I didn’t need to look over the edge of the stone castle wall to know that we were up high in the mountains – you could feel it from the blustery wind which blew from all directions, and the clouds that passed overhead at breakneck speed.
Along with the seaside village of Cascais, the picturesque town of Sintra is one of the most popular day trips to take from nearby Lisbon.
Despite being located only 40 mins away, the temperature here is significantly cooler than the sunny capital, and I regretted not bringing a cardigan as soon as I stepped off the train.
The first thing you need to know about visiting Sintra is that there are lots to see, and it’ll take you at least two days if you want to do it all. With an array of palaces, gardens, monuments and hiking trails spread out across the town, you can reach all of the main sights by buses which depart from outside the train station. Tickets for these are priced and sold separately depending on which route you take and can be bought from the driver on the day.
With only one day in the town, we paid €5 each for a round trip on bus 434, which stops at the National Palace, Moorish Castle, and Pena Palace.
Narrow roads wind up the steep hill which is surrounded by wild forest on either side.
The bus we’re packed onto somehow manages to manoeuvre through all of the tight U-bends, and a sharp blast of the horn sounds each time we’re about to make a turn, warning any oncoming traffic of our presence.
We skip the National Palace and get off at the second stop, Castelo dos Mouros, a medieval ruin built in the 9th century.
Directly opposite the bus stop is an office where entry tickets for the castle can be purchased, but if you’re planning on visiting more than one attraction in Sintra, I’d recommend buying all of your tickets at once which will get you a small discount, and save you time avoiding future queues.
A small arch doorway from here reveals a stone cobble path that leads deeper into the forest, where you’re soon presented with your first vantage point of the land below. It’s beautiful, but only a taster of what’s about to come.
We arrive at the castle entrance eventually, where the path opens up to a small courtyard inside. Across from here, a huge fortified stone wall marks the centre of the medieval site, and steps lead up to the top of the wall where the incredible view of Sintra opens up in front of you.
The path from here extends to towers and outlook posts built even higher up along the hillside, with the way the wall snakes around the land bearing quite a resemblance to the Great Wall of China.
You don’t get breathtaking views like these without being up high, of course, but the sheer drop on the other side was enough to make even non-vertigo-sufferers like me nervous – the climb becomes very steep in parts, and the stone wall protecting you was no more than knee-height at times.
The courtyard is the heart of the medieval site and all paths lead back to this. After climbing along the righthand side of the castle, we head towards the left side next, where the view is just as incredible as before.
In the distance on this side however, Pena Palace can be seen on the horizon, its colours shining bright and vivid even from afar.
Another short bus ride takes us to Pena Palace.
For me, this is the iconic sight of Sintra – just Google the word and you’ll be presented with pages filled with its pastel hues.
If you can believe it, Pena Palace lies even higher up in the hills. From the entry gate, it’s about a 15-minute walk on a steep incline towards the main palace – a workout I could’ve done without! If you want to skip this, a shuttle bus will take you there and back for a small fare.
Once home to the royal family, Pena Palace looks a bit like a sophisticated Disneyland – its romanticism architecture, brightly painted colours and beautifully detailed mosaic tiles combine to create something that could’ve been lifted straight out of a fairytale.
With panoramic views at every turn and a less humid climate to endure, it’s not hard to see why King Ferdinand II decided to transform and expand a once-ruined monastery into this summer palace.
We walk through the main entrance which leads to the Arches Yard on the other side of the palace, but it feels like we’re entering a completely different environment altogether, as the open walls and cut out archways here exposes us to the cold, blustery wind.
Around the corner from this open space is the ‘wall walk’, a narrow path built along the edge of the hillside. Slightly desensitised after our time at Moorish Castle, I feel brave enough to walk it, but hug the building the entire way and didn’t dare to look down.
The entry fee also gives you access to inside the palace too, with each room and chamber just as grand and intricate as you’d imagine.
As it was our last day in Lisbon, we almost didn’t make the trip to Sintra, but I’m so glad we did because Moorish Castle and Pena Palace were one of the highlights of our week.
If you have a day to spare, make sure you add it to your itinerary too.
More ideas for your Lisbon trip:
How to get to Sintra from Lisbon
The easiest way to reach Sintra is by train. A regular service leaves from Rossio Station in central Lisbon, and a return ticket costs €4.30 each.
If you don’t have one already, you’ll also need a Viva Viagem card which is used on all public transportation across Lisbon. This costs a one-off fee of €0.50.
Top tip: Queues for the ticket machines at Rossio train station are huge. You can avoid this by going to any Metro station and topping up your Viva Viagem card with €5 instead!
Need to know
- Entry to Moorish Castle and Pena Palace costs €20.90 per adult, when purchased together
- Get your tickets in advance to skip the queue.
- The 434 bus doesn’t stop at Moorish Castle on the return journey, so don’t save it until last
- Dress for cooler climates, and wear comfy shoes