of lush feathers springing out of the top.
Step through the archway and make your way around the swirling passageway to the upper courtyard. It’s here you’ll finally have the chance to study the tiles which make up the exterior hue of this building. Tiles, or Azulejos as they are called in Portuguese, have a strong history in Portugal, dating back to the 13th century. They were brought here by the Moors who invaded much of Spain and Portugal in the 1200s. The word azulejo in Arabic means “small polished stone”. In Islam, they believed in aniconism, which is the avoidance of images of sentient beings in art. As such, geometric shapes became the most popular form of decor and as such, most of the tiles brought with them from Islam continue this tradition. The geometric and natural forms are so striking, and their colours over the years haven’t faded the least bit.
The Triton Portico is one of the most impressive elements of Pena Palace. Triton is meant to serve as an allegorical of the world’s creation. The facade is divided into two factions, the aquatic world below and the terrestrial world above. They are being separated by Triton, a monster who is half man half fish, but who is a part of both worlds. Bits of corals surround Tritons feet, and above him, you can see the carved grape vines and leaves blossoming wildly. The Portuguese were a seafaring nation, and as such, aquatic symbolism was always an important aspect of their artistic culture.
After studying the first courtyard, it’s time to visit the interior if you bought a ticket to enter. This part of the tour often gets very crowded, and the line can get long, so best to do it right away when the line is shorter. The interiors of the palace are located inside the old Hieronymite convent, and as such, the layout follows the design of the former convent exactly. As you enter, you’ll step right into the open cloisters. Look up and see how the open-air hallways continue on both floors of the palace. The entirety of this place is covered in azulejos, and ghastly faces stare down at you, carved in the gargoyles above.
One of the most impressive rooms you’ll see on the first floor is the dining room. The dining room has the most remarkable ceilings made of intricate ribbed vaults and lined in tiles. The table is set like they’re still awaiting their visitors. Each piece of furniture was made for this exact space, the images of Portuguese animals of the forest carved into the backs of the chairs.
Plaster and paint were used to create illusions throughout the interior. This technique is called ‘Trompe-l’ œil’ which is French for “to deceive the eye”. Objects which exist in three dimensions are here created in a two dimensional forced perspective. In King Carlos’ studio, we find a painting of Nymphs and Satyrs playing in the Park of Pena, which is believed to have been painted by the King himself.
Stucco was used to decorate the ceilings of the interior, some designed in the shapes of pine cones, leaves and branches. In other rooms, we find the ceilings patterned with Islamic designs in the stucco. Walking from room to room, you feel like you’re entering another world.
One of my favourite parts of touring the interior were all the personal touches, decorations, knickknacks and treasures. The little things which make a house, a home. They were those fascinating treasure that made the castle feel like someone really lived there.
Upstairs, the Noble Hall is one of the most impressive spaces. Compared to the relatively small sizes of the bedrooms, this receptions hall was where the King took advantage of space. It was here where large parties were thrown and the who’s who of Lisbon’s high society would come during the summer. The Noble Hall was inspired by the Ottoman Court. Iron replicas of Turkish kings are located on either end of the room, in their hands, they hold huge golden torches. Comfortable red leather sofas on either side of the hall were designed with mirrored canopied behind them to make the room appear much larger. It was also an excellent way for the elite to spy on those around them!
The last room you’ll see is the old kitchen, a real hit with chefs and foodies. In here are all the original kitchen utensils, pots and pans and other antique items found in the antiquated Portuguese kitchens. The kitchen felt enormous when the rooms were all rather small, but it must have taken an army to feed the tremendous parties which were no doubt held here.
After exiting the interior, you have the chance to now tour the opposite side of the outside of the palace. Walk underneath Triton’s arch out to the Arches Yard. This is where you’ll find the beautiful golden yellow Moorish arches which create a window onto the village of Sintra and across the countryside below.
