The enchanting UNESCO World Heritage landscape of Sintra is an understandably popular destination. Although it’s less than an hour from Lisbon, it’s a world apart. We’re talking forested hills filled with fanciful palaces, romantic gardens, centuries-old castles and convents, all contained within a natural park fringed by beautiful beaches.
In fact, there are so many things to do in Sintra that, after countless visits, I highly recommend you plan ahead to make the most of your time. Or take a tour and let someone else take care of the logistics for you.
Note: See my Sintra hotels and accommodation tips if you intend to stay overnight.
Guided tours to Sintra from Lisbon
If you can only spend one day in Sintra and don’t have time for detailed planning, you might want to consider one of the many guided tours from Lisbon to Sintra, Cascais and surrounds.
If you have very limited time and want to combine your visit to Sintra with a quick look at the pretty resort town of Cascais and the Cabo da Roca viewpoint, this full day small group tour covers all of these bases.
If you are more interested in a private tour of Sintra, this one offers exceptional value.
Best things to do in Sintra
These are the most popular sights in Sintra but you won’t have time to see them all in just one day so either choose a couple of them or stay overnight.
1. Be wowed by the fairy tale excess at Pena Palace
The multicoloured icon of Sintra is Palácio da Pena. Never mind icing on a cake, it actually looks like an extreme wedding cake with its bright colours, teeming with turrets and extravagant architectural details like the famous window (see photo below).
It is definitely worth the journey uphill but, being one of the most popular things to do in Sintra, expect to find tourists crawling all over the palace and long queues to see into roped-off rooms.
Tip: If you visit very early in the morning or late afternoon you should miss the worst of the hoards. Otherwise, at least try to avoid weekends and preferably come during the winter months. Or visit with an organised tour, like this one.
Try to create space in your Sintra itinerary to allow you to explore the surrounding park and woodland at a more relaxed pace.
You’ll need at least 2 hours to visit Pena Palace plus travel time. At the moment, you need to buy a timed entrance ticket so make sure you allow plenty of time to get to the actual palace before your visit is due to start. Give yourself 30 minutes between the park gate and the palace entrance. Open daily from 9:30, park only is €7.50, palace and park €14. Buy tickets online.
2. Explore the folly-filled garden at Quinta da Regaleira
What happens when you give an extremely talented and visionary designer unlimited funds and a free rein to renovate a property?
Go to Quinta da Regaleira and you’ll find out.
Luigi Manini, an Italian artist, set designer and architect, landed the job of transforming the property at the beginning of the 20th century. He spent the next nine years detailing every aspect of both the gardens and the house.
The grottos, caves and secret tunnels that are scattered throughout the grounds bear a striking resemblance to his theatre sets. Follies include a Dante-inspired inverted well, various fountains, turrets and bridges and a neo-Manueline chapel, providing immense fun for children and adults alike.
The house may not hold great appeal for kids but it definitely merits more than a quick peek.
My favourite room is the Sala da Caça (the Hunting Room), which was used as the family dining room. I’m no fan of hunting but the workmanship of the sculpted mantelpiece and doorways is awe-inspiring. Best of all is the brightly coloured mosaic floor, decorated with scenes from nature and hunting.
Each room has a unique floor and ceiling, as you’ll see when you get to the upper floor which is filled with Manini’s designs and more information than you can possibly take in during a single visit. To be fair, this is probably of most appeal to architects and designers but the ground floor rooms should not be rushed.
There’s a café in the grounds if you need a break between house and gardens.
Expect to spend around 2 hours at Quinta da Regaleira. Open daily from 9:30 am.
3. Discover centuries of history at Sintra National Palace
One of the oldest and certainly the most central of Sintra’s monuments is the National Palace, which is also one of my favourites. Its iconic double chimney stacks belong to the kitchen and are impressive from inside and out.
Other special features of the town’s oldest royal palace include the ceilings painted with swans, magpies and ships and the fabulous array of original azulejos (painted tiles) which span the 15th to the 19th centuries. You’ll also find some splendid examples of Mudejar and Manueline architecture.
Allow at least an hour for visiting Sintra National Palace. Two if you like to take your time over details. Open daily.
4. Conquer the rugged battlements at Castle of the Moors
As an antidote to all this ostentation, the coarse ruggedness and unadorned simplicity of Sintra’s Castelo dos Mouros works well.
Originally built in the 10th century, the Moorish Castle has been added to many times over the centuries that followed and used in strategic defense.
I enjoyed clambering around the ramparts and taking in the stunning views, although you have to work for them!
You’ll need to factor in transfer times as it’s away from Sintra town centre but once there, I’d say you’ll want up to an hour.
Open daily from 9:30 am.
5. Escape the crowds at Chalet da Condessa d’Edla and Pena Farm
If you’d rather avoid queues at Pena Palace and be content with viewing it from the outside, you could aim straight for this small but beautifully restored chalet inside Pena Park.
