“If you don’t climb the mountain, you can’t see the view.”
– Harvey Mackay
One of the best day trips from Lisbon is a visit to Sintra, a super charming little town situated in the high hills of the Serra de Sintra, one of Portugal’s 13 natural parks. Scattered all over the hills are beautiful palaces, extravagant villas and the ruins of an enormous Moorish castle. Sintra is simply a must-go and must-see whenever you are in Lisbon for more than 2 days.
The internet is full of organised tours to Sintra and this can make you feel that Sintra can only be done with a guide. I disagree. It’s an easy trip to undertake yourself, since public transport to and in Sintra is perfectly well organised and tickets can be bought online and on the spot. We did it all ourselves, took an early train to Sintra, had coffee with a pastéis de nata before taking the bus all the way up the Sintra hills. We visited 3 castles in one day at a leisurely pace and had a delicious light lunch in the charming old city centre as a break between our sightseeings.
If you want to explore Sintra without a guide too, please read on, since this week’s blogpost is all about possible ways to organise your one-day-trip to Sintra without a guide, without any hassle and with lots and lots of castles and food to enjoy!
How to get to Sintra?
Take the train from Rossio station in Lisbon early in the morning. You can upload your “Viva Viagem” ticket for this in advance, or buy your train ticket on the day itself at the station. We did the latter and because we left Lisbon so early, there was no queue at all.
The train trip takes about 40 minutes and costs EUR 4,50 for a return ticket.
How to select the castle(s) you want to visit?
There is plenty of choice in Sintra which might feel overwhelming, but for a one-day trip have a look at the following 4 castles, the ones most people have on their wish-list:
1.Palácio Nacional da Pena
The colourful Pena Palace with its many architectural influences is the absolute highlight for most tourists. Since this is the most popular of all castles, I can only advice you to start your day in Sintra with this castle and to be there as early as possible. You can choose to visit only the park and the terraces (EUR 7,50) or to add the interior of the palace to your visit (EUR 14).
We were there 15 minutes before opening and had the luxury for having the castle terraces somewhat to ourselves. It was filling up rather quickly and 45 minutes later, when we left, there were many more visitors everywhere. Mind you, we were in Sintra end of February, so I think the advice is even more valuable for the busier summer season!
We opted for the terraces only, because we’d rather see several castles in Sintra than one castle thoroughly. On top of that we had heard that there is quite some waiting involved for the beautiful state rooms in the castle. We felt this was the right decision for us. The exterior of the castle is very impressive and diverse with several awesome views (and good photo stops for Insta lovers😘).
2.Castelo dos Mouros
The Moorish Castle (entrance fee EUR 8) is worth a visit because of the views it offers and the feeling it gives you when walking there; climbing stairs and standing on top of towers. The Moorish Castle, built in in the 8th and 9th century, is only a 10-minute walk from Pena Palace.
Walking over the walls and climbing the many stairs will provide you with splendid views over the area all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the nearby Pena Palace.
3.Quinta da Regaleira
The romantic Regaleira Palace (entrance fee EUR 10) is on the list of many tourists for the mysterious and impressive initiation well and tunnels and is close to the city centre. The well is like an inverted tower, spiralling 27 metres deep into the ground. It symbolises death and rebirth.
When you have gone down, you see the light from a tunnel. Following this tunnel you come to a waterfall. The allegory of death and rebirth is clear I think and wonderfully crafted.
The staircase of the well has got 9 landings. Since Dante has described the 9 circles of hell in his Divine Comedy, the choice of 9 landings will be no coincidence.
The rest of the estate is very romantic and worth taking a stroll.
4.Palácio Nacional de Sintra
The National Palace, a medieval palace with two distinguished chimneys, can be found in the middle of the old town. It is known for its beautifully decorated ceilings. We haven’t visited this castle ourselves, but it’s on the must-see list of many tourists.
How to buy tickets?
You can buy tickets for the castles online, using the Tiqets website or on the spot (see the end of this blog post for links). In February there were no queues at all, but with the popularity of Sintra, I do not know if I would risk buying tickets on the spot in the sunnier months!
How to get to the castles?
The best option, both for your wallet and the environment is walking of course. The downside of this sporty version is that it is quite a climb (I live in Switzerland and love hiking, but wouldn’t dream of walking all the way up). When you decide to walk to Pena Palace from the station, you will never be able to visit 3 or 4 castles in one day though. That’s why we decided to take the next best option for wallet and environment: bus 434. It leaves near the station (when leaving the station, turn right – the bus stop is more or less opposite the tourist information). You can buy your bus ticket (EUR 6,90) in the bus or at the tourist information (have a look where the queue is less long). You can use this bus as a hop-on-hop-off service.
Bus 434 brings you directly to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra and Castelo dos Mouros as well as Palácio Nacional da Pena. Because of the popularity of the Pena Palace, I advice you to take the bus there first, do your sight-seeing and then walk to the Moorish Castle. Opposite the entrance of the Moorish Castle is a bus stop, where you can hop on again till the city centre. That’s your stop for both the National Palace (in the city centre) as well as the Regaleira Palace (a 10-minute walk from the city centre).
There are also loads of Tuk Tuks that offer their services. It looks quite romantic and I am sure many drivers will provide some information during the ride, but we have seen them going up and down the hill in a non-stop traffic jam (remember we were there in February🤔) with the tourists in them bouncing up and down (mind you: not of excitement, but because the road is quite bumpy). We could also clearly smell the exhaust fumes and were glad we had taken the bus, both for ourselves as for the beautiful park around us.
What to wear to Sintra?
Sintra is on a hill and therefor the weather can be rather unpredictable and far less summerly than in Lisbon itself. We had a sunny start, followed by windy walks and after lunch we had some drizzle. It makes sense to come well prepared weather-wise and layering is definitely a good idea. Solid shoes as well, especially if you plan to walk the many stairs of Castelo dos Mouros.
I know that travelling may be not possible at the moment, so I hope you have enjoyed this virtual visit to Sintra and can use the information whenever your travels bring you to Portugal!
Obrigada for reading!
More information and useful links:
- For opening times and admission prices of the castles within Sintra National Park (such as Pena Palace and the Moorish castle), click here. When you visit more than one site, you can get a discount. These tickets cannot be bought online though!
- Online booking for castle tickets, like Pena Palace, can be done here. We used the Tiqets website to buy all our castle tickets and it was very user-friendly. We just missed out on the 5% discount, because we booked online, but we thought we might have had to queue for tickets in Sintra itself and wanted to avoid that. Choice is yours! In our case, we could have had it all, since there were no queues at all for the physical tickets offices (but bear in mind once more that my visit was end of February).
- For information about public transport in and around Lisbon, check out the Lisbon Guru Travel Guide.
- In case you want to travel back to Lisbon via Cascais, making a stop at Cabo da Roca, the most western point of continental Europe, you can take bus 403 (bus stop at the station in Sintra). It takes around 40 minutes to get to Cabo da Roca and the price is EUR 4,25. Cabo da Roca is the most romantic spot for a sunset, so perfect to do after a day trip to Sintra. From Cabo da Roca you can take bus 403 (twice an hour and it takes around 25 minutes) to Cascais, have a delicious fish dinner there before taking the train back to Lisbon, where you will arrive at the Cais do Sodré station (price EUR 2,25).