Sintra has become a must-see for travelers in Portugal. Need some ideas? Stroll around the village, hop on a horse-drawn carriage and get lost in the beautiful castles. If you've been there already, well, go again. :)
Sintra, the Moon Hill, is a place full of magic and mystery, where Nature and Man have combined in such a perfect symbiosis that UNESCO has granted it Word Heritage Site status.
Whatever your plan, a good suggestion is always to start from the historic centre, after an invigorating breakfast to prepare for a full day.
On the main square, you will see Vila Palace with its two distinctive cone-shaped chimneys, which are useful landmarks for helping you find your way back to this spot. From the late 14th century, it was a summer resort for many Kings throughout the history of Portugal. Each room is decorated differently, and has its own history to be learned; its interior is also a surprise since it is a veritable tile museum, with examples from the 16th century, when tiles began to be used in Portugal.
After a gentle stroll along the narrow alleys, past shops selling regional products, we suggest a visit to the Palácio and Quinta da Regaleira. This is a 19th century palace, although it looks older, boasting impressive decorations laden with Masonic references. Very close to the entrance to Regaleira, is Seteais, an 18th century palace, currently converted into an hotel. The gardens are worth a visit and from its belvedere you can see Pena Palace, Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) and the sea in the distance…
Before climbing up the mountain, lunch would be in order in a good restaurant in town, or a picnic in Castanheiros Park, a picnic area halfway along Volta do Duche.
You can devote the afternoon to getting to know the mountain and discover the nooks and crannies of a landscape that is a World Heritage site.
Before entering the botanical sanctuary of the Pena Park, walking past the Countess D’Edla Chalet and going up to the Palace that Richard Strauss called the “Holy Grail Castle”, the Castelo dos Mouros is unmissable. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries and extended after the Reconquest, it bears witness to the Islamic presence in the region.
At the top is one of the most romantic palaces in Portugal, the Pena Palace, a fancy, revivalist reconstruction, much to 19th century romantic taste, that owes its existence to the passion and imagination of the artist king Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the husband of Queen D. Maria II.
If you failed to do so in the morning, as you head back to town, don’t miss a taste of the famous queijadas (cheese cakes) and travesseiros (almond pastries), the perfect specialties for a late afternoon in a dream place.
One day is not enough for everything there is to see in Sintra, so the ideal would be to stay longer or, alternatively, organise your visit differently, if you’re available.
In addition to other interesting museums, highlights include the Monserrate Park, with its exotic Neo-Gothic palace, and the Capuchos Convent, built in the 16th century, using cork to line small spaces, according to the dictates of poverty of the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, providing a stark contrast with the palaces that you’ve visited so far. 2km from the convent is Peninha, one of the highest points on the mountain, and on your way to the coast, the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas is definitely worth a visit for its important epigraphic collection over two thousand years old.
For those travelling in July and August, it’s an excellent opportunity to attend the classical music concerts and dance performances during the Sintra Festival, taking place in the Sintra and Pena Palaces and at the Olga de Cadaval Cultural Centre.
If you happen to be on the Sintra-Lisbon IC19 road, don’t miss a visit to the Queluz National Palace, a sumptuous 18th century palace in the rocaille style. In its grounds, you can watch a show by the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art and appreciate the quality of the Lusitano horses, bred in Alter, Alentejo, at the former Royal stud-farm.
A romantic town
Exotic gardens, exuberant parks with meandering footpaths amid century-old trees, fancifully decorated palaces, small ponds with inviting recesses and fake ruins in the middle of the natural landscape are undoubtedly sources of inspiration for a special moment.
To celebrate love on an important date, to find the ideal place to get married or even spend your honeymoon, or for no reason at all, Sintra is certainly one of the most romantic destinations in Portugal, where kings and queens have fallen in love and which writers and poets, like Eça de Queiroz and Lord Byron, immortalised in their works.
For a truly romantic feel, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. There are several circuits departing from the town centre which will take you through romantic settings reminiscent of the 19th century, amid palaces and woodland, bringing to mind aristocrats of former times sauntering about the mountain and engulfing you in their magic.
