Pena National Palace
This is going to be the start of a series of travel articles written in retrospect. I wanted to start with this piece on Sintra, since it is a place well worth travelling to and it was one place where i felt I wasn’t able to extract sufficient information from the internet when I did my research, so I thought I really should help fellow travelers.
Sintra has enough attractions to fill about 2 days. I spent only one day there, focusing on the 3 attractions that no one should miss – the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The main obstacle one encounters when visiting Sintra is the slopes. While driving up to the Pena National Palace, I saw people making their way up the same road on foot. Don’t do that! You waste much precious time, while also sapping the energy that should be spent on the real sightseeing. You could at least take a bus. Another pitfall to avoid is visiting on a weekend or public holiday. I took that advice and went on a Monday, so I can’t tell you how congested it can be on a weekend or public holiday when local visitors are likely to be present also, but I suggest you don’t try to find out either.
Here’s the suggested one day itinerary (assuming you visit Sintra by car and you’re physically fit enough to jog 5km or 3 miles): start with the Moorish Castle, proceed to Pena National Palace, go for lunch, then finish off with Quinta da Regaleira.
The Moorish Castle
The Moorish Castle and Pena National Palace are located along the same road (Estrada da Pena). There are limited parking spaces for either one of them. You can see the location of the parking lots using Google Street View. Many cars are parked along the road side and not in officially marked lots (which are very few in numbers). That was probably a busy day captured on Street View. If you traverse up that road in Street View, you’ll notice that the road becomes narrow once you get past the entrance to the Moorish Castle, and since this is a one way road, if you miss the last available parking lot, you will have to do a big loop to get back, so do go slow once you start seeing cars parked on the side. It probably means you should take the next available space. For the Pena National Palace, there is a parking area on the right hand side before reaching the entrance of the palace and another one on the left after the sharp bend near the entrance. The parking situation for Sintra town itself and Quinta da Regaleira are similarly difficult (so by all means, avoid weekends and public holidays). Be prepared to be a little creative in finding your parking lot!
The best bet for finding food is in Sintra town itself. As usual, i did prior research and decided on Restaurante Regional de Sintra, which was excellent. The meal hours in Portugal and Spain work very well for travellers – lunch hours are until 4pm. That was how i was able to cram two attractions in the first half of the day, with allowance for the usual disorientation when going about in unfamiliar places.
The Waterfall Lake at Quinta da Regaleira
Strategy for covering the attractions
Buy a combo ticket at the ticket booth at the Moorish Castle (as recommended by other travelers). The combo ticket will save you some money and possibly some time at the Pena National Palace where there may be a queue for tickets since it is the most popular attraction in Sintra. It is also possible to buy the tickets online and save even more, if you’re certain of your date of visit.
Visiting the Moorish Castle is quite straight forward. Once you get into the ground, everything that can be explored is within your field of view at the entrance. If you’re not afraid of heights, take the path on the left, where you can climb to the highest point of the castle ruin. It should take you no more than an hour to cover the entire place.
The Pena National Palace ground (including the surrounding Pena Park) is huge. Once you get past the main entrance, there is a slope to climb to get to the palace. Electric trams are available (at a price of course) to take you up there if you don’t wish to do it on foot. Making your way back to the main entrance after visiting the palace isn’t as easy as it seems – i got lost trying to do so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The route took me through Pena Park, which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was quite a walk, but every bit worthwhile. I would suggest making it a point to walk through at least parts of Pena Park despite the risk of getting lost inside the park. It is otherworldly and not quite like what you find in the gardens of British Manors or French Castles.
A beautiful corner in Quinta da Regaleira
You may be exhausted after doing both the Moorish Castle and Pena National Park, but believe me, the mysterious beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is more than enough to keep you going. Nothing quite compares with this quaint estate. It is an adult’s playground, with many secret passages and tunnels. The Initiation Well is undoubtedly the most well known feature of the park. To be honest, you’d want to spend more time here than my one day itinerary allows. If you did proper planning and are properly equipped (i think walking poles will help a lot), you should still be able to spend a good 2 to 3 hours here.
The Initiation Well