Essential guide to what to see in Sintra, Portugal and the many reasons this small town is one of the most popular day trips from Lisbon.
A day trip to Sintra is one of the most popular excursions from Lisbon and an easy one to add to a Lisbon weekend.
Easy to reach, beautiful and with a variety of attractions, Sintra deserves all the attention is gets: these are the best things to see in this most picturesque corner of Portugal!
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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.
It is one if not the most popular day trips from Lisbon however, it is a place that deserves more than just a handful of hours.
While many tourists come here to visit the Famous Pena palace (stunning) what makes Sintra special is the natural area in which is is located, a National park worth exploring.
If you can, I highly recommend you spend a few days in Sintra and venture beyond the centre of Sintra to the hills surrounding the town and, farther towards the coast, Cabo da Roca.
If you are short on time but you do not want to miss out on visiting the coast too, check out our article on how to visit Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais in just one day
How to get from Lisbon to Sintra?
Easy transport options make Sintra one of the most popular day trips from Lisbon.
Getting from Lisbon to Sintra is easy by train or car.
How to get from Lisbon to Sintra by train
The trains to Sintra from Lisbon leave Lisbon every half an hour and connect Rossio station to Sintra station.
The journey takes 40 minutes and the station is a 20-minute walk from the town centre. A single ticket costs €2.15/€1.10 (adult/child) and a return is €4.30.
Bikes can be taken on the train for free but rush hour services can be crowded.
You can check the schedule of trains from Lisbon to Sintra here
From the town centre, a tourist bus connects the main sites so you can visit without your own transport.
Please note: Sintra train station, at the time of writing, did not have luggage lockers or a luggage deposit.
However, since then, we discovered that ‘Luggage hero’ offers luggage storage in Sintra, you can check out there offers here (you seriously do not want to lug bags around this hilly town!).
Lisbon to Sintra 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.
You can find options for tours to Sintra here
How to get around Sintra
Once you are in Sintra, a bus system is in place to bring you around this hilly city.
The most useful bus for visitors is line 434.
The 434 bus goes from the train station to the historic center, from where you access the the National Palace, the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.
This bus has a handy circle route going Sintra Train Station – Historic Center – Moorish Castle – Pena Palace and Park – Historic Center – Sintra Train Station and tickets can be purchased when boarding.
What is special about Sintra and its area?
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 realized there is much more to see here that just a couple of landmarks.
The area around Sintra is very special in terms of geography.
The Sintra hills are volcanic in origin and have a micro climate significantly different from the one in the surrounding area.
This means that the Sintra area is covered in luscious semitropical vegetation and it is often covered by thick mist: this may sound off-putting however, it is all but!
The vegetation and the mist, mixed with the peculiar magnetism of this volcanic 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.
What to see in Sintra: main attractions of Sintra
This is our selection of what to see in Sintra.
The town of Sintra
Sintra is first and foremost a town so, landmarks aside, you should take some time to see its pretty streets.
When you first arrive in Sintra you quickly find yourself in lively and quaint surroundings.
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.
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 in this part of town is the 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 cones of sugar candy!
They are chimneys from the palace’s kitchen and their whitewashed exterior is visible from almost everywhere in Sintra.
Its beautiful entrance opens up on a lovely, wide square with great views over the city and surrounding hills.
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.
You can by skip the line tickets for Pena Palace here
The palace towers above you but all you can see from here are dashes of yellow and blue peeking through the leaves, a preamble of the colorful walls the palace is so famous for.
A short walk leads you into the castle proper and here the chromatic extravaganza that is this castle explodes 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 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.
You can spend in the castle as little or as long as you want and we found that it took us a little over an hour to feel ready to leave.
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 to get a sense of the peculiar position of the castle versus the rest of the city.
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.
You can by skip the line tickets for Pena Palace here
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
If visiting Pena Palace with very young kids, please be aware that many spots in the castle are exposed to significant drops and visiting the palace with children 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 with a broken wheel and a sore back.
Pena palace is surrounded by the Pena Park, 200 hectares of hills covered by lovely forests and thick, luscious vegetation.
At first sight, the park may seem like an overgrown forest however, the whole area was designed by king Fernando II who wanted filled it with pathways and trails
His idea was to create a romantic garden full of nooks and hidden corners and his desire became a reality: here you can take very many short walks and you can climb all the way up to the Cruz Alta.
This is the highest summit in the the Serra de Sintra, from where you can get lovely views over Pena palace and surrounding area.
The castle of the Moors
Almost as famous as Pena Palace is the castle of the Moors, a Moorish castle now in ruins perches on one of Sintra’s steep hills.
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.
Nowadays the castle is in ruins but it is exceptionally atmospheric for what it remains of it and its position.
Exploring the castle does pose some mobility issues but if you have difficulties with steps and uneven terrain you can still get a sense of it from Pena palace: from the bastions, you get a lovely view over it!
You can get fast track entrance tickets to the castle of the Moors here
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 it is easy to see 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 its well.
Deep and covered in moss, it conceals a passage that descends 27 meters into the ground and then connects to a series of tunnels that run the length of the gardens!
The well was never intended to gather water but rather it was central to initiation ceremonies taking place in this area.
To fully appreciate and learn about the peculiar history of Quinta da Regaleira, a guided tour is a good idea.
Palacio de Monserrate
Another gorgeous place to visit on your trip to Sintra in Palacio de Monserrate.
This palace dates back to the XIX century and it is famous for having the finest example of Islamic inspired architecture in Sintra as well as a garden with beautiful and unusual exotic plants.
It is a stunning site.
The Moorish architecture has that special lace like quality that makes it so elegant and the fact that the palace is a little farther out of the center of the city makes it a great place to slow down and enjoy your surroundings.
Monserrate is 4km from the historic centre of Sintra and you can easily rech it by bus (435) or with one of the easy to find taxis.
Convento dos capuchos
if you are looking for what to see in Sintra but cannot stand the crowds, then you may want to consider the Convento dos Capuchos, a Franciscan monastery located a little outside of the city center (around 7 km, you can drive there, cycle or get a tuk tuk).
The convento was built with a special aim in mind, that of being as little intrusive as possible and blend in with the surrounding nature.
Indeed, the result was achieved and the monastery is now a truly peculiar place with many chapels and narrow passages meandering through the thick vegetation of this area.
This is a good place to stop if you have a little more time in Sintra and wish to escape the crowds.
What to see in Sintra resources
Find schedule of trains from Lisbon to Sintra here.
Buy the Lisboa card here (it includes free transport to Sintra and reduced price to main attractions)
For accommodation in Sintra, we trust the options on booking.com, which often has excellent cancellation policies that make booking a breeze
For tours and entrance tickets, I usually rely on Get Your Guide, which has a good options, great cancellation policies and always discloses the name of the tour provider so you always know who you are buying from!
I hope you enjoyed this quick guide to what to see in Sintra, Portugal. Safe travels!