Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais feature regularly as the best day trips from Lisbon. This is our review and best tips to plan this most popular day trip from Lisbon with kids
Lisbon sits in an area of great natural beauty. Built on the mouth of the river Tagus, it is close to a beautiful stretch of Atlantic coast and lies on the edge of the protected area of Sintra and Cascais, famed for its peculiar ecosystems and culturally significant landmarks.
During our last city trip to Lisbon, we decided a stay in this area wouldn’t be complete without an excursion to some nearby attractions and organised a day trip from Lisbon to cover three of the most famed landmarks: Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais.
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How we did it:
- We stayed in Lisbon Martinhal Chiado Hotel
- We booked a tour with Celina Tours
- We ended our day with a stay in Martinhal Cascais hotel and resort
- How to choose a day trip from Lisbon
- Lisbon to Sintra day trip as a family
- Why you should stop in Cabo da Roca
- Why include Cascais in your day trip from Lisbon
How to choose a day trip from Lisbon
Lisbon is in the centre of Portugal and an excellent base for day trips. The most popular day trips from Lisbon are:
- Sintra: Sintra is the most popular day trips from Lisbon and it famous for being a UNESCO world heritage site. Perched on a volcanic hill, it is the home of some incredible castles dating back to medieval, Moorish times and of some more recent constructions from the Nineteenth century. Perfect for: people interested in architecture and history. Not recommended if: you are severely afraid of heights (more about it later), you are hoping for a day on the coast (Sintra is inland)
- Cascais: perfect for beach lovers and if you are looking for a day in the sun and delicious seafood in an elegant town.
- Obidos: one of the most picturesque towns in Portugal, a fantastic description of which can be found in this article. Perfect if you want to stroll around a walled, historical town
- Evora: a beautiful town in the region of Alentejo and famous for being the second city in Portugal in terms of concentration of monuments. Highlights include a Roman Temple, a cathedral, prehistoric stones and the Chapel of Bones. Evora is a longer stretch from Lisbon and it is only recommended as a day trip if you have a whole day and are not afraid of a bit of travel time. If you can, it is advisable to instead include it in a longer itinerary around Portugal.
Since we were travelling with two exhausted kids, we quickly discarded the idea of longer trips and booked a private tour with Celina Tours that brought us to Sintra and Cascais, with an extra stop on the way to see the gorgeous Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s most westerly point. This is how we got on.
Lisbon to Sintra day trip as a family
We started our tour at 9 am on a Thursday morning. Our group was made of 6 people (2 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents, ages between 5 and 74!) so we had arranged for a private driving tour that would give us the chance to visit all we wanted and the flexibility to stop and rest whenever needed.
The pick up was from the hotel so, stuffed with the gorgeous breakfast of Martinhal Chiado hotel, we got in the van and went. First stop: Sintra.
Where is Sintra?
Sintra is a small town located to the north West of Lisbon. It sits on the edges of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Reserve, a large protected area rich in natural and architectural treasures, and it is perched on a volcanic hilltop, a position that quickly made it an important defensive outpost in medieval times
How to get from Lisbon to Sintra?
Getting from Lisbon to Sintra is easy by train or car
By car. The car trip from Lisbon to Sintra takes about an hour (this is mostly due to traffic: the distance is only 30km). Most of it is on motorways or large roads but when you get closer to the city you do find yourself on narrow (yet stunning) roads meandering up Sintra’s hill.
Traffic is heavy once you get close to the town and the small roads paired up with sheer drops and big buses make the drive not entirely pleasant.
We were happy to have locals driving us and I would suggest you select this option should you want to visit by car, to reduce stress.
What there is to see in Sintra?
Sintra is internationally famous for two main attractions, Pena Palace and the castle of the Moors. These two sites are impressive and worth the hype that surrounds them, but once I got to Sintra I realised there is much more to see here that just a couple of landmarks.
Sintra is more than a small quaint town to visit if you have 24 hours to spare in the Lisbon area.
The area around Sintra is very special in terms of geography. Our guide explained that unlike the surrounding countryside, the Sintra hills are volcanic in origin and have a micro climate significantly different from the one in the surrounding area.
The shills around Sintra are covered in luscious semitropical vegetation and often are covered by thick mist, making the place atmospheric and mysterious. This element, mixed with the peculiar magnetism of the area, has made Sintra an attractive refuge for secret societies and alchemists and over the course of the centuries has enriched the area with peculiar, whimsical and outright peculiar buildings.
