With its sea of rolling green hills, its pastel houses lining cobblestone streets and its intricate and colorful palaces that reflect a variety of architectural styles, the UNESCO-recognized city of Sintra is one of Portugal’s finest attractions. Sintra entices visitors with its verdant setting, its opulent buildings and its dreamy charm. Once referred to as a “glorious Eden” by Lord Byron, the picturesque town is surreal and magical–like a page torn from a fairy tale.
There are so many palaces, gardens and ornate villas in and around the small town of Sintra, that my day and a half visit to the city did not give me nearly enough time to see them all. With limited time to explore, I decided to focus on three sites–the Castle of the Moors, the Quinta da Regaleira and the Disney-like Pena Palace.
Sintra sits in the countryside, about 40 minutes from Lisbon’s central Rossio Station by train. It is an easy day trip from Lisbon, though spending the night offers visitors an opportunity to soak in the city’s relaxed atmosphere.
Staying overnight in Sintra also allowed me the luxury of visiting the town’s highlights during off-peak hours–both before busloads of day-trippers ascended on the town, and after most tour groups had begun making their way back to Lisbon.
When I arrived in Sintra on my penultimate day in Portugal, I dropped my bags off at the lovely Nice Way Hostel and set out toward my first stop–the Castle of the Moors.
Built during the 8th and 9th centuries, the Castle of the Moors stands atop one of the highest hills in the area. Its beautifully-situated ruins wind over two mountain ridges and provide stunning birds-eye panoramas of downtown Sintra, as well iconic views of the colorful Pena Palace.
The Pena Palace is perhaps Portugal’s best example of Romanticism architecture. The Disney-like castle is an indulgent mix of open terraces, decorative archways and ornamental towers–all painted in vivid shades of red, yellow and purple.
Entrance fees for the castle grounds cost €7.50 and allow visitors access to the Pena Palace’s terraces and its resplendent gardens.
With two hours to enjoy before the castle closed for the night, I explored the trails around its forested gardens and admired postcard-perfect views of the palace from atop the Cruz Alta.
The following morning, I made my way toward the Quinta de Regaleira–a decorative 20th century palace situated near the town’s center.
The Quinta da Regaleira is an estate with lavish buildings and a luxurious park that features grottos, lakes, fountains and underground passages. Its architecture is believed to be laden with symbols related to alchemy, Masonry and the Knights Templar.
The Quinta da Regaleira’s most notable landmarks are a pair of wells that spiral deep underground. Resembling inverted towers, these wells were never used to collect water. Rather, theories suggest that they were once intended for ceremonial purposes, including Tarot rituals.
After my morning visit to the Quinta da Regaleira, I chose to spend the remainder of my final day in Portugal exploring the natural landscapes that lie beyond the fairy tale city.
Sintra’s surroundings can be easily explored using public transport. Buses for the coast depart from Sintra’s train station and meander through small towns and villages, toward Cabo da Roca–the westernmost point in continental Europe.
Cabo da Roca’s surroundings reminded me of a mixture between the idyllic coastline of southern Portugal’s Algarve and Ireland’s inspiring and windswept Cliffs of Moher.
With flower-speckled hillsides, windswept beaches and jagged rock formations that look as though they are trying to pierce through layers of fog, the landscape at Cabo da Roca is at once dramatic, photogenic and uncompromisingly wild.
I spent about two hours exploring Europe’s western terminus and hiking along the trail that leads toward Playa da Adraga from the Cabo da Roca Lighthouse. Then, without another soul in sight, I sat down on the rocks and watched the wild Atlantic waves crash on the shores of Ursa Beach.
I relished the cool sea breeze, admired the astonishing views and tried to forget that, on the following day, I would have to pack my bags and head back to reality–closing the book on my fairy tale adventure and beginning the long and tiring journey back home.
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