There’s good reason why Sintra is one of the most frequently visited places in Lisbon – it has old castles, colourful palaces and dramatic gardens, all set within the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The unique style of architecture and convenient transport links make it popular among tourists and locals alike.
What to do in Sintra
Palácio Nacional de Sintra
Located in the historic town centre, Sintra National Palace is one of the 3 main attractions that should be visited on any trip to Sintra – the other 2 being Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. It’s a small taste of things to come – you should definitely go inside if you have time but not before seeing Pena Palace (read on to find out more).
Entrance is €10 (£8.9/US$12). Other things to do in the historic centre include browsing hand crafted goods and getting your daily pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) from the famous Piriquita bakery.
Castelo dos Mouros
This medieval Moorish castle sits high atop a hill overlooking Sintra town. Once inside – tickets cost €8 (£7/US$9.4) – you can get good views of the surrounding landscape.
However, for the best views of the outside of the castle itself you need to head to the car park at the Pena Palace lakes entrance – walk down the path at the end of the car park for 2 minutes until the castle comes into view. This path then leads to the castle entrance and down into the grounds which you can wander around for free – head down the hill towards the old wall and you’ll lose all the crowds.
There are plenty more paths here to explore, including the Santa Maria walkway which runs between the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.
Cruz Alta (High Cross viewpoint)
The best viewpoint in Sintra is from High Cross (528m high to be precise) – on a clear day you can see the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon city centre, the whole Natural Park, the 25 de Abril bridge and the best views of Pena Palace. Even on an overcast day the clouds are usually below the height of the palace and viewpoint so you’ll still be able to see the palace if nothing else.
Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena
The Palace of Pena is set among vast gardens with walking trails, viewpoints and lakes. Also located in the gardens are the Chalet and Gardens of Elda. Entrance to the Pena Park costs €7.5 (£6.6/US$8.8) but is totally worth it – here’s what it allows you to do: explore both Pena and Elda gardens; get close to and take pics of the Chalet of Elda; visit High Cross viewpoint and even walk along the top of the Pena Palace walls!
So, don’t pay the extra €6.5 (£5.8/US$7.6) for the Pena Palace or the supplement for the Chalet and Gardens of Elda unless you specifically want to see the internal rooms of the Pena Palace or the inside of the small Chalet of Elda – the Pena Park ticket covers everything else!
Top tip: I cannot urge you enough to go to Pena palace 1st thing in the morning!!! Not 11:30am, I’m talking 10am when it opens. You’ll get the palace virtually to yourself as most people stop to see the historic centre and Moorish castle before arriving here in the afternoon – break the mould, be different! Get the best, uninterrupted views – go EARLY!!!
(For context, I visited the Pena gardens at 6pm on a Tuesday and although it wasn’t exactly crowded, there were still people getting in the way of my photos and therefore I wish I’d gone first thing in the morning.)
How to get up to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace
There are 4 main options to get from the historic centre of Sintra up to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace:
1. Foot – it’s an enjoyable 1 hour hike up through the gardens of Villa Sassetti (begin walking up Estrada da Pena and then follow the signs to the left).
2. Bus – the number 434 bus shuttles tourists up and down the hill. Single tickets are €3.9 (£3.5/US$4.6) but it can get busy so it’s best to avoid peak hours.
3. Tuc tuc – hail one in town and agree a price.
4. Private tour – pre-book your tour and travel by coach, minibus or Jeep.
How to get to Sintra (from Lisbon)
The cheapest and probably easiest way to get from Lisbon to Sintra is by train – catch it from either Rossio station (city centre) or Oriente station (closer to the airport). Journey times are around 45 mins and tickets cost just €2.25 one-way (£2/US$2.6). Weekday departures are frequent; 2 per hour from Rossio and 3 per hour from Oriente, while at weekends they’re at least every hour. At peak times the trains and ticket machines can get very busy – another reason to start your visit early!
What else is there to do?
A day trip to Sintra is the minimum requirement when visiting Lisbon but, if you have the time, it would definitely be worth staying in Sintra for an extra day or two. Plus, by staying overnight you could easily be the first person into the Pena gardens!
Other points of interest in the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park:
➲ Parque e Palácio de Monserrate and Palácio de Queluz. Two more examples of wonderful architecture within easy reach from Sintra. Both rich in history and with fantastic gardens to explore.
➲ Santuário da Peninha. This abandoned complex of church, palace and chapel is built upon a rugged rocky hill in the middle of the natural park. Access is difficult without a car (14km hike from Sintra town) but worth it for the spectacular views.
➲ Take the Tram to Praia das Maçãs beach. Tickets are only €3 one-way (£2.6/US$3.5) for the 40 minute journey but limited capacity means that people are turned away so arrive early to avoid disappointment (the tram stop in Sintra is just to the north of the art museum).
Getting around Sintra
Car parking in the historic town and at the main attractions is extremely limited and therefore it’s advised to not use a car on a day trip to Sintra. However, if you can find accomodation with parking facilities then a car would be useful to explore the places further away from the main town centre.
There are 2 tourist buses; the 434 serves Sintra Palace, Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle while the 435 runs to Monserrate Palace via Sintra Palace, the Regaleira Estate and Seteais Palace.
E-bike rental is perhaps the best way to explore further afield, especially if you’re staying overnight in Sintra. Prices start at €15 per day (£13/US$18). Your only other options are to book a guided tour or go for it on foot – quite opposite ends of the spectrum!
My only advice for a trip to Sintra would be to choose the transport method most suited to you – there’s so many wonderful things to enjoy here that it would be a silly mistake if your trip was ruined by a poor choice. Oh, and to arrive EARLY!! (As if you would’ve forgotten!)
For more information on Sintra: www.parquesdesintra.pt
Fancy another day trip from Lisbon? Check out my recommendation for its best beaches here.