There is nothing to compare this view to, it seems to go on and on forever on a clear day. From atop this peak, you can spy on all the rich estates below, one of which is actually owned by Madonna, the queen of pop herself! Sintra truly is still to this day where the rich and famous come to escape the city and to live in some of the most lavish properties found anywhere in the world.
Take the chance to turn your eyes away from the incredible view, and look across towards one of the incredibly ornate windows on the main facade. This piece was directly inspired by the chapter house window in the Convent of the Order of Christ in Tomar. The window is surrounded in alchemical symbols, some of which seem to have a mystical aura. Much of Sintra’s more obscure lore lies in its prominence as a Masonic hub. The Convent of the Order of Christ was a 12th-century stronghold for the Knights Templar. Once its order was disbanded, it is said that the Masonic Temple was formed to continue its mission. It is rumoured that King Ferdinand was himself a grand master of the Masonic Order and as such, influenced much of Sintra’s history as a Masonic centre of power.
Standing guard over the Arches Yard is the sizeable red clock tower atop the old monastery chapel. The steeple of the chapel is embellished with white and emerald green tiles which beautifully contrast the red and yellow walls and the blue (or grey in our case) sky.
The chapel remains unchanged from its 16th-century design. 22 monks would come to pray here during their time at the monastery. The walls are entirely covered in green and white polychrome tiles which still shine inside the darkened chapel. In a small alcove is the ornate alabaster and black marble altar made by Nicolau de Chanterene in 1532. The expressions which he managed to carve out of the solid marble defy earthly conventions making it feel all the more holy.
Opposite the altar is one of the few remaining original stained glass windows from the monastery. The coloured used within this design are so striking, and it’s hard to believe this piece is a few hundred years old. I loved how quiet it was inside the church, it seemed most people skipped it as they were in a rush in those group tours, but I was glad to have stopped inside as it was a wonderful moment to pause and reflect on the beauty all around me.
Just down the stairs from the chapel is the Wall Walk, a small passage which leads you around the back of the palace. While the narrow walkway looks over a steep hillside, the brave will be rewarded with one of the most incredible views across Sintra. Standing on this side of the palace, you can see the Moorish Castle on the other side of the forest.
After touring the castle, the cafe located on the terrace is a great spot to grab lunch. Although the restaurant here is rather expensive, the cafe is surprising cheap with a selection of delicious Portuguese pastries, sandwiches and more. If you brought your lunch, this is also a good opportunity to break out the picnic. While there might be better places to eat in town, it would take ages to get there and back so instead, enjoy the great atmosphere around you while enjoying a simple lunch.
Gardens of Pena Park
Follow the map at the bottom of this post to find the pathway through the Gardens of Pena Park, which will take us towards the Moorish Castle. The map they give you when you enter is really confusing, and honestly as long you’re headed down you’re probably on the right path. Just keep your eyes open for signs to Moorish Castle. The Gardens of Pena Park have dozens of hidden little secret you’ll stumble upon. Stone couches, glass-walled greenhouses, tiny Islamic gazebos and dozen upon dozens of flowers. Compared to the hundreds of people at the palace, these pathways around the gardens feels empty. We were often the only ones there, and in spite of the confusing map, we had a blast exploring and getting lost all along the way.
The gardens cover over 200 hectares of land around the castle. If you love hiking, you should definitely try to come out here and explore the entirety of the park. This could take you all day and is certainly not for those in a rush, but if you have the time to space, there are so many amazing things to discover. We only saw a tiny part of the gardens, but even that was absolutely incredible.
King Ferdinand wanted this garden to not only exemplify the beauty of Portugal but also plants and flowers from all over the world. You’ll spot everything from Magnolias, Japanese Cryptomeria, Chinese Ginko, American Sequoia, Cypress, Red Cedar, as well as tree ferns from New Zeland and Australia.
No matter what time of year you come, there is almost always something blooming. Finding your way towards the exit can be challenging since the park was designed a labyrinth, but as long as you’re headed in the direction of the Pena Garden entrance, you’re on the right track!
