Fairy Tale Castles in Sintra
Sintra, and more specifically the Palacio da Pena, was the inspiration for our entire trip to Portugal. Safe to say that it did not disappoint and blew away our already high expectations. Sintra was actually my favorite part of the whole trip!
Sintra is a town 20 miles north west of Lisbon that served as the summer playground for the Portuguese elite. The rich and famous built romantic palaces and castles with spectacular gardens atop the hills of the Serra de Sintra (Sintra Hills) as an escape from the heat. Luckily for us, these gorgeous monuments are now open to the public. We spent hours getting lost in the magical parks.
Most visitors only go to Sintra for the day by train from Lisbon. We opted to stay two nights in order to see more sites and not feel rushed as we explored. If your time is limited however, you can easily amend our itinerary. Check out our TBP Insider Tips for help planning a one day excursion.
The castles get extremely busy in the summer and they are set far apart on different hill tops. As such, it takes time to transfer between via bus. Many tourists only visit the Palacio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle), but we got the insider tip from our Airbnb host on the must-see monuments. Now we're sharing them with you! If you learn one thing from this post, DO NOT go to Portugal without visiting the Quinta da Regaleira. The ornate architecture is mesmerizingly beautiful.
Come get lost with us as we share our time in fairy tale Sintra.
What to See by Day
Day 1: Train to Sintra and Beach
Take a late morning train to Sintra after breakfast in Lisbon. Then head to the beach and enjoy a lazy afternoon with delicious seafood.
+ Take the train from Lisbon to Sintra after breakfast
+ Enjoy a relaxing day at the beach
Once in Sintra, you can drop your stuff at your accommodation and then take an uber/taxi to the beach. We recommend Praia da Adraga, about a 15 minute drive from Sintra. The town is famous for its castles, but Adraga is one of the top beaches in Portugal known for its stunning scenery of jagged cliffs and warm golden sand. It's the perfect secluded place to relax and recharge after sightseeing in Lisbon before taking on a packed day of touring the castles in Sintra.
+ Have a late lunch/early dinner at Restaurante da Adraga before heading back to town
When you get hungry, head into Restaurante da Adraga for some of the best seafood you've ever had! I mean seriously. So fresh and huge portions. Make sure you go into the actual table clothed restaurant on the right as you approach the building from the beach. Note that they bring you a large antipasti plate, but feel free to send back what you are not going to eat because you pay for everything separately, including the bread. If you are not using uber, you can ask the restaurant to call a taxi.
Day 2: Castles, Palaces, and Gardens
Spend a day exploring the castles, palaces, and gardens in the hills above Sintra. Get swept away by the ornate buildings constructed during the Romanticism period of the 19th century.
+ Have a quick pastry and coffee at A Piriquita for breakfast and admire the Palácio Nacional de Sintra (Palace of Sintra) across the street
Did you think we would get through a whole post without recommending a pastry place in Portugal? Come on, you should know us better by now. You must go to A Piriquita to try the traditional pastries of Sintra. More details below.
+ After breakfast, walk to your first castle, the Quinta da Regaleira
The Quinta da Regaleira was by far our favorite of the 3 monuments we visited. It served as the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family with the main house completing construction around 1910. The castle itself is stunning, but the true beauty is in the park. You feel like you are wandeirng through an enchanted garden with underground passageways, waterfalls, and magnificent greenery. We spent 2 hours exploring the property. Make sure you grab a map of the grounds, so you don't miss anything. Our favorites are the Initiatic and Unfinished Wells, Lake of the Waterfall, and the underground tunnels that connect them. Also make sure to climb the towers of the Cistern and the Main House and walk the Promenade of the Gods.
+ Hop on the 435 bus outside the Quinta up to Palácio de Monserrate
The Palácio de Monserrate was our second favorite. The property was restored to its current state by Sir Francis Cook in 1856. Again, don't forget to follow the map for a self-guided tour of the grounds. It features a large botanical garden with plants from around the world. The park is sectioned off by country. We spent an hour and a half exploring the property. The main Lawn, Chapel ruins, Beckford's Waterfall, and the Palace were the highlights.
+ Hop on the 435 bus back into town. At this point, you can either grab lunch or continue on your tour by picking up the 434 bus up to the Palácio de Pena.
