Portugal – a guide to Sintra

So after an absolutely lovely night in Coimbra, we drove to the most magical place in Portugal: Sintra. The reason I say this is because Sintra is known specifically for one thing: its castles. There are SO many. And I was BEYOND excited to see them.

We arrived in the evening, where we drove to what was supposed to be our hostel; ‘Sintra Small Hostel.’ However, when we got there, it seemed the booking manager forgot to book us in; we booked through Expedia and I guess we fell through the cracks. There’s a little excerpt with certain places when you book through Expedia that’ll say something along the lines of ‘Booked! No need to call and confirm.’ This experience taught me that, yeah, you should still call and confirm. Anyway.

The manager referred us to a small hostel nearby (which I think may have been through AirBNB; it was just a lady’s house.) He even paid the difference for us (which was five euros) so that was nice! His assistant carried our bags for us, and the place was only five minutes away. Bonus: we had just happened to park right outside this lady’s house.  The difficulty was that she did not speak a word of English, which meant we had to put our broken Portuguese hats on, and talk a lot with our hands – but regardless, it went well, and the woman who had us was very nice! I wish I had the name of the place, but I never found it out.

Let’s move on to one of the most stupid things Ian and I did along the course of this trip (Which will soon be followed by yet another stupid mistake later on in this post). After jumping from city to city, we were both kind of desperate for some nature time. Although we LOVE visiting cities, it’s also exhausting, and we both feel more calm in a natural setting. So, we decided to visit the nearby Ursa beach, at 8pm, after dark. Heads up: Don’t do that.

Ian and I had never been to this beach before, and all we had to work off of was a picture we had seen and fallen in love with, and Google Maps. Firstly, the way there took us through the most European roads I’ve ever seen, meaning that it was dark and narrow, and full of twists and turns – it was terrifying, especially since neither of us was totally comfortable with the manual car yet.

Despite the hectic car ride, we made it to the ‘supposed’ entrance, and I say that as such because we never actually made it to Ursa beach. Once you’re actually able to see the water, you can also see that it’s something like 50 feet down a rocky mountain, which no real trail laid out to get down there. Additionally, it was pitch black and all we really had to guide us were the lights of our phones.

We walked along the top of the mountain until we found what we assumed was the way down. After following this path and its twists and turns for about twenty minutes, we decided that this was not a way down, but a hiking trail that lead through the mountains, with only a view of the beach. (Fun fact: We are good hikers, but I was in sandals, so it didn’t go too well.) So we decided to turn back.  Only we had little to no idea how to actually get back, since the path would split off in places that we didn’t notice on the way. Thus commenced about a half hour of wandering on the path, mostly thinking “Oh man, we’re going to have to sleep out here, aren’t we?”

We eventually made it back, but pretty discouraged about visiting the beach. After looking at the map, I would suggest going to Adraga Beach instead, which is right by Ursa Beach; it seems like you can walk to Ursa from it.

So that was our evening in Sintra. But anyway, I digress… The castles are really the most important part of this town. I’ve wanted to see castles ever since I can remember. To me, Sintra was it; it was the magical city where I could finally explore old castles and fulfill that curiosity. (If any of you are wondering where this wild curiosity came from, it wasn’t Disney movies; it actually surfaced from my love for the game Shadow of the Colossus, which features a big, beautiful castle with crazy architecture. which I first played at age 5. Disney castles are cool too, though, I guess.)  Anyway. We got up early to avoid the crowds and drove up to the castles, but to our disgrace, the crowds were already there. We drove through the winding roads for at least an hour with no luck of finding a parking spot, and then followed the end of the road which lead us right back to where we started, in the city centre. Damn.  was peeved. We were losing precious castle exploring time, so we decided to walk instead.

Since we decided not to drive, Ian and I walked down through the city to reach the base of the trail that led up to the castles. Let me tell you – if you ever want to really, really experience the small town Portuguese vibe, Sintra is the place for it. Although visited by many tourists, many only make a day trip, since it’s only about half an hour out from Lisbon. Since we were hopping from town to town anyway, we decided to spend a night there. Because of the lack of swarms of tourists staying there overnight, much of the surrounding towns are authentic.

Walking through Sintra’s neighborhood’s, we’d turn to each other and say “This is the real rural Portugal.” Almost every house had a dog, which I obviously loved. Walking back from the city centre (which was about a five minute walk) probably took about 4 times as long as it should have, because I’d stop to say hello to all of them.

It took us about an hour to walk to Pena, and in all honestly, in hindsight, I would absolutely recommend the walk over the drive. The trail leading up the mountain is absolutely gorgeous. Somehow this is the only picture I got from it:

Once we reached Pena, we entered through the garden entrance. Pena Palace has absolutely massive gardens that you could explore for hours. We didn’t spend a ton of time there since we were on a tight schedule, but we did explore places like this:

The castles was absolutely gorgeous; some describe it as a fairy tale castle. The colours that it boasts are unique and in your face, and it stands tall and majestically.

I had been beyond excited about the castles, so I bought our tickets online before we went – but the lines for tickets didn’t seem too bad. Here’s what WAS bad: the line to get into the castles was over an hour long. I’m pretty stingy and stubborn, and I had bought the package that offers you entrance into the castle, so we waited in that line. (Yes, it was very hot.)

