If you’re keen on exploring mountaintop medieval fortifications, vibrant fairytale castles, lush forests, and eccentric labyrinthine gardens all in one location, then Sintra is the place for you. Located about 40 minutes by train from Lisbon, Sintra is a UNESCO Cultural Landscape. Throughout history, Celts, Moors, and Portuguese nobility inhabited the area. Most of these civilizations also left their mark with a structure or two, which present day visitors can enter.
Without a doubt, Sintra enchants its visitors. Some may wonder if it’s the spectacular landscape that hypnotizes everyone? Or is it the fact that one is able to traverse so many magnificent structures from so many different centuries all within a few kilometers? It certainly makes one feel like time travel is possible. Or better yet – can we say that the Quinta da Regaleira is responsible for Sintra’s magical atmosphere? Is there a real spell at work there? The estate IS FILLED with symbols connected to alchemy… Or maybe the “magic” is even older and deeper? The Celts called Sintra the Mountain of the Moon God, so maybe it’s ancient power can still be felt?
Regardless of the exact source of the area’s mystical atmosphere, Sintra should definitely not escape your Portugal “Must Visit” list.
Well, if breathtaking views and a rich history are not enough, Sintra will give you the opportunity to believe in magic again.
This post will provide you with some travel tips for making the most out of your visit to Sintra. It will also share some of my favourite sites and attractions in the area, which are guaranteed to make you feel like the stuff of fiction can really become fact.
When to Go
If you’d like to visit Sintra on warm day, I recommend visiting the area in late April, May, October, or early November when temperatures won’t make you feel like you’ve been tossed onto a sizzling frying pan. I visited Sintra at the very, very end of October, and summer clothing was still the only appropriate form of clothing for the weather. As well, crowds will be thinner during these months!
June to September is peak travel season in Portugal for both national and international travellers. Temperatures often get quite high (around 30 C) during the summer months, so doing some serious exploring in Sintra during this time is less than ideal. The village and surrounding sites and attractions will be quite crowded, and if you choose to hike around the area, it isn’t always as enjoyable in the heat.
BUDGET TIP: Admission fees for the Sintra’s major sites and attractions are lower during off-season. It’s still possible to experience some dazzling sunny days during the “winter” months. This year, 2017, off-season will begin on October 29th.
The simplest way to reach Sintra from Lisbon is by train. Currently, a train heading to Sintra departs every 20 minutes. Pay close attention to the train you take because every third train isn’t direct and requires a change.
Overall, the journey, regardless of the train, takes around 40 minutes. Trains heading to Sintra only leave from Lisbon’s downtown Rossio Train Station, which is about a 10-minute walk away from the famous Praça do Comércio Square. Lisbon has many train stations, so it’s important that you go to the right one.
Despite the abundance of trains heading to Sintra from Rossio, if you plan on buying your train tickets at the station, arrive at the station at least 45 minutes before the train you’ve selected is scheduled to depart. The queues to the ticket office and ticket machines can be monstrously long. We visited Sintra during off-season, and we still had to wait in line for nearly half an hour in order to purchase our tickets. On a positive note, a round-trip train ticket from Lisbon to Sintra costs less than 5 Euros. Waiting in line is #worthit.
Of course, it is possible to drive from Lisbon to Sintra. However, if you’re not an experienced driver, please, please, please don’t do it. Safe driving practices, such as signaling, following speed limits, and keeping a sufficient distance between vehicles, seem to be mere suggestions rather than enforced driving rules in Lisbon.
Getting Around Sintra
Once in Sintra, there are 4 ways you can get around the town and the surrounding area: on foot, by bus, by electric mini-car rental, or by taxi.
I highly recommend exploring Sintra and the village’s nearby sites and attractions on foot. Nothing compares to getting off the paved road and immersing yourself in the lush gardens and forests on the mountainside up to the castles. Of course, all trails up to the two attractions are carefully marked and maintained. Walking (especially uphill) will obviously take a bit longer than catching the bus or a taxi, but fortunately, using the hiking trails in the area is ABSOLUTELY FREE.
The hike up the Sintra Mountains is full of surprises, such as stumbling upon this magnificent stone throne!
The 434 bus is the tourist bus that takes Sintra’s visitors from the train station, through town, and up to the Castle of the Moors and the Pena Palace. If you purchase a round trip ticket (5.50 Euros/5.00 Euros if you already have a Viva Viagem transport card from using the train), you can take the bus back down to the train station after visiting the Pena Palace.
It’s useful to know that the lines for the bus, especially at the Sintra Train Station bus stop, are usually quite long (even in October), so you may not get on the first bus that stops at the station. Therefore, if you plan on using the bus to get around, be prepared to spend some time waiting line. (This is why I recommend walking and hiking).
For more details about the 434 bus route, check out Sintra-Portugal.com’s information page by clicking here.
By Mini-Car or Taxi
Since I’m all about budget travel, I’m not going to devote too many sentences to talking about electric mini-cars or taxis. They’re the two most expensive transportation options in Sintra. Nevertheless, if mini-cars sound intriguing, Sight Sintra rents them out to visitors. Each mini-car includes a pre-programmed GPS that directs you through your chosen tour. You can visit Sight Sintra by clicking here. Taxis can also take you from attraction to attraction.
What About Taking The Car?
Now, since I mentioned taxis, you may be wondering if you can rent your own car and travel around Sintra as you please…
WARNING: Driving a car in the village and surrounding area may not work out in your favour.
