Sintra is without a doubt one of the most prominent destinations in Portugal. It’s a charming town with colorful houses and enchanting gardens, perfect for some weekend getaway from the city. From its quaint coffee shops to its fairy-tale castles, it offers many surprising attractions to keep you occupied for days on end. However, not many tourists make it past the glorified gardens to discover the mysterious and intriguing ruins of the castle that are located in one of Sintra’s most scenic corners.
The Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) stands out as one of the most fascinating landmarks in Portugal. The castle was built by two different civilizations, neither of which were Portuguese. In its first incarnation, it was built by the Moors and later taken over by Christians during Reconquista. Despite it being one of Portugal’s most important historical landmarks, the castle has remained relatively unknown to tourists — a Portuguese friend told me that no one in her family had even heard about the castle.
The castle was built in the 10th century by Moorish settlers, shortly after they conquered Lisbon. At that time, Sintra was a small village but still fiercely protected itself from outsiders. Its inhabitants used to live in the top of the hill that is now known as Sintra Mountain. The Moors conquered the village but were willing to work with its previous inhabitants. They started building a fortress on top of one of the hills, very close to the one where Sintra’s population currently resides.
The castle underwent multiple changes throughout its history. The most important came during Reconquista, when Christians conquered Sintra and took over the castle from Muslim-controlled hands. The fortress was damaged but wasn’t completely demolished. Instead, Christians built a church on top of it. They decorated the walls with impressive stone carvings that can still be seen today. These carvings depict scenes from the lives of Christ and Mary, similar to those in the Church of Misericórdia (halfway between Sintra and Lisbon).
The Castle of the Moors is one of the most important symbols of Portuguese history and culture. It’s definitely worth visiting on your next trip to Sintra — it gives a remarkable glimpse into how Portugal came to be as we know it today.