How to explore the fairytale castles of Sintra, Portugal

Monserrate Palace Sintra Portugal

Ethereal, magical and spellbinding are just three words that can be used to describe Sintra, and they don’t quite manage to do it justice.  This was my favourite stop in Portugal, thanks to the incredible architecture and wonderful gardens of the castles of Sintra.

Sintra is incredibly popular and is worth two days of your time in Portugal at least.  Read on for a two day Sintra itinerary covering the best things to do in Sintra and tips and tricks to help you maximise your time here!

You won’t regret adding Sintra to your Portugal itinerary!

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The best things to do in Sintra

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The best things to do in Sintra are undoubtably visiting the many palaces and castles in the area.  I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with quite so many wonderful and unique buildings.

The surrounding countryside is amazing too.  Lush, dripping with ferns and moss, and almost greener than England, Sintra’s rainy climate helps to add to the mysterious feel of the town. Mists roll slowly down the mountainside, revealing glimpses of medieval fortresses perched high up on the cliffs.

And if you venture to the mountaintops then you can see incredible views stretching all the way to Lisbon and to the coasts.  Breathtaking!

A two day Sintra itinerary, visiting the ethereal castles of Sintra

Castle of the Moors seen through cloud above Sintra old town

Many people allow one day to explore Sintra.  It’s totally possible to cover quite a bit of Sintra in a day trip from Lisbon but I would highly recommend that you spend at least one night in Sintra.  The town itself has a lovely atmosphere and is relatively peaceful despite being such a hotbed of tourism.

Two days in Sintra will also allow you to see much more than the usual couple of palaces – some of the lesser visited castles of Sintra are the most impressive!

We didn’t do this exact itinerary as we stayed for two nights and therefore had another half day in Sintra. We also messed up our visit to Pena Palace and got stuck in the enormous entrance queue which we eventually gave up on – we spent most of the day in Pena Park instead, and went into the palace later in the afternoon.

So our itinerary was a little more relaxed than the one I’m going to suggest below.

However this is the most efficient two day Sintra itinerary I can come up with!   In this itinerary you can cover five of Sintra’s best palaces and castles.  Each one is spectacular in its own way and is well worth visiting.

TIP: If you have two days in Sintra then check the weather forecast and go up to Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors on the best day.  You’ll want to get those views from the mountaintop – not guaranteed if it’s a very cloudy day as in the above photo!

Day 1 in Sintra

If you only have one day in Sintra then I’m going to suggest visiting the most popular castles.  Brightly coloured and spectacularly gaudy, you should hit Pena Palace first, followed by the ruins of the Castle of the Moors.  This may take you all day.

Depending on how much time you have left, visit the Sintra National Palace in the town centre; alternatively if you’re making good time visit Quinta da Regaleira but be aware that you need several hours for Quinta.

For the purpose of this itinerary I’ll cover the Sintra National Palace on Day 1 but feel free to swap with Quinta for your own trip, or leave them both until Day 2!

Pena Palace

View from balcony of Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace is the most famous castle of Sintra!  Most people will recognise its sunflower yellow and terracotta walls, and it’s definitely one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve been to.

Pena Palace sits right up on top of one of the highest hills in the area, making the views from its battlements absolutely incredible.

As Pena Palace is so well known it gets very busy.  I would advise taking a taxi up to the entrance to arrive before opening time so you can get a ticket (if you haven’t bought one in advance).  Once you’ve gone into the palace grounds don’t muck about – go straight to the main castle entrance.

Click here to buy your Pena Palace entrance ticket.  (Note that you can’t skip to queue to get into the Palace itself).

Watch out for the Pena Palace entrance queue

Turrets and towers of Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The queue to get in to the palace grounds isn’t bad – it’s the one to look inside the palace itself you need to watch out for.  After 11am or so this queue will be snaking its way back out of the palace complex and down the hill and it’ll take you hours to get inside.

We made the mistake of not going straight to the queue; it was enormous by the time we realised our error.