The town of Sintra
When you first arrive in Sintra you find yourself in a lively and quaint town. A large square opens up in front of Sintra’s National Palace, and small meandering streets dotted with souvenir and pastry shop climb the hill where the old town develops.
We spent in Sintra town a couple of hours and it is a pleasant stop, especially for lunch.
Because of the significant amount of tourists pouring out of bus tours here especially in the good season, my advice is to arrive early (or late) and quickly head away from the main square, up the hill. You will soon find yourself in a much quieter part of town: restaurants and souvenir shops still abound here but the prices are lower than on the main square and the atmosphere much more pleasant.
Top tip: while visiting Sintra make sure you taste one of the local delicacy, the traditional Travesseiro de Sintra. This is the local pastry, super sweet and delicious. The recipe of the travesseiro is said to be a secret but the main ingredients are eggs and sugar. In less traditional form, the one myself and kids devoured, it is stuffed with Nutella!
Sintra National Palace
The most impressive building here is Sintra National Palace: this is said to be the best preserved Royal Palace in the whole of Portugal and an all time favourite of Portuguese nobility.
The most peculiar trait of this building, from the outside, are its two incredible towers, shooting up to the sky like to sticks of spinners sugar. They are chimneys from the palace’s kitchen and their whitewashed exterior is visible from almost everywhere in Sintra.
The jewel in the crown of Sintra is, however, not here but farther up the hill: Pena Palace.
Pena palace is a bright coloured extravaganza of a castle and probably the finest example of Portuguese romantic architecture. The palace dates back to the 19th century and was built by Dona Maria II, Queen of Portugal and Don Fernando II and his wife and opera singer the Countess of Edla.
The castle sits at the top of a steep hill and can be reached by a shuttle bus climbing the steep 300 metres pathway (you need to pay for the shuttle but especially if travelling with kids, take it! The hill is steep).
When you step off the bus you find yourself in a small square sheltered by tall trees. The palace towers above you but all you can see from here are its bright colours, dashes of yellow and blue peeking through the leaves. A short walk leads you into the castle proper and here the colours explode in front of you.
A short walk leads you into the castle proper and here the colours explode in front of you.
We were in Sintra on a bright April day and the paint covering the castle was a technicolour vision: the castle main area is painted in the brightest yellow colours you can imagine, part of its bastions is blue and one of the towers is dark red.
This is an interpretation of romanticism like no other: if you are thinking of subdues and contemplative atmosphere, this is not what you find in Sintra, at least not on a sunny day: the palace is loud, beautiful and fun.
We spent in the palace a little over an hour.
Our first stop was the cafeteria: located on the first floor the cafeteria has a lovely terrace overlooking the valley and it’s a great first stop especially if you have kids as it allows to have a rest while enjoying the view.
From here, we ventured to the rest of the castle and battled the crowds to see the different cloisters, terrace and rooms of the castle.
Please note: Pena Palace is very crowded and this does affect the quality of your visit. Expect long queues.
Pena Palace highlight: for me and for many, the highlight of a visit to Pena Palace is the walk along the bastions. Very high up on the side of the castle and to be avoided if you have any issues with heights, the walk offers you stunning view over the Sintra valley and allows you to see as far as the coast. The most beautiful part of it, for me, was the belvedere in front of the castle of the moors, located just in front.
Tips for visiting Pena palace with toddlers and young kids
We visited Pena Palace with a 5 and a 6-year-old and keeping them safe here was relatively easy. However, there are many spots in the castle that are exposed to significant drops and visiting the palace with kids does require caution.
The castle is high up and elaborate architecture means you often have low walls between you and the drop to the lower courtyard and/or the bottom of the valley!
If you kids and especially toddlers, you must hold their hands at all times.
Buggies can be brought to the palace entry but unless you need a stroller for the rest of your visit I suggest to leave it at home: the area around the castle is steep, bumpy and full of steps and you are likely to end up wth a broken wheel and a sore back.
If you use the bus to get around Sintra and the transport to get to the palace, you can negotiate the whole visit without too much walking.
The castle of the Moors
While visiting Pana Palace I enjoyed the most beautiful view over the castle of the Moors, a medieval castle now in ruins perched on the hill in front of Pena.
The castle was built in the 10th century by North African Moors as a strategic outpost from Lisbon and to defend the area of Sintra. The castle remained in use until the Christians conquered the area and was severely damaged by the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in the 18th century.
