Hans Christian Anderson famously referred to Sintra as "the most beautiful and celebrated part of Portugal" and it's easy to see why. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, this picturesque city just north of Lisbon is a jam-packed full of romantic architecture, ancient ruins, historic villas, cobbled streets and Michelin-starred restaurants.
As it's so close to Lisbon and easily accessible via a short 40 minute train journey, many tourists opt to just visit for the day which is a great way of getting a snapshot of this fascinating place. This is what we did during our time in Lisbon earlier this year, but I would certainly recommend staying overnight if you have the time and are keen to see everything Sintra has to offer, as we only managed to see a small amount.
With this in mind, any day trip to Sintra is all about the planning and prioritising which sites you want to see. After much deliberation and research, we chose to focus on Pena Palace & Park, the Moorish Castle and Quinta da Regaleira which (including a break for lunch) took up the majority of the day. Whilst these are by no means the only sites worth visiting in Sintra, these do all offer something different and make for a varied day. Here's how we spent our day in this fairytale hilltop town...
We started the day early, heading over to Rossio station in Lisbon to get our tickets and board the train. We thought we were being keen, but didn't take into account the queue for train tickets! As you can't buy them in advance, the queue is lengthy but does move relatively quickly - I'd recommend allowing 20-30 minutes before the train departure time if possible.
We opted to buy the combined ticket which was €15.80 and gave us unlimited use of the 434 hop-on / hop-off tourist bus which travels around the key sites in Sintra, in addition to our train travel there and back. There are a number of packages available, some of which include entry to some of the palaces, but we felt this was the best option for us.
Most of the palaces open from 9.30am, so we arrived around this time and hopped onto the 434 bus heading toward our first stop: Pena Palace & Park.
Pena Palace & Park
Our first stop was Pena Palace & Park, the colourful, fairytale-style palace most synonymous with Sintra. Pop 'Sintra' into any search engine or Instagram and it's images of the striking red and yellow walled Pena Palance which are likely to come up.
Due to it's iconic status and the fact that it's at the top of the hill and therefore furthest away, a lot of visitors choose to visit here first, as we did. Though there were inevitably (more!) queues, it does make sense to do this first if it's something you really want to see. Entry into the palace and gardens is €14 which I recommend booking in advance if you can.
We didn't manage to go inside the Palace as the queues were so long, but did explore the beautiful exteriors. Originally a monastery, the site was first built on in the 16th century and remained a place of solitude and meditation for hundreds of years until it was damaged in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. It was then restored decades later by King Ferdinand II who built the palace as we know it today as the Portuguese royal family's summer residence before being given the status as a national monument after the Republication Revolution in 1910.
Given all this change, it's no wonder that Pena Palace today is a wonderful melting pot of different cultures and designs. Classed as one of the "Seven Wonders Of Portugal", the architecture is magnificent - a blend of Gothic, Romantic, Renaissance and Moorish designs and influences - and the views spectacular. It's Arabian Nights meets Disney Castle. I loved all of the intricate details such as the ornate windows and arches, stone carvings of Triton holding up the windows and sundial on the Queen's Terrace. It's a joy to walk around and explore, even without going inside. The outside is vibrant and really stands out on the mountain side, with the yellow turrets of the palace denoting the refurbished parts of the original monastery and the red towers highlighting the new palace.
The Park is equally stunning and deserves as much attention, if not more. Stretching over 85 hectares, it is an array of landscapes gardens full of exotic plants, small lakes, waterfalls and decorative buildings. If you want to be organised, there is a number of 'landmark' monuments to see, including Queen Amelia's Garden, the Grotto of the Monk and Temple of the Columns, but I felt the best way to explore was just to wander through and take everything in. The Park was much quieter than the Palace itself with far fewer tourists, so we were fortunate enough to enjoy a calm and tranquil walk, absorbing all of the sights and sounds of this beautiful spot.
The Moorish Castle
The next stop was The Moorish Castle, just an easy 10-15 minute walk away from Pena Palace & Park. Dating back to the 8th and 9th century when Portugal was occupied by the Moors, it's the oldest monument in Sintra and makes the pristine 19th century Pena Palace feel practically modern. However, the views across the mountains, town and Pena Palace from these ancient ruins are breathtaking. I'm really not good with heights, but held my breath and braved the towers just to experience the amazing vistas!
Though there's not as much to see at The Moorish Castle and therefore less time needed to explore, it's a fascinating fortress, with winding stone stairways and dramatic Medieval towers circling the site, slightly reminiscent of the Great Wall Of China, but obviously on a much smaller scale. There's also an interesting small exhibition room near the entrance which showcases some of the historical artefacts that have been found at the site during archeological digs which is included in the entry fee of €8.
Personally, I found it historically more interesting that Pena Palace, despite not being as photogenic and it well worth a visit if you can stomach the heights!
The Historic Centre
By this point, it was time for lunch so we headed downhill to the historic centre of Sintra. Though we didn't have much time to spend to explore fully and it was quite busy, it was lovely to get a snapshot of this great town.
Built on the mountain side, Sintra's historic centre is full of cobbled streets, traditional boutiques and restaurants. The central focus is the Praça da Republica from which there are lots of charming alleyways leading off to arts and crafts shops and cafes.
We ate at the Sintra Terrace which to be honest was nothing special food-wise, but did offer fabulous views across the valley and town itself. We sat out on the terrace and both had a simple beer and a burger which was just what we needed to refuel, ready for the next part of our day.
Quinta Da Regaleira
Our final stop of the day was the stunning Quinta da Regaleira which, despite being fairly exhausted by this point, was my absolute favourite site that we visited in Sintra, as well as the cheapest at just €6.
Originally bought in 1840 by the Baroness da Regaleira and later re-imagined in the early 20th century by wealthy Portuguese businessman Carvalho Monteiro and Italian architect Luigi Manini, this ornate palace has the most beautiful gothic facade covered in intricate carvings, elegant arched windows and grand terraces. The palatial interiors are equally magnificent, with the most spectacular decorative fireplace in the Hunting Room, full-length elaborate windows in the Octagon Room and paintings of all of the Kings and Queens of Portugal bordering the walls of the Kings Room.
However, the real attraction is the 4 hectares of enchanting gardens surrounding the property, which I could've easily spent hours more exploring was it not nearing the end of the day. A myriad of secret passageways, waterfalls, sculptures and exotic plants, this magical parkland is like stepping into one of the Grimm bothers' fairytale forests. One minute you're standing atop a romantic turret, the next you're navigating your way through a network of grottoes and caves, before hopping across stepping stones to view a hidden cascade. It really is a wonderland full of surprises and secluded gems.
The most popular and renowned features of the park is the Initiation Well - a nine-platform, 88 foot deep spiral staircase plunging dramatically into the ground. Though very little is known about the so-called well, it is believed that despite its name, it was never used for collecting water, but rather for secret Freemason initiation ceremonies. As a well-known Freemason, it's thought that Monteiro and Manini designed the well with this in mind, covering it in symbols and references of the Knights Templar and Tarot mysticism. Other key attractions include Leda's Cave, the Chapel and Waterfall Lake.
All in all, our day to Sintra was tiring but brilliant! My phone registered me walking over 9 miles and 25,000 steps so comfy shoes is a must, and there was still so much we didn't have a chance to see. I definitely recommend spending a couple of days here if you have time. See more in my 6 Tips For Visiting Sintra post for more information.