While the interior of Pena Palace is lovely, it’s not the loveliest that you’ll see in Sintra so if the queue is too big and you’re pressed for time then you can skip it.  Sadly no photos are allowed inside!  You do get some great views from the balcony and we were glad that we got inside eventually, later in the day.

TIP: If you are travelling with small kids then you may be able to skip the long entrance queue.  We were picked out of the line by an employee and taken straight to the entrance.  Win.

After you’ve been inside, take some time to admire the amazing tile detail and decor on the palace walls – I love the merman above one of the the main walkways in particular.  You should also make time to walk around the palace to get stupendous views across the Sintra area.  It feels as though you’re on the edge of the world in places!

Merman decoration at Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace park and gardens

Pena Palace seen from Pena Park, Sintra, Portugal

There’s more to Pena Palace than the castle – don’t miss out on its lovely grounds.

As we didn’t want to wait in line to get inside the Palace, we chose to walk through the Pena Palace gardens – a good idea.

These grounds are extensive and dotted with follies, ponds and even a farm.  Our kids had a great time running through the gardens and hunting for the next building to explore.

The gardens are planted in different sections, so you can explore rhododendron forests, groves filled with ferns, and the three main ponds in the centre of the gardens.  I’d try to walk down to these ponds if you can, but save enough energy for the walk back up the hill!

There’s also a lovely view of Pena Palace from the next hill, if you want to walk further into the park.  I’d pack a picnic and eat it here in Pena Park, rather than buying overpriced sandwiches from the cafe.

Chalet da Condessa d´Edla

Chalet da Condessa d´Edla, Pena Park, Sintra, Portugal

Right down at the far end of the park is a summer palace built for the Contessa of Edla.  It’s a beautifully restored wooden chalet that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale.  You can learn about the Contessa’s life and walk around the chalet which has been heavily restored recently.

The chalet was used by the Contessa to get away from the hustle and bustle of Pena Palace, and includes a traditional kitchen, reception rooms and several bedrooms upstairs.  The rooms inside have been as beautifully restored as the outside.

The chalet is also surrounded by wonderful gardens which were in full bloom in April.  Try to see it if you can!

TIP: There are buses that will drive you through the Pena Park if you don’t want to walk.  But they didn’t seem to be hop on hop off buses – we tried to get on one at the chalet to go back to the palace but the driver was waiting for the people he’d just dropped off to come back.  So we had to trudge all the way back again on foot!

Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)

Pena Palace seen from Castle of the Moors, Sintra, Portugal

Once you’ve looked around Pena Palace then you can walk to the Castle of the Moors which is on the next hill.  There’s a little track that runs through the woods parallel to the road so you don’t have to walk along the busy road.

The Moorish Castle is a totally different beast to Pena Palace.  It’s one of the oldest castles in Sintra and was built as a watchtower by the Moors back in the 10th Century.  After the Christians took the lands the Moorish Castle fell into ruins until it was restored in the 1900s.

Today the main thing to do at the Castle of the Moors is to walk along the former battlements and admire the incredible views. You can see out to the coast, to Lisbon, Pena Palace and also right down to Sintra itself.  It’s one of the best places to get a photo of Pena Palace (the other involves a long hike up to a hill opposite Pena, which we didn’t feel we could do with the kids).

Amazing views from Moorish Castle Sintra Portugal

There are some little museums to look around and some lovely planted areas too; it’s all scattered about in an organic sort of way.

After you’ve finished looking around the Moorish Castle then you can either hop on a bus to take you back to Sintra town centre or walk down the hill to the town.  This is a steep path but doesn’t take as long as you might think, and there are some fabulous views as you descend.

View of Sintra National Palace from the path leading down the hill from Castle of the Moors.

The above sightseeing took us all day as we spent hours in Pena Park.

Click here to buy your fast track ticket for Castle of the Moors.

