I had high hopes for Lisbon and the city exceeded them. However, I did not know the little town of Sintra existed until my friend Sarah mentioned she thought it would be worth a visit. I looked it up in my handy dandy Let’s Go Western Europe 2008 travel book and sure enough the town of Sintra was highlighted as a “day trip from Lisbon.” I was torn. On the one hand, Sintra seemed like a cute little town. However, I did not want to miss out on exploring Lisbon, especially if we wasted the one day we had decent weather outside in some podunk touristy town.

I’ll be honest when I say I did not get to see everything I wanted to see in Lisbon. However, I’m glad Sarah pushed for Sintra because in the end it turned out to be well worth the visit.

Located about 45 minutes away by train from Lisbon, Sintra is an easy day trip from the Portuguese capital. The entire town was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It is famous for the numerous palaces and royal estates that were built between the 15th and 19th centuries. In fact, my two friends and I had trouble deciding which palaces/castles we wanted to see. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to see all of them in one day. In order to properly visit every single one, you would probably have to stay overnight. I think we ended up making the right choice though: we ended up visiting the Pena National Palace (Palacio Nacional da Pena) and the Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros).

After a semi terrifying bus ride up into the mountains that was packed with other tourists, the three of us stopped at the Pena National Palace first. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is apparently classified on some list of the “7 Wonders of Portugal” (which also includes the Torre de Belem which I managed to get into and the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon which I did not have time to see).  The palace is located right at the summit of a mountain overlooking the small town of Sintra.

The palace used to be a monastery and so for a long time it was a quiet place of worship. However in 1755, the Great Earthquake reduced the majority of the monastery to ruins. King Ferdinand II was struck by the beauty of the scenery surrounding the monastery ruins and commissioned for a palace to be built on the site; construction was completed in 1854. It was used as a summer residence by the Portuguese royal family up until the 1890s when it was acquired by the Portuguese government. It quickly became a popular tourist attraction. As you can see from these pictures, it is a very colorful building and it reminded me of some Disney castle.

first glimpse of the colorful palace

the view from the palace

the courtyard in the palace

Unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures inside. However there are some pictures online at the Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pena_National_Palace

After spending some time in and around the palace, we visited the gardens surrounding it. I didn’t take many pictures here but they were very large and very beautiful gardens. I was very anxious to visit the next palace because I wanted to be able to take pictures while it was still light out. It was late afternoon by then.

After we were done with the massive and spectacular Pena National Palace, we walked over to the nearby Castle of the Moors. It is a medieval castle also located on a hilltop. It was built in the 8th or 9th century during the Arab occupation of Portugal and after the fall of Lisbon in 1147, it was conquered by the Christian forces of Afonso Henriques, who eventually became the first king of Portugal. The castle was never a royal residence; some lay people lived within its walls and some efforts were made into rebuilding it. However, as time passed by, the castle’s military importance faded and the people started migrating down into the valley to live in the town of Sintra. Eventually, some archaeological excavations were carried out around the castle and it became a tourist attraction.

As you can see by these pictures, all that remains of the original castle are a few fortified walls which in some pictures slightly resemble the Great Wall of China. I have to say, climbing up the stairs along the walls was mildly terrifying. I am not fond of heights and it was very high up. Also, you can see the fog rolling in as the sun was setting. It changed the landscape in a very dramatic way.

Castle of the Moors walls

the town of Sintra below

seriously doesn’t this kind of look like the Great Wall of China?

view of the Pena National Palace from the Castle of the Moors

disappearing behind the fog

hiiiiiiiigh up

fog rolling in

Castle of the Moors swallowed up by the fog

And here are the rest of the pictures I took when we first got to Sintra. As you can see by these pictures, we had blue skies for most of the day. The fog didn’t settle in until late in the day.

at the train station in Sintra, some typical Portuguese tile art

Sintra National Palace (we did not have time to visit)

downtown Sintra

it’s blue so I took a picture. Obviously.

As I mentioned, there are other palaces/estates in Sintra and we weren’t prepared for how much time we would spend at the Pena National Palace. It would be nice to go back and visit the other palaces one day.

So if you are planning a trip to Lisbon, I suggest you highly consider going to Sintra. In all, Portugal blew me away, and I was only there for 3 days. I can’t imagine what a weeklong trip would be like!