Home Uncategorized How to Spend One Day in Sintra (and do it Right)

How to Spend One Day in Sintra (and do it Right)

by Roberto
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Sintra is undoubtedly one of the best day trips from Lisbon, Portugal’s mercurial capital. And yet, I can’t help but read across the expanse of the internet of how visitors could have enjoyed their visit better. Their cautionary tales rings true with me, as I too felt that my visit disappointed with my one day in Sintra. Don’t get me wrong, Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is amazing. It’s my approach to visiting it that was wrong. Luckily for you, the reader, I’ve seen trough the error of my ways and come back enlightened. Hopefully I can set you on the correct path to maximise the enjoyment of your one day in Sintra.

I already wrote about Sintra, and the three year anniversary of that blog is now approaching. It was an earnest early day effort but the years have allowed for some introspection. So much of what I did that day in April in Portugal were downright wrong. Maybe going to western Portugal in April in the first place was a wrong move. But we are not here to discuss the weather. Let’s discuss what you can do right on your Sintra day trip.

This rehashed blog has been inspired by Linda over at Meandering My Way who had a similar less than satisfying day visiting Sintra. Interestingly we didn’t even make the same mistakes. Linda’s take on visiting Sintra is certainly worth a read.

My Introduction to Sintra

Our final day in Lisbon, we endeavored to leave the city behind, and visit the Sintra Hills. It was the summer retreat for the kings of Lisbon for many centuries and the many palaces and mansions attest to that. This was one of those road trips that show how organic travelling can be. We had intended to visit the palaces of Pena and Sintra, along with Praia de Adraga beach but the day took a turn for the unexpected.

Ah even in the introduction to my Sintra Itinerary the problems began to surface.

How to get from Lisbon to Sintra

We rented a car for the day booking on rentalcars.com my favoured site. The pick up location was near Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon, about 10 minutes walk from our hotel. I always book everything in advance; full insurance, car seats, so when I get to the counter all that remains is to sign it over and check the car. I had pre-booked a Volkswagen Polo, for which the insurance cost more than the car, so we were pleasantly surprised to get a Fiat 500 convertible. Using my iPhones google maps off we set to Sintra, which is about 25km northwest of Lisbon.

Take the Train

Right, so from the off I even got this wrong. I’m always an advocate of road trips. Always believe its the best way to see a place. Except in the case of Sintra. A car is not the best way to see Sintra. Just off Lisbon’s Rossio Square is Rossio Station that services Sintra. The station itself is an architectural marvel built in 1887 in the neo-Manueline style popularised in 16th century Portugal. The look of the station alone is enough to tell you that are on the right track. The Lisbon Rossio-Sintra train route takes 40 minutes to reach its destination.

While we are on the subject of getting there it must be noted that we probably took our time over breakfast before ambling over to the car rental agency. Then all the paperwork had to be signed etc etc etc. Big mistake. Sintra isn’t a get on the road at 10 am destination. It’s a get there as early as you can one, and make your full day count. Trains start running at 5:41 from Lisbon and go every 30 minutes from then on (though I’m not saying to catch that early one though unless you plan on being there for sunrise). Incidentally a ticket costs €4.50 return to Sintra, significantly less than renting a car.

The Best Of Sintra in One Day

Sintra National Palace

We arrived in Sintra around midday and first impressions were it certainly lived up to expectations. Second impression was that it is difficult to find a parking space. We did eventually after doubling back on Volta Duche. From here we had caught our first glances of the handsome town of Sintra, dominated by the unusual Sintra National Palace with its iconic conical chimneys. The palace and the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Palace was mostly constructed in the 15th century by King John 1 and added to in the preceding centuries. It served as a country escape for the royals from Lisbon. It now functions as a museum.

Immediately the biggest issue with driving surfaces. There is a severe lack of parking within Sintra. Bear in mind that this was only April. The problem is further exacerbated in summer as the number of tourists increases. Traffic jams are a frequent problem in the town. As it were this was as close as we would get to the town. There is a good argument to skip the Sintra National Palace, so you don’t suffer palace fatigue by the end of the day. If you do wish to tick them all off it opens at 9:30 am and entry is €10. Visits on average should take around 45 minutes.

Sintra National Palace from a distance

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Close up of those iconic chimneys

Sintra Train Station and Town hall

We walked back to the gothic and gorgeous Camara Municipal. It’s the town hall of Sintra, constructed in the early 20th century, and Neo-Manueline in style. The town hall has a wonderful clock tower flanked by smaller spires. Decorated with false battlements and bright colours it is beautiful to behold. This was as close as we got to exploring the town as it turned out.

One could argue that I got this right. But if you take the train the route to the town passes right by it. I also neglected to go as far as Sintra train station, an attraction in its own right, with a colour scheme akin to the Mezquita in Cordoba. From the station its only 600 metres into the town. By all good accounts stopping at Queijadas da Sapa for their cheese cakes will perk you up. I didn’t. Pick up some bonus sightseeing points at the 12th century Igreja de São Martinho, before making your way to one of the palaces.