First of all, parking spaces are extremely limited. As well, the roads tend to be really narrow, winding, and have some rather steep inclines. We witnessed our fair share of unfortunate engine stalls while walking in and out of town.
Getting Your Tickets
There are a variety of different ways to tickets for most of Sintra’s major attractions. If you want to cut down on your time waiting in line, purchasing your tickets online is the way to go. Parques de Sintra-Monte da Lua is the organization that manages many of Sintra’s historic sites. You can purchase your tickets online by clicking here. As an added bonus, you receive a small discount for purchasing them online.
For our Sintra visit, we didn’t buy our tickets online since weren’t actually sure which day we would visit the area until the last minute. Fortunately, we found out that even though we didn’t purchase our entrance tickets ahead of time, we could still cut down the amount of time we spent in lines. Once in Sintra, we were able to purchase tickets for the Castle of the Moors AND the Pena Palace in the main Tourist Information Office downtown. That meant that we wouldn’t have to wait in line in front of the ticket booths for each of those attractions. Out of the three sites we decided to visit that day, We only had to buy the entrance ticket for Quinta da Regaleira on site.
Of course, you can always buy your tickets at each attraction or through a third-party service, such as Viator. However, pay close attention to the tickets you ask for, because certain tickets can give you access to only part of an attraction. For example, the Park of Pena ticket only lets you explore the park surrounding the castle and the castle’s terraces. It will not let you go into the castle.
What To Do In Sintra
Sintra is a popular day trip. However, there are more landmarks, sites and attractions within a 3 km radius of Sintra’s downtown area than can be seen in one day. If you plan on taking a day trip to Sintra, you will have to pick and choose your favourites. You can do your own research, but to make the process easier for you, I’ll share my favourites with you. In addition to the 3 sites and attractions described below, make sure to visit Sintra’s quaint city centre.
That being said: If you manage to see and do it all in a day – you’ll have earned a shot of Ginjinha from me!
Are you ready for the good stuff? After getting through all those technicalities, I really am!
Castle of the Moors
The first site we visited was the Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros). The Moors built the castle over a thousand years ago when they were in control of a significant portion of the Iberian Peninsula.
The fortification sits on top of the Sintra Mountains and offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Today, only ruins of the original structure remain. However, they are still nothing short of exceptional.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, a visit to the Castle of the Moors, without a doubt, will make you feel like you’re Khaleesi on a quest to re-conquer Westeros. Just take a look at the photos below!
View of the castle from the hike up.
Looking out over the kingdom.
View of the surrounding landscape from the Castle of the Moors.
Our second stop after hiking up to the top of the Sintra Mountains was the 19th century Pena Palace. In addition to being a part of a UNESCO Cultural Landscape, the castle is also one of Portugal’s 7 wonders. The castle’s vivid colours and intricate details catch your gaze from afar and draw you in. Once you lay your eyes on the castle, it’s impossible to deny the urge to take a closer look.
Looking up at one side of the palace.
From a distance and up close, the castle looks like it belongs in a fairytale. The question is: which one?
Pena Palace Clocktower.
Again, the Pena Palace is the perfect place to visit for you Game of Thrones fans.
Triton sculpted into the palace’s intricate facade.
When we visited the palace, we purchased the Pena Park ticket. As mentioned earlier, this ticket let us explore the park around the castle and the terraces, but not the interiors. Fortunately, as you can see, there were a lot of terraces to visit.
Quinta da Regaleira
After exploring the Pena Palace and Park, we descended the mountains and headed over to Quinta da Regaleira.
I actually really struggled with putting my experience of Quinta da Regaleira into words. In the next few sentences, I’m going to try to make my description do the actual place justice.
The heart of Sintra’s magic can be found in the Quinta da Regaleira. The estate is an amusement park. There aren’t any “rides”, but the place doesn’t need them. Countless hours of entertainment can be found in the park’s castle-like ruins, waterfalls, lagoons, secret tunnels, underground labyrinths, grottos, and “Initiation Wells.” Each and every corner of the estate leads you to believe that Wonderland was not just a figment of Lewis Carroll’s imagination, and it is, in fact, possible to go down a rabbit hole and come back a couple of hours later. Quinta da Regaleira plays tricks with your mind. The place is full on unsolved mysteries (no one really knows what went on in those wells), and mystical symbols. In Quinta da Regaleira, it feels like a barrier to some alternate realm waivers. You’ll leave the estate questioning what you just experienced.
A waterfall found in the estate gardens. A secret path can take you behind it.
Waterfall from above. Cross those stepping stones only if you dare. Someone did fall in during our visit.
Things are not what they appear. The stepping stones are not surrounded by a solid green surface…it’s just algae covering up the water underneath.
Looking for the entrance to the grotto.
The famous Initiation Well.
One of the “ruins” you can climb and explore.
Going for that “Queen Khaleesi” vibe.
The palace found on the estate.
All in all, Sintra is a place where the stuff of fiction appears and presents itself as fact. When in Lisbon, it’s a day trip you absolutely have to take. It’s as simple as that.
If more attractions than the three described above fascinate you, you can always extend your stay. With more time on your hands, you can visit Cabo da Roca, a magnificent cape on the Portuguese coast, and Praia da Ursa, a picture-perfect beach along the very same coast.
Have you been to Sintra? What did you enjoy the most?
If you haven’t, would you like to go? I want to go back for round 2!
Last but not least, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan: