A day trip to Sintra Portugal is like visiting a place where Europe’s prettiest castles have been squished onto a hilltop and with a dash of Disney and a generous sprinkling of Gaudi’s most fantastical imaginings thrown in. Instagram images of the red and yellow turrets and towers of the Peña Palace resemble something from a fairy tale. This is one of the reasons why Sintra is such a popular day trip from Lisbon. But there is so much more.
I’ve wanted to visit Sintra since I first saw pictures of this fantasyland, but I had no idea that this hillside town is actually the home to many palaces and architectural wonders. Sintra’s history goes back to the Neolithic period. It has been a summer retreat for monarchs over the years because of its cooler climate. Today Sintra is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and should be on your bucket list.
Located just 30 minutes from Lisbon by train, it is truly a must-do if you are spending three days in Lisbon (or more!) You can spend just 1 day in Sintra, but there is actually so much beyond these main sights that I would encourage you to stay overnight so you can experience it all. However, you can still hit the highlights with a day trip to Sintra and here is what you can’t miss!
DAY TRIP TO SINTRA MUST-SEE PLACES
PEÑA PALACE AND PARK
In the 1800s, King Ferdinand transformed a former monastery into the Peña Palace. He also had the Park of Peña planted with over five hundred species of trees and plants originating from around the world. The Palace of Pena was designated a National Monument in 1910 and is part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, which has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage since 1995.
You can select to visit either the Palace and the Park, or just purchase a ticket to the park. The Palace ticket will get you into the interior, to view the royal rooms. To be honest, unless you have a particular interest in castles and palaces, you will be just as well off just visiting the Park. Even the park entrance gets you into the ground of the castle.
Whatever you do, if you do visit the Palace, don’t line up behind a tour group or field trip. You will be forced to shuffle along through the narrow, velvet-roped-lined corridors and your visit will take extra long. For me, the best part of visiting Pena Palace was taking pictures on the grounds of this very photogenic castle.
To visit the main Palace area, you will need at least an hour, more if you are going inside. But you will also want to leave time to walk through the park, with its winding paths, pavilions and stone benches. Much of this is behind the palace and could take you half a day or more to fully explore.
QUINTA DA REGALEIRA
Until someone left a comment on one of my Instagram posts, I had never heard of Quinta da Regaleira. But after looking into it, I quickly added it to our Sintra itinerary. If you like Parc Guell or La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, you will love Quinta da Regaleira. It was built at the end of the 19th century and blends romanticism and fantasy in a parklike paradise that kids will absolutely go crazy over.
The main residence is spread over five floors and the outside facade is replete with turrets, gargoyles and other ornate features. You can visit the house, although only a few of the rooms are open to the public. To be honest, the inside was interesting to look at, but with a limited time, I would focus on the gardens instead.
We only got to half of the grounds on our brief visit so I would plan on spending half a day here if you can (there is a cafe on site.) The gardens are just full of secret tunnels and passageways, grottos and towers and the things that make your imagination come alive. Plus, the shady pathways and wooded grounds offer respite from the sun and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
One thing that can’t be missed is the Initiation Well (Poço Imperfeito) and Lago da Cascata. The entrance to the well is tucked behind a Stonehenge-looking structure and is not the easiest to find. From the entrance, you wind your way down a spiral set of stairs into the depths of the earth. The way is dark, narrow, slippery, and a little muddy.
You will need to keep kids on the inside and hold their hand, as the guardrails between the stairs and the drop into the well is not very high and it is all too easy to imagine a terrible fall. But don’t let it scare you away as it is really quite wonderful.
At the bottom of the well, you can take a tunnel (it helps to turn on the flashlight function on your phone and watch your step) to a secret hideout behind the waterfall at Lago da Cascata. One way out will take you across moss-covered stepping stones through the “lake” to the path on the other side. It is quite an adventure and so much fun!
PALACE OF SETEAIS (PALACIO DE SETAIS)
The Palacio de Setais is a five-minute walk from Quinta da Regaleira and worthy of a stop. If for nothing else, you should get a photo here with a view across the valley below. However, if you want a nice break from touring, it is also a peaceful oasis for a luxurious lunch.
Tivoli Hotels has an arrangement to operate a five-star hotel here, the Tivoli Palacio de Setais. There are only 30 rooms available, and with the gorgeous tapestries and furniture, it isn’t suitable for young children. But even if you can’t spring for an overnight stay, you can still reserve a lunch at the Seteais Restaurant.
The terrace of the restaurant overlooks the orange groves and pool. The food is delicious and the atmosphere is so calming that it is easy to lose track of time (at least for me, but maybe that was the wine :).) Don’t take too long if you want to see another sight, but do take time for a meander through the labyrinth out back.