Chalet da Condessa d’Edla
The Swiss-German origins of the Countess of Edla may explain some of the decorative features of the “House of Delights” that she and her husband, King Ferdinand II, had built in the forest. The building was severely damaged in a fire but has since been reconstructed with replicas of the original interior decor and imaginative use of cork.
Though mostly unfurnished, the items on display, such as the royal picnic basket, and information panels give fascinating insights into their lifestyle at the end of the 19th century.
A visit to the chalet itself will probably take up no more than half an hour (plus travel time) but allow another hour or more to explore the surrounding park, which encompasses and offers great views of Pena Palace. Open 9.30 am to 7 pm in high season, €9.50 full price, which includes access to the Pena Park.
Tip: If you intend to visit Pena Palace and/or the Moorish Castle, buy a combined ticket at the chalet and walk through the woods to reach the other entrances via the lakes. If you’re not up to walking far, there is a hop on hop off bus that does the rounds of the Pena Park for an extra €3.50.
Pena Park, farm and equestrian activities
Pena Park holds many treasures such as the Valley of the Ferns, restored greenhouses and a small ornamental farm with vegetable plots, sheep, chickens and horses that was built in the 19th century along the lines of the one that Louis XVII had.
You can take a look behind the scenes of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art and watch the training and rehearsals required for their special galas and shows. More details here.
6. Hike the Villa Sassetti trail
If you’re reasonably fit, you can hike between Sintra old town and the hilltop monuments of Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle. The steep forest path takes you past the restored Villa Sassetti and Penedo da Amizade, a huge boulder that climbers like to tackle.
Mike and I were pushed for time and are not keen on climbing hills so we opted to take an Uber to the Chalet da Condessa D’Edla and then walked back downhill through Pena Park and via Villa Sassetti.
We got a little lost once we reached the cobbled road at the Lakes Entrance to Pena Park but eventually located the start of the Villa Sassetti trail. It is a worthy walk and offers plenty of shade and great views so I’d recommend doing it at least one way if you have time (allow about 45 minutes to 1 hour each way).
Tip: The trail downhill starts at the end of the car park opposite the Lakes Entrance to Pena Park. In other words, cross the road and walk through the car park. The other end is beside the Parque das Merendas (picnic area) marked on this map.
Tip: Although full on hiking gear is not necessary, the terrain is uneven so you need sensible shoes.
7. Experience simplicity and nature at Convento dos Capuchos
For a complete contrast to the excessive grandeur of Sintra’s palaces, head a few kilometres out of the town centre to the 16th century Convento dos Capuchos.
This jumbled maze of low-level buildings is nestled in woodland, providing a relatively peaceful respite from the heavily touristed sites.
It’s easy to see why the Capuchin monks chose this location, surrounded by natural beauty with views that extend to the coast.
As you’ll see from patchy, peeling plaster, mossy boulders and cork-clad walls, the convent fell into disrepair during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating insight into the austere lifestyle of the Capuchin monks who lived and trained here. Enter the convent itself through the Door of Death and poke around the tiny dormitories, the kitchen, chapel and cloisters.
Although I walked along the road from Sintra to the convent, it’s quite a trek and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially in summer. There’s no public transport, so the only alternative would be to drive or take a taxi /Uber or a guided tour like this one.
Once there, you can easily while away an hour or more.
8. Romantic Monserrate Palace and gardens
Monserrate is another one of Sintra’s lesser-visited sites but well worth the extra effort involved in getting there. After all, it’s only a short bus ride (bus #435) or drive from the town centre.
Monserrate Palace itself is smaller than I expected and has only been open to the public for a few years. Although still beautiful enough to inspire Lord Byron to write a poem, Monserrate’s original neo-Gothic palace was already in ruins by the time he visited.
The subsequent rebuilding, interior decoration and ingenious infrastructures plus much of the landscaped gardens you can see today were down to Sir Francis Cook who took over the property in 1858. The ceilings alone are worth straining your neck for, especially the one in the main atrium between the colonnaded galleries leading to each end of the palace.
There’s little furniture in the house now but the information boards have black and white photographs of how each room looked while the Cook family lived there. If that’s not enough, you can have a go on Edgar, the interactive butler, to find out more about the family and the history of the property.
It was raining when Mike and I visited Monserrate Gardens but that didn’t stop us following the walking trail through the romantic and exotic gardens that separate the palace from the road.
With waterfalls, lakes, ferns growing out of trees and tropical plants from around the world, it’s a wonderful sanctuary to roam. It too has follies, including a neo-Gothic chapel, deliberately ruined to create a whimsically romantic atmosphere. These days, it’s partially covered by a strangler fig and one of the ponds is home to a salamander lizard.
Factor in a couple of hours for this visit, plus travel time. Open from 9:30 am.
Time in Monserrate and at the Capuchos Convent are included in my 2-Week Portugal Discovery Tour.
Or arrange a one-day guided hike to these off-the-beaten track sights by completing this enquiry form.
