Sintra: Exploring Pena Palace and Park

If you can only do one thing in Sintra, I'd explore the Park and National Palace of Pena. Located up in the hills, it's this joyful, colourful castle that's delightfully eclectic, both inside and out.

First up, if you're anything like me and have researched Sintra, you'll know that most bloggers seem to suggest Sintra is only worth a day trip from Lisbon. Which means getting up super early, hopping on a train at around 7.30am so you're there for opening time. You could do this as it's only 40 minutes from Lisbon (get on at Rossio station; the train costs €2.25 each way) - or it's a bit quicker in an Uber (we did this as we came directly from the airport) - but I'd stay over in Sintra, if you can. (More reasons on this coming soon in another post.)


      
Everything I read about getting to the palace once you've arrived in Sintra told me the same thing as well. Either hop on the 434 bus (€6.90 for a hop-on, hop-off ticket), take a tuk-tuk or grab an Uber but, whatever you do, do not walk. What I didn't read though was what to do when the police have blocked the road to buses, tuk-tuks and Ubers because it's super hot and they're worried the national park is going to catch fire as it's so dry. Not one blog post on this. If you're in the same position, you only have one option and that's to do that one thing. You'll have to walk.

Now there's a reason people will tell you not to walk there and that's because if you take the main road you're looking at between 60-90 minutes of uphill walking. It took us about 70 minutes, though we did spot hiking trails branching off the main road - these probably reduce the walking time but would be more difficult terrain-wise as they were uneven paths, not a smooth road. Plus we weren't sure whether they did indeed go in the direction we needed to be heading in.


      
Another way is the way we came back, a path that links the Moorish Castle and town. (You can spot the Moorish Castle above through the Pena Palace window.) This path took us 20 minutes to walk down, but would obviously take longer going up as there are lots of steps. Still, 30ish minutes of constant steps versus a 60-90 minute uphill walk is probably a decent trade-off if you're relatively fit. If we had to walk again, I'd go this way - if you're also OK with steps the path starts just by Igreja de Santa Maria, a small church that dates back to the 12th century. Google Maps, as always, is your friend here.

You have two ticket options when you finally arrive at Pena Palace - however you make it there! - you can either visit the grounds (€7.13 for adults if bought in advance online; €7.50 in person) or you can visit the grounds and the palace (€13.30 online; €14 in person). We booked online for the latter - it's definitely worth having a mooch around the palace which is a blend of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance architectural styles. I'm not sure if there's anything else quite like it in the world!

      

As we lost time with having to walk there, we could only explore the palace and the immediate grounds between there and the entrance. Oh, and be warned, if you thought you'd finished with your hill-climbing when you reach the entrance, you do have another steep hill to climb to get to the palace itself, though there is a (paid, I think) shuttle bus you can wait for if your legs are protesting. At this point though, what's another five minutes of uphill torture?!

      

The palace started off as a chapel in the middle ages, dedicated to Our Lady of Pena, before a monastery was constructed there in the 16th century. Like with most of Lisbon, the 1755 earthquake destroyed the monastery. The site remained as ruins until King Ferdinand II decided to build a summer palace there - it's much cooler in the hills of Sintra than it is in Lisbon, you see. This was completed in 1854 and was used by the royal family for a while, until it was sold to the government and became the tourist hotspot it is today. It, along with Sintra as a whole, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Because of this status, everything I read suggested Sintra was going to be jam-packed - especially inside the palace. But because we visited in September 2020, aka COVID-19 times, admittance to the palace was managed and we could only go one way through it (wearing masks, of course). We had a much quieter experience than we would have had in non global pandemic times (which applied to all of our holiday, to be honest). If you're visiting and life is normal again, I'd recommend you heed the general advice and arrive when the palace opens to try and avoid the inevitable masses. Anywhere is so much nicer when you're not jostling for space or to see something.

What do you think to the National Palace of Pena? I hope Sintra's colourful castle is now firmly on your to-visit list after seeing my photos! x

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