MOORS CASTLE (CASTELO DOS MOUROS)
It wasn’t just because we lingered too long over lunch at the Setais Restaurant that we ran out of time to visit the Moorish Castle. Also, because we were in Sintra on a national holiday, the President was actually visiting Sintra and therefore the roads in the town of Sintra were blocked off for the afternoon.
Next time I return, I would love to climb along these ancient walls! If you also think you can’t fit a visit into your itinerary, you can at least capture a beautiful view of the castle from the outside terraces of the Peña Palace.
If you are leaving Sintra at the end of the day, I’d recommend you consider stopping in the seaside town of Cascais to catch the sunset and have dinner before returning to Lisbon. This holiday town retains its charm, despite the influx of touristy shops and Irish pubs. Perhaps it is the charming architecture or the tile-lined pedestrian streets.
Or, maybe it is the marina and the small beach that allows you to dip your toes into the eastern side of the Atlantic. A fun spot for sundowners is the rooftop at Cafe Galeria House of Wonders.
You could also visit Praia das Maçãs (Apple Beach), another popular beach, but it is a little further north than Cascais and puts you a bit further away from Lisbon.
TWO DAYS IN SINTRA
If you do end up staying overnight, there are two other main attractions to visit in Sintra:
Monserrate Palace is the traditional summer palace of the Portuguese court. The Palace combines Gothic, Indian, and Moorish influences. The park is one of Portugal’s richest botanical gardens. Like most palaces in Sintra, the Monserrate palace offers that combination of romanticism and fantasy that makes the whole town so magical.
NATIONAL PALACE OF SINTRA
In the town centre, you will find the Palácio Nacional of Sintra. Its Moorish architecture is noticeable from the road, with its attention-grabbing white conical structures causing me to look twice because they reminded me of KKK hoods.
GETTING TO SINTRA
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon is actually pretty easy, while getting around in Sintra requires a bit more effort. The train from Lisbon is the easiest option as it avoids the inevitable traffic that winds its way up the hill to Sintra. It is a 40-45 minute train ride from Lisbon to Sintra.
From the centre of Sintra, you can hire a tuk-tuk, take a taxi, hop on the bus, or climb up to the top. Not only is it quite a hike from the centre of Sintra to the Peña Palace at the top of the hill, but the roads are also narrow and the cars are passing quite close to pedestrians. It certainly would be quite a lot to do with a stroller.
I do recommend you take a cab or bus and start at the top and work your way down, but keep in mind that these palaces are built on a hill and each have their own grounds, which are surrounded by woodland. There are some walking paths that connect different attractions, like one from Peña Palace over to the Moorish Castle, but this all means lots of steep walking. The attractions are not clustered around each other as you might find in a city.
Driving to Sintra may sound like a much better option, but in reality, it is not. Not only do you need to contend with traffic backing up as slow-moving cars and busses make their way up the narrow switchbacks to the town of Sintra, but there is also very little space to park. There is a small parking lot past the entrance to the Peña Palace. But beyond that, there is very little outside of limited street parking.
If you don’t want to deal with any hassle, there are two ways to go. Either take an organized or private tour or hire a private driver. We initially planned on taking a private tour with Lisbon by Beetle, but they cancelled at the last minute so the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, where we were staying in Lisbon, arranged for a car and driver instead. I must say that it was incredibly convenient to take as much time as we liked at each destination and then walk out of the gate to find our driver waiting. Even getting back to Lisbon at rush hour wasn’t too bad in the comfort of a private car.
TIPS FOR VISITING SINTRA
Get an early start!! There is so much to see and if you are not staying overnight you will only get to half of the above if you don’t plan for a long day.
Avoid public holidays and weekends and check the calendar in advance. We were surprised to find huge crowds on a Wednesday at the end of April but if we had planned ahead and checked the calendar, we could have discovered that it was a national holiday and rearranged our schedule.
Dress in layers as it will be cooler in Sintra than in Lisbon or Cascais
Expect it to be windy on the hill, especially standing on those terraces surrounding Peña Palace. You may want to tie back long hair and keep a good grip on light items.
Wear comfortable shoes! Even if you hire a car and driver, you will do a lot of walking over uneven surfaces.
Leave the stroller at home. I would suggest a backpack carrier for young children as a stroller would be a bumpy ride (and hard to push) over the paths and up the hills.
A bus to the Peña Palace entrance is only 3.5 euro if you want to save yourself some climbing.
I highly recommend that you buy tickets online in advance to save time queueing for tickets.
If you do buy tickets on site, the ticket kiosks at Peña Palace only take credit cards with a chip and PIN (and no American Express.)
To save money, you can buy the combination tickets, but only do so if you know you have time to visit both attractions.