It was honestly the only place I knew about in Portugal before I started planning our road trip. That "must" place that you cannot go to Portugal without visiting. I'm talking about Pena Palace (Pena Palace) i Sintra. So many pictures have passed through my Instagram feed of this imaginative castle with ochre, yellow, blue and pink walls. A really small color palette, which makes you so childishly happy to look at. So, the first place we thought to visit in Sintra was not entirely unexpectedly the Pena Palace. But it doesn't always turn out as planned...
Penapalatset is not an old castle, but was built over old monastery ruins in the 1850s. The castle is located at the top of a steep mountain, with a narrow driveway winding its way up to the palace. It was a completely normal Friday in August when we went here and according to Google, there wouldn't be that many people at the castle until a bit into the afternoon. The park around the castle would open at 09:30 and the castle a quarter of an hour later. So we planned to hang on the lock. Maybe we should have sensed trouble already when we turned onto the road up to the castle at 09:45 along with a few hundred other cars, but Google had said that it would be calm.
We followed the caravan of cars up towards the castle. There were cars parked everywhere. In ditches, in curves, at exits. Not a single patch of grass was free. We passed the first official car park. It wasn't big and it was full of bones. We passed another small parking lot. There wasn't even room for a tricycle here.
We now began to approach the top of the mountain and passed the main entrance to the castle. A cheerful sign greeted us just as we passed the long ticket line. "Last available parking next". Are they kidding? Would this be Portugal's most visited attraction, without a real car park? Realizing that we have probably traveled far too much in North America to expect a parking lot. If in the US you always build the parking lot before the castle, the Portuguese built the castle and forgot the parking lot. We drove into the last parking lot. Even if we were to park like a true Portuguese, we wouldn't manage to find a spot. It may happen that the occasional profanity crossed my mind, maybe even my mouth. This wasn't true! We simply had to go back down the mountain!
On the way down to Sintra, we realized that it wouldn't be worth going one more lap up to the castle, so we changed our plans and headed towards the center of Sintra. From the center of Sintra, a bus goes up to the castle. When Google maps has guided us basically all the way down to the train station and we have two minutes to our destination, a policeman stands in our way. The street is blocked off, we need to continue straight ahead. Google maps quickly calculates how we should get down to the train station via the new route. No problem, we'll be at the train station soon! Now we are at about…. 26 minutes?!?!?!?!? The police had waved us onto a one-way street that led us into an incredible detour. It was getting close to 10:30. Those of us who had intended to be done with the castle by lunchtime, now at best we would have gotten a seat on the bus at 12. I can say that the top cover was extremely close to smoking now. So we decided to simply screw up the Pena Palace for the moment and go to Cabo da Roca instead! If we were meant to visit the castle, there would be a car park later in the day!
To make the history of the detour short - we now went to Cabo da Roca and to Convent dos Capuchos to wait for things to calm down at the castle. By chance, we see pictures of the Pena Palace at the ticket office of the Convento dos Capuchos. Yes, we could buy tickets to all the big castles here, informed the helpful cashier. We would also get a discount if we bought a combo ticket to both Penapalatset and Convento dos Capuchos. We told the cashier that we had been to the palace in the morning and found no parking, maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to buy combo tickets if we couldn't visit the palace today? "No problem," said the cashier. “There is a back road to the park that passes us here at the monastery. There is safe parking there". She circled some places on a map and handed it to us. This sounded almost too good to be true, but we got into the car and steered the kitty towards the road Chalet of the Countess of Edla.
There wasn't much parking along this road, but after a few minutes of driving back and forth we found a spot that was only a few minutes from the entrance to the park. I never thought I would be so happy about a parking space. But now we were inside!
The first stop in the park was Chalet of the Countess of Edla - The countess of Edla's little cabin. Here, among rhododendron bushes and exotic flowers, lies the little love cottage that King Ferdinand II built as a romantic retreat for his second wife Elise in the 1860s. It is not a large cabin, but what is striking is the unique use of cork. Everywhere around walls, windows and doors, cork is used as decoration. All around the cabin are large, dramatic boulders. The whole creation feels very much like the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel.
It is 1,7 kilometers from the park entrance at the Chalet of the Countess of Edla to the Penapalatset. A road with a very steep climb, but through a very well-kept and nice park. Over the years that the castle was in use, exotic bushes, trees and flowers were planted in large quantities along the slopes of the mountain. The plants come from "all four corners of the earth", just as the king ordered. Maybe that's why one second you feel like you're in the fern forests of New Zealand and the next among the Redwoods of California.
We pass by the historic pink stables and the farmhouse and say hello to some of the fine horses that now live here. It is possible to book horse rides in the castle park, I can imagine that it must be a real treat to ride around this very special park.