A ride along the beaches
The golden sandy beaches of the Sintra coast, close to Lisbon, are very popular and offer excellent restaurants to relish a fish meal and a good, refreshing white wine, like Colares, for example.
While Praia das Maçãs is more appreciated for sunbathing and swimming in the sea, sportsmen prefer Praia Grande where various national and international surfing, bodyboarding and skimming competitions are held. There is also a salt water swimming pool for those who prefer a calmer “sea”.
Azenhas do Mar, with its houses cascading down the cliff, also boasts a salt water swimming pool, and a narrow beach that is swallowed up at high tide. It is one of the most scenic spots and well worth the trip, as is Praia da Adraga between the cliffs. To complete the tour of the Sintra coast, you must visit the westernmost point of the continent of Europe, Cabo da Roca, “where the land ends and the sea starts” and let yourself be carried away by the view and the power of the sea.
Between the Sintra Mountain and the sea, you will find yourself in a protected area, the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
The ever cool microclimate affords outdoor activities all year round, an excellent way to discover this World Heritage landscape.
Cyclists have a huge challenge: going up the mountain to get to the superb Pena Palace. It is a ride that puts your legs and breath to the test, and is a reminder that Sintra has often been part of the Cycling Tour of Portugal which is held every year.
To overcome your own limits, there are places with good conditions for climbing. Pedra Amarela and Penedo da Amizade are known for their degree of difficulty, but the sensation of freedom as you reach the top is indescribable, offering the very best view over Sintra. On a clear day, the mountain is also an ideal place for paragliding and hang-gliding.
There’s no shortage of hiking trails or orientation routes to acquaint yourself with the mysteries of this landscape. Varying in length and dedicated to different themes, from nature to culture, they are suited to all degrees of difficulty. One of the most attractive runs between Praia Grande, where you can see a site with eleven dinosaur tracks and isolated footprints etched on the cliff, and Cabo da Roca, 100m above sea level.
To make up for so much activity, remember to get some of Sintra’s queijadas and travesseiros to relish peacefully while you rest and enjoy the view.
From the historic centre, you can visit the Sintra Mountain on foot or by bus.
The one-day tourist tickets “Circuito da Pena” and “Villa Express” will take you to Castelo dos Mouros and the Pena Palace or past the Seteais, Regaleira and Monserrate Palaces, enabling you to hop on and off on the way up. Information available from www.scotturb.com.
From Friday to Sunday, there is a tram running between Estefânia de Sintra and Praia das Maçãs. Prices and timetable at www.cm-sintra.pt.
Ask about avaliable itineraries at the Sintra City Council Tourist Office (www.cm-sintra.pt), by the Palácio da Vila. At the Cabo da Roca Tourist Office, you can obtain a certificate proving that you’ve stood at the most westerly point of Europe.
The site www.sintraromantica.net, dedicated to “Sintra, Capital of Romanticism” provides maps, virtual visits, 3D landmarks, digital brochures and tourist guides for smartphones.
Before visiting the Queluz National Palace, learn about the show times of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art from www.parquesdesintra.pt, where you can also get information on tours and activities in some of Sintra’s Parks and Palaces.
By road, Sintra is about 20km from Lisbon on the IC19 road, and you can stop at the Queluz Palace. A usual drive will take you back along the coast, past Colares, Almoçageme, Guincho, Cascais and Estoril, carrying on the seafront road to Lisbon.
In the town, there is a charge for public parking which is only allowed in designated places.
By public transport, one of the most comfortable ways of getting to Sintra is by train. Departing from the Rossio station, the trip from Lisbon to Sintra takes about 40 minutes. You can look up the times at www.cp.pt.
The municipality of Sintra is also served by the Scotturb coach company – www.scotturb.com. CP – Comboios de Portugal offers a combined pass with Scotturb, called Train & Bus, which provides tours past the main points of attraction in Sintra, Cascais and Lisbon. You can reach Sintra by bus from Cascais and Estoril. See times of the 417 and 418 lines at www.scotturb.com.
The Lisboa Card, the City of Lisbon tourist card, also allows travel to Sintra, in addition to other benefits in accessing museums, monuments and services in the City which can be consulted at www.askmelisboa.pt.