Sintra

A day-trip to Sintra was actually my favorite thing we did during our time in Lisbon. Located 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, Sintra is just a 44-minute train ride away. Portugal’s aristocracy considered it the perfect place to escape from city life, and while it’s filled with tourists now, it still feels like an escape — from Portugal, at least. We visited two castles here, the Castle of the Moors, which looks like the Great Wall of China, and Pena Palace, which looked like a German storybook castle.

The Castle of the Moors was built by the Moors (indigenous Muslims during the Middle Ages) in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista. In 1147 it was taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon. Situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains, this former military outpost follows meanders over the granite terrain of a mountainous cliff.

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Doesn’t it remind you of the Great Wall?
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Obligatory

After the Castle of the Moors, we hopped on a bus to the next castle, Pena Palace, which is what I really came to Sintra for. If it reminds you of Neuschwanstein, there’s good reason — in the 19th century, German-born Prince Ferdinand (cousin of Neuschwanstein’s King Ludwig) hired a German architect to build his fantasy castle, mixing elements of German and Portuguese style. It’s the most flamboyant castle I’ve ever seen, filled with Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish minarets, and Manueline carvings in bright yellow, dusty red, and azulejos. We bought tickets for the interior but ended up not using them because we were so intrigued by the exterior as we followed the walls surrounding the castle. We probably spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the courtyard, which was once the cloister of a monastery.

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So flamboyant!
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Those colors!
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Former cloisters

Tips on how to do Sintra:

Since we went on a weekday in November, the train station in Lisbon wasn’t too crowded, but if you’re here in the summer, especially over the weekend, avoid the lines by purchasing tickets or refilling your Viva Viagem the night before.

Check the times for the trains to Sintra. You don’t have to book in advance, but you don’t want to just miss it, and you want to get there early enough to you can claim a seat on the train.

Once you exit the train station at Sintra, make a right and hop onto the #434 bus. Someone should be there selling all-day tickets as you board the bus. You can hop on and hop off at any castle, and then it brings you back to the train station.

Purchase your castle tickets in advance so you don’t have to waste time standing in line.

We did Sintra in about half a day (left Lisbon after a leisurely breakfast, and returned to Lisbon in the late afternoon), but we easily could have stayed a couple of hours more if we were interested in the other castles or wanted to wander around Sintra town for lunch.

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Neuschwanstein

For those of you who don’t know my husband, Anthony likes to make Metal Earth models for fun. He’s really good at constructing these intricate, laser-cut metal models and has even become a minor celebrity on Instagram because of them. Many of them are iconic landmarks from around the world, so he usually brings at least one on our numerous vacations. Since we were in Munich this summer, we decided to take a day trip down to see Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), as Metal Earth happened to design a model of the stunning castle.

You probably recognize Neuschwanstein even if you’ve never heard of it. The castle has been featured in several movies such as The Monuments Men and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and served as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. This is the castle of all castles, the epitome of fairy-tale castles throughout time. Perched high above the town, even its setting on the lush foothills of the Bavarian Alps is dramatic.

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Bavarian Alps
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Lookout point

Neuschwanstein was commissioned by King Ludwig II, who ruled Bavaria for 22 years in the 19th century. Rather than deal with the politics in Munich, he preferred to spend most of his time in Schloss Hohenschwangau, his family’s palace that was built by his father. Much of King Ludwig’s adult life was spent constructing Neuschwanstein on a neighboring hill. He spent 17 years building it, but only lived inside for 172 days. Soon after he moved in, he was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria and was taken away. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. Less than six weeks later, Neuschwanstein became open to the public, and now over a million tourists visit per year.

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View of Hohenschwangau

During World War II, Nazis used Neuschwanstein as one of their secret storehouses for stolen art from France. Due to its secluded location, it survived both wars without destruction. After the war, Allied forces spent years sorting through and redistributing the art.

Even without its historical significance, Neuschwanstein is impressive. Out of all the photos we’ve taken of Metal Earth models in front of their respective landmark, Neuschwanstein may have been my favorite to take. It may have necessitated quite a journey to take the photo — we first took a train from Munich and a bus from the station to town, missed our guided tour, power-walked up a short mountain, attended an audio guide tour through the castle, then stood in a long line to cross a bridge — but our efforts were well worth it.

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We made it!
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So perfectly framed

Tips for future travelers:

Skip the castle tour. Unless you’ve never been to a castle before, the interior of Neuschwanstein isn’t that remarkable. The only way to see the interior is to book timed tickets in advance, and timed tickets can be stressful, especially if your train is running late like ours. Trust me, you didn’t come here for the interior; you came to gawk at the exterior, which is completely free and unconstricted by time!

Hike above Neuschwanstein to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), which has the best view of Neuschwanstein. Any photo you’ve seen of the castle was probably taken here. The bridge spans the Pöllat Gorge and is completely free to climb — you know that if this were in America, we’d be charging entrance tickets.

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If you look closely, that bridge behind us is Mary’s Bridge
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This might be challenging for people who are afraid of heights
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Even the view on the non-castle side of the bridge is gorgeous

If you’re coming from Munich, buy a Bayern Ticket, which covers all train and bus rides to and from Munich. Aim to leave Munich in the morning, as a one-way trip takes roughly three hours.

Much of your walking will be uphill, but the hike really isn’t that bad if you’re in decent shape. Anthony and I made it up to Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke in half the time that our guide book quoted. There are shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages, but the lines for those are pretty ridiculous, and you’ll still have to walk part of the way even if you ride them.

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Enjoying the hike
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If you hike, you’ll feel more rewarded by this view

Go in the afternoon for the best lighting.

Don’t forget to check the times for your return train back to Munich.

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