The inside of the castle was lovely, but it follows a circuit that takes you through it like herds of sheep; I wouldn’t call it the best experience. If I went again, I would not get entrance inside again. But we did see some cool things like this:

And more importantly, it gave us access to some balconies that offered wonderful views like this:

After Pena Palace, we walked the ten minutes to Castle of the Moors. This castle was also beautiful, but in a completely different way; while Pena Palace was home to royal families, Castles of the Moors was a defense castle. It was built less aesthetically, and more for tactical use.

Once you get into the area, you can climb up onto the walls to walk along them, and see the beautiful views they offer.

After Castle of the Moors, it was time for Quinta da Regaleira. Quinta da Regaleira is located much lower down on the mountain, so we decided to walk back to our car and try our luck for parking near it. It’s one of the least popular ones, so we thought we had a good shot. (hint: we didn’t, really).

After searching for a bit, we decided to park behind a long row of cars. The area seemed a little strange for parking, but we thought ‘Screw it, it’s fine’ since a whole bunch of people were parked there, and we didn’t see any signs that barred it. Hooray, for herd mentality!

I’ll just start by saying this: Quinta da Regaleira was by far my favourite castle. To me, it somehow combined practical architecture with a humble aesthetic beauty, which just awed me. We only had about an hour to explore the castle and its gardens, but we easily could’ve spent five hours there, just exploring the gardens.

Since we were so short on time, we tried to make a beeline for the first thing I wanted to see there: the initiation well. After walking around a bit, we had no success, but we ended up here:

I split off from Ian to explore behind the lizards, and I found an entrance into some dark spooky caves. After following them, I emerged into a stairwell, where I looked down and saw this:

I was in it! I was in the initiation well! This was amazing to me, because even after obsessively reading about this well, nowhere had I seen anyone mention that there are caves that lead right into it. It was pure magic.

Naturally, I ran back to Ian to drag him to the well with me, where we explored the lovely structure.

Afterwards, we explored the rest of the gardens and the castle. Most people don’t recommend Quinta da Regaleira as their top castle to see in Sintra, but I do. I am. It was gorgeous and I would go back in a heartbeat.

Anyway, we walked back to our car, only it wasn’t there. And neither were the rest of them. Aaaah, crap. in their place were two officers who were waiting for the owner of a newly parked car.

“Is this your car?” They asked us, after seeing our bewildered looks.

“No.. but did you tow any others?”

“Oooh yeah. We towed tons. 1000 euros to get it back.”

Our faces must have shown how horrified we were, because the officers laughed and said “We’re just kidding. It’s 100 euros, but it doesn’t sound so bad now, right? We’ll give you a ride.”

I’m a proud believer in optimism, so I did not have any anger in me for a second during this experience; instead, I kept repeating to myself that

1.  This is our first trip alone, we’re bound to make mistakes and learn from them.

2. We got to ride in a foreign cop car, cool!

Anyway; it took us a least two hours to get our car back, after which we drove (well, Ian drove while I slept) the three hours to the Algarve Coast! Stay tuned to see the pictures next Saturday!

In Summary

TOP THINGS TO DO IN SINTRA

Quinta da Regaleira: Quinta da Regaleira offers a massive, beautiful garden and amazing architecture. The cost per person was 6 euros, at the door.

Pena Palace: Pena is at the top of the mountain, and offers amazing architecture and a beautiful garden. The cost of entry was 11.50 euros per person, with entry inside, with online purchase. (They are slightly more at the door).

Castle of the Moors: Castle of the Moors is right by Pena Palace, and walking its walls offers gorgeous views. The cost of entry was 8 euros per person, at the door.

You can buy tickets to Pena and Castle of the Moors in person, or online here: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/plan-your-visit-en/ticket-office/

The website offers a 5-10% discount. You can also buy combined tickets, granting you access to 5 parks.

Explore the neighborhoods: Most people head to Sintra for the Castles exclusively, but I would highly recommend exploring the local area; it offered a view of Portugal that we never would have seen otherwise.

How to get there: Sintra is about a half an hour from Lisbon, so if you’re staying there, I would suggest taking a train. Lisbon has an amazing train system to all the surrounding towns, and it’s about 6 euros round trip. If you have a car, you can also drive and park down in the city centre – do NOT drive up to the castles, you have nearly no chance of finding parking. You can either walk or take a Tuk Tuk.

Food: There are tons of local restaurants in Sintra, so pick your favourite! The majority of them have the menus on boards outside, and open at 7pm.

Accomodation: There are an abundance of local hostels, but they’re not the cheapest. The hostel we were meant to stay at would have cost us 35 euros; the house we stayed at instead cost us 40. It may be more worth it to stay in Lisbon, price wise; however, the authenticity of Sintra made it well worth it for us.

4 Replies to “Portugal – a guide to Sintra”

  1. You have a Greek heritage, so talking with your hands should come naturally 🙂

    The initiation well…wow, just wow. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It is spectacular. The images you took are fantastic.

    Sintra looks beautiful. I think more time to explore it would be welcome.

  2. Wonderful report Alex thanks so much for sharing. looking forward to the next instalment. You have a real joy of travel. I would say the Disney Castle is just the facade where you just walk through stores. So Sintra is the real thing.

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