Decoding Sintra: the Right Way To Visit the Romantic Portuguese Town
Updated: Jan 17, 2020
Sintra Portugal is the most popular day trip from Lisbon. But the town is pure chaos and you need a plan of attack for a proper visit. Here's my guide to decoding and visiting Sintra, tips that will result in a more efficient day trip from Lisbon.
There's a reason tourist are besotted with Sintra. It's rock star glamorous. Sintra has castles and palaces galore. It's dazzling, colorful, and romantic. Even the town itself is quaint, filled with artisan shops, and well worth exploring. Sintra packs a punch and delivers on its hype.
I just returned from a geographical cure in Portugal and have some decided views on how to approach the medieval town crammed with UNESCO sites. Views that are different than the standard advice that I read.
Tips for Visiting Sintra Portugal
1. One Day Isn't Enough
I know you don't want to hear this. Everyone wants to do Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. You can, but you won't see everything that way. Not even remotely. And there's a lot to see. There are ancient castles and sumptuous palaces. There are convents, parks, and nearby quaint villages and beaches.
I left feeling cheated with only 1 day.
Part of the problem is that Sintra is congested and wan't made for heavy traffic and massive crowds. Its road are narrow and winding. Getting around is flat out difficult. And there's cars, tuk tuks, taxis, ubers, and pedestrians sharing the roads. Ancient roads, flanked with stone walls, that are completely unsuited for two way traffic.
You can't avoid spending some time in transit. If you want more than a breezy drive by view, stay overnight.
2. How To Get To Sintra Portugal: Drive
I know you're rolling your eyes at my driving recommendation. I know this is counter-intuitive advice, contrary to everything you've read. But trust me, if you have a rental car, drive to Sintra.
It's quicker. We left from our Air Bnb and clocked in at 28 minutes. You'll save time and have the most flexibility with your arrival and departure times.
Most people take a train from the Rossi Square Station in the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon. It's cheap at under 5 euros for a return trip. It's not a bad option, to be sure.
The downsides are: (1) you have to spent time getting to the train station; (2) you can't pre-purchase your tickets online; (3) there's a long line to purchase a ticket at the station; (4) though trains leave hourly, some make pit stops along the way. At best, it's a 40 minute train ride. Then, when you arrive in Sintra, you've still got a 20 minute hike from the train station to the village of Sintra.
All this takes a huge chunk of time out of your day, time you can ill afford.
So drive. But drive smart. Park on the outskirts of Sintra and walk 5-10 minutes into the village center. I arrived around 9:30 am and found a spot without a problem. Then leave your car there until it's time to return to Lisbon or drive to an outlying site (Monserrate Palace, Caba da Roca, or Azenhos do Mar).
Don't drive into the center of Sintra. Don't try driving to the palaces. There are very few, if any, parking spots at the palaces. And driving in Sintra is treacherous. The roads are terrible -- narrow, hilly, winding, and with an aggravating number of blind corners and hairpin turns.
Unless you're a professional race car driver, don't venture into Sintra.
I say this so insistently because, like an idiot, I inadvertently ventured in with my clutch car before later parking on the outskirts of town. And it was incredibly nerve wracking and heart attack inducing.
I got lost, as I always seem to, when there was no parking on the streets around Quinta de Regaleira. My GPS didn't work well either. I was quite literally saved by a kind Portugese man who saw that I was befuddled and came to my rescue.
He had me follow his car and guided me back down to the outskirts of town on dirt roads until I was able to park safely. I owe him a debt. And I'm heartened that the kindness of strangers is still a real thing in this crazy life. It semi-restored my faith in humanity, which has been at an all time low as of late.
3. Forget the Famous 434 Sintra Bus
I know, this is counter-intuitive advice too. All travel bloggers seem to advise you to take this wretched tourist bus. If you want to spend all your time standing in line waiting for a bus and looking through dirty windows, do that. If you want to watch in frustration as overcrowded and full buses pass by your stop, do that.
The 434 bus is inefficient and severely overrated. It may be the cheapest option, but relying on it will waste valuable time. You'll be hot, harried, and aggravated. Plus, it only goes to three places: the National Palace, the Moorish Castle, and Pena Palace. You have to take a separate bus, 435, to get to Quinta da Regaleira or Monserrate.
4. Take Ubers or Tuk-Tuks
Instead of the 434 bus, use Uber or take a tuk tuk to get around. This is especially useful to get to and from the scattered castles and palaces. And Uber and Tuk-Tuks aren't that expensive in Sintra. Tuk tuks are the more pricey option, at 5 euros per person. Ubers are cheaper if you're a bigger party. You'll save valuable time taking these modes of transport.
This is not the time to be cheap. Put this in your budget and pony up a few extra euros to get around more quickly and improve your day.
