Sintra is a magical Portuguese town just a short train ride from Lisbon where you’ll see the kinds of castles and palaces that belong in fairy tales. So is it possible to visit Sintra from Lisbon? Absolutely. Here’s how and what you can expect to await you there.
Getting there and back
Sintra is well-connected to Lisbon by train. You can take a Sintra-bound train from Lisbon’s Rossio station. Trains run every 30 minutes, and they take around 40 minutes to get from city to city. Obviously, for the most up-to-date schedule, you should check Google Maps. The best part is that you can use your Lisbon transport pass for your Sintra trip as long as you have enough stored value on it; the 24-hour unlimited pass will not work. The fare is just under €5, so make sure you have enough value on it for the return trip. The alternative might mean making long lines in the much smaller Sintra train station to get a ticket along with the crowd of tourists heading back to Lisbon.
Should you do Sintra as a day trip or stay overnight?
Just because it’s possible to visit Sintra from Lisbon on a day trip doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Sintra is more than the colorful Pena Palace. There are several stunning hilltop palaces in the surrounding area including the Castelo dos Mouros and the historic Quinta de Regaleira, and the city itself is small and traditional, so there are a lot of meandering streets to stroll if you make time for it.
Distances between each attraction are long and trying to cram as much as possible into one day is exhausting. Castle fatigue is real. So if you’re spending more than three days in Lisbon, I recommend spending at least one night in Sintra. This way, you can arrive to the various attractions refreshed instead of coming off the train from Lisbon, and you can actually enjoy the city after all the day trippers have left, where you can take in the peaceful surroundings of the Sintra Mountains.
Getting around in Sitra
Though the city itself is small, all the most popular tourist sites like Pena Palace and the Castle dos Mouros are quite a ways away from the train station, up hairpin turns that criss cross up the mountains. You certainly don’t want to hike that, especially because there’s quite a bit of walking involved to actually see the grounds of each of the individual sites. I can’t imagine starting the walk around the Moorish Castle after a grueling 45-minute walk uphill and expecting to enjoy it.
So how do you get around? It’s fairly common knowledge that the tourist buses in Sintra are kind of a rip-off. There is a hop on/hop off ticket that costs €11.50 for the day, but the bus routes don’t make a ton of sense. Some are one way and some are circular, which could leave you in the lurch. For instance, if you want to see both Castelo dos Mouros and Pena Palace, but you go to Pena first, you can’t take the bus back one stop. You have to do the whole loop all over. Not to mention that the buses don’t always stop where they’re supposed to.
It’s kind of a nightmare, but the alternative is to haggle with tuk tuks and taxi drivers who are likely also trying to rip you off. Or waiting for the non-tourist buses to get single rides around town, even though those will also come whenever the fuck they want like everything else in Portugal. Or walking until your knees give out. The somewhat chaotic transport situation is another good reason to stay the night so you’re not on as much of a time crunch.
Top attractions in Sintra
Pictures of Pena Palace are so ubiquitous when you look up Sintra that until this visit I actually thought Sintra was the name of the palace. The colorful Romanticist palace is undoubtedly Sintra’s most popular attraction. As such, it’s advisable to buy tickets online to avoid the long lines at the palace entrance. It sits atop one of the highest hills in the area so you can see some of the surrounding castles and palaces, and it’s at the center of the forested Pena Park.
You can buy a ticket for just the grounds and terraces, which is not scheduled. But if you want to see the ornate state rooms as designed for King Ferdinand II, you’ll need to buy a ticket for a scheduled time. Pena features a mix of architectural styles that ends up looking more or less like a structure made of Legos. But its impressive stone carvings and its grand halls draw the people in droves.
Castelo dos Mouros
Just beneath Pena Palace is the Castelo dos Mouros or the Moorish Castle, which was built as a fortified overlook by the Moors between the 8th and 9th centuries. The castle is not visible from the entrance, but a short 15-minute walk through the forest. The castle visit is a one-way route along the battlement which gives you a 360-view of the surrounding area. Unlike most of the other sites in Sintra, the Moorish Castle is more like a ruin in that it doesn’t have stately interiors to visit, but it’s the oldest fortification in Sintra.
Quinta da Regaleira
If you show up to Sintra on a whim in the afternoon and you have just one place to visit, you should visit the Quinta da Regaleira, an absolutely stunning Renaissance manor with beautiful grounds that are dotted with statues, fountains, and even grottos. Aside from the elaborate gray exterior of the manor, the estate is best known for the Initiation well, an 88-foot well that you can walk down and see from below. This is a great property to get lost in for a couple of hours and one of the easiest to reach from the train station. Even if you end up getting stranded by the hop on hop off bus, you can walk from Quinta da Regaleira to city center in about 20 minutes, and the walk is mostly flat.
Sintra National Palace
The easiest palace to get to from the train station is the Sintra National Palace, which is conveniently located in city center. This was also a Moorish construction though its seen a lot of additions and changes throughout the years. Both the exterior and interior show the different types of architecture and design styles that have influenced it over time, but the tiled ceilings are this attraction’s highlight. This is the best palace for its convenience, but it absolutely pales in comparison to all the others in Sintra.
Palace of Monserrate
The Palace of Monserrate is a palatial villa and garden, and though it’s far less popular than some of the city’s other palaces, it’s arguably one of the most beautiful. Its design and construction is inspired by Arabic and Gothic architecture, featuring intricately carved arches that create a perfect symmetry. The grounds feature a botanical garden where you can find flora from all over the world.
Visiting Sintra itself
Not to be outdone by the extravagant palaces and estates that surround it, the city of Sintra is quite a nice escape from the hectic and frankly kind of generic Lisbon. Despite being swarmed with tourists during peak hours, the city has a lot of cute streets, shops, and restaurants. It feels quaint and peaceful, no doubt due to the lush surroundings. Since it would be absolutely impossible to see (or even want to see) all of these things in one day, it’s easy to understand why the town deserves at least one overnight stay. Then you can leisurely enjoy some nice cocktails at 4 Caravelas or feast on a table full of tapas at Tascantiga while the other tourists freak out about the bus schedule.