A Castle Lover's Dream Destination
Sintra, Portugal is a treasure of Europe and a castle lover's dream, offering three fabulously different but awe-inspiring castles in a roughly twenty-minute hike. The small town, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, boasts the brightly-colored, fairytale Pena Palace, the 11th-century Moorish Castle, and the mighty-coned National Palace, as well as a monastery, a huge park, and a quaint town filled with tiny shops and outdoor eateries.
Getting to Sintra
A cheap train ticket will take you from Lisbon to Sintra in roughly thirty minutes; upon arriving at the train station, you can stop into the small store across the street and grab a custard tart, the wildly popular national dessert of Portugal, while you wait for the bus that will take you to the top of the mountain to start your castle tour (the bus ticket must be paid for separately, and you'll probably hold your breath as you careen around some of the hairpin turns high above the city).
Hop off the bus at the Pena Palace sign, and buy your ticket for both Pena Palace and the Moorish castle at the small kiosk. A trolley inside will take you the rest of the way up to the Palace, or you can hike up the rather steep road.
Sintra gets very crowded later in the day, so if you want a more peaceful experience and a chance to get pictures unimpeded with photobombs from fellow tourists, go early.
First Stop: Pena Palace
Pena National Palace, one of the most famous expressions of whimsical 19th century Romanticism, was finished in 1854 by King Ferdinand, and its candy-colored walls can be seen from Lisbon on clear days. Its bright turrets and domes look like something out of a Disney movie more so than the once-home of real-life royalty.
The rooms are well-preserved, with plenty of furnishings and belongings from kings and queens, but the real star of Pena Palace is the exterior (note the facade window overlooking the courtyard, a masterpiece of ornate stonework) and the views--look over the ramparts and down onto the other castles, a dizzying distance away.
Second Stop: Moorish Castle
A ten- to fifteen-minute hike away from the Pena Palace is the 11th-century Moorish Palace, breathtaking in a very different own way. Though most of the castle has fallen into ruin long since, you can still hike up the steep steps along the outer walls for amazing views. This castle isn't for the faint of heart--there are no handrails or supports, so there's not much between you and a scary drop to the forest below.
Imagine the Moors and then the Christians who occupied the castle so many centuries ago, and enjoy the view.
Third Stop: Sintra National Palace
After all the hiking at the Moorish Castle, it's easier to hop back on the bus (your ticket is still good) and ride down to the Sintra National Palace. After Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle, Sintra National Palace is less impressive than it would be on its own, but it's still worth exploring for several of its notable features.
The Sintra National Palace, the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal, has truly stunning chambers. The first room you'll enter is the Swan Room, the castle's banquet hall, named for the painted swans covering the ceiling (swans were the king's daughter's favorite animal), and you'll also pass through the King's Bedroom, filled with royal treasures. The star of the castle, however is the Stag Room. A richly detailed, gold-embellished ceiling depicts--what else--stags, while the walls are covered in blue-and-white tiles every bit as detailed and stunning as the tapestries that decorate so many other castle walls.
Note that this castle requires a separate ticket.
Wrapping Up Your Trip to Sintra
Before you head back to Lisbon, consider grabbing a quick meal on the winding streets of Sintra. Across the street from Sintra National Palace, wander up the winding road until you find a restaurant that tempts your taste buds and enjoy a leisurely outdoor meal (noting that the restaurants closer to the castle are going to be marked up to take advantage of hungry tourists). Also consider stopping into one of the many small shops nearby for a one-Euro shot of ginjinha, a cherry liquer much beloved by the Portugeuse.
Sintra is well worth a day trip from Lisbon--you'll come away with the memory of a lifetime.