I've also read that you can rent a small electric car to get around at Go Sintra. This may be a decent option, but then you have to do the hazardous driving.
Oh, and walking isn't the best option either. You can't walk to the highest palaces, Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle, unless you have a spare hour or two and fancy a severe vertical grade. However, you can easily walk to Quinta da Regaleira from the center of town (the 434 doesn't stop there FYI). And there's plenty of walking to be had within Sintra's palaces' grounds and gardens.
5. The Moorish Castle Has Best View
The best view is from the rugged 9th century Moorish Castle.
But it's the least visited spot. I'm not sure why. I loved the ancient atmospheric castle. It's an easy 10 minute walk from Pena Palace. Once you arrive, it's a bit of a steep hike (maybe 15 minutes) to get to the top of the ramparts. But it's so worth it and, unlike Pena, there was no wait.
You'll have stunning 360 panoramic views over Sintra and of the Pena Palace. Just a word of caution. The castle walls have almost no railings and the stone path is uneven. I got bumped by a careless tourist and thought I might fall over the edge.
6. Start Your day Early in Sintra
I'm a night owl. I don't like to get up early. Really I don't. But for Sintra you have to. It's crowded and you need to get there first. I arrived at 9:30 am, but 8:30 am would have been far better. I know, the last thing you want to do on your vacation, right?
Plus, the palaces close between 5-7 pm. You can't stay late to avoid the tour buses. So if you're day tripping, it's best to get an early start. Go to Pena Palace either very early or later in the afternoon, maybe around 3:00 pm. It's packed at mid-day.
7. Pre-Pick Your Sintra Castles
Winging it in Sintra is inadvisable. Really it isn't.
Do the research and decide which palaces you want to see ahead of time. You can't see them all; you have to choose. I would say you could see 2-3 in a day. I saw 3 and I felt like I was rushing and missed some things. For example, I didn't explore Pena Park or see Monserrate. That's why 2 days is better than 1 day for this UNESCO town.
My itinerary and order of viewing was Quinta da Regaleira, Pena Palace, and then the Moorish Castle. If I had a do over, I would change up the order and do Pena Palace either first or last and not at midday. The lines were much smaller when we left Pena at 3:00 pm then when we entered around noon.
I regret not seeing Monserrate Palace. The candy pink palace with ornate Moorish and Romantic architecture looks divine.
If you can't stay overnight, I recommend skipping Monserrate Palace (too far afield) or substituting Monserrate Palace for the overcrowded, line-ridden Pena Palace. You can skip the National Palace of Sintra in the center of town. You'll get a good look at it's exterior anyway, and it's the least impressive. If you only like luxurious palaces, you can skip the 10th century Moorish Castle.
8. Quinta da Regaleira Is The Best Site
In my opinion, Quinta da Regaleira is the best palace in Sintra. I'm always a little suspicious of places that are so universally loved, like the much more famous Pena Palace. I confess Pena is lovely and eye catching with its contrasting sparkly colors and schizophrenic architecture. It's very Disneyesque. But the extravagant stony Quinta da Regaleira stole my heart.
Quinta was built by eccentric and superstitious millionaire Antonio Monteiro. It's an eerie romantic place with stunning gardens featuring grottos, fountains, towers, and tunnels. It's part of Sintra's UNESCO designation. And it's a short 10 minute walk from the historic center of Sintra. Quinta is the easiest palace to access.
The palace and its architectural ensemble are magnificent, with Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance features. There are carvings associated with Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians.
In the brochure you can get, Quinta is described as an "imaginary universe of symbolism and metaphor." It felt that way to me, very Pans Labyrinth-esque.
The gardens feature a startling "initiation well" that was used for secret initiation rites.
You walk 90 feet down the spiral (and somewhat slippery) staircase and then enter underground tunnels that take you into the gardens. The well contains nine platforms, which are said to be “reminiscent of the Divine Comedy by Dante and the nine circles of Hell, the nine sections of Purgatory and the nine skies which constitute Paradise.”
9. The Pena Palace Double Line Trick
I feel like this was a trick.
I had purchased online skip the line entry tickets to Pena from Get Your Guide. Pena Palace is rather expensive as far as sites in Portugal go. So I avoided the long queue to enter the palace grounds and waltzed in. For more tips on tickets, check out my article on Pena Palace.
But, unbeknownst to me, there was an even longer line to see the palace interior with no "skip the line" option. I waited. On balance, however, I'd say it's absolutely not worth the long wait. (I'm an impatient person.) The interior was opulent and the balconies, parapets, and views were surreal.
But the real beauty of Pena is its gaudy operatic exterior with a riot of color and architectural styles and its gardens. So decide in advance whether you want to see the interior and budget time to wait in line, if you do.