The Moorish Castle (officially called Sintra Castle) is not only one of the best-preserved castles in Portugal but also the one with the best views. So, if you’re thinking about visiting Sintra on a day trip from Lisbon (or on a road trip across the country), you really have to read this guide!
Constructed in the 10th century during the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the Moorish Castle enjoyed a very strategic location, on one of the highest peaks of the Sintra Mountains. However, the fortress was conquered by King Afonso Henriques in 1147, thus becoming part of the Kingdom of Portugal!
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- Brief History of the Moorish Castle
- How to Get to the Moorish Castle
- What to See at the Moorish Castle
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Brief History of the Moorish Castle
The Moorish Castle was built around the 10th century by Muslims who had settled in the Iberian Peninsula since the beginning of the 8th century. Its function was to serve as a lookout and defense post of the surrounding territories, as well as the maritime accesses to the city of Lisbon (at that time, nicknamed al-Ushbuna).
In the 12th century, the Moorish Castle and the mountainous lands of Sintra didn’t resist the Christian Reconquista led by King Afonso Henriques, with the support of the Crusaders. And the Muslims ended up handing over this military fortification in the year 1147, together with Lisbon.
Around the 15th century, when conflicts between Christians and Moors ended, the medieval village that had been established on the site was abandoned. But four centuries later, King Ferdinand II (the king who ordered the construction of the National Palace of Pena) decided to recover the castle.
In recent decades, numerous archaeological excavations and rehabilitation works have helped to understand the history of the Moorish Castle. This effort was rewarded in 1995 when UNESCO classified the Cultural Landscape of Sintra as a World Heritage Site!
Did you know that the Moorish Castle was part of Portugal’s fourth set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 19th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Berlin (Germany), between December 4th and 9th, 1995.
However, the Cultural Landscape of Sintra includes many other UNESCO World Heritage Sites besides the Moorish Castle, such as the Chalet of the Countess of Edla, the Convent of the Capuchos, the National Palace of Pena, the National Palace of Sintra, the Palace of Monserrate, the Quinta da Regaleira, and the Villa Sassetti, among others.
Nowadays, Portugal is the ninth country in Europe and the eighteenth country in the world with the most UNESCO sites, tied with Czechia and Poland. It has seventeen heritage assets (both cultural and natural) inscribed on the world list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
In the meantime, I’ve already had the opportunity to visit fourteen of them:
- Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
- Convent of Christ in Tomar (1983)
- Cultural Landscape of Sintra (1995) – Chalet of the Countess of Edla, Convent of the Capuchos, Moorish Castle, National Palace of Pena, National Palace of Sintra, Palace of Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira, Villa Sassetti
- Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications (2012)
- Historic Center of Évora (1986)
- Historic Center of Guimarães and Couros Zone (2001, 2023)
- Historic Center of Porto, Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar (1996)
- Monastery of Alcobaça (1989)
- Monastery of Batalha (1983)
- Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon (1983)
- Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley (1998, 2010)
- Royal Building of Mafra – Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden, and Hunting Park (Tapada) (2019)
- Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga (2019)
- University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia (2012)
How to Get to the Moorish Castle
There are three ways to reach the Moorish Castle from the historic center of Sintra: by car, by bus, or on foot. Since the monument is at one of the highest points of the Sintra Mountains, it’s possible that you skip walking there. But there are some walking routes (from the town of Sintra to the Moorish Castle and the National Palace of Pena) for trails and nature lovers, which you can consult at the Tourist Office!
The three times I visited Sintra, I traveled by car – although I always chose to leave it in a free car park (at the entrance to the town) and opt for the bus. This is something I highly recommend, especially during peak season. Not only is it difficult to find a space outside each palace, but the parking lot itself is quite expensive.
If you’re in Lisbon and want to travel by public transportation to Sintra, you can check the train timetables on the CP – Comboios de Portugal website. Once at the town’s train station, all you have to do is take the Scotturb bus 434, which takes you to Moorish Castle. This tourist line is called “Pena Circuito” and has a fixed cost of €6.90 (round trip).
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Moorish Castle is open every day, from 9 am to 6:30 pm, being that the last entry is at 6 pm. As for tickets, they cost €8 (from 18 to 64 years old) or €6.5 (from 6 to 17 years old, and for over 65s). There’s also a family ticket (for two adults and two children) for €26.
TIP: If you already know the day and time you want to visit the Moorish Castle (and/or if you want to visit more than one monument in Sintra), I recommend that you buy the entrances through the Parques de Sintra online ticket office. This way, you have access to an automatic 5% discount!
What to See at the Moorish Castle
As I mentioned before, the Moorish Castle was inhabited by Muslim populations for almost two centuries. For that reason, it’s no surprise that remains of various dwellings, silos and even a community oven have been found near the East Wall.
In addition to Islamic Houses, the archaeological excavations carried out in the Moorish (during the 20th and 21st centuries) found numerous artifacts used by these people in their daily lives, as well as traces of animals and fruit seeds.
When King Ferdinand II began a restoration campaign of the Moorish Castle in 1839, part of the Medieval Christian Necropolis (or Medieval Islamic Quarter) was destroyed.
And as no one knew if the human bones found in this place belonged to Christians or Muslims, a common tomb was erected to deposit them.
These days, it’s only possible to glimpse a skull on top of two crossbones on the stone headstone. But it’s known that there used to be two religious symbols above it – a cross (Christianity) and a crescent (Islam) – as well as an inscription at the bottom, with the phrase: “What man has assembled, only God can set apart”.
Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim (or Interpretation Center of the History of the Castle)
The Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim was built in the 12th century after the Moorish Castle passed into the definitive domain of the Portuguese. And as soon as King Afonso Henriques granted Sintra a Charter, this small Catholic church became the first parish church in the town.
The small Catholic temple served as a place of worship until the 14th century and, from then on, was abandoned. When King Fernando II found it in the 1840s, he decided to turn it into a romantic ruin – as was common at that time (see the Chapel of the Palace of Monserrate also in Sintra, for example).
As you can see from the photographs, the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim was completely restored in recent decades and, today houses the Interpretation Center of the History of the Castle. In fact, many of the artifacts I mention are on display in this same space!
Medieval Christian Necropolis (or Medieval Islamic Quarter)
The oldest archaeological remains that were recovered from the Moorish Castle date back to Prehistory, more specifically to 5000 BC (that is, during the Neolithic period). These were collected under the former Medieval Islamic Quarter (10th-12th centuries), which in turn served as the basis for the former Medieval Christian Necropolis (12th-14th centuries).
Protected by the East Wall and a few meters from the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim, the Medieval Christian Necropolis was the burial place for the newly installed population in the Sintra Mountains. However, as space was limited, it’s known that graves accommodated more than one person.
The East Wall is quite hidden by dense vegetation, but at the same time, it’s an important testimony of the different phases of construction (and recovery works) of the Moorish Castle. The first dates from the 12th century and was carried out by the Muslim peoples who built the military fortress.
A second moment took place somewhere between the 12th and 13th centuries and suggests a repair, as a result of a collapse of the wall or structural damage. The restoration work carried out by King Fernando II, in the 19th century, is also notorious. Finally, the interventions made in 1939 stand out.
Entrance to the Moorish Castle
The Entrance to the Moorish Castle is the main gate of this ancient Muslim fortification and is located on the East Wall.
From here, I recommend that you turn right, go up to the battlements and walk the entire perimeter of the wall, from the Alcazaba to the Royal Tower. The path is not exactly easy (there are hundreds of steps and the climb is quite steep), although the panoramic views are really worth it!
The Moorish Castle has only one other gateway: the infamous Door of Betrayal, so common in medieval castles. This, combined with the high number of turrets and the difficult location in the Sintra Mountains, made the castle an (almost) impenetrable fortress!
The term “alcazaba” comes from the Arabic “al-qasbah” (which means “citadel”) and consists of a type of Arab castle or fortification (see the Alcazaba of the Alhambra of Granada in Spain, for example). Normally, the Alcazabas were composed of two patios: one, on a lower level, for the people, livestock, and commerce; and another, on a higher plane, which housed religious and/or administrative buildings, as well as the residence of the governor.
The Alcazaba of the Moorish Castle is no exception to the rule of other alcazabas on the Iberian Peninsula, as this was where the local authorities lived. In the photos above, you can see the two towers that comprise it, the first bearing the Monarchical Flag (used between 1834 and 1910) and the second displaying the National Flag (adopted with the Implantation of the Republic, in 1910). This last tower is also the Keep.
Once you’ve finished exploring the Alcazaba of the Moorish Castle, take a deep breath… because walking on the West Wall is a true “climbing” adventure! I mean, just look at the photos to realize that this wall line is very long, winding, and steep!
Along the way, you’ll find some observation points and panoramic viewpoints, with informational plaques about the monuments and places that dot the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. If the weather is inviting (and, above all, no clouds or fog), you’ll be able to see the (from right to left):
- Sintra Town Hall
- National Palace of Sintra
- Villa Sassetti
- Quinta da Regaleira
- Seteais Palace
- Chalet Biester
- Park and Palace of Monserrate
- Park and National Palace of Pena
Now that you’ve climbed the countless steps, you can finally rest and enjoy one of the most breathtaking views of the National Palace of Pena.
The Royal Tower was named after King Ferdinand II, who loved to visit this place for inspiration. The monarch was passionate about the fine arts and the performing arts (among other areas, such as botany) and was himself a painter, illustrator, and singer, as well as an art collector.
As a patron, he promoted several national and international artists, as well as restoration projects for Portuguese monuments (many of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the National Palace of Mafra, the Convent of Christ in Tomar, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the Tower of Belém, these last ones in Lisbon)!
The Place-of-arms (or Arms Square) is the widest place of the Moorish Castle and was used to concentrate the military garrison during the Middle Ages. With direct access to the two fortification gates (the Main Gate and the Door of Betrayal) and the lookout posts established on the West Wall, it was used by both Muslims and the Portuguese.
However, today it looks more like a green park than an actual military camp! This “nature invasion” is due to King Ferdinand II, who sought to create a space for leisure, rest, and observation here. So, take the opportunity to stroll in the shade of these leafy trees, before heading out of the monument.
Built to store cereals and pulses, these Silos are the last stop in this guide to the Moorish Castle. There are others along the outer line of the East Wall (also carved in the rock), but these beside the Cistern and the Old Stables seemed far more impressive to me!
Although they have existed since prehistoric times, silos only began to appear more recurrently in the Iberian Peninsula with Muslims (who at the time called the former territories of Portugal and Spain “Al-Andaluz”). Since then, they were one of the main support structures for the population, who lived almost exclusively on agriculture and livestock.
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