While there is plenty to do in the city center of Lisbon, if you looking for some fresh air you should head to Sintra, a nearby fairy-tale town with castles tucked in the rolling green hills of Parque Nacional de Sintra-Cascais. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, it basically is. And its surprisingly easy to make this dream a reality!
All you have to do is take the train from the main station, Lisboa Santa Apolónia. Round trip ticket is less than 5€, and it takes about an hour to get there. After the short walk by the park following the main road will lead you to the center.
This peaceful downtown has a small plaza near the national palace, charming little shops and cafes on narrow alleyways, quirky little tuk-tuk cars and decorative, pastel color buildings. It is maybe the most adorable place that I have ever seen. You can spend hours wandering the small streets, enjoying the architecture or trying local treats like the sour cherry, chocolate liquor called Ginjinha, or find more pasteles de nata or sardines.
After being charmed to death, you may want to make your way up to one (or both) of the two largest attractions of Sintra, the Palacio de Pena (Pena Palace) and the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). A car would help, because it is a long walk up through the lush forest hills, or you can opt to hire a tuk-tuk driver – which is the more thrilling, and potentially dangerous choice. Of course, this was our decision. But there is also a shuttle bus that makes the round trip drive for a couple euro.
The Moorish Castle was originally founded in the 8th-9th Century, but was reconstructed in the 19th. The ancient stone walls line the hills, providing for spectacular views, and a fun afternoon of exploring.
The next hilltop over, in a stone’s throw from the Moorish Castle, is the Pena Palace. This palace is the main attraction in Sintra; it is a whimsical, ostentatiously colored, Dalí-ish looking dream. The palace is surrounded by these thick, magical pine forests and lush gardens, which helps set the mystical atmosphere.
This location has always been a meaningful spot because of a supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary. But this site was not always a palace. According to history, it was originally built as a quiet monastery in the 15th Century. However, in the 18th century, the building was struck by lightning and destroyed by the tragic earthquake in Lisbon. Thankfully, Ferdinand II reconstructed the palace in the 19th century, and now it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I couldn’t decide how I felt about the architecture, partially because it is such a strange mix of styles and motifs. One part is stone, one blue tiles, another bright red, the next bright yellow… it almost seemed as if the painters were so incredibly indecisive that they changed their minds every few hours. But somehow, it works! The distinct tiled designs, playful, stone gargoyles and endless arches and nooks and crannies makes for an adventurous afternoon
The entrance is a bit expensive, but I imagine that it is necessary to maintain upkeep for such a unique place. And it is worth the cost because chances are you won’t find another palace like this!
After we took another tuk-tuk down the hills, the sun started to set, illuminating the quaint downtown buildings. We grabbed some food and headed back to the train station to return to Lisbon. It’s always sad to end such exciting days of travel, but the quaint streets and whimsical feel of Sintra will stick in my mind as one of my favorite things about Portugal. I highly recommend making the trip!