Travel Guide // Sintra, Portugal
july 9, 2017
a day trip from Lisbon
A stay in Lisbon isn’t complete without a fairytale excursion to the lovely town of Sintra. A mere 40 minute train ride from central Lisbon brings you to numerous castles within walking distance of Sintra station. There are many things to do and see in this little town; so much so that you may consider spending a night or two in the area. But if you’re like me, and crave big city nights and a familiar bed here are my top picks for a day trip this magical town...
Getting there // Getting around
There are trains leaving Rossio (closest to central Lisbon), Oriente, and Entrecampos stations in Lisbon headed to Sintra throughout the day. Return tickets are about €5 and are purchased at the station. The train schedule may be found here. You may also drive, yet parking can be tough in Sintra, especially during the summer tourist season.
Upon arrival in Sintra, you’ll likely be swarmed by tour guides offering to take you to all the sites on a schedule for a fee. This is an option, as is taking the 434 public tourist bus. I personally really enjoy walking and really dislike both public transportation and group tours. So I opted out of both of these.
All of the blogs I read ahead of time highly discouraged walking, but I happily did not heed their advice and walked up and down hills, traversing the town (much like a brave, medieval knight - just call me Brienne), taking in the sights and getting some free exercise. Yes, it is a hilly place, but those in good health can handle with ease.
see // do
As I said, there are many things to do, but with a day trip I prioritized the following...
Pena Palace is the most known (and most instagrammed) castle in Sintra. The brightly colored exterior makes for the perfect backdrop. I’ve now visited about a dozen castles in a handful of countries, and I can truly say these candy-colored hues are unique and imaginative. Because of this, it is a super popular spot and I highly recommend arriving early. Not only do you receive an entry discount during their first hour of operation, but there are also less tourists. Pena is crawling with people by noon. I’m one of those tourists who hypocritically loathes other tourists, so the crowds were quite annoying to me. This one factor kind of dampered the allure of Pena Palace, yet it is gorgeous and a must do. Just make sure to plan ahead, arrive early, and avoid weekends. You will have the option to purchase a ticket to view the gardens and exterior palace only (€7.50) or the gardens and interior (€13). A local told me to just do the garden tour, because the interior isn’t THAT impressive and most of it was under renovations during my visit. I had no regrets.
Getting there: It took me about 45 minutes to walk to Pena from the train station. You can take the bus, but the it fills quickly and you have to wait at times. The walk goes through town and is quite enjoyable, albeit mostly uphill. Upon arriving at the entrance to the palace grounds you will purchase tickets to enter. You will also have the option to pay for an additional shuttle that will take you to the entrance of the actual castle. I highly discourage this unless you are physically unable to walk up this small hill from the grounds entrance to the castle. I saw so many people wait for this shuttle, although it takes 5 minutes and very minimal effort to get to the castle from the entrance to the grounds on foot.
Le Castelo dos Mouros Sintra (The Castle of Moors) is a more traditional and medieval castle. You can see the castle perched high on a hill from the center of town and you can get a very good view from above at the Pena Palace. For this reason and lack of time, I didn't make it to this castle. I made it out to Sintra later than planned because of a rainstorm that morning, so viewing the castle in its entirety from Pena was enough for me. If you do decide to venture to Mouros, it is a 20 minute walk from the Pena Palace, or you can use the tourist bus.
Quinta da Regaleira is the most romantic place I have ever been - seriously. I enjoy traveling solo and count myself as an independent lady, but this castle had me weeping for a boyfriend. The structure itself is mesmerizing, but the grounds are really where the magic happens. Waterfalls, wells, caves, tunnels, turrets, and so many little nooks to get lost in for a smooch. All the male readers here (if there are any): get yourself a nice girl, take her here, and put a ring on it. This was my favorite sight in Sintra - highly recommend.
Getting there: The castle is very accessible, only a 20 minute, low-incline walk from the train station - 15 minutes from the center of town.
eat // drink
Many of the restaurants in town cater to tourists (i.e. shitty food for an even shittier price). But I'm fussy and particular - I enjoy good food and am willing to go out of my way to find it. Luckily there are a couple diamonds in the rough.
Saudade was my first stop in Sintra (even before the castles, because, “But first, coffee.”). Situated between the town center and train station, it's the perfect spot to grab a coffee and snack before a day filled with castle viewings. I tried their namesake coffee, The Saudade, which is strong black coffee with a few spoonfuls of condensed milk - so yummy.
Tascantiga is a Portuguese tapas restaurant situated on a quaint square, off a side street, outside of the main hustle in town. Their patio is festive and the menu is fresh and light. I had an octopus salad, mussels, and a copo de vinho branco (white wine). It was the perfect stopover between castle visits - relaxing and satisfying, yet refreshing and light so I was ready for more exploring post-lunch.
Both the Pena and Quinta castles have cafes, as well. Personally, the Pena was super touristy and lacked character. I sat down the the Quinta cafe, which was a bit more mellow, but I didn’t order anything.
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Fabrica das Verdadieras serves delicious queijadas (similar to miniature, cinnamon cheesecakes) among other pastries. I stopped in on my way back through town to grab a snack before hopping on the train back to Lisbon.
After I gobbling down a few queijadas I settled into a novel for the remaining 30 minute ride back to Lisbon. Castles, yummy food, and a good book on a train - the little things make for a satisfying day and a fairytale life - don’t you think?