Are you ready to step into a world of enchantment and wonder? Imagine wandering through a place that feels straight out of a fairy tale, where every castle and building exudes a magical aura and is brimming with fascinating history. Well, look no further than Sintra! This picturesque Portuguese town is just a short 40-minute train ride away from Lisbon, making it the perfect day-trip destination for those looking to add a bit of magic to their Portugal itinerary. But don't be fooled by Sintra's small size, because this town is packed with interesting gems that are definitely worth exploring. In fact, we recommend staying for at least two days to fully immerse yourself in all that Sintra has to offer. We visited in July and while the weather was fantastic, be prepared for a bit of a challenge during the summer months as hordes of tourists flock to experience the magic of Sintra.
But trust us, the crowds are a small price to pay for the beauty that awaits you! From the stunning architecture of Pena Palace to the lush greenery of Quinta da Regaleira, every corner of Sintra is a feast for the eyes. And let's not forget the charming narrow streets lined with quaint cafés and souvenir shops. So, pack your bags and get ready to embark on a journey to a land of magic - Sintra is waiting for you!
Sintra, the enchanted land of rolling hills and captivating history, has been a buzzing center of human activity for millennia. This magical land has played host to many ancient cultures, starting from the Celts, who believed that the moon god descended upon these very hills, bestowing his blessings upon the land. The Romans later swept through and claimed the region as their own, renaming it "Mountain of the Moon" to honor their lunar goddess. But that's not all, the Moors also left their mark by building a fortress atop the highest hill to protect the land they had come to cherish. However, this didn't last long as King Afonso I regained control over Lisbon and the region.
But what sets Sintra apart from the rest is its unique microclimate. This fascinating phenomenon has helped preserve the lush greenery that surrounds the area, allowing it to remain fresh and vibrant, even during the hottest summer months. In fact, this is what caught the attention of the Portuguese royals, who sought refuge in this land of cooler temperatures to escape Lisbon's scorching heat. And that's not all, Sintra's enchanting history and mystical landscapes also captured the hearts of artists and nobility during the 18th century Romanticism period, who built luxurious palaces and noble estates, also called quintas, adding to the region's cultural tapestry. So, whether you're a history buff or a nature enthusiast, Sintra promises to deliver a unique and unforgettable experience that you won't find anywhere else!
HOW TO GET TO SINTRA?
You can embark on your journey to Sintra from the picturesque Rossio train station located in the heart of Lisbon. The train ride takes approximately 40 minutes and costs a reasonable 2.25 EUR for a one-way ticket. Early birds have the advantage of catching the first train departing at 6.01 a.m, while frequent departures between 7 to 10 a.m every ten minutes provide flexibility for later risers. If you plan on visiting during peak tourist season, we recommend taking the earliest train possible to avoid waiting in line and maximize your time exploring Sintra's enchanting landscape. While waiting for your train, grab a bite at the station's coffee shop to kickstart your adventure!
ONE DAY ITINERARY
1. PALÁCIO DA PENA
The tour starts at the highly popular Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace), situated atop a hill. Walking there would take over an hour, so it's not an option. Taking the bus line 434 hop-on hop-off, which costs around 7 EUR and stops at the main sights, is a good alternative. However, during peak season, the bus can be full, and the line for the bus can be long. So, here are two valuable tips: first, consider taking a tuk-tuk up the hill, which may be pricier but saves you time, especially when they are readily available. Second, buy your tickets in advance online to save time and money. The line for purchasing tickets at the entrance can be long, and you still have a long way up to the castle. Plus, you get a 5% discount when purchasing tickets online, and even more discounts are available when buying combined tickets to multiple sites in Sintra. Once you reach the castle, try to resist the urge to take pictures immediately and head straight to the line for the interior tour since it can be long, but you can take photos of the exterior on your way out.
| Opening hours - daily from 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. (6 p.m in winter) |
| Admission - 14 EUR |
Legend has it that in the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary appeared on a rocky summit above Sintra, inspiring the construction of a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena. And that's where the Pena Palace story begins! In the 16th century, King Manuel I was so smitten with this holy site that he ordered the construction of a monastery on the same spot and donated it to the Order of Saint Jerome. Unfortunately, the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 turned the once-glorious monastery into ruins, leaving only the miraculously spared original chapel.
