Sintra can only be described as a page torn from a fairy tale. At the westernmost part of the Iberian Peninsula, this Unesco World Heritage–listed Centre has an endless number of enchanting palaces, gardens and castles folded into the most luxuriant hills alongside the Atlantic Ocean.
A trip to Lisbon is not complete without a day trip to magical Sintra, known for its romantic architecture, fairy tale palaces, exotic gardens and historic castles. But navigating this small, but majestic little town in the mountains requires a bit of planning to make the most of your time (unless you plan on an extended stay), including how to best get from one site to another (walking is not advisable) and how to skip the lines (and the alarming number of tourists at each site).
Preparing for Your Day Trip
When we decided on Lisbon for our summer vacation, I knew we’d have to find our way to Sintra, located only about an hour northwest of the city. As always, planning the day trip began with creating a google map of major landmarks/sites, which we later used during the trip.
Top attractions in Sintra
- Palácio Nacional de Sintra
- Quinta da Regaleira
- Palácio Nacional da Pena
- Castelo dos Mouros
- Convento dos Capuchos
- Parque da Pena
- Palácio & Parque de Monserrate
- Cabo da Roca
If you’re thinking this list looks ambitious, you’re right. It is just about impossible to visit all of these sites in one day (we certainly did not, especially since I was over six months pregnant at the time, most sites required extensive walking/hiking and it was over 90 degrees in August), but it’s always best to start with a wishlist.
Buy Tickets to the Sites in Advance
To avoid the long ticket lines at each site, purchase advance tickets here, which are also discounted from the posted park prices (hooray!). This will literally save you hours (and potentially your sanity).
Pack a simple lunch for a Picnic at the Westernmost Tip of Europe (Capo da Roca)
Before getting on our way, we stopped at a local mini market for some fresh fruits, drinks and sandwiches to enjoy when we reached Capo da Roca. This saved us time and money on a more formal lunch in town or at one of the sites. And who doesn’t love the idea of a picnic at the westernmost tip of Europe?
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon
Although driving to and around Sintra is an option, parking in Sintra is nearly impossible, especially at the sites. Most visitors take an easy 40-minute train from Lisbon’s Rossio train station to Sintra train station (not Portela de Sintra) (check the train schedule here). You can also catch the train from Estação do Oriente. For convenience, Bugsy and I opted for a 35-minute uber ride to Sintra (approximately 35 euros). No matter what mode of transportation you decide on, get to Sintra as early as possible (starting your day by 9:00AM to see and enjoy the sites) and on a weekday to avoid weekend crowds.
Getting around Sintra
The most affordable way to get around is by taking the tourist buses that run regular routes to Sintra’s most popular attractions from the train station – the 434 and 435, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re up for dealing with major crowds and queues. If you’re willing to spend a bit more to get around, get ready to haggle with a taxi or tuk-tuk driver who will sell you a tour and take you from site to site (which helps to avoid the hassle of waiting for a bus or looking for a place to park).
Bugsy and I opted for an audio-guided, GPS-equipped self tour in a mini two-seater electric vehicle from LAS Tours Sintra (Warning: these vehicles are really tiny). We splurged on the all-day package as to not be rushed and were so happy we did because we needed every last minute. The size of the vehicle allowed us to park just about anywhere, provided information and history on all sites we came across and took us on a pre-programmed route that allowed us to get to as many sites as possible.
If you’re wondering if you can walk from attraction to attraction – stop, immediately. Although the sites are relatively close to one another, the hills upon which they sit are VERY steep.
The Ultimate One Day Tour
First Stop: Quinta da Regaleira | Although this is not the most popular site in Sintra, this is by far the most interesting with fascinating nods to the Masons, Knights Templar and Divination. Also, because there are so many specific points of interest, it’s a great way to start your day when you’re still full of energy.
Second Stop: Palácio & Parque de Monserrate |At the center of lush gardens is a whimsical, Moorish-Gothic-Indian palace that only dreams are made of.
Third Stop: Cabo da Roca | Who would want to miss an opportunity to visit the westernmost point of the Sintra Mountain Range, of mainland Portugal, of continental Europe, and of the Eurasian land mass? We stopped here for a picnic with the most incredible Atlantic views.
Fourth Stop: Palácio Nacional da Pena | Pena Palace, regarded as the greatest expression of 19th century Romanticism is likely the most famous and popular of all sites in Sintra. The palace is also surrounded by acres of stunning forested walkways and paths and gardens, which means that getting to the palace requires a bit of a hike, no matter the entrance you choose to the park.
Fifth Stop: Castelo dos Mouros | Soaring 412 meters above sea level, this mist-enshrouded Moorish castle is out of a storybook. Unfortunately, Bugsy and I decided against visiting after hearing that the climb to the top would be a very long and intense one, but I can’t wait to return to Sintra for a climb to the very top for what I hear are the most gorgeous views of the Atlantic.
Sixth Stop: Palácio Nacional de Sintra | Upon returning to the town center, your last stop should be The Royal Palace, which is undoubtedly the dominant architectural feature of Sintra, which houses the finest examples of azulejos, the tilework the Portuguese are famous for.