How’s it going? I’m currently hailing from Paraty, two weeks into my travel/exchange life in Brazil, and even though I’m profusely mosquito-bitten, sunburnt and tired, I am happy. It’s a strange feeling, being this happy – while I’m usually not downright miserable anywhere else either, here I find myself to be a lot more relaxed and carefree. It’s truly the backpacking spirit that has taken over me again; it’s a feeling I’ve missed, and one that I’ve welcomed back with an open mind.
I’ll get back to my usual posting schedule when my life settles down a bit after I get to my temporary homebase in Novo Hamburgo and I hope to have loads more content to show you guys. Is there anything special you’d like to read about?
Right now, though, let’s get back to the first pit stop of my trip and to the wonderful world of Sintra.
On the outskirts of Lisbon lies a small national park, that on the one end is fringed by the Atlantic Ocean, on the other by the historic town of Sintra and the countryside surrounding it. Visiting Sintra is like visiting Disneyland but only if Disneyland was build for history nerds, architects and art lovers. Among the steep, tall hills and green forest, visitors find themselves exploring a trail of castles representing different styles and eras; some of them, like the Moorish Castle, has served a functional purpose of a lookout while the most iconic castle in the region, the Pena Palace, looks like a prop out of a Disney flick. It’s probably not very surprising to learn that the whole area and its castles have been UNESCO Heritage listed.
Sintra was probably my favourite place in Portugal. Outlandish and fascinating, the region offers truly unique sightseeing, and I can’t wait to go back. And go back I will because, well, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make a bunch of stupid mistakes on the way.
Mistake #1: Not arriving early enough
Oh boy. I arrived in Sintra after midday, delayed by my natural tardiness and the misconception that I would just spend a couple of hours exploring the most famous landmarks. And yes, if you only wanted to see one castle, two or three hours would be enough, but why would you when the region is filled with various interesting structures?
I started my day from Quante de Regalera, which is the easiest starting point to the adventure since it lies an easy 15-minute walk from the historic town of Sintra. After spending about three hours exploring the maze-like trails and dark caves I realized I would have to take the bus in order to visit the main castle on time, instead of hiking the whole way as I formerly planned. All castles in the region close at 5 p.m. so you need to work around that deadline, and the hike is a steep one – I was told to allow two hours to get to Pena Palace, the most famous palace in the region.
There is a lot to explore in Sintra, and if you want to cover a lot of ground, it’s better to start as early as possible. I got to Sintra a little after midday and only had time to explore two castles.
Mistake #2: Not planning my budget correctly
In Portugal, most attractions offer discounted entrace fees for students and/or under 25 year olds, and I came to Sintra thinking that it would be a cheap day hiking from castle to castle and taking in the view. However, each palace or castle has its own entrance fee, and the discounts apply for a smaller margin of visitors.
For Quinta de Regalera, the entry fee in January of 2017 was 8 euros, and for Pena Palace 11,5 e. And of course I paid the price – I just wish I had known beforehand that I was not heading for a cheap day out. I also paid 5,5 e for a bus that drives you to the top of the hill, making stops at Moorish Castle and Pena Palace, but opted out on the 3 euro transfer between points of interest in the Pena park.
Oh, and by the way – not all attraction in the national park accept card, so it’s important that you withdraw some cash before you head out to explore. There are no ATMs near the attractions, but you’ll find one inside the tourism information centre in the Old Town.
Mistake #3: Not doing enough research
Did you know the park has some beautiful beaches and a rugged coastline? Or that the park surrounding the Pena palace is so big that you could end up walking two kilometres between the different attractions? Or that you could go on horse rides?? (And you know I love horses.) I sure didn’t.
I’m very used to just rocking up in a place and finding out about different cool things to do by talking to other travellers or visiting the tourist information. In Sintra’s case, I thought I would just follow a hiking path through the park and check out some castles, when in truth the Sintra-Cascais National Park covers 145 km² of ground and while the castles are the main attraction, the park serves as a place for some excellent hiking in general. I had no idea how much the place had going on. I walked out of the tourist information centre, squeezing a handful of colourful leaflets, realising for the first time that I probably hadn’t even seen a map of Sintra before I stepped out of the train.
BONUS ROUND! Don’t go alone. Well, unless you really want to. But with a friend it’s much more fun to explore the twists and turns of the park around Quinta de Regalera and pose for selfies on the windy walls of the Pena palace.
But, you know what, you live and you learn.
Sintra flash round
GETTING THERE. Trains from Lisbon are frequent and cheap – only 4,55 e return – and clearly the easiest way to visit Sintra. The train ride takes about an hour.
GETTING AROUND. You can hike between the different attractions, but distances are long and often you’ll be battling uphill, so be prepared. There’s also a circular bus route that runs regularly to the Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle, and it’s the simplest, quickest way to get there. Self-driving isn’t recommended since the streets are narrow and parking spots are few.
TIME NEEDED. One day is probably enough (and most visit Sintra as a daytrip from Lisbon) but I think I could’ve easily spent two days there.
Have you ever visited Sintra? Would you like to?