Portugal

Important Advice Before You Visit Sintra Portugal

A visit to Sintra Portugal is one of the most popular side trips from Lisbon.  And with good reason!  It’s located only 15 miles to the west.  It’s very easy to reach via public transportation.  And the entire area is stunningly beautiful!  In fact, Sintra was our #1 favorite place to visit during our recent two month stay in Lisbon.  We ended up visiting Sintra three different times, and I actually wish we’d found time for a fourth!  During those visits to Sintra, I learned a thing or two.  So here’s my advice before your own visit to Sintra Portugal.    

One Day in Sintra is Not Enough

For all the reasons I mentioned above, a lot of day trippers visit Sintra from Lisbon.  But…

A one day visit to Sintra is not enough!!  

Despite being The Thorough Tripper, I did not prepare for our first visit to Sintra thoroughly enough. Because we now travel slower,  a lot of my day-to-day trip planning happens after we arrive at our new location.  I was aware of Sintra prior to our Lisbon trip.  It’s a very popular topic with travel influencers who visit Portugal.

But based on some of those social media posts, I equated Sintra solely with Pena Palace. 

I didn’t fully understand, until we actually visited, that Sintra is so much more than just Pena Palace….

The village of Sintra Portugal with the Moors Castle sitting atop the hill above

The town of Sintra is a quaint hillside village.  

The surrounding area is wooded, lush, and green due to Sintra’s own microclimate.  This cooler climate made it a favorite summer escape for Portugal’s nobility and Europe’s wealthy over the centuries.  And the Moors before that.

A castle – Pena Palace – sits very high up on the hill above Sintra.  So high, it’s not easily seen from town.  Constructed in the 1800s, it’s considered one of the world’s great examples of Romantic architecture.

A closeup of Pena Palace - the most popular place to visit in Sintra Portugal

Up on that same hill, there is an 10th century fortified wall and battlement built by the Moors. It’s more easily visible than Pena Palace from below (look close and you can see it in the village picture above).

There’s a 15th century royal residence in the middle of the town – the National Palace of Sintra.

And throughout the surrounding area, there are several huge 19th century estates and gardens.  Several of these – like Quinta de Regaliera and Monserrate – are open to the public.

A statue looks across the gardens at Quinta da Regaliera with the neo-gothic palace in the background
Quinta da Regaliera
Monserrate Palace and it's huge lawn in Sintra Portugal
Palace of Monserrate

In fact, all of Sintra has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to it’s cultural landscape, being the premier example of European Romanticism – a movement marked by attention to nature and a revival of popular architectural styles from the past. 

Trying to see all of this in a single day would be very very rushed. 

Pena Palace is Overrated

I know that’s a strong statement and I’m sure some would disagree.  Especially given that Pena Palace is one of the 7 Wonders of Portugal.  

And that’s not to say that you shouldn’t visit Pena Palace.  You absolutely should.  But if you only have one day in Sintra? I’m not so sure.  All the more reason why several days are needed to visit Sintra.

Looking up a Pena Palace

My issues with Pena Palace are these:

  1. It’s the most popular site in Sintra.  So naturally, it’s the most crowded.  A lot more crowded than any of the other sites.  We basically had both Sintra National Palace and Monserrate to ourselves.  But at Pena Palace, we waited in a long line to get in. Even with it’s timed-entry ticketing.  And then once inside, we herded through with all the other tourists like cattle…..in February.  I can’t imagine what it would be like in peak season.
  2. The Romantic architecture, with its bright colors and mishmash of styles, is too cartoon-like for my tastes.  Mrs. TT and I joked that we expected to see Lord Farquaad from Shrek make an appearance on one of the balconies. 
  3. I found the inside quite boring when compared to the other palaces and estates in the area.  I don’t think I even took a picture inside of Pena Palace.

The very best thing about visiting Pena Palace for us was the sweeping views out to the surrounding countryside – all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.  Those were truly spectacular and worth our visit alone. 

Pena Palace sits high above Sintra with views out to the surrounding countryside and Atlantic Ocean

And I understand that the gardens surrounding the palace are also amazing. Gardens were a huge focus of the Romantic movement.  But we did not make it up to Pena Palace until later than we hoped, then experienced a delayed entry, and so didn’t have time to explore the grounds. (Remember….. a one day visit to Sintra is not enough!)