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Camera Municipal
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That wonderful clock tower

Venturing out into the Sintra Hills

We next drove up to the Palace of Pena, where the car that took us to Sintra proved to be a liability. Try as we might, we could not find parking. We eventually abandoned the plan and backtracked. We had intended to visit Praia de Adraga and return to the Palace of Pena after but while passing Quinta de Regaleira we were enticed inside.

Sintra’s countryside surroundings are a vast area of hills networked by hiking trails, and zig zag roads leading to palaces. Those narrow roads do not lend well to parking. One prevailing image I have from the misadventure to the Palace of Pena is the number of tuk-tuks on the road. It’s a big clue about how to get around the municipality. Tuk-tuks ferry people all day up and down those steep roads to the palaces and trails and cost around €5. Even more of a life saver for day trips than the tuk-tuks is the number 434 bus, a.k.a. the tourist bus. This runs direct from Sintra Train station stopping at the town centre and then on to Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors. A one way fare is €3,90 and the buses start at 9:15 am.

You may be tempted to take that hop on hop off bus that colourfully convinces your lazy sub-conscience that it’s the easiest way to move between palaces. Don’t be easily fooled. It also takes you in a loop around the whole Sintra Hills National Park and out to the coast. That’s precious Palace time lost forever.

Quinta de Regaleira (the best thing to do on one day in Sintra)

We weren’t disappointed. It’s rare a place impresses me so much when I didn’t expect it. Quinta de Regaleira house and estate are like an extract from a fantasy novel. There is a magical and mythical feeling within. The Estate was purchased in the late 19th century and work began to create a location that reflected the owners ideologies and interests. He had a vision of a property that blended imagery from alchemy, masonry, and the Knights Templar, with Gothic, Manueline and other styles. What resulted is bizarre and brilliant.

We found parking in a local hotel called the Tivoli Palacio de Seteias. Entry to the UNESCO recognised grounds was only €6 for an adult. This is for an unguided visit but maps are provided. Guided tours are available for €10. Ornaments and structures litter all corners of the four hectare estate. The grounds are supposed to represent the cosmos and each monument is significant in this.

There is a café outside the main house and we refueled there before heading in. The ground floor is lavishly furnished with murals adorning the walls. The upper floors are more barren, but there are balconies from which to view the grounds. One notable room is the library, which has a partially mirrored floor, guaranteed to induce vertigo.

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The house of Quinta de Regeleira
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Murals of the houses rooms

The Grounds of Quinta de Regaleira

But the grounds without doubt are the main attraction, and easily traversed in an hour or so. Immediately outside the house is the Terrace of the Gods, a statue lined walkway which is simply epic. Tunnels link different parts of the grounds, and several of these converge on the initiation well. This is a fascinating subterranean structure containing a labyrinth grotto, and a winding stairs takes one back to the surface level. It is supposedly styled on Dante’s Inferno, and symbolic of his descent into hell.

There are a number of really interesting structures most notably;

Quinta da Regaleira
The Aforementioned Initiation well looking up to the heavens from hell
The Initiation Well Sintra
The Initiation Well – the coolest thing to be seen on a day in Sintra
Quinta da Regaleira Sintra
Underground Tunnels
Quinta da Regaleira Sintra
The small chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows
Quinta da Regaleira Sintra
The towers and stairs that line each and every corner of the ground

Stopping then at Quinta de Regaleira was one of the few things we did well in Sintra. I could say I got it right… but we never even planned to visit. Hands down it was the best of all our stops on that day, and the one place that has left a lasting impression with me.

Praia de Adraga

Next we motored west towards Praia de Adraga, stopping at a bar in Almocageme for lunch. Not too much imagination as hot dogs and sandwiches are served. Then it was on to the beach. It’s a thirty minute drive from Sintra, through a collection of narrow snaking roads. Having found this beach breathtaking during my research the real thing duly emptied my lungs.

It is perfectly remote with no bars or beach clubs to ruin the natural beauty. Large sea stacks provide a target for the Atlantic’s booming waves, with deep caves and arches cut into their base by sea erosion. The immaculate sand stretches from there for several kilometres of uninterrupted beach. It is backed up by wild hills and giant boulders. This is my idea of a beach. The wildness was magnified by a strong coastal wind, but we spent an hour here, Nina playing and us exploring.

While there’s no argument that the beach is a worthwhile distraction from the town and its palaces, it is unfortunately also that. It’s rather out of the way and we lost two hours by our detour. Were I to suggest though that you spend more than one day in Sintra (I may still do that) then Praia de Adraga is possible to visit by bus number 403 that runs hourly. Though I can’t guarantee it will be a comforting ride on those snaking roads.