Upon exiting the Gardens of Pena Park, walk about 10 minutes uphill towards the entrance to the Moorish Castle. The Moorish Castle is a stark contrast to Pena Palace. There are no colours to be found here, only the natural grey of the rocks and bright greens of the forest around it. While the entrance to the castle is right off the side of the road, the journey towards the original entry to the castle is about a 15-minute walk from there. You’ll stroll along a rolling pathway which leads you around the exterior of the castle walls. Look up as you go to examine the old stone walls high above the steep hillside around you.
The Moorish Castle is one of the oldest parts of Sintra. It was built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Moors. The term “Moors” was a general term used to name the Muslim inhabitants of Portugal. They brought with them their rich architectural histories, something which generations to follow would continue to be inspired by. In 1147, the Christian forces of the Reconquista fought the Moorish people and took the castle for themselves. It was used for military defence during the 14th century, but eventually, it feels to ruins when it was no longer needed for security. Over the next few hundred years, it became almost completely abandoned and with earthquakes, fires and neglect many thought that the castle would be lost to the ages.
But when King Ferdinand II bought Pena Palace, he also took some interest in the Castle of the Moors. Ferdinand really did have a passion for history and took it upon himself to start preserving the remains of the castle and rebuilding the portions which were beyond repair. Upon entering through the main gates of the castle, you’ll see one of Ferdinand’s new constructions, a small chapel. This chapel contains relics which were found on the site, some from the Neolithic area (5000 BC). Important artefacts from the 10th-12th century Islamic cultures have been found as well and are now on display inside the chapel. Outside the chapel, you can see a glass cover atop the stones displaying what are replica bones from where bodies were discovered buried beneath the castle floor. The King made a point to collect the bones and inter them in a small tomb. A large stone marks the spot, with an engraving which says “What mad has joined only God will set apart.”
Upon entering through the Curtain Wall, to the left of the archway is the site of the old stables. A newly built stylized wooden structure marks the spot where you can grab a hot drink on a cold day or cold drink on a warm day. Either way, it’s a nice place to recharge for the hike up the castle walls.
Take a closer look at the walls of the castle. See if you can make out the four distinct different layers which they’re made up of. Each one telling the story of the people who ruled over this structure. The first layer is made of granite blocks which rest on the bedrock over what was once Islamic house and silos in the 12th century. The second phase was a reconstruction using ancient techniques made in the 12-13th century. The third phase was built in the 19th century when King Ferdinand took possession of the castle and helped with its restoration. The last stage was built in the 20th century when the building became a tourist destination run by the government, and steps were taken to ensure its safety and strength for future generations to come.
The large open courtyard is called the Pracad de armas which was where the military garrison would gather in the 13th century. When it was remodelled by King Ferdinand later in the 19th century, it was made into a garden oasis space for contemplation and is still a beautiful area for people to sit and enjoy the view if they cannot manage the hike up the walls.
We visited on an especially windy day, and despite this, we walked the entire way to the top of the walls for a spectacular panorama of Sintra and Pena Palace. Walking up these walls, you feel like an explorer, discovering ancient ruins. When you finally make it to the top, the scene is stupendous. Pena Palace seems so far away, it’s hard to imagine only hours ago you were standing on that yellow terrace.
The walk down from the tower is much more leisurely, and although the landscape is the same going down as it was going up, somehow it seems different. Almost like getting another angle on the entire vista. It’s incredible to observe the lush bushes, trees and flowers which sprout up from within the rocks themselves.
Quinta da Regaleira
Next, it’s time to head over to the Quinta da Regaleira. To get to this palace, you can either summon an Uber from the Moorish Castle (be warned this can take some time since the castle is located at the top of a one-way street, we had multiple Ubers cancel but eventually got one it just takes some patience). The Ubers are extremely well priced at approximately 6-9 euros. You can also take the bus 434 towards the Palácio Nacional de Sintra and then walk the rest of the way (approx. 13 mins). You can also take the tuk-tuks which wait outside the Moorish Castle. This is probably the fastest option, they are always waiting there but their speed and availability come at a price (about 5 euros per person). If you’re in a rush, it’s a great option to get around if money isn’t a problem.