Unmissable Sites in Sintra

So if Pena Palace is overrated, which Sintra sites aren’t?  Here’s a look at my personal favorites

Best Single Site – The Initiation Well

The Initiation Well sits within the hillside gardens of Quinta da Regaliera – a 19th century estate located just a 10 minute walk from the town center. 

Looking up from the bottom of the Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaliera

It’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. 

The Initiation Well is a 9 flight spiral staircase made from stone and tunneled into the earth near the top of the Quinta’s extensive terraced gardens.  It exits into a series of tunnels which then ultimately take you out onto a lower level in the garden, and includes a false exit into a grotto behind a waterfall.

The tunnels under the Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaliera

No one knows exactly what took place within the well, but the Quinta’s owner – António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro – was supposedly associated with the Templars, and the Well was likely used for initiation ceremonies.

In present day, visitors are able to descend the staircase and explore the tunnels and grottos underneath.  Fortunately on our first visit (early February), we almost had the Well entirely to ourselves.  There was a line of slowly descending visitors on our second visit (early March).  I imagine it’s really packed (and claustrophobic) in the peak tourist season.

While the Initiation Well was my #1 highlight of Quinta da Regaliera, the entire estate is really cool, too.  The strange-looking neo-Gothic palace dominates the landscape and you can tour its interiors.

The unusual Neo-gothic estate house at Quinta da Regaliera - on of the most popular places to visit in Sintra Portugal

The estate’s small chapel – set off by itself within the garden – is beautiful.

The chapel at Quinta da Regaliera

And you can get lost exploring the entire estate with its grottos, waterfalls, tunnels, balconies, and hillside views.

Looking out of the gardens at Quinta da Regaliera in Sintra Portugal

Best Interiors – National Palace of Sintra

Don’t let the fairly plain exterior of the Sintra National Palace fool you.  Its interiors make this site a must-visit, and include one of the most visually striking rooms I’ve ever stood in.

I was so focused on seeing Quinta da Regaliera and Pena Palace during our first visit to Sintra, that I pretty much completely ignored this Palace, even though it dominates Sintra’s main square. 

The National Palace of Sintra with it's two conical chimneys

It’s hard to ignore the Palace’s two large white conical chimneys.  They dominate the Sintra’s town skyline and are, in fact, the symbol of Sintra.  However, I thought the building itself looked fairly plain for a Palace.   How great could it be inside?

As we found out on our second visit to Sintra, it’s great! The Sintra National Palace is considered the most perfectly preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal, and was home to Portugal’s Kings and Queens from the 1400s to the 1800s. 

The beautiful painted wood ceilings throughout the Palace were a highlight for me.

The swan room in the National Palace of Sintra
The Swan Room – so named for the ceiling

The magpie room in Sintra National Palace
The Magpie Room – also named for the ceiling

And when we walked into the Heraldic Hall, I literally gasped. It’s one of the most visually stunning rooms I’ve ever stood in. The entire lower portion is covered in blue and white Portuguese tiles depicting scenes of noble life. The very high domed ceiling is made from intricately carved and painted wood, and displays the coats of arms for 72 noble families, with the King’s at the very top.

The Heraldic Hall in the National Palace of Sintra in Portugal

You can learn even more about this amazing building, and see more photos, by checking out my friend Tatiana’s post about Sintra National Palace on AlongaTravel.com

Best Overall Estate – Monserrate Palace and Gardens

As much as I loved Quinta da Regaliera, I think I loved Monserrate even more. The Palace itself is really interesting. In the true Romantic style of the time, it’s a mixture of Moorish and Indian influence, and was somewhat reminiscent of the great Moorish architecture we saw in and around Seville Spain.

The main first level hallway in Monserrate Palace in Sintra

Looking up at one of the domed ceilings in Monserrate Palace in Sintra Portugal

But it’s the Park at Monserrate that is the most impressive part of this estate. It’s huge!! Remember that I mentioned Romanticism had a great focus on nature? The grand Romantic estates in Sintra feature impressive gardens designed by leading European landscape architects. I already showed you how cool the garden at Quinta da Regaliera is. It is dwarfed by Monserrate.

The Park (it’s too big to be called a garden) covers a couple of different hillsides and all the space in between. 81 acres in total. Species of flora and fauna were brought in from all over the world for its 19th century patrons to learn about and enjoy. Lawns and streams and waterfalls and bridges dot the landscape. It’s all connected by series of trails.