The Palácio de Pena is the most popular palace and therefore the most crowded. It was our least favorite of the 3 monuments we visited, but still worth it. The Palace was the summer home of King Ferdinand II, who restored the main building from a monastery in 1843. It's very impressive sitting on the highest point of the park with its colorful walls. That being said, it is quite a hike up to the Palace from where the bus drops. We liked the exercise, but there is also a tram (separate payment) up to the top. Walk the perimeter of the building taking in the magnificent views before briskly walking through the main house. There are wonderful ornate details along the outside walls, so don't rush the walk.
+ Explore the park and walk to the Chalet e Jardim da Condessa d'Edla before taking the 434 bus back to town
We were running short on time because we took a longer lunch, so we did not get to wander much around the park or see the Chalet e Jardim da Condessa d'Edla . You can take this recommended route and/or follow signs to the Chalet, which is about a 45 minute walk through the park from the Palace. We were pretty bummed to miss the Chalet, so please let us know what you think!
Where and What to Eat
Sintra is a small town with only a few restaurants catered to tourists. We opted to buy groceries and cook in our apartment. Note that the markets are small and close early, so you must plan ahead if you want to make dinner. Even if you're only in Sintra for a day, we recommend going to the market in town for lunch and grabbing fresh fruit and ingredients for sandwiches. Don't make our same mistake by taking an extended lunch and missing out on attractions, unless that's your thing.
Now onto our food recommendations...
+ You must go to A Piriquita to try the local pastry of Sintra
Can you believe that the small town of Sintra has its own pastry? Turns out it's customary for Portuguese towns to have a signature pastry. A Piriquita is famous for its travesseiros, puff pastries filled with an almond egg custard. They're fabulous! They're so fluffy, the locals call them pillows. While you're there, try a pasteis de nata for comparison, because why not? And if you like cheesecake, you should also try the queijadas, a small tart with egg and cheese. They also have coffee to go!
+ Go to Cantinho Gourmet to try their delicious cheeses and drinks
Remember in our post about Lisbon where we discussed almond and cherry liquers? Well, we discovered them at Cantinho Gourmet in Sintra. You can try the amendoa amarga (almond) and ginjinha (cherry) at this cute gourmet store in the center of Sintra. Wander up the medieval steps of the town to find the store. Make sure to try the ginjinha in the chocolate shot glass (1 euro). Also sample the honey and cheeses! Amanda and her sister went wild for them.
Where to Stay
As mentioned previously, most people visit Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. If you are not pressed for time, you can get so much more out of the town by just spending even 1 night to maximize the open hours of the monuments.
There are a lot of great Airbnb options. We stayed at Casas da Biquinha, one of Maria's apartments, located on a quiet side street a minute from the center. Her apartments are part of the Sintra Inn group.
One thing to note about staying in Sintra is the town shuts down pretty early, so if you're looking for nightlife, you may want to head back to Lisbon.
TBP Insider Tips
> If you only have one day, we recommend sticking to our top 3 castles: Monserrate, Quinta, and Pena. You will not have enough time to visit the beach or the Chalet e Jardim da Condessa d'Edla. Also, make sure to take an early train from Lisbon. Most monuments open between 9:30-10am.
> You can pre-buy tickets for the Palácio da Pena, Palácio de Monserrate, and Chalet e Jardim da Condessa d'Edla at the tourist office in the center of town (open 9:30am-6pm). Discounted tickets are available when visiting multiple sites. Unfortunately, the Quinta is not included and tickets must be purchased on site (6 euro). Visit here for more info on all of the monuments in Sintra.
> Scotturb Bus lines 434 and 435 connect the main monuments. 434 (5 euro return) is the Circuito da Pena connecting Pena and the Moorish Castle to the center. 435 (2.50 euro return) connects Monserrate and the Quinta to the center. More detailed time tables and route lines can be found here. We have outlined an action packed day, but it can easily be adjusted to suit your interests. Both routes run in one direction, so plan accordingly. We did not include a visit to the Moorish Castle because we were OK with admiring it from afar (also a recommendation). If you would like to visit, then you can stop off the 434 before heading up the Pena.
> Alternatively, you can hire a tuk tuk from town to take you on a private tour up to the castles.
> If you choose to stay a night or 2, we would recommend picking up groceries from one of the small markets in town to pack a picnic lunch and make dinner at the apartment. The restaurants in town are pretty touristy and overpriced.