The Quinta da Regaleira was the summer palace of António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, or ‘Monteiro the Millionaire’ as he was better known at the time. King Ferdinand made it popular to come and build spectacular palaces in Sintra and Monteiro wanted in on the trend. So many rich aristocrats were building summer houses in Sintra, but Monteiro wanted his to be jaw-droppingly ornate. He wanted it to be perhaps even more fantastical than the King’s palace. Spread across the hillsides of Sintra Monteiro created for himself and his family a veritable garden of Eden.
The palace was designed by the Italian architect Luigi Manini. Lord Byron, upon his visit to the palace, called it, “a glorious Eden.” and poet L.V. de Camões wrote that it was, “an oasis where one could imagine that every pool and stream has nymphs in its waters.” Monteiro believed in primitivism, and as such, the layout of his gardens may have been carefully designed, but the plants were left to grow as they pleased, and in this wildness is where we find some of the most beautiful parts of the palace. The tree spread across the grounds seem to almost camouflage the buildings below, swallowing them up whole beneath their lush green leaves. Only parts of the structures can be seen peeking out from beneath, giving visitors only clues as to where to find those secret.
Upon walking in, before visiting the main interior of the palace, first, explore the grounds. Standing close to the entrance is the Regaleira Chapel. Its architecture is so similar to the palace’s that it almost looks like a minature version of it. Inside is a richly decorated interior, with stucco carved into elaborate shapes and decorations dripping off the ceiling. Delicate leaves seem to grow out of the walls, and it feels like if you could reach out and touch them, they would perhaps wilt under pressure. Frescoes depicting Teresa of Ávila and Saint Anthony are painted onto the walls and ceilings while the windows are made of a brilliant blue stained glass. On the floor, the richly hued tiles form the shape of the armillary sphere of the Portuguese discoverers. This symbol you’ll more than likely have seen all across Lisbon. The armillary sphere is a model of constellations in the sky which was used to help the Portuguese navigate across the globe. These scientific discoveries helped the Portuguese become such wealthy explorers and as such science was almost believed to be just as powerful as religion. And the Free Masons thought that science was the guiding light in the darkness of the world. Around the sphere, you’ll see various pentagrams. The pentagram is a five-pointed star and often associated with mysticism and the occult. Rumours abound of Monteiro’s association with the Knight Templar. It was said that he designed this entire palace as Masonic Temple and symbolism from their order can be found all over if you know where to look.
Continue walking along the path towards the Gods Promenade and grotto. This little area features dozens of statues of classical gods hidden amongst the sweeping greenery. Among flora see if you can spot the many cedar and acacia trees which grow in the garden. These trees are of special importance as they were often associated with the Free Masons. Cedars are thought to be the symbol for eternity as these trees are some of the strongest and longest living trees on earth. Cedar trees were thought the be what the Temple of Jerusalem and the Ark of the Covenant were made of. Acacia trees are evergreen and as such are a symbol for the immortality of the soul.
Throughout the park, you’ll find secret tunnels, some of which have no artificial light, and you need to break out your iPhone flashlight to find your way. I kept wondering if at one point we would be turned away or be met with an “off limits” sign, but that never happened. We were totally left to explore the entirety of the park like it was our own playground. These secret tunnels help lead you beneath the grounds of the palace. Walk down to the grotto and find your way through the tunnels up the hill and you might find yourself standing at the bottom of the famed Initiation Well.
There are two Initiation Wells located on the property. Even though they are called ‘wells’ they have never used a water source, their purpose is entirely ritualistic. It is thought that these wells were once more linked to the Knights Templar and mysticism and perhaps used in initiation ceremonial rites. Both of the wells contain a set of winding stairs. In many cultures, these winding stairs are thought to represent both life and rebirth.
The largest well contains nine platforms. These nine levels were thought to symbolize the nine sections of Purgatory and nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the bottom of the well, as both seen from above and below, is a large compass inlaid over a Knights Templar cross. With symbols like these, it’s hard to ignore all the rumours about the Masonic symbolism in the palace. The smaller well named the ‘Unfinished Well’ is its walls are rougher, more naturalist and it feels much more ominous to explore as it feels like it was created out of mother earth herself.
In the centre of the upper portion of the grounds, you’ll find the Portal of the Guardians. This building is made of two towers connected by a central pavilion. In the centre are two angry lizards clamouring over a giant conch shell. Above are a series of fillagree above the archway which has been carved into the shape of fish heads. Behind the entrance, you’ll find one of the hidden passageways into the Initiation Well.
Inside many of the little caves and grottos, you’ll find more mystical influences. Inside this cave, we found the image of the blazing star hanging above the centre of the room, suspiciously anchored to the ceiling with a pulley so the star could be lowered or raised. The blazing star is special for the Knight Templar as it represents man’s knowledge and how intelligence is the secret to bringing light into the darkness. The sun is often seen in areas where a ritual was practised, and it was especially ominous here in the echoing cavern, the eyes of the siren sitting above the fountain the only ones looking back at us.
The final part of the grounds to explore is the interior of the palace. Auspicious gargoyles stare down at any visitors stepping inside, and the greying walls make the otherwise ubiquitous sandstone look very grim. The castle is covered in ornate capital and gothic pinnacles. Atop the palace, like the topping to a wedding cake is a fantastical octagonal tower.
The first room is one of the most impressive. This is the dining room, whose main feature is the incredible hunting scene carved into the stucco on the fireplace mantle. Atop the mantle is a statue of a woodsman, and all across the room, beautiful hand painted wallpapers depict more scenes of country life in Portugal. It’s both regal and quaint, all at once. The rest of the rooms are just as ornate although the use of wood throughout keeps it feeling more like a lodge than a castle.
Village of Sintra
After touring all these famous castles and palaces its finally time to head back into the town of Sintra and explore the tiny streets and hidden alleyways before heading home. You can easily walk from the Quinta da Regaleira into the main part of the village, and the walk is part of the fun! I was amazed at how, as the day wears on and the tourist begins to journey back, how the city starts to open up and once more feel like just another quiet, little village.
There are so many charming cafes and shops in the main parts of town, and each one is worth poking your head inside if something catches your eye. Their post office was one of my favourite random placed I stopped into as I was in awe at the beautiful tile work that continued throughout the little building.
Outside the Palácio Nacional de Sintra is a great place to take a seat and enjoy the view of the colourful houses stacked one on top of each other and look up, way up, to see the walls and towers of the Moorish Castle high above you.
Dinner & Dessert
If you aren’t in a rush to get home, it’s worth stopping for dinner in town at Tascantiga. This little cafe covered in red and white gingham table clothes serves up traditional Portuguese tapas in a friendly environment where you feel like family the minute you walk in the door.
For dessert, you have to head over to the famous Casa Piriquita for the traditional Sintra pastry, Travesseiro de Sintra (or Sintra’s Pillows). These flaky rectangular desserts are stuffed with whipped egg custard and almonds and look like tiny, fluffy pillows. They are the perfect thing to grab and enjoy on your train ride back to the city.
Sintra really is absolutely incredible, yes there are a lot of tourists who flock here, but there’s a reason they do. If you manage to come early, you’ll get ahead of the big groups and whenever you feel like there’s too much of a crowd in one area, its usually pretty easy to just wander somewhere else and wait for those clusters to leave. I wish we had chosen to spend a night in town since I would have loved to walk the streets at night when almost all the day-trippers headed home, and you would have the city practically all to yourself. If that works for your schedule, I would definitely recommend doing that. But a whole day in Sintra still was plenty of time for us to see everything on our list at a gentle enough pace to soak it all in.
Have you been to Sintra or are planning a trip there? Let me know your favourite spots or any questions you have in the comments!