Praia de Adraga Portugal
the golden sands of Praia de Adraga
Praia de Adraga Portugal
Our seaside escape on one day in Sintra
Praia de Adraga Portugal

Palace of Pena (what brings everyone for a day in Sintra)

The round trip to the beach took longer than expected so when we arrived back in Sintra we deliberated that there wasn’t enough time to see our original destination the Palace of Pena. Instead we stopped at the Castelo de Mouros.

With our return came the harshest of realities of how our day was going. Pena Palace was what drew me to Sintra and now I wouldn’t be able to see it. Unless these distant photos count.

Pena Palace Sintra
Pena Palace Sintra

History of Pena Palace

Which they don’t. Pena Palace is particularly aesthetic famous for its blend of reds and yellows. Its a long distance from the cold stone behemoths of the British Isles. It is listed as one of the seven wonders of Portugal and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There once stood a monastery on this site but a conspiracy by nature in the 18th century saw it first struck by lightening, and then destroyed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

From the rubble, King Ferdinand II had a vision of a summer palace for the Kings and Queens of Portugal, and commissioned its building. Finished in 1854 it stands as one of the greatest examples of 19th century romanticism in the world. It’s principal architect was German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, whose background included work on some of the castles of the Rhine, but the Pena palace also includes elements of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance architecture.

Visiting Pena Palace

Pena Palace is the most visited site in Sintra, so I would recommend getting there early before the crowds arrive en masse. Grab the first tuk-tuk you see in Sintra. The park opens from 9 am with the palace following shortly after at 9.30 am. Entry into the palace is €14 for an adult, or to Pena Park is €7.50. Interestingly, its often noted that the inside of the palace is quite small, quite crowded and questionably worth the price of admission. The list includes Linda from Meandering My Way. Before I start justifying my decisions on the day I’ll stop myself. Seeing the castle up close in all its majesty is A MUST in Sintra. Walk its grounds and appreciate it from all angles, and peer down onto Sintra from above.

Castelo Dos Mouros

The Castelo de Mouros was built by the Moors in the 9th Century but fell into ruin after the Christian reconquest. It was restored in the 19th century. What remains are the significant battlements that snake around the Sintra hills, high above the town. Entry is €8 to see the castle. Be prepared for a lot of walking and a lot of steps. The castle is a series of stairs connecting the battlements which sit atop the various hills in their path. The views to Sintra below and across the hill to the Palace above are exhilarating. The hills are all interconnected by hiking paths and a few days could easily be spent discovering their treasures.

Castelo dos Mouros Sintra
Moorish castle
Castle of the Moors
Moorish castle

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Moorish Castle and the views are stupendous. Why I chose it over Pena Palace, I can’t say now, but I don’t feel regret in having done so. To use those trails to hike between the two and visit both is what I implore you to do after your early morning visit to Pena Palace. Then follow the trails back down to the town. Follies and fountains fill the hill sides, and only by foot will you find them.

What to bring on a day in Sintra

The expectation is that even if you use the bus to reach Pena Palace, a lot of walking will be done over the day. Good, supportive walking shoes are a must for the terrain, even if you stay off the hiking trails. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat as a lot of times will be spent outdoors. If visiting in the shoulder seasons, rain cover may be needed, as this is not the Algarve. Last of all bring your sense of adventure, it will be nurtured here.

The Case for Spending more than one day in Sintra

Perhaps the greatest irony about this one day guide to Sintra is that I must confess one day simply isn’t enough to see all it has to offer. I’ve offered a sampling here of its biggest sights. But there’s so many more things to see in Sintra, and perhaps that’s why the one day disappointment exists. You will leave having not seen the Park and Palace of Monserrate, Convent of the Capuchos, Chalet and Garden of the Countess of Edla, the Sanctuary of Peninha and Villa Sassetti. Then there’s the Vale de Lagos Pateira botanical gardens, and the trails of Parque de Merendas. It’s definitely justification to extend that stay.

The coast in this region is nearly as aesthetic as the national park. Given time it’s worth a deviation to beaches such as Praia de Adraga and headlands such as Cabo de Roca. This headland is noted for being the most westerly point on mainland Europe. Further north is Praia das Macas a beach reached in 45 minutes by using the Sintra tram. Above the beach is the archeological site of Alto da Vigia, which marks as far west as the Roman civilisation reached.

Decided to stay in Sintra

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Private Tours of Sintra

If you are interested in a small group private tour of Sintra, they are available through Get Your Guide with some departing from Lisbon for the day. Alternatively it is an excellent source of skip the line tickets for attractions. This is a big consideration when travelling during those busy summer months.

Travel Insurance

Now more than ever is the time to consider adding travel insurance for your trip. The travel industry is very fragile, and cancellations, business closes and lock-downs are indeed a distinct possibility. Protect yourself against them with World Nomads travel insurance. World Nomads offer a no obligation quote, and in fact now protect domestic trips too.

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Interested in visiting some of Europe’s other beautiful cities and towns? Here’s a few suggestions.

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