You don’t want to miss Portugal’s city full of castles! Here’s a quick guide for beating the crowds on your Sintra day trip.
Sintra Day Trip
Do you know what’s better than Disneyworld? Disneyworld minus hordes of children and exorbitant ticket prices but with the added bonus of colorful, magical castles that were built and lived in by real-life people. And yes, such a magical place really does exist – meet the town of Sintra, Portugal.
Sintra is located just a few miles outside of Lisbon, but it might as well be on another planet. Unlike bustling Lisbon with its labyrinthine alleyways and clanging trolley cars, Sintra is an oasis of lush, forest-covered mountains, exotic gardens, and grandiose palaces and mansions perched on hillsides. You may not see Cinderella strolling through the village square, but otherwise, it’s a town torn straight from the pages of a fairy-tale.
But, like Disneyworld, Sintra can be EXTREMELY crowded. Because of it’s proximity to Portugal’s capital city, a Sintra day trip is considered a must-do by most tourists visiting Lisbon. But that also means that it’s one of Portugal’s top tourist attractions (I mean, who wants to miss seeing a town full of castles?!). Wait times can be up to 2-3 hours for the more popular sites, like Pena Palace. Because we only had one day to explore Sintra, we didn’t want to waste any time stuck in a line, so my mom and I did everything possible to avoid the crowds. And for the most part, we succeeded! So read on if you, too, want to have an enjoyable, crowd-free Sintra day trip from Lisbon.
Sintra Day Trip Itinerary to Beat the Crowds
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon
The main key to avoiding the massive lines in Sintra is to start early. Start early = see lots of things. Don’t start early = see almost nothing. So, start early.
The easiest way to get to Sintra from Lisbon is via train. Starting at 7 am, trains leave for Sintra from the Rossio station around every 30 minutes. The trip takes about 40 minutes. Roundtrip tickets are €4.50 (as of April 2019). Getting to the station for the 7 AM train may sound painful, but just trust – it’ll pay off when you’re actually able to enjoy your Sintra day trip without spending hours standing in line!
First stop in Sintra: Pena Palace
Several hundred years before colorful Pena Palace graced the top of a mountain overlooking Sintra, a 16th-century monastery called the summit home. Over time, the monastery fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned. But in the mid-1800s, young King Consort Ferdinand II, acquired the ruins and surrounding land and ordered them to be restored and transformed. The result is Pena Palace and the surrounding park.
To our modern eyes, the palace looks like it was designed by either a 6-year old child with amazing taste or a schizophrenic. Canary yellow and brick red cover the exterior walls. One side features medieval parapets while another is topped by an Islaamic dome. A tall, red clocktower is flanked by a purple wing and middle eastern tiles adorn several of the facades. Different characteristics mark the parts of the palace built from the ashes of the monastery and the “New Palace” that was built from scratch. The interior is no less opulent or eclectic. Wild as it may be, Pena Palace is considered to be one of the world’s greatest examples of Romantic architecture.
Avoid the Crowds at Pena Palace
It is also, by far, Sintra’s most highly visited site. So naturally, it’s the Sintra castle that has the longest lines – unless you get there before anyone else.
Once you arrive in Sintra, get in line for Bus 434 (the bus stop is just outside of the train station) – the 434 bus will take you directly up the mountain to Pena Palace. The first bus runs at 9:15, but people start lining up for the bus long before then. My mom and I got in line around 8:30. By 9:15, there were so many people that not everyone was able to get on the first bus. You don’t want to be one of those sad people – get in line early.
If you’re on that first bus, you’ll be one of the first people at Pena Palace, which means no wait time for you! It took us about 5 minutes to purchase our tickets and walk through the gates (ticket prices and options below). Once inside the gates, head straight up the hill to the palace itself. You may be tempted to explore the paths through the gardens surrounding the palace, but save that for later because there’s one more line you’ll want to avoid.
Once inside the palace structure itself, there’s a line to go through the interior rooms. My mom and I didn’t know about this beforehand (which is why I’m telling you!) – we just saw that there was a queue for something and the queue happened to be empty, so we went to check it out. When we came back outside after touring the inside rooms, that queue now had an hour-long wait. So moral of the story – see those inside rooms before doing anything else!
After that, you can wander around Pena Palace at will and explore the grounds if you want. You’ll want to allow for at least an hour. But Sintra’s many sites are spread out, and if you want to see much more before your Sintra day trip is over, don’t wait too long before moving on to the next thing.
