If you’ve ever dreamed of stepping into a real-life fairytale, then you need to add Sintra to your bucket list immediately. This magical hilltop town and UNESCO world heritage site in Portugal is shrouded by enchanting forests and dotted with colourful palaces that look like they’ve been plucked straight out of a Disney movie. And the best part? Sintra is located less than an hour from Lisbon, making this the perfect day trip during any city break.
Please note: This visit took place prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Please check all current travel advice before planning your visit and travel responsibly.
How to get from Lisbon to Sintra
But first, the logistics. The easiest way to get from Lisbon to Sintra is by rail. Trains usually run twice an hour from Rossio station direct to Sintra station. Tickets cost €2.20 each way and the journey takes 40 minutes – just enough time to guzzle down a coffee and pastéis de nata (because, any excuse).
The 434 hop-on, hop-off bus runs on a continuous loop around the main sights of Sintra, starting at the train station and stopping at the historic centre of Sintra (where you’ll also find the National Palace), Castle of the Moors, and Pena Palace, before returning to the station.
I’d recommend walking from the train station to the historic centre of Sintra (a 15-minute walk, following the brown signs), where you can explore the National Palace and nearby Quinta da Regaleira, before jumping on a bus to Castle of the Moors. From here, it’s only a 10-minute walk to Pena Palace. Then once you’re done exploring, you can bus it back to the station.
Alternatively, if you want to avoid queuing for the bus, and don’t mind a steep, up-hill climb, it is possible to hike up to Castle of the Moors and Pena Palace. The walk should take you less than an hour and you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular views on your way up!
What to see and do in Sintra
Sintra is packed full of interesting palaces, parks, museums and gardens, and even has some beautiful beaches close by. But if you only have a day to explore, I’d recommend prioritising the following attractions. Each has its own entry fee and can be explored with or without a guide.
Centro Historico de Sintra
With its colourful buildings, leafy side-streets, and traditional tavernas, the historic centre of Sintra is a lovely little place to explore, in its own right. Take some time to mooch around the shops and sample the local wine, or if you want to learn more about Sintra’s fascinating past, make a stop at the Natural History Museum and, of course, the National Palace of Sintra. The Tourist Office can also be found in the centre, where you can pick up maps or book up guided tours of the area.
Located in the very heart of Sintra’s historic centre, the National Palace (or Palácio Nacional) served as the grand residence of Portugal’s royal family between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today, you can discover the history of the palace by touring the ornately decorated rooms, including the Swan Room, the Magpie room and the royal chapel.
Just a 5-minute walk from the centre of Sintra, you’ll arrive at Quinta de Regaleria – a 19th century palace, characterised by its striking Gothic and Romantic-style architecture. For some reason, this palace is often left off day itineraries, but it’s one of the most beautiful and unusual attractions in all of Sintra.
Even if you don’t have time to tour the mansion itself, be sure to stop at the enchanting gardens. Discover secret grottos, tumbling waterfalls and – best of all – the spectacular Initiation Wells, which were used for mysterious ceremonial purposes and are the real showstopper here. The view from the top of the well is mind-bending, giving the impression of an underground tower. Circle your way down the steps and along damp, dark tunnels, until you emerge back out at a beautiful lake… all part of the magic of Sintra!
Located within the sprawling grounds of Pena Palace, Castle of the Moors (or Castelo dos Mouros) boasts the very best views in Sintra. As you scale the fortress walls, you’ll be greeted with panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside and even the coastline in the distance. The castle complex is surprisingly large, which means it’s a lot less crowded and touristy than the other sights in Sintra. Just make sure you leave yourself enough time to explore!
And finally, the jewel in Sintra’s colourful crown… Pena Palace is Sintra’s most famous landmark and the one you’ll have seen pop up, time and time again, on your Instagram feed. This 19th century palace is a true fairytale come to life, with its brightly coloured walls and turrets and extravagant gateways and terraces. The only down-side is, it gets extremely busy with tourists. For this reason, we decided to give the interiors a miss and were glad to have more time (and space!) to explore the breathtaking facades and gorgeous views instead.
Sintra is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. Whichever bits you choose to explore, I’m sure you will be as blown away as I was! If you’re spending time in Portugal, take a look at my ultimate weekend guide to Lisbon or find out where to spot the best street art in Lisbon.