If you go to Lisbon, you truly should visit Sintra National Park (Parques de Sintra-Monte da Lua). It’s the perfect day trip from the city, but you very well may want to stay much longer!
Let me explain, though: there is so much more to the Parques de Sintra than incredible views.
Disclosure: I received a media pass from Parques de Sintra to visit the National Palace of Sintra, Moorish Castle, and Park and Palace of Montserrate. All opinions are my own.
They are not simply parks, state parks or national parks as we know them in the US. Sintra’s offerings of castles, palaces and more are located within the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, which is similar to a US National Park. Parques de Sintra have been a designated a UNESCO site for Sintra Cultural Landscape (2000) and World Heritage since 1995.
If you visit Sintra, you’ll see that when you arrive in the lovely little town only half an hour from Lisbon by car or bus (about 40 minutes by train), you will immediately be greeted by architecture that astounds and delights.
Why did I visit Sintra, or maybe I should back up: why was I in Portugal? Last October, I booked a flight to Paris at the end of April for under $300 roundtrip simply because it was such a great deal. In November, I visited Nashville, Washington D.C., Michigan and then took a week to drive my parents to Los Angeles.
The holidays were upon us, and then in February, I took my parents to Australia. To cut a long story short, with all my travel, I never had time to plan my Paris trip until the very last minute (the week before my flight)!
When I looked at the weather forecast for Paris, it showed 9 straight days of rain. I then checked the weather all over Europe for the end of April/early May and it was unseasonably cold and dismal, except for Portugal. My daughter had just been to Porto and kept telling me I’d love it. The flight to Porto from Paris was only about 40 euros–done deal!
When I spoke to my friend, Cathy from She Paused 4 Thought, she told me I just couldn’t miss Sintra. Cathy has been all over the world, so when she recommends a place, I listen. As usual, she was spot on. Sintra was well worth the visit, but it was so much more than I had expected!
After my trip to Porto, I took the train to Lisbon and devoted one day to visit Sintra. Had I known what awaited me there, I would have spent a night and had more time to sightsee. I left Lisbon by train about 9:30 a.m. and in retrospect, should have left no later than 8:30 a.m. Learn from my mistakes 🤓.
We pulled into Sintra’s train station about 40 minutes after departure and I could see that this was a bustling town for tourists. First on my agenda was to pick up my tickets. It wasn’t very clear to me where I should go, but everyone was walking in one direction: towards the center of town.
TIP: there will be lots of people trying to sell you transportation tickets at the station. The manner of getting from one site to another is extremely disorganized, confusing and one public bus ticket costs more than the train ride from Lisbon. I do believe buying a day pass on one of the busses is probably one of your best options. However, I overheard someone say they used Uber, which would be genius to use if there are enough drivers in Sintra. More on this later. Transportation is not related to the Parques de Sintra.
I found the ticket office, picked up my tickets and was ready to explore Sintra.
National Palace of Sintra
Walking distance from the train station, and in the center of the resort town of Sintra, one cannot miss the National Palace of Sintra. Its massive silhouette is the town’s main feature. This was my first stop.
The Moorish architectural influence is extremely evident throughout Sintra’s buildings and the parks. I almost felt as if I had left Portugal and traveled to another country.
As explained on the park’s website, the palace has been the property of Portuguese kings since the early 1100s, after the conquest of Lisbon from the Moors by Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The extensive tile work and detailed architecture is enthralling to view.
I toured the palace on my own, but there are guided tours available, which I’m sure are much more enjoyable to gain a deeper understanding of the rich history here.
This is a view from the palace entrance, facing the town of Sintra, and hills above.
Sintra (The Town)
As you can see, not all of the buildings in Sintra are in the Moorish style of architecture.
I even discovered a British phone box!
After touring the palace, I stopped in town to visit a bakery which had been highly recommended to me by a member of staff at my hotel: Casa Piriquita. Apparently, I was to try the Queijadas de Sintra (photos to follow) which were actually used as payment in medieval times! They are little tarts filled with cheese, sugar, eggs, flour and cinnamon. Also very popular are the Travesseiros (pillows), which I thought was good, but I was also starving!
People often ask how I can travel alone, but as you can see, if you’re friendly, you’ll meet so many other friendly people! I had coffee with these three lovely ladies I met in Piriquita Bakery because I spoke to them when I heard one of them explaining all the pastries.
In fact, Maria (on the right) leads tuk tuk food tours! Although I haven’t personally taken her tour, after meeting with her, I feel comfortable in her knowledge of the local cuisine and I wish I would have been able to take her tour instead of the public bus system that day.
From the town center of Sintra, you can walk/hike about 45 minutes up to the Moorish Castle, if you’re in for some exercise. I would have loved to have done this, but given my time restraint, I opted for the bus.
