Anything you ever imagined about castles and fairytales can be found in Sintra, less than an hour’s drive west of Lisbon. Perched high atop a hill and overlooking the Atlantic to the west and Lisbon to the east, its fairytale setting draws day-trippers from Lisbon by the thousands. For the majority of the visitors, the incredible maze of super steep cobblestone hills prevents walking from site to site, resulting in a headache of giant buses and grumbling tuk-tuks on the paved roads. But for the avid hiker a daypack, water bottle, and good shoes are enough for hiking from each site via the ancient paths and trails. Unbeknownst to the majority of tourists, the trails through the wooded forests and gardens offer a glimpse into local life and gorgeous views of the city. Honestly, exploring Sintra by foot rather than bus is the way to go.
Due to insane traffic, dizzying streets, too many tourists, and not enough parking, most tourists come and leave by bus or train. We had no choice but to drive because of our motorhome, but we learned that parking was easy before 9am or after 7pm once the tourists are gone for the day. Fortunately we found a central and free parking lot just below the National Palace (not for vehicles longer than 6 meters!).
We began our first full day in Sintra by visiting the incredible garden of Quinta da Regaleira, just a 20-minute walk from the town center. As we were the first tourists through the gate at exactly 10am, we had the mesmerizing Inception Well all to ourselves. For only €6 per person, I’d say this site was the best bang for the buck.
Dark tunnels led us from one well to another, although the second well was unfinished.
The garden’s chapel and manor:
After 1.5 hours at the garden, we walked back into town, lunched in the motorhome, and set out again for a longer and scenic 3-km hike up the hill to the Moorish Castle. We hardly saw any tourists along the winding trails, and even enjoyed the distant sound of a flute in the woods. The Sintra National Palace looked gorgeous from above:
For €8 per person, we sauntered along the high ramparts of the castle that overlooked the city below and the Palacio Nacional da Pena above—allow at least 40 minutes to explore this castle. The Moorish Castle was exactly the castle you dreamt about in your childhood or saw in fairytales—twisty ramparts with crenellations and towers.
Just another 800m up the road from the Moorish Castle was perhaps the most iconic landmark of Sintra, the Palacio Nacional da Pena. With its bright yellow tower, baby blue walls, and bubblegum pink tower, this whimsical piece of work was perhaps the most Disneyland-like castle I’ve ever seen. As the highest landmark in all of Sintra, the drifting clouds above also added to the experience. For €14 per person, the price was a bit steep, but still worth it. (Tip: We discovered later that you can purchase a combination ticket for the Moorish Castle and the Pena Palace for €20, which would have saved €2 per person. Just sayin’!)
Our favorite view of the palace was from a random trail we found in the park:
The palace up close, with Islamic features:
Even the interior was glorious yet whimsical, with its Islamic ceilings and fantastical chandeliers and statues.
We visited perhaps the 3 most popular sites of Sintra in a day and were exhausted by the end of it. Any more sites would have required an additional day. By the time we finished hiking from site to site and spent even more time exploring them, we had a pretty damn good day of hiking. In a sense, Sintra was kind of like Disneyland—crowds of tourists come for the magical castles and gardens and leave at the end of the day because that’s all there is to it.