A visit to Sintra will have you feeling like a royal for a day. This quaint little town just 20 miles northwest of Lisbon is characterized by cobbled streets, charming shops and fairytale-like castles built high atop lush green hills. In the 19th century, Sintra was a summer retreat for the Portuguese monarchy who sought to escape the heat, and is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Lisbon today. Here’s what you need to know.
Getting There and Around
The best way to get to Sintra is by train, which departs from Lisbon’s Rossio station about every 15 minutes. Buy your ticket from a window or vending machine near the tracks or swipe your Lisboa Card at the turnstile – it covers the fare and gives you discounts on some of Sintra’s main sights. Then it’s just a quick 40 minute ride to Sintra, which is the last stop on the line.
When you get there you can explore the lower town on foot (and you should), but save yourself the steep hike and take bus #434 to see the sights further up. The bus does a loop every 30 minutes connecting the train station with the main square near the National Palace, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. You can buy a “Pena circuit” ticket from the driver and hop on and off at any stop on the route. Click here for bus timetables and an interactive map. You can also get a unique guided tour of the area, including transportation, with our friends at We Hate Tourism Tours.
What to Wear
Chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and castle climbing, so sturdy shoes are a must for Sintra. A light jacket is also a good idea since it’s a little cooler than Lisbon given its coastline location. After all, that’s why the monarchy came here to escape the hot summer months.
Rainy season is usually winter through spring (and occasionally in the fall), so pack an umbrella if you plan on visiting during these months, otherwise you may find yourself waiting in line to buy a poncho in the gift shop at Pena Palace. And since many of Sintra’s sights are outdoors, you may want to bring a hat in the summer.
One way to tackle Sintra is from the top down, which means your first stop would be Pena Palace. This whimsical palace is an eclectic fusion of architectural styles inspired by the castles of Bavaria. A prime example of romanticism, its bold red, yellow and purple exterior is hard to miss, complete with Moorish turrets, alligator water spouts and a Triton-flanked archway.
Built by King Fernando II, the palace was home to 5 generations of Portuguese monarchs from the mid-1800s until 1910 when they fled during the Republican Revolution. Thereafter Pena Palace was converted into a museum, and has been restored with a keen attention to detail, looking as if the royal family left just yesterday.
As you explore the interior, you may notice that the palace is considerably modern as palaces go (i.e. Versailles in France or Schönbrunn in Vienna, etc.), offering up an intimate look at 19th and early 20th century life. Pena Palace was actually quite progressive, having the flush toilets and hot shower in Portugal, a telephone to listen in to the opera when the king didn’t want to make the trek to Lisbon and an enviously well-stocked kitchen by today’s standards.
The palace itself is surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park, which is more like a forest than a park with dense trees, plants and other hidden treasures. The palace grounds make for an almost magical downhill walk, otherwise you can pick up bus #434 and head next to the Moorish Castle.
Located on an adjacent hilltop, this medieval castle was originally built in the 10th century by the Muslims as a military fort. After years of conquest, rebuilding and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that caused considerable damage, King Fernando II launched a campaign to restore and preserve the castle and its surrounding forest.
Buy your ticket and then follow the winding forest path to get to the main entrance. Once inside, you can walk along the moss-covered ramparts and climb the stone towers for amazing panoramic views on a clear day. Even if the weather is less than favorable, or you’re left without a view thanks to the thick fog that rolls in off the Atlantic, you can still have a great time, trust me. Read more about my foggy day in Sintra here.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s also a zip line that allows visitors to soar through the tree tops at the base of the castle. After you’ve had your fill of castle-climbing, hop back on the bus and get off at the main square where you started for the National Palace (it will stop at Pena Palace first, so sit back and enjoy the ride).
This palace also dates back to Moorish times, making it the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal – and hard to miss thanks to the two white conical kitchen chimneys on top. The interior is truly a feast for the eyes with highly decorated, themed rooms each with a unique story, like the Swan Room (an homage to the king’s daughter) and the Stag Room (adorned with coats of arms and hunting scenes). The National Palace also boasts the largest collection of Portuguese azulejos painted tiles in the world.
Other worthwhile sites in Sintra include the Quinta da Regaleira, an elegant estate towards the outskirts of town with yet another absolutely gorgeous park filled with grottoes, fountains, underground wells and hidden tunnels. It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Palace, otherwise you can take a separate bus #435 from the main square.
This bus will also take you the farther out west to Monserrate. This palace has a bit of a different flavor than the others in Sintra, combining Gothic, Moorish and Italian styles of architecture (it’s dome was modeled after the Duomo in Florence) and a subtropical garden with waterfalls, palm trees and other exotic plants. There’s also a free app to guide you through an interactive tour of the palace.
For another unique experience, the Toy Museum is just 2 minutes from the National Palace on foot. The museum houses an expansive collection of more than 40,000 items from around the world – from ancient Egypt ion toys to Nazi toy soldiers, as well as trains, planes, cars, boats, games, books dolls and even playthings that belonged to royal children – dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.
Finally, for an especially memorable way to see the main sights in Sintra, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city. Book in advance or look for these old-fashion carriages waiting near the main square. Tours range from 25 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes for up to 4 people, and can be customized to make your daytrip extra special. Check out the company Sintratur’s website for tour options and rates.
For more travel tips by Jessica, check out her blog here.