9. Neoclassical features at Seteias Palace
Seteias Palace was originally built in the 18th century for the Dutch Consul and is now a luxury hotel, part of the Tivoli Group.
High on the hill overlooking Sintra, its noble neoclassical facade is matched by the period decor inside, including frescoes and beautiful wooden furniture.
Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can treat yourself to lunch or dinner in the elegant restaurant. We did none of those things but the staff very kindly let us have a nosy around the public spaces for a few minutes.
10. Biester Palace and Park
I haven’t managed to make it to Biester Palace yet but I want to pass on the reports I’ve heard about it to you. It’s not on the ‘Sintra must-sees’ but it’s only a question of time. The photos and descriptions show a beautiful palace set in gorgeous grounds. A (very big) plus side is there are no crowds! So take this opportunity to explore this fascinating place- I will soon!
Check out the site for details and the chance to look at photos. Open April to October 10am to 8 pm, November to March 10 am to 6.30pm. Cost €10 and with a 90 minute guided tour €18.
11. Taste Colares wine
Portugal has many microclimates and terroirs and the unique growing conditions in the tiny Colares wine region produce some of Europe’s oldest rootstock wines.
Grown in sand, in proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the local vines were protected from the devastating phylloxera plague that destroyed many European vineyards in the 1900s. The resulting wines have a curious mineral flavour and are something of an acquired taste but worth trying if you get the chance.
There are a few wineries close to Sintra. I visited the small Adega Viúva Gomes, although the larger Adega Regional de Colares is probably easier to visit (closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday). Both require vehicle transfers from Sintra so factor in travel time plus and hour or so for the tour and tasting.
For other wineries to visit in the Lisbon area, check out this post.
12. Walks in and around Sintra
As well as the Vila Sassetti trail, you’ll notice lots of markers around town for PR (Pequenas Rotas = Short Routes) walks painted with yellow and red stripes but having tried unsuccessfully to follow a couple, I would not rely solely on these markings.
Within the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, you’ll find the GR-11 Atlantic Route which takes you along spectacular coastline and through small villages, including the picturesque Azenhas do Mar.
See this article about hiking in and around Sintra for more details.
If you’re interested in a guided hike, let me know and I will connect you with a suitable tour operator.
13. Visit Sintra old town for souvenir shopping
The town has cashed in on the never-ending flow of tourists that visit Sintra each day. The narrow cobbled streets leading away from the National Palace are littered with souvenir shops, cafés named after famous poets and port wine tasting outlets.
While some of these shops sell pure tat, there are still gems to be found.
My two favourite shops in Sintra are Arte e Companhia Ilimitada, a treasure trove of gorgeous, quality Portuguese arts and crafts and Olaria S. Pedro, a ceramics shop that I first discovered in the medieval town of Óbidos.
FAQs about visiting Sintra
These are the most common questions people ask me. (Click the question to see my answer.)
Can you see Sintra in one day?
Do I need a guide in Sintra?
Is Pena Palace worth it?
How to get to Sintra?
How do I get between Sintra attractions?
Should I buy tickets in advance?
What’s the best time of day to visit?
When is the best time of year to visit?
Eating and drinking in Sintra
Some of the bakeries have queues out the door for the famous Sintra queijadas (sweet cheese cakes) and travesseiros (sweet pastry) and a day in Sintra is not quite complete without trying one of these, especially when they’re still warm. That said, my favourite café for cakes is Café Saudade, near the train station. They serve light meals, too.
However, if you’re after a more substantial meal, it can be a bit hit and miss.
Mike and I experienced the highs and lows of eating out in Sintra, the low being a plate of slop, sorry bacalhau com natas (cod with cream and potato), something I normally enjoy but resent being overcharged for when it’s way below standard.
Thankfully, the other meal we had was the other end of the spectrum if a little pricey. I had high hopes as the restaurant is called A Raposa (The Fox). It’s small, family run, elegant and in a room with beautiful fresco ceilings.
The food was excellent although don’t go there if you need to eat in a hurry. Dishes are made from scratch and take time to prepare so relax and be prepared to linger over a meal. They also serve interesting-looking sandwiches and teas earlier in the day.
Places to stay in Sintra
Sintra has a wide range of accommodation from luxury palaces to modern design hotels, traditional guest houses and cute, trendy hostels.
If you plan to go self-catering, note that we haven’t come across even a small grocery store during any of our stays in Sintra historical centre so if you haven’t got a car, you might find it tricky to stock up on supplies.
More information about visiting Sintra
The Parques de Sintra website has lots more information about each monument and helpful tools such as travel planners and ticket calculators.
You can also find out about cultural events being held in Sintra’s monuments as well as temporary closures for restoration works.
Check here for a selection of Sintra tickets you can get in advance.
Tip: Save money by purchasing combined passes – the more monuments you visit, the greater the % discount. Discounts apply for youths, families and seniors.
Quinta da Regaleira is managed by a separate foundation so you’ll need to visit its own website for more information.
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