For almost a century, the ruins stood forgotten until a certain King Ferdinand II of Austria laid his eyes on them. With an eye for style and a passion for historical preservation, he acquired the old monastery and surrounding lands, and set to work transforming it into the summer palace of Portuguese royalty. Ferdinand's keen eye for detail and symbolism can be seen in the palace's unique blend of Medieval and Islamic elements, such as the ornate vault arches and the intricate main facade window. And that's how the once-ruined monastery became the stunning Pena Palace, a true testament to the power of vision and determination.
The Pena Palace is a a true masterpiece of architectural fusion! This gem of the Romanticism period boasts an array of eclectic styles, from Neo-Gothic to Neo-Renaissance, all woven together in perfect harmony. The towers, walls, gates, and terraces are all exquisitely decorated, creating a visual feast that is both surprising and utterly unique in South Europe.
The palace's structure is divided into four distinct areas, each with its own character and charm. The armor and surrounding walls with two gates provide a formidable defense, while the restored body from the ancient Convent with its Clock Tower (red building) transports you back in time. The Courtyard of the Arches in front of the chapel is a photographer's dream, with its striking wall of Moorish arches. Finally, the palatial zone with its cylindrical bulwark and richly decorated yellow building is a true showstopper.
Don't miss out on some of the interior's most impressive sights. Take a stroll through the peaceful Manueline cloister, admire the sea-motif dining room, marvel at the beautiful Islamic-decorated reception room, and bask in the luxurious grandeur of the noble hall and its chandeliers. And let's not forget the stag room - a must-see for any animal lover.
When you're done exploring the interior, make sure to step outside and walk around the palace walls. You'll get a whole new perspective on the surrounding park from up high. While you're out there, take some time to visit the old monastery chapel with its original 16th-century layout. And if you have extra time, be sure to explore the romantic park around the palace. Don't miss out on the High Cross, the tallest point in the Sintra mountains, or the charming Swiss-inspired Countess Edla's Chalet.
2. MOORISH CASTLE
Perched atop a rocky peak amidst the verdant forests of Sintra's Mountains, the Moorish Castle stands as a living testament to centuries of history. Built during the Muslim Iberia era as a strategic observation and defense point for the primarily agricultural territory, it survived numerous attempts to seize control during the Reconquest period until King Afonso I finally claimed it in 1147. But after the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and as peace was restored, the castle lost its strategic importance and was abandoned, falling into ruin after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Luckily, it was rescued from obscurity by King Ferdinand II in 1840, who restored the castle to its former glory, consolidating the walls, reforesting the surroundings, and preserving the chapel.
From the top of the castle's double belt of irregular walls, one can take in breathtaking views of the town of Sintra, the Pena Palace, the ocean's coastline, and the rolling hills of the Sintra mountains complex. The walls themselves are adorned with battlements and fortified towers, offering a glimpse into the castle's defensive past. Inside, visitors can explore a cistern, the Romanesque Chapel of São Pedro (Saint Peter), built by Afonso I after reconquering Lisbon, an Arab horseshoe-shaped arch gate, and the remains of houses that once stood within the castle walls.
| Opening hours - Summer: daily from 9.30 a.m. - 8 p.m. - Winter: daily from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. |
| Admission - 8 EUR |
3. QUINTA DA REGALEIRA
Sintra is a paradise of must-see attractions, and choosing just a few is a challenge! But, trust us, if you're short on time, the Quinta da Regaleira is a definite contender. This captivating estate was originally owned by the Viscountess of Regaleira, but was later acquired and expanded by the wealthy and eccentric entomologist, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The stunning house and surrounding landscape were meticulously designed by Italian architect Luigi Manini, resulting in a romantic and enchanting atmosphere that has to be seen to be believed. The Quinta da Regaleira boasts a luxurious park that is home to a variety of stunning features, including tranquil lakes, mystical grottoes, intricate wells, magnificent statues, and elegant fountains. Take a stroll through the winding pathways and discover hidden secrets around every corner. We highly recommend adding the Quinta da Regaleira to your Sintra itinerary, especially if you're short on time.
| Opening hours - daily from 9.30 a.m. - 7 p.m. (5 p.m. in winter) |
| Admission - 6 EUR |
The mansion boasts a striking façade adorned with Gothic pinnacles, gargoyles, and an octagonal tower with a panoramic terrace. Inside, the luxury and attention to detail are evident in every room, from the King's Room adorned with portraits of Portugal's monarchs and a beautiful timber ceiling to the Hunting Room featuring a magnificent fireplace with intricate carvings of hunting scenes.