Sintra National Palace

Sintra National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

If time is on your side then you can look in the Sintra National Palace, otherwise leave this until Day 2.  Sintra National Palace is right in the centre of town and you won’t miss its two enormous cylindrical chimneys.

Like the Castle of the Moors it actually dates from the 10th Century and was also built by the Moors.  So there’s definitely a Moorish feel to the decor and some of the architecture.

This palace gives you the most comprehensive tour though the inside of the castles of Sintra, and we thought it was really interesting, especially the kitchens, where you can look up into those huge chimneys.  Other rooms we looked in included the wonderful Swan Hall with its beautifully painted ceiling, and the king’s bedroom.

Swan Hall, Sintra National Palace, Portugal

I thought that the interior of Sintra National Palace was the best in the area.  While Pena Palace is lovely, it didn’t quite have the same wow factor as some of the rooms in the National Palace.  Monserrate Palace is also a contender for best interior, but it’s very small and there’s more to see at the National Palace.

By far, the most stunning room at Sintra National Palace is the main room which is covered in scenes made of painted blue tiles topped with a huge golden dome.  Totally jaw dropping!

Click here to buy your fast track ticket for Sintra National Palace.

Day 2 in Sintra

Today you have enough time to visit two of the most ethereal and stunning castles of Sintra. Both of these castles are a little way out of the town centre, and as they lie in the same direction it makes sense to combine Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate Palace into one day.

Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira is one of the best castles of Sintra, Portugal

Quinta da Regaleira was probably my favourite stop in Sintra.  We visited Quinta da Regaleira on a rainy, rainy day and we found that the gardens and follies have such a magical feel to them that the rain only seemed to accentuate.

Quinta da Regaleira is only about 20 minutes on foot from the centre of Sintra and it’s easily walkable even with two small children in tow (although there is a bit of a steep hill).  But there is a bus to save your legs – number 435 runs from Sintra town centre!

Now blackened with age, the palace was originally pure white.  You can see glimpses of its original colour but I think I prefer the more moody grey it is now.  Take a quick look inside; we were able to look around the ground floor only when we visited.

Quinta da Regaleira gardens

The palace itself is lovely enough but not as spectacular inside as Pena Palace or Sintra National Palace.  But you’re really here for the gardens.  The gardens tumble down a steep hill, and they’re planted with trees, giant ferns, roses, and dotted with follies caves and water features.

Exploring Quinta da Regaleira gardens Sintra

You can spend hours looking around, never quite knowing what you’ll find around the next corner (or in the next cave!).

The follies vary from little alcoves in walls, to ruined castle towers (that you can climb) and of course, the famous initiation well.  There are actually two wells in the gardens but one wasn’t finished and isn’t as spectacular as the first, although you can still explore it.

I’m not sure what sort of initiation the main well was used for (if at all!) but the spiral staircase leads to a network of grottos that take you to more hidden pools and pathways.  It’s fantastic for adults to explore, let alone kids, and it will really fire their imaginations!

This garden is truly unmissable!

You’ll probably stay in the gardens until lunchtime at least. There’s a cafe in the gardens and although it’s quite small the food was nicer than we expected.  Otherwise I’d take a picnic and find a pretty spot to sit and eat in the gardens.

Monserrate Palace

Monserrate Palace Sintra Portugal

If you carry on along the road from Quinta da Regaleira, eventually you’ll find Monserrate Palace. The walk takes about 45 minutes at a brisk pace from Sintra town centre so I would advise getting the 435 bus.  This palace is often missed off Sintra itineraries but it’s one of the prettiest in the area, so I’d encourage you to visit it if you can!

Monserrate Palace was built by an Englishman and has a real mix of architectural styles; it includes Arabic, Indian and Gothic influences.  The carving in the interior resembles the decor of the Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra although on a much smaller scale.

The downstairs of Monserrate Palace is the most beautiful part.  As you walk in, you find yourself under a full height dome which is glazed with ruby glass. A long corridor lined with carved arches runs the length of the building, with this dome and its sculpture being in the centre.  At the far end of the palace is a large hall with another magnificent dome.