Most of what remains of the castle are its huge stone walks and many friends had warned us that they were hard to negotiate with kids (you can find a good report here). The walkways are sometimes narrow, uneven and full of steps and while the views would reward the effort, the stress was described to me as excessive to make the visit worth it. We decided instead to visit Pena palace and to enjoy the castle from the facing hill.
Quinta da Regaleira
One of Sintra’s most peculiar landmarks is Quinta da Regaleira, an extravagant complex of palace and gardens located a few minutes from Sintra city centre. Quinta da Regaleira has been declared UNESCO world heritage site and even the quick glimpse we got of it from outside makes clear why.
The palace was built in the 20th century and is, as such, quite recent, but the person who commissioned it stuffed every corner with symbols and mysterious references to secret orders and societies.
There are references to the Knights Templar, the Masons and dark alchemy, all hidden within the grounds. The most peculiar and visually significant element of the estate is probably the well: deep and covered in moss, it conceals a passage that after descending 27 meters connects to a series of tunnels that run the length of the gardens and symbolises the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templars.
Need to know: we enjoyed our time in Sintra but we felt the place deserved much more time. If you have the time, I recommend ou spend a full day in town and, even better, spend the night.
Why you should stop in Cabo da Roca
The second stop on our trip was along the coast: Cabo da Roca. Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point of continental Europe and it’s a place of natural beauty.
The cabo is a peninsula stretching into the Atlantic with cliff plunging into the Ocean.
It is overlooked by a lighthouse and your sight stretched all the way out to the Atlantic and to the coastline between Sintra and Cascais as you step along pathways surrounded by grass and spring blooms.
How to get from Lisbon to Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca is 18km West from Sintra, 15km North from Cascais and 40km west of Lisbon. Despite these short distances, it is isolated and the most convenient way to get there is by private car. Parking is available at the Cabo and there is no parking fee.
Alternatively, it is possible to reach Cabo da Roca by bus: the line getting here is n. 403, covering the Cascais-Sintra Route. at the time of writing, the cost of a bus ticket to Cabo da Roca is 4.50 Euro.
Visiting Cabo da Roca with kids safely
The cabo is beautiful but you don’t need very long to visit. With about 30 minutes you can take in the stunning view and walk along the cliff path walk, then stop for a soda at the cafe on site.
The stop here is definitely worth it as part of a day trip in the area and one of the main reason why we chose Celina tour as a provided.
Cabo da Roca with toddlers and kids: Cabo da Roca can be visited safely with kids but you do need to be cautious as the wooden fences between the path and the edge of the cliffs are not child proof.
Especially with an active toddler or young kids, it is paramount to hold hands and to keep your distance from the fence: it is fully possible to enjoy the stop here without getting too close to the edge and this is why I do recommend this stop for families.
Why include Cascais in your day trip from Lisbon
The last stop on our day trip and our home for the night was Cascais (the tour continued to Lisbon but we agreed to be dropped off here).
Cascais is a coastal town on the Atlantic ocean: it is a paradise for golf lovers and one of the most sought after areas to live in Portugal.
It is the place with the most expensive real estate in Portugal and for centuries has been attracting the nobility of Portugal and the rest of Europe as summer station.
The centre of the town is beautiful, clean and elegant: it reminded me closely of Monaco or the French riviera but with a more laid back and more family friendly vibe to it.
The many tourists mean you hear a lot of English and Spanish around but the glorious seafood served in restaurants and the architectural details make the town unmistakably Portuguese.
My biggest surprise in Cascais was the beauty of its coastline. The coast around Cascais comprises of a mix of wide sandy beaches and rugged cliffs.
For us, one of the highlights was a spot called ‘Boca do inferno’, a stretch of rocky coast with a peculiar geological formation.This spot is right outside Cascais and town centre is breathtakingly beautiful: a well-preserved path lets you reach a belvedere and from here to can see the Atlantic waves crashing against the Portuguese coast and its meandering caves.
On a bright day, it is light to behold and an assault to the senses between the blinding light and the roar of the waves.
From Cascais, our tour was supposed to continue on to Estoril and then back to Lisbon. We had booked a hotel in Cascais and I was glad I did as our kids by this time were at the end of their tether. We said goodbye to my parents, who continued back to the city and perched ourselves in Martinhal Cascais resort, an oasis of peace and child-friendly facilities.
As we soaked in the heated pool of the hotel, we thought back to our day and agreed it was a beautiful day trip with some unforgettable sights and one we would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting Lisbon and the surrounding area with kids.