The Ultimate Self Guided Tour of Moorish Castle, Sintra's Oldest World Heritage Site
The Moorish Castle, of the ‘The Castelo dos Mouros’ is an ancient world heritage site, found in the hilltops of Sintra, just an hour outside of Lisbon. The secret garden of the Portuguese countryside. It was first built in the 9th century but fell into ruins after its final abandonment in the 18th century. When King Ferdinand built his fairytale castle just down the road, he also took it upon himself to retake these ruins for the people of Portugal so that this magnificent piece of history may be preserved for years to come. To this day, it is one of the most amazing places to visit when coming to Sintra. Most people visit this site as a part of a Day Trip to Sintra, but if you’re into history and hiking, you can easily make an entire day out of touring this site and exploring around the surrounding areas.
How to Get to Sintra & the Moorish Castle
The Moorish Castle is located in the city of Sintra and 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. There are trains out to Sintra almost every 40 minutes. If you are planning on visiting the Moorish Castle as a part of a ‘Day Trip to Sintra’, where you’ll visit a few of the fantastic residences there, 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. But if you’re only planning on visiting the Moorish Castle, you don’t need to worry too much about crowds or leaving early. The Moorish Castle is the least crowded of all the sights since and even on busy days, the large open spaces allow everyone to spread out so it never seems too crowded.
When to Visit the Moorish Castle
Since the Moorish Castle is entirely located outside visiting on a beautiful day will make your experience much more enjoyable. Winter is when you’ll find the the least tourists and if you can brave the weather the almost abandoned appearance of the castle is something truly special to experience. Summertime can be a bit hot so just be sure to lather on the sunscreen if you’ll be out all day. Spring and Fall is the happy medium of pleasant weather and medium crowds. Monday-Thursday is reliably the least busy time throughout the week to visit. Avoid holidays when possible as these bring in the Portuguese tourists.
Accessing the Moorish Castle
There are three options for getting to the Moorish Castle. The first is to take the public buses which are located right outside Sintra Station. The bus to take is #434, which services the Moorish Castle. 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 the Moorish Castle is around 6€ depending on the time of day and the weather. If you’re travelling with 3 or 4 people, Uber can really save you some money, and if there is a big line up for the bus, it can save you some time as well. 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 the Moorish Castle takes about 45 minutes but if you’re keen to do some hiking, this is a great opportunity. There are maps of the hiking trails available at the tourist information centre. The best walk to take, which is the most direct is the path via the Rampa do Castelo, which takes you through a short cut, directly up to the castle. I’ve added a map below to both the pathway to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace since the free maps can be a little tough to follow at times, but the signage on the actual trails is quite good.
Hours & Admission
Since the Moorish Castle isn’t as insanely busy as Pena Palace, if you’re only visiting this one castle, you don’t need to worry too much about buying tickets in advance. Although buying them online in advance will save you 5% and also means its one less thing to do once you arrive. 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. If you can’t buy online in advance, there is a ticket booth at the entrance where you can buy them. Tickets for adults (18 – 64) cost 8€, youths (6 – 17) cost 6,5€ and seniors (over 65) are 6,5€. The castle is open from 9:30 am to 8 pm, with the last entry to the castle at 7 pm. The castle is open all year except December 25th and January 1st.
Compared to sites like Pena Palace, the Sintra National Palace or the Quinta da Regaleira, the Moorish Castle might seem a little plain and uninteresting. There is no arguing that it is indeed the castle with the least amount of glitz but what I found so impactful was the sheer depth of history you could feel within these walls. Pairing this place with the other castles was a stark contrast I really appreciated, like a breath of fresh air. I think some people skip this castle thinking it will be a little boring but hiking along the ramparts was one of the most exciting parts of the entire day trip! I wouldn’t miss it if you have the time!
What many people may not know when visiting this castle is that the restoration project which took place to restore the castle also was aimed at making it more accessible to people with mobility issues. In the depths of the forest, beside rocky cliff-sides and ancient ruins you might be surprised to hear that there are special pathways all around the castle that visitors in wheelchairs can use. They have even made one of the castle’s wall lookouts accessible via a new wheelchair ramp to ensure all visitors get a glimpse across the countryside. I was so impressed when I researched this online and saw all the different accessibility ramps they can bring in for those guests, even into a place which was built in the 9th century.
History of the Moorish Castle
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 for the Muslim Moors from North Africa who came to Portugal. They brought with them their rich architectural histories, something which generations to follow would continue to be inspired by. This location was of such mighty military power since it was located at a high vantage point above the town of Sintra looking out over the River Tagus. From here, soldiers could keep guard against any incoming enemy ships. Sintra itself was a powerful township as the fields were full of fertile soil, and the farms located around the hills were reliable producers of everything from grains to legumes.
In 1093 a Christian crusade, led by King Alfonso VI of Castile attempted to overtake the castle, but they were driven out by the overwhelming Moorish forces. But in 1147, the Christian forces of the Reconquista were finally powerful enough to take the castle from the Moors for the Christians. It was used for military defences during the 14th century, but eventually, it feels to ruins when it was no longer needed for security and more of the country’s power began to shift towards Lisbon as it was the city center. Over the next few hundred years, it became almost completely abandoned. In the 15th century, when the Jews were expelled from Lisbon, they came here to live. But in 1636 a lightning storm causes a large fire which disseminated the castle, and a massive earthquake in 1755 levelled the remainders of the battlements. Many thought that the castle would be lost to the ages as it sunk farther and farther into ruins.
