The historic Portuguese city of Sintra, just forty minutes train journey outside of Lisbon, is quickly becoming one of the most Instagrammable locations in Europe. With it's unique and colourful fairytale palaces, quirky and enchanting landscaped garden and winding cobbled streets, it's easy to see the appeal.
You can do a day trip from Lisbon incredibly easily, but we warned that you'll struggle to see everything in just one day! Here are some tips on how to make the most of your time in Sintra.
Start Early & Plan Your Route
Sintra is much bigger and more spread out than most people imagine (it certainly surprised me) so it's well worth getting there early (most of the sites open at 9.30am) to make the most of your day. As there are over 10 points of interest in the city, most of which require a couple of hours to explore, you're unlikely to get around everything - particularly if you only have one day. With this in mind, you need to prioritise and plan what you want to see during your time there.
The main places to visit in Sintra are: Pena Palace & Park, The National Palace, The Moorish Castle, Quinta da Regaleira and The Monserrate Palace. Personally, we chose to focus on Pena Palace & Park, the Moorish Castle and Quinta da Regaleira (more about which can be found in my blog post on our day in Sintra here). However, with lunch and walking time added in, this will easily take up the majority of the day. Most people choose to head straight to Pena Palace first for two reasons - firstly because it's vibrant yellow and red walls and incredible views are probably the most iconic and photographed sight in Sintra, and secondly, because it's at the top of the hill so you can travel on the tourist bus there (more on this below) and then slowly make your way back down towards the town via other landmarks.
However, as I say, a lot of tourists follow this logic, meaning that Pena Palace gets very busy in the morning - as we discovered! - so it may be worth reversing your itinerary if you're not a fan of queues or being there waiting as soon as the gates open.
Take The Train
I'm going to be completely blunt here - don't even think about driving around Sintra. The roads are incredibly steep, narrow and winding, and there are very few parking spaces. It's just not made for traffic or cars. If you are travelling to the area by car, it's worth parking up near the station and getting the tourist bus to the sites as you would if you were arriving by train.
In contrast, getting the train for Lisbon is incredibly easy - it's just 40 minutes direct from either Rossio or Oriente station. Trains go every 10 minutes during the week and every 30 minutes on the weekend and cost just €4.50 return. I'd recommend getting to train and bus combined ticket which can be found here for €15.80 though. This gives you your train ticket, plus unlimited use of the 434 hop-on / hop-off tourist bus which travels around the key sites.
Book As Much As Possible In Advance
Sintra is a tourist hotspot and has the queues to prove it. Right from when you arrive at the station in Lisbon, you'll likely encounter a number of people, all with the same idea as you, waiting in line. For this reason, I recommend booking as much in advance as you can, from the buses to the entry tickets to any palaces you'd like to visit during your time in Sintra. The only thing you annoyingly can't book in advance is the train tickets.
A lot of the time, this may not mean you skip the line completely but certainly saves the time that would be spent buying your tickets meaning you can get straight on with your visit. Some useful websites where you can purchase tickets in advance are Parques de Sintra, Get Your Guide and Sintra-Portugal.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
Any trip to Sintra inevitably involves a fair bit of walking, much of which is uphill, so comfy shoes are a must. There's a lot of cobbles and historic roads which are winding and uneven, adding to the beauty of the city but will play havoc with your feet by the end of the day! Sintra itself spans just under 320 square km and as a guide, the walk between Pena Palace & Park and the historic centre via the Moorish Castle is approximately 3.5km but due to the hills, takes about an hour to walk.
I wore my converses but wished I'd worn something even sturdier as my feet were aching by mid-afternoon. This certainly isn't the day to to go glam and don those heels... Practicality is key!
Allow Time To Explore The Historic Centre
As mentioned, most people head straight for Pena Palace and the other fantastic architectural sites to see, but this does mean that the main hub of the town itself often gets overlooked. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the historic centre is full of quirky cafes and boutiques selling beautiful azulejos (traditional Portugese tiles), lace and ceramics.
We stopped for lunch after visiting Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle and were lucky enough to enjoy a meal and a beer on a rooftop terrace overlooking the valley before spending some time exploring. I would've really liked more time to walk around this area as it was so full of character and is definitely worth getting lost in!
Stay Overnight If You Can
There is so much to see in Sintra and whilst a day trip is a great snapshot, in hindsight, I would've really like to have spent the night to see more across two days. As you can see, there is a lot to see and spreading these over two or even three days would mean you would be able to see it all, and at a relaxed pace.
More than anything else, though, I'd be fascinated to see what the town is like once the last train has returned to Lisbon and the day trippers departed. I imagine it has a very different feel - much calmer and more tranquil no doubt!
Places to stay overnight in central Sintra include Sintra Boutique Hotel, Tivoli Palacio de Seteais, Hotel Nova Sintra and Hotel Sintra Jardim.