You could easily spend half a day trying to see all of Monserrate. (Check out the map here to see what I mean)

A trail winds through the Mexican Garden at Monserrate Park in Sintra Portugal
The Mexican Garden at Monserrate Park – featuring various types of cactus and agave plants

A small waterfall in Fern Valley - on of the features of Monserrate Park
A Small Waterfall in “Fern Valley”

Best Site From Afar – Moors Castle

The one major site that we didn’t get to visit in Sintra was the Moors Castle – the 10th century battlement with it’s series of walls and defensive towers sitting high above the town.  Visiting the Moors Castle is best combined with a visit to Pena Palace, since they both sit atop the same hill.  But as you may recall, we’d run out of time when we were finished at the Palace.  And it wasn’t practical to go back up during our return visits. 

However, the wall can be viewed from many vantage points in Sintra, and certainly adds to the area’s general charm. 

Sintra’s General Vibe Makes It A Special Place

Plus there is just something about walking around Sintra. It’s not only all its great sites that make you want to spend as much time as possible in Sintra. All the lush greenery gives the area a tropical feel. The town itself is charming with its narrow alleys, shops, and restaurants. And there are views everywhere – views up, views down, views out across.

The hillside village of Sintra Portugal

Yes, Sintra is Very Easy to Reach from Lisbon

Two different train lines connect Sintra and Lisbon.  One leaves Rossio station in the center of tourist Lisbon.  It immediately begins its journey through a 1.8 mile tunnel underneath one of Lisbon’s seven hills (and the popular Barrio Alto district.)  The construction of this tunnel in the late 1800s was quite the engineering fete in its day.  

Rossio Train Station in Lisbon
Rossio Station

The train platform in Lisbon's Rossio Station

The other train leaves Lisbon’s big Oriente train station closer to the Lisbon airport. This train  conveniently stops at smaller train stations in uptown Lisbon.  One of these – Enterocampos – was only a few blocks from our Airbnb apartment, and this train become my preferred method for getting back and forth to Sintra.

The train platform at Lisbon's Enterocampos station
The Platform at Enterocampos

Both trains ultimately travel on the same tracks once outside of central Lisbon, and both get you to Sintra in about 45 minutes.  

Neither is direct, making multiple stops throughout the suburbs of Lisbon.  I think this is interesting in and of itself – a great chance to more carefully observe Lisbon life outside the touristic center.  

Each is cheap.  Only a little over 2 Euros each way. And the trains run every 20-30 minutes throughout the day.

Sintra Offers Plenty of Options for Getting Around

All the sites in Sintra are quite spread out.  Walking to all of them – my preference – is not realistic.  Fortunately, it’s easy to get around using any combination of the following ways. 

Tuk Tuk

Upon disembarking from the train at Sintra’s small station, you will immediately be approached by a legion of Tuk Tuk driver’s offering their services for the day.  This is certainly not the cheapest way to get around Sintra, but would probably be the most convenient if you are less of a do-it-yourself traveler like me.  And, it could be a reasonable approach if you really only have one day to see everything Sintra has to offer. 

Buses

Buses are a popular option for getting around Sintra.  By using two different circular bus routes, you can get to all the sites I have mentioned in this post, from either the train station or the town center. A hop-on hop-off 24-hour ticket currently costs 11.50 Euros.  You can get more information on the buses here.

Walking 

Sintra’s town center is a very easy and scenic 10 minute walk from the train station. I would definitely recommend this walk as part of any itinerary.  And the village is best explored on foot anyway. It’s pretty small.  Quinta da Regaliera is also within reasonable walking distance of both the train station and town.

One of the back streets in Sintra Portugal with some street art
One of the back streets in Sintra

Uber

We used Uber more than any other form of transportation in Sintra.  Rides to the more distant sites cost only around 5-7 Euros, and I thought this was more convenient, less crowded, and actually slightly cheaper than riding the bus.  Plus one of our Uber drivers gave us a fascinating Sintra history lesson on our drive out to Monserrate. 

However, here’s an Uber caveat.  We took Uber from the town center to Pena Palace. But, we could not get an Uber to pick us up when we were finished. One driver after another cancelled (very reminiscent of an experience we had using Uber to get to the Rose Bowl).  I’d read that this is always a possibility because of the distance involved. It takes much longer to drive up than drive down – there’s a different route each way.  If you are lucky, an Uber will be dropping someone else off when you want to leave the Palace.  Otherwise, you may have to be very patient, take a taxi, or purchase a single ride bus ticket. 

Taxi

We ended up taking a taxi down from Pena Palace.  One was parked outside the entry gates and the driver only charged us only 5 Euros. 