But when King Ferdinand II bought Pena Palace, he also took some interest in the Castle of the Moors. Ferdinand had 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. He loved being able to look at the stunning Moorish castle walls from his terrace, and when he visited the Moorish Castle, he was able to walk around the tower walls to the best view over his storybook castle found anywhere in Sintra. They both were like children to him and his care (and financial aid) he sunk into these hilltop castles doesn’t go unnoticed even hundreds of years later.
Entrance to the Castle
While the entrance to the Moorish Castle, where you’ll find the ticket booth, is right off the side of the road, the journey towards the interior door is about a 15-minute walk from in from there, around the second ring of castle walls. You’ll stroll along a rolling pathway which leads you around the exterior of the castle. Look up as you go to examine the old stone walls high above the steep hillside around you. These secondary castle walls were built to protect the surrounding population and their animals and crops from invaders.
Along the route towards the entrance, you can spot the excavated areas where there was once a few large granaries which were used to store cereals and legumes. These ingenious storage containers were brought to Portugal by the enterprising Moors.
Just outside the entrance, you’ll find an area where archaeological excavations were undertaken by King Ferdinand II. There, he found hundreds of bones buried under the soil. Today, there is a glass cover which reveals replicas of the skeletons which were discovered buried here. The King made a point to collect tall the bones and inter them in a small tomb. The tomb is engraved with the symbol of a crescent and a cross and bearing the following epitaph, “What mad has joined only God will set apart.” This is because there was no way of telling, in King Ferdinand’s time, if the bones were from the Christians or the Muslim inhabitants and yet Ferdinand wanted to give them all a proper dedication.
Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim
In front of the main gates of the castle, you’ll find a small romantic style chapel. This chapel, called Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim, was first built in the 12th century by King Afonso Henriques after the Christian invasion but was rebuilt by Ferdinand in a style he much more preferred. The church now contains relics which were found on the site, some from the Neolithic area (5000 BC) and other important artefacts from the 10th-12th century Islamic cultures who lived here.
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 is where you can find the Visitor Centre and get a map of the interior of the castle. It’s also where you can find the shop, washrooms and cafe. The cafe’s small terrace with a few patio tables is an excellent place to recharge if you hiked all the way up to the castle or even if you need a short rest before walking up the castle walls.
Outside the stables, walk around and see if you can spot the two massive stone cisterns. These are covered in an iron grate in the shape of an Arabic star. These large vaulted cisterns were built in the 13th century and the tanks held over 600 cubic meters of water. Access to clean water was the lifeblood to a secluded castle, and these water wells meant that the citizens could hold up inside the safety of the walls without ever having to go outside during times of war. The cisterns were so important that legend says that beneath them are the burial chambers of the Moorish kings. Take a peek down below to see if you spot any ghosts of Kings past.
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 castle 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 in the center of the castle is called the ‘Pracad de Armas’ or Arms Square. This was where the military garrison would gather in the 13th century. When it was remodelled by King Ferdinand later in the 19th century, into a garden oasis. It was a 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 castle walls.
Door of Betrayal
In the centre of the Arms Square, you can spot a small, wooden door, slightly hidden down half a level. Despite its ubiquitous appearance, this door has one of the darkest histories of the castle. It’s called the “Door of Betrayal” as it was the passageway which provided discrete access to the exterior of the castle as a means of escape, or in another case, as a means to let the enemy inside the castle, hence the name; Door of Betrayal.
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 across the countryside of Sintra. Walking up these walls, you feel like an explorer, discovering ancient ruins. On a clear day, you can see across to the Atlantic Ocean. We tried to spot all the locations we’d been to earlier in the day and were amazed at how far we’d walked!
The first tower to visit along the walls of the castle is the Tower Keep. This was the stronghold where the local authorities would meet. It’s located at the highest point along the rampart and was where the guards had the best vantage points over the lands which needed protection.
From the Tower Keep, walking along the walls of the castle, making your way over to the Royal Tower. This is where you’ll find the Kings favourite views over towards Pena Palace. Along the walls, you can still see flags flying high in the sky. One of the most significant flags is the green one, which has the word ‘Sintra’ written in Arabic as a dedication to the Moorish history of the palace.
The Royal tower is the crowning glory of the castle. When you finally make it to the top, the scenery is stupendous, perhaps made even more rewarding because of all the effort it takes to get up here. You can stand holding the top flag pool and imagine yourself as one of the knights of the realm, looking out over the kingdom.
The walk down from the tower is much more leisurely, and although the landscape is the same going down as it was coming 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. It seems impossible for things to be growing inside these rocks and yet these trees seem to be hundreds of years old. As old as the castle itself.
This bring us to the end of the tour, from here you can either make your way back down to the bus stop, catch and uber, or hike the rest of the way back into town. I hope you enjoyed your time at the Moorish Castle, it certainly was such a pleasant surprise to us when we visited and well worth the effort climbing to the top! Let me know if the comment if you’ve ever travelled to Sintra and what your favourite castle you visited way!