Sintra, Portugal was a no-brainer. If you’re traveling near a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’re obligated by the laws of nature to go see it, right?
All we knew was that Sintra was a reasonable “day trip” distance from Lisbon and the Google Images results brought up pictures of a multi-colored princess castle (Pena National Palace). Check yes on photogenic.
The train was easy to board in Lisbon considering our hostel was located inside the train station. We bought our tickets at the ticket desk across the hall from where we slept and went through the turnstiles.
We arrived in Sintra with almost no idea what we were doing or how to get anywhere. It might’ve been advisable to do some research ahead of time and plan how to get to the main sights from the train stop. For some reason we didn’t.
We stood around, anxiety mounting, as we exited the train with a swarm of tourists and a few obvious locals. There were no clear maps and we didn’t have access to cellular data. So we did what seemed logical: follow everyone else.
The confusing part about Sintra is that the distance to key landmarks is difficult to gauge from the main street and it’s easy to get lost. We walked in a promising direction, finding touristy vendors hawking handbags and jewelry, and kept going until we stumbled upon a picturesque part of the city.
Depending on where you are in Sintra, you can make out a few of the famous sights. They seem deceptively close-by.
Hence the wild goose chase up steep inclines and cobbled roads. I thought the signs were pointing us toward the famous castles, but instead we ended up getting a hot, exhausting walking tour of the quiet (admirably scenic) streets of Sintra.
There’s something magical about the aging exteriors of buildings.
After my sister got tired of walking and I gave up on the hopeless trek, we made our way back down the road and admitted defeat. It was time for the easy solution: the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour.
I’m a big fan of hop-on hop-off tour buses. I’ve done them in London, Paris, and Barcelona and appreciate the ability to sit while getting a feel for the various locations of popular attractions. It’s people and place watching for a somewhat reasonable price.
Luckily for us, the place to get on the bus route was back by the train station. We discovered this after asking a bus tour employee who was selling tickets nearby.
That’s when the day really began. We walked back where we came from, waited and waited for the bus we wanted, finally got on, and then barely got off.
By that point we were exhausted.
It’s been over a year since the trip, but my most distinct memory is of the beach, Praia Grande. It was unexpected – the kind of beach I could sit by for days.
Huge waves (surfing waves that didn’t seem safe to linger in), clean, soft sand, and a scenic rocky hillside. We didn’t have bathing suits, but we got off the bus to get a closer look.
The bus took us to all the places we were hoping to see. We listened to the soothing pre-recorded tour commentary through our headphones and got off again at Cabo de Roca. It’s the farthest western point in Europe and doesn’t cost any money to see. We gazed over the cliffs and got our photo op.
I think Sintra has enough to do (if you want to pay admission fees to palaces and museums) for an entire week or more. We did it in a day and enjoyed ourselves, but we spent too much time getting our bearings and seeing beautiful sights from afar.
The day was one part catastrophe and two parts wonderful. We ended up getting very lost trying to return to Lisbon, since we took the wrong train and got off at a random stop (they all say Lisbon in one form or another!) We desperately tried to figure out how to get back when no one around us spoke English and the train employees couldn’t understand us.
We made it to Lisbon, but only after taking a train back to Sintra and then getting on the right one.
(Did I mention our train tickets stopped working because of our first failed foray onto the wrong train? We couldn’t get through the turnstiles at Rossio Station and there weren’t any train employees/ticket offices within the area blocked off by them. Hearts pounding, we re-joined the crowd heading for the exit. We stood close to people whose tickets worked and walked through with them. Desperate time call for desperate measures.)
Sintra really is as gorgeous as the pictures. Get lost in a place that’s worth getting lost in.
Sintra Images by Jenna Brady, 2015