Unfortunately, the bus ended up taking longer. By the time I sat on the bus waiting for everyone to buy tickets and board, we then had to wait for the bus in front of us to leave, and it must have been at least a 15 minute delay. The bus ride took 40 minutes once we left, but again, I didn’t know this in advance. As I said earlier, the public bus system isn’t the most organized or convenient.
Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros-Castle of the Moors)
Once you arrive at the entrance of the castle, there is a beautiful trail (with wonderful views) to follow to arrive at the actual castle grounds and area.
As you may probably guess, I’ve been to many castles all over Europe, from Scotland to Italy, but I must say, this Moorish Castle is definitely one of the most impressive and largest I’ve visited. Maybe you can see how big and sprawling it is from the map.
I would recommend allocating a minimum of 3 hours to spend at this castle, alone. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to explore as much of it as I would have liked, but I did hike up to one of the highest points.
The views were spectacular, and I could even see the ocean. Town of Sintra and the National Palace sit below the castle.
From another vantage point, the National Palace of Pena is in view, which is also part of the Parques de Sintra. From the official website:
“…the Park and Palace of Pena are the fruit of King Ferdinand II’s creative genius and the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal, denoting clear influences from the Manueline and Moorish styles of architecture. The palace was built in such a way as to be visible from any point in the park, which consists of a forest and luxuriant gardens with over five hundred different species of trees originating from the four corners of the earth.”
Although, I could share many more photos of the Moorish Castle, I have one last palace to show you, so I shall end with the photos of the Queijadas de Sintra, that I promised you earlier. I think this is one of those pastries that evokes memories for those who grew up with them. I thought it was good, but I wouldn’t let someone pay me with these instead of $ (sorry, couldn’t resist)!
When I left the castle, I had to take the bus back to the town of Sintra to get yet another bus to Montserrate Palace, which was my last stop for the day. It took another half an hour before reaching the exit.
Park and Palace of Montserrate
It would be difficult to pick a favorite of the three places I visited at the park on this day, but I did really enjoy the Palace of Montserrate immensely! The beauty here was awe-inspiring, inside and out.
I first visited the inside of the palace before exploring the park and gardens, however, I simply never expected anything like this.
I’ve seen many extremely detailed and intricate architectural work in many places, but never anything like this. And although there had been many tourists in Sintra, there was hardly anyone here at the Montserrate Palace. I really enjoyed my peaceful visit just imagining the fact that this was a summer house for the family who built it!
It was difficult to leave the palace, but I had to think about getting back to Lisbon since my hotel for the night had been cancelled, and I had no place to stay at this point (and I had a flight to Switzerland in the morning). However, I had to take a quick tour of the garden before going back to Sintra to catch a train.
The gardens and ruins were as captivating as the palace!
The park and gardens were simply too much to see in a short time, so guess what? I’ll just have to return. Have you been to Sintra and/or any of the palaces or castles?
When I walked back to the entrance to catch the bus back to Sintra, there were a handful of people already waiting. About 15 minutes later, a little shuttle bus arrived (not the larger public bus I’d been on earlier). There were already people on the bus, so only a few people were able to board. There were lots of moans and groans as it was very hot and humid that day, but the driver told us that another bus would arrive in 5 minutes.
I can tell you that none of us were very happy, and we began guessing on what “5 minutes” would turn into. Well, a Danish couple had guessed 45 minutes and they were the closest. Like the one before, this bus, although larger, was already quite full. In the 45 minutes of waiting for the bus, many more people had come out of Montserrate Palace and Park and no one was in a queue (that’s only in the UK). Everyone wasn’t able to board, and justifiably, there were some disagreements about who should board because a handful of us had waited for two busses.
We spoke up for one another and I do believe everyone who had waited the longest did board the bus, but what a way to run a railroad! To add to the situation, it wasn’t a short bus ride and many of us didn’t even have a seat. It was a smaller bus and much more crowded than this photo which I took earlier in the day.
Transportation within the Park
Clearly, this was the biggest issue on my day trip to Sintra. While getting to Sintra from Lisbon is quick, easy and inexpensive, public transportation within the park is a disaster. Given my own personal situation of being concerned about getting a hotel that night, and the heat and humidity, added to the fact that it was late in the day and I hadn’t even eaten anything since my pastries that morning, it was beyond frustrating by day’s end.
I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from visiting the park as there is so much history, beauty and incredible things to see that it would be a real shame. I loved the Parques de Sintra, and will definitely return with a better plan for transportation whilst there. Tuk tuk tour, or possibly Uber, as much as I dislike their lack of customer service. Better yet, maybe the public bus system will be reorganized by then. NOTE: the transportation within the parks is unrelated to Parques de Sintra.
NOTE: Thanks to Lisbon Heritage Hotels, I did manage to have a gorgeous hotel room waiting for me upon my return to Lisbon that night! More to come on Lisbon and the hotel.
Want more information or planning a visit to Parques de Sintra?
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