The chapel at Quinta da Regaleira, built in the Manueline style, is adorned with intricate iconography depicting scenes from the life of Christ, as well as symbols from the Templar temples, adding to the mysticism of the place. Below the chapel, a crypt features a subterranean passage connecting it to the main villa.
However, the true highlight of Quinta da Regaleira is its mystical garden, designed by Luigi Manini, which takes visitors on an initiation quest to paradise, modelled after Dante's Inferno. The garden features eerie underground walkways and grottoes, culminating in the Initiatic Well, a 27-meter "subterranean tower" with an esoteric atmosphere that represents the end of the initiation journey through the connection between the underground and the heavens. This place was believed to be a site for initiation rituals to the order.
4. OLD TOWN
Sintra's old town, located at the base of the hills, is a charming and vibrant area that reflects the town's unique character. The narrow and winding streets are lined with colorful buildings, quaint cafes, and small shops selling local handicrafts and souvenirs. As you explore the town's alleyways, you'll find a plethora of restaurants serving up delicious Portuguese cuisine, ranging from seafood delicacies to traditional meat dishes. The old town is buzzing with life, especially during the summer months, when tourists from all over the world flock to Sintra to experience its magical atmosphere. The streets are alive with the sounds of street musicians and the chatter of locals and visitors alike. You can take a break from your sightseeing and sit at one of the outdoor cafés to enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine while taking in the bustling energy of the town.
5. CASA PIRIQUITA
Craving a break from the hustle and bustle of the city? Escape to Piriquita, a quaint bakery that has been serving up delicious treats since 1862. The shop's peculiar name is said to have been derived from the nickname given by King Carlos I to the baker's wife, who was known as periquita or parakeet, due to her short stature. The story goes that King Carlos I was a regular customer at the bakery and enjoyed a pastry known as Queijada, which is made from cheese or cream cheese, eggs, milk, and sugar. The couple who owned the bakery started making these pastries on a larger scale and soon Piriquita became a popular pastry shop. Visitors from all over come to taste the delicious Queijada, and it has become a must-try delicacy in Sintra. But that's not all, you should also try the Travesseiro, a mouth-watering pastry stuffed with an egg and almond cream that pairs perfectly with a cup of coffee. Don't miss out on the opportunity to taste the delicious treats that Piriquita has to offer!
6. PALÁCIO NACIONAL DE SINTRA
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of your busy day and marvel at the grandeur of Palácio Nacional de Sintra (Sintra National Palace), the best-preserved medieval residence of the Portuguese royalty. With a history dating back to the 10th century, this magnificent palace was originally built to be the residence of the ruler of the Islamic Moorish Taifa of Lisbon. Over time, it has undergone multiple building campaigns, with the first one commissioned by King John I in 1415, which added the stunning Manueline and Moorish style façade, entrance arches, and mullioned windows, as well as the iconic conical kitchen chimneys. The second campaign, ordered by King Manuel I in 1497, added the Ala Manuelina (Manuel's Wing) on the right side of the main façade, which is distinguished by its typical Manueline windows. You can't miss the Sala dos Brasões (Coats-of-Arms Room), a masterpiece of this campaign, featuring an impressive wooden domed ceiling carved with 72 coats-of-arms from the King and the main Portuguese noble families.
| Opening hours - daily from 9.30 a.m. - 7 p.m. (5 p.m. in winter) |
| Admission - 10 EUR |
OUR FINAL THOUGHTS
Sintra truly captured our hearts and we fell in love with this enchanting town. There's something truly magical about walking through its narrow streets and gazing at the stunning palaces and castles nestled amongst lush forests and gardens. We could have spent days exploring all of the attractions Sintra has to offer, from the iconic Pena Palace to the charming old town and its pastry shops. Even though it's impossible to see everything in just one day, we highly recommend taking the time to experience the Monserrate Palace and its incredible gardens, the royal Queluz Palace, or the peaceful Franciscan Convent of the Capuchos. Trust us, you won't regret it!
Do you have any hidden gems you discovered during your visit to Sintra? We would love to hear all about your Sintra experience and the recommendations you have to share. Feel free to leave a comment below, we can't wait to read them and learn from your experience.