Dome inside Monserrate Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Upstairs is much plainer and has exhibits about the history and renovation of Monserrate Palace, although you do get a closer look at the central dome from the balcony.

Monserrate Palace gardens

Don’t forget the gardens while you’re at Monserrate Palace.  There’s a very English looking lawn in front of the palace, where you can get a lovely view looking back to the Palace; it’s a great spot to admire the architecture from.

Monserrate Palace seen from its lawn, Sintra

Right down at the far end are a series of pools and garden areas each with a different theme.  I didn’t have time to look around all of the gardens but what I did see was beautiful.  I especially loved the succulent garden, and catching a glimpse of a ruined building with trees growing all over it.

More things to see in Sintra

Sintra town

Sintra town seen from Sintra National Palace, Portugal

Try to take some time to look around Sintra town itself.  It’s a pretty, colourful town which is easy to walk around. We managed to see Sintra town in the evenings when we were on the search for food!

You’ll find lots of little souvenir shops as well as convenience stores to buy food for picnics. Look out for more pretty tiles on the walls. We were pleased to find several bars serving cherry liqueur in chocolate cups – we got a taste for this in Lisbon!

You’re not short on places to eat in Sintra, either.  We particularly liked the food and atmosphere (and wine) at Tascantiga which is found up the hill opposite Sintra National Palace.  For breakfast, we thought Cafe Saudade near the station was the perfect stop!

National Palace of Queluz

The National Palace of Queluz looks much more typically European than many of the other palaces in Sintra. Inside it’s certainly spectacular, with the Baroque decor dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, although the palace itself is older in parts.  It is where the “mad” queen Dom Maria was hidden away from the public.

The gardens of Queluz Palace are incredible, and reminiscent of Versailles.  If you’re in Sintra for a little longer then it may be worth the effort to get to.

The National Palace of Queluz lies outside of the Sintra National Park, in between Sintra and Lisbon. It’s an ideal stop to visit on your way back to Lisbon from Sintra – alight at Monte Abraão train station.  If you’re planning on visiting on the way to Sintra, then the Queluz-Belas station is the one to get off at.

Capuchos Convent (Convento dos Capuchos)

Capuchos Convent is slightly out of Sintra town so it’s not something that we managed to fit in to our itinerary.  But if you’ve got longer in the area then it might be worth a visit.

The convent building dates from the 1500s and the monks lived a very simple life, in small cells.  Made of stone, boulders and cork, the convent is almost part of the surrounding woodland.  These woods are one of the last remaining examples of Sintra’s original forest so they’re an important place in their own right.

You can get to Convent of the Capuchos by car (30 minutes from central Sintra, or about 10 minutes further on from Pena Palace).   There isn’t any public transport so if you don’t have a car then I’d grab a taxi or a tuk-tuk.  The City Sightseeing Bus does stop at Capuchos but you’ll need a 24 hour ticket to take it.

Cabo da Roca

Cabo da Roca is the most western point of mainland Europe, so many people want to add it to their itinerary!  At Cabo Da Roca you can get fabulous views out over the sea past a lighthouse, and there are several walking trails along the cliffs if you want to spend more time here.

Click here for a full day tour of Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais.

Sintra: Know before you go

Quinta da Regaleira gardens, Sintra, Portugal

Tours to Sintra from Lisbon

Unsurprisingly there’s a large range of tours from Lisbon to Sintra to choose from!  This may be your best option if you’ve only got one day in Sintra as it will allow you to skip queues and not have to worry about navigating yourself.

If you’re visiting Lisbon too, make sure you check out our three day guide to Lisbon.

Click here for a full list of Lisbon to Sintra tours.

How to get to Sintra from Lisbon

Lisbon to Sintra train

Trains from Lisbon to Sintra leave regularly throughout the day and only cost a few euros for the trip.  Get the train from Rossio station in the centre of Lisbon or alternatively trains also leave from Braco de Prata.