The park is not only trees and flowers, but many small bridges, pavilions, lakes and pergolas. The moss has taken over many of the decorative structures, but that has only made them even more beautiful.
We began to climb the last and steepest part of the road up to the castle. I can spare you the details, but according to my iPhone, I climbed 78 floors that day. 90% of these floors were guaranteed this stretch.
The castle began to spread out in front of us and suddenly we were walking right below the castle wall. The only thing that broke the magic of this amazing place was the queue that met us on the way into the castle. A slow, almost stationary, queue covered all the way up to the castle from the start of the ring wall. In total, it was several hundred meters of queue. We stopped, looked at the queue and decided to have lunch instead. Luckily, there was both a café and a restaurant at the castle. We decided on the restaurant.
Of course there was a queue here too. There were three dishes to choose from: Fish box, pork loin with rice or a (seemingly dry) pasta with vegetables. We took two boxes of fish and a pork loin, bread and also a chocolate cake and a pastel de nata and three soft drinks. 38 Euros, clearly affordable. The fish box tasted like Jansson's and the pork loin was perfectly fine. So now at least we weren't hungry anymore. Now we would just have to figure out why people were queuing…
We asked some British tourists in the queue. They queued for viewing in the castle, but they thought you also had to queue to enter the castle grounds. We sighed a little and stood at the back of the queue. After 20 minutes we had come 10 meters. Patience is not usually my strong point and patience is definitely not my strong point when queuing to see the castle from the outside felt completely wrong. A lot of people seemed to be walking from the café towards the castle grounds. Was there another way in? The man trotted into the gift shop and asked. Of course we would not stand in line, but go via the café.
The palace consists of two wings – the old monk's monastery in pink and the castle wing built in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II in blue/yellow. Everywhere there are beautifully painted tiles in the Moorish style, in multicolored patterns and with motifs. One of the most special areas in the castle grounds is Triton's gate, with decorations with shells, corals and other sea motifs. Exotic motifs and mythology – this castle really follows all the style rules of romance!
At the far end of the castle's courtyard is the old chapel from the 12th century, the oldest part of the castle. When King Ferdinand II bought the area at auction in the 19th century, only the ruins of the old monastery and chapel remained here. The chapel is today well restored and no one gossips anymore about its former decay. From the stained-glass window, tiny glittering dots of color spread across the room, casting a fantastic glow over alabaster statues and stone inscriptions.
You get the very best view from the castle from the charming "windows" in the wall below the chapel. It's so windy that you almost tumble over the edge, your hair is guaranteed to be completely matted, but the view is adorable! We were so lucky with the weather that the visibility reached all the way to the sea. It is not difficult to understand why King Ferdinand II had this as his summer palace. Even on hot summer days, it's not particularly hot up here. The wind is cooling.
We start heading back towards the car again. It is clearly much easier to walk back to the car downhill. We each buy a really good take-away coffee for 1,50 euros each and three Magnum ice creams and are amazed that the prices in the park have not yet become as hysterical as the amount of people. Think that this well-planned day turned out to be so incredibly unplanned and so incredibly good in the end!
Well, was the visit worth it all?
I can only say a resounding JA! However, I have to say that what impressed me the most was actually not the castle, but the garden and all these exotic plants and buildings. If I had another hour, I would have spent that hour exploring the park.
Our best tips for Penapalatset!
- Don't take the car! There are far too few parking spaces. Alternatively, go here on an overcast weekday when there are few people.
- There are huge height differences between the castle and the park. Leave the high heels at home and invest in shoes that fit your feet.
- Do not plan to have lunch at the castle. The food is rather dreary, but in and of itself quite reasonably priced.
- Buy tickets in advance online or buy tickets at one of the other attractions in Sintra. Actually, the only important thing is that you don't buy the tickets at the main entrance, there is ALWAYS a queue.
- Do not trust either Google's visitor statistics or maps. I wish I had brought my Tom Tom with me, but unfortunately it has disappeared without a trace! :( If anyone has seen a Tom Tom with Lill-Babs as speaker, it's guaranteed to be our old darling!
- Don't queue if you just want to visit the palace courtyard, but take the shortcut through the café. It is only if you want to go for a tour of the castle that you will have to queue.
- Plan more time for the park than for the castle – the park is a real little gem!
Do you want to read more about the palace? Here you will find my favorite links!
- Book tickets and read everything about the park on official Park and National Palace of Pena
- Official maps of the palace and park that helped me a lot can be found on the official site here and here.
- You can also find wonderful palace guides on the travel blog On the loose and at The vagabond family.
- Do you want to read more about Portugal in general? Check out my Portugal page.
Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.