But, here’s a Taxi caveat.  On our third visit to Sintra, I thought we’d take a taxi from the train station to revisit Quinta da Regaliera. This would help save us a little time and energy. Plus, the price seemed about the same as Uber.  However,  the driver waiting at the taxi stand kindly informed me that it was a beautiful 20 minute walk that shouldn’t be missed.   Clearly, the cheap fare wasn’t worth his time.  

Final Thoughts

I hope that I’ve convinced you to spend more than one day when you visit Sintra Portugal. Whether it’s a series of visits from Lisbon like we did, or few nights in a Sintra hotel, clearly Sintra requires several days to appreciate fully.

There is just too much to see in this beautiful part of Portugal. And the longer you can experience that Romantic Sintra vibe, the better.

And if you would like to read more about our time in Portugal, then check out these posts:

11 Photos That Will Convince You to Visit Lisbon Portugal

A Day Trip to Óbidos Portugal – Medievally Magical

Lisboa Em Fado – A Glimpse Into the Portuguese Soul

7 Important Lisbon Travel Tips

Or if you want to read about another great UNESCO World Heritage landscape in Europe, then check out this post

A Two Day Trip to Magical Meteora Greece

14 Comments

  • Ryan Biddulph

    Interesting point about the palace you feel is overrated, Steven. I have discovered this in so many places after circling the globe; the most popular tourist spots are often not the best tourist spots because what makes ’em popular also introduces bigger crowds, louder crowds, and sometimes, a delusional, blind belief. People repeat ideas to each other, believe these ideas, and often the genuinely best, most eye-popping spots for tourists are well off of the beaten path.

    Excellent review here.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Thanks Ryan and well said. My favorite places to visit will always be the back streets, the neighborhood restaurants, the town squares.

  • Joanna Rath

    I agree that one day in Sintra is not enough to do the town justice. Unfortunately, I only had 3 days in Lisbon. So, no time to go back. Maybe the crowds at Peña Palace is about the time of day. I visited the Palace early morning and there was no queuing, and visitors were minimal.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Yeah, I’m sure first thing would be best at Pena Palace. We did Quinta da Regaliera first on that day, and so I’m sure the crowds were better there as a result, and could be why we had the Initiation Well mostly to ourselves. But if Pena is the priority, then first sounds best.

      • Peggy Zipperer

        I loved reading your thoughts on Sintra and I cannot wait to go. Interesting take on Pena Palace but I can absolutely agree with the reasoning, especially compared to the other sites you’ve described. Plus, the Lord Farquaad comment was gold! The Initiation Well was so cool and the Heraldic Hall – just wow! I can’t even imagine how stunning that must be in person. Looking forward to more Portugal!

        • thethoroughtripper

          Hope you get to go there sometime soon and check it all out yourself. And if you have better luck than us, and actually see Lord Farquaad, give him a shout out for us

        • Dawn

          Thanks for all the great information, tips and photos. We are visiting next April and have decided to spend several days in Sintra. We visited Tallin a couple of years ago – another beautiful city and well worth staying so that you coukd enjoy the city before the tourists arrive and after they leave. It was wonderful. A long llunch and a siesta got us through the worst of the coach trippers.

  • Elodie Ferreira

    I need to go back to Sintra!
    And yes, thinking that you can visit Sintra in just a day is crazy! Unless you only focus in one of the many places to visit, but it would have been a shame. Monserrate, Regaleira and Pena are mandatory visit and you could easily spend almost a day in each place.

    • thethoroughtripper

      You’re right. I wouldn’t be difficult to spend a full day at each place if you wanted to see everything that each has to offer!

  • John McCredie

    My wife and I late 60s but fit for life, are planning 2 3 week trips 2024. Portugal and Croatia possibly. We would like to get a home base where we quietly learn a favourite coffee shop, bakery, vegetable and other shops, then begin to soak up the atmosphere.
    Any suggestions on when ( we are flexible) and where we might base ourselves?
    Thanks in advance if you get to responding…🤙

    • thethoroughtripper

      What you describe is exactly how we like to travel and Lisbon was a great for that. Sintra is probably too small for 3 weeks but as described in this post, very easy to reach from Lisbon. We have talked about going back and spending a month in Cascais though – not far from Lisbon and coastal. In Croatia – Rovinj immediately comes to mind and I have a post about it in my Balkan section. I’m guessing that Split might also be a good option based on reading that I’ve done, but we’ve yet to travel there ourselves

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