You can book online in advance to save waiting in line (it gets busy!).  The best site to use is Comboios de Portugal.

Lisbon to Sintra by car

If you don’t have a car, a taxi from Lisbon will cost around €30 for a half hour drive.  There’s no shortage of drivers willing to take you!

We actually ended up taking a taxi from Lisbon to Sintra.  It was pouring when we left our Lisbon hotel to head to the train station so we hailed a taxi.  The taxi driver persuaded us to let him drive us the whole way instead of to Rossio train station.  It was much quicker this way!

How to get around Sintra

Views from Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Public transport in Sintra

Sintra has several bus lines which take in all of the major sights in a loop.  Buses go every 20 – 30 minutes or so.  You buy your tickets on the bus and you can choose from single tickets or an all-day explorer pass.

Bus number 434 takes you from Sintra station or town centre to Pena Palace and Castelo dos Mouros.  Bus 435 takes you between the station and Monserrate Palace.  The return journey on 435 takes a different route back to the station due to one-way roads in the area.

Other buses take you to Cascais or Estoril for alternative day trips.

We found the Sintra bus services to be a little unreliable, especially to get up to Pena Palace when the first two scheduled buses of the day didn’t arrive.  So I’d advise you to take a taxi up to Pena Palace to beat the crowds, and that queue!

Using a car in Sintra

You should be aware that parking is quite restricted in Sintra, especially up at the Pena Palace.  Arrive early to grab a spot alongside the road.  The town itself has several one-way streets which can be difficult to navigate as they can take you quite out of your way, so be prepared if you plan on driving!

City Sightseeing Bus Tour

The City Sightseeing Bus Tour is a well known company which runs in most European cities.  A 24 hour ticket takes you to many of the main sights including Capuchos Convent, Palace of Monserrate and even out to Cabo da Roca.

Click here to buy.

Where to stay in Sintra

Pena Palace seen from Castle of the Moors, Sintra

As Sintra is so popular, there are plenty of places to stay.  They do book up very quickly though so try to book as far in advance as you can. Click here for a full list of Sintra hotels.

Palace of Setais is a 5*hotel in a former palace so if you want some luxury then you should stay here!  The hotel is located just outside Sintra, in between Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate Palace. There are babysitting services, restaurants and a swimming pool and spa on site, as well as beautifully appointed rooms.  Click here to book.

Beautiful Sintra Marmoris Palace would have been my pick if we had had a bit more in our budget!  This is an amazing guest house (but it’s more of a boutique hotel).  The rooms are stunning and there’s a swimming pool and gardens overlooking the Moorish Castle.  Breakfast is served and there’s an on site bar.  Family rooms are available.  Click here to book.

Sintra 1012 Boutique Guesthouse is in the centre of town and close to the sights.  There are family rooms, and breakfast is included.  The building is cheerful, cute and quirky.  Click here to check availability and book

Chalet Saudade is located near to the train station and is in an historic building which has been beautifully renovated.  There are rooms large enough for families and a garden out the back.  Breakfast is served at the nearby Cafe Saudade (we tried this and it was great).  Click here to book.

As usual, we were on a budget and stayed at self catering apartments Casas da Biquinha.  The owners have several properties across Sintra and we found our apartment well located (right by Sintra National Palace), clean and well equipped.  They also let us store our luggage with them as we arrived before we could check in.  Click here to book Casas da Biquinha.

I hope you’ve been inspired to visit the castles of Sintra!   Which castle would you visit first?  Let us know in the comments!

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Sintra is one of Portugal’s most enchanting towns. Dotted with ethereal and spectacular castles, Sintra is worth at least two days to explore. Find the follies in Quinta da Regaleira gardens, admire colourful Pena Palace, and even get down to the beach with a bit more time. Click to find out how to spend two days in Sintra, the best Sintra hotels and tips for your visit. #sintra #portugal #familytravel

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