Pena Palace Admission info:
The 2019 entrance fee to the Palacio Nacional da Pena are:
- Palace and Park – €14.00/€12.50/€49.00 (adult/child (6-17)/family)
- Park – €7.50/€6.50/€26.00 (adult/child (6-17)/family)
- Park: 9:30 AM – 8:00 PM, last ticket and last admission 7:00 PM
- Palace: 9:30 AM – 7:00 PM, last ticket 6:15 PM and last admission 6:30 PM
Second Stop: Castle of the Moors
Castle of the Moors
It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast to Pena Palace than the Castle of the Moors. Whereas Pena Palace is all about Romanticism, opulence, and frivolity, the stone ramparts and exposed, fortified walls of the Moors’ construction are all about practicality and purpose. The Castle of the Moors dates all the way back to the 8th century, making it the oldest of Sintra’s sites and the only true castle. It was originally constructed during the Muslim occupation of Portugal to defend the surrounding agricultural region, but the castle changed hands several times over the next few centuries. It was finally surrendered to the Christian forces led by Afonso Henriques in 1147. It remained a Portuguese seat of power until the 1600s, when it was abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair. When he acquired the land now occupied by Pena Palace, King Ferdinand II also purchased the remains of the Moorish Castle and had it restored to its present state.
Visiting the Castle of the Moors
From Pena Palace, it’s just a 5-minute walk to Castle of the Moors. Simply follow the road you came up on in the bus until you reach the entrance. Because it lacks the grandeur of some of Sintra’s other palaces, Castle of the Moors isn’t quite as crowded. But that’s just one more reason to include it in your Sintra day trip. The highlight of visiting this castle is getting to walk along the dizzying ramparts. The narrow wall clings to the ridgeline – it was built to give soldiers an unimpeded view of all the surrounding territories, and it still does that. Tourists who aren’t wary of heights can climb to the top and see all the way to Lisbon, the Atlantic Ocean, and the far western point of Europe at Cabo da Roca. For the more adventurous, this stop will definitely be a highlight (it certainly was for me!).
Castle of the Moors Admission Info:
Entrance fee: €8.00/€6.50/€6.50 (adult/child/senior)
Hours: 9:30 AM – 8 PM
By now, you’ll probably be hungry. The only option for food near either the Castle of the Moors or Pena Palace is an overpriced and packed cafe inside the grounds of Pena Palace. Instead, hop onto the 434 bus and head back down the mountain to the village center. There you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and cafes to choose from! Many will likely be busy, but because there are so many options, it’s easy to find one that isn’t packed.
Last stop: Quinta da Regaleira
After lunch, you’ll have time for at least one more stop. Sintra has far more palaces to visit than you can possibly do in one day, and all of them are worth checking out for different reasons. And the good news is that none of them are as popular with other tourists as Pena Palace or Castle of the Moors. We chose Quinta da Regaleira as our third Sintra day trip destination and it may have been my favorite one.
The easiest way to get to Quinta da Regaleira is by taking the 435 bus, which leaves from the town center.
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regalaira was commissioned by Carvalho Monteiro in 1892. Also known as “Monteiro the Millionaire,” Carvalho Monteiro inherited a massive family fortune and enlarged it even further through his coffee farms in Brazil. When he eventually moved to Portugal, he bought the land in Sintra and commissioned an estate to be built that would reflect his passions and ideologies. The result is a fascinating palace, surrounded by an even more bewildering and enchanting garden. People come to see the house but they stay to stay to discover the many secrets hidden in the estate’s outdoor playground.
Visiting Quinta da Regaleira
Though the palace itself is impressive in its own right, the star here is, without a doubt, the garden. The four acres of land that surround the palace itself are all meticulously and purposefully planned and cultivated. The bottom half of the garden is kept neat and organized, but the upper half left wild to represent Monteiro’s belief in primitivism. There are numerous paths that wander through both the upper forest and more structured lower gardens.
But what makes the grounds particularly special (and gives it a “playground” feel) are the special sites located throughout. The most famous are the Initiation Wells, two multi-story wells with spiraling staircases that transport visitors from the lush world aboveground to the tunnels that wind underneath the property. The wells never served as a water source; instead, they hosted ceremonial practices, such as Tarot initiation rites (hence the name). The tunnels connect the property’s various grottoes, “Leda’s Cave,” Waterfall Lake, and the chapel.
Entrance fee: €6.00/€4.00/€4.00/€18.00 (adult/child/senior/family) (includes both the house and gardens)
Hours: 9:30 AM – 8:00 PM
You may have time to visit one more palace, depending on how much time you have left in the day. We, however, did not. Wandering around the lovely gardens at Regaleira was a perfect way to end our Sintra day trip! Whenever you’re ready to head back to Lisbon, simply take bus 435 or one of the tuk-tuks back to the train station. From there, board a train and relax until you’re back in the city!
Other tips for a successful Sintra day trip:
- Wear comfortable shoes – it’ll be a long day with lots of walking involved!
- Bring water/snacks – there aren’t many places to fill up outside of the village center
- Dress in layers – Sintra’s hilltops can be much windier and chillier than the surrounding area
Questions about Sintra? Let me know in the comments or contact me here!