How to See the Best of Sintra in One Day
When planning a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, you are sure to hear the question, “Are you going to Sintra?”. After about the 3rd time you will start to wonder where this much-talked-about place is and do a quick Google search. You will discover a magical looking place online and wonder if you can fit it into your plans. The good news is, yes! You can fit a day trip to Sintra into your Lisbon visit.
While there is so much to see and do in Lisbon already, a day trip to Sintra is really worth it. The city is an easy ride on the train/metro and it only takes about 40 minutes to get there.
Where is Sintra?
Sintra is located about 20 miles west of Lisbon. If you are staying near downtown Lisbon you can easily book your round trip ticket at the Rossio train station. Trains leave about every 30 minutes (and every 10 minutes during peak hours). It takes about 45 minutes to get to Sintra by train making it the perfect day trip location from Lisbon.
What is so special about Sintra?
Sintra stands out because of the high concentration of castles and palaces all in one location. Sintra is where the Royal family used to vacation in the summer. And you can see why! The higher altitude means the weather is cooler and they would have been away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The most famous or most photographed) is Pena Palace. However, there are over 7 castles within the Sintra area. Much too many to visit in a day so if you are REALLY into castles, you will want to plan for a couple days in the town.
When to visit Sintra
You can expect Sintra to be busy during the usual travel times of summer holidays in July and August, with the busiest days on the weekends. We recommend getting there as early as possible so that you can be one of the first visitors in whichever palace you choose.
Ideal 1 Day Itinerary in Sintra
Now that we have been to Sintra this is the itinerary we wish we would have done. It hits the highlights you find on the must-do lists and the top of the off the beaten track option.
First things, first. Start early by catching the 7:41 am train out of Lisbon which will cost about $5 round trip. Once you arrive in Sintra around 8:30 am, you will have a few minutes to get your bearings and can hop in line for bus #434, but to the right of the train station exit.
The bus loops start at 9:15 am so you will be in the first wave of visitors as the castle opens at 9:30am. If you are planning to visit Pena Palace, get a ticket for bus #434 called the Circuito da Pena Route. Of the 2 bus routes this one stops at the historical center of Sintra, The Sintra Villa, Castelo dos Mouros, Palacio da Pena, and the Sintra Villa again before making it’s way back to the train station.
Another tip about the bus...be sure to get a seat! We are experienced city bus riders and I used to ride the bus to work everyday in Chicago so I thought it would be no big deal. Boy was I wrong! This is quite the twisty turn of a ride. It was quite nauseating in fact, but would probably be fine if you had a forward facing seat. Those that get motion sickness take caution.
The First Stop:
Make a bee line to Pena Palace. If you want to see this palace, we recommend making it the first stop otherwise it will be too crowded later in the day like it was for us. We also recommend the ticket for the grounds only. Inside the palace was moderately interesting, but the most popular pictures are from the terraces which you can get to through the gift shop. Simply head up the stairs by the restrooms at the back of the shop.
By skipping the interior of the palace, you will have more time to discover more interesting places. After you capture the coveted photos of the red and yellow exterior, wander around the gardens as you make your way out of the palace grounds and give yourself a pat on the back for getting there early.
The Second Stop:
From here you will have a decision to make. The next stop on our ideal day trip to Sintra from Lisbon is the Castelo dos Mouros. This is the Moorish Castle that is in ruins and mostly just the castle wall. The views here are amazing and we really enjoyed pretending like we were guarding the kingdom. However, this was the first stop on the bus loop so you will either need to walk down from Pena Palace or catch a ride via cab or tuk tuk. We found most of the cabs at Pena were waiting for their passengers and were not for hire so unless you started with a cab that you hired for the day, we advise buckling your seat and enjoying a bumpy ride on a tuk tuk.
You can purchase your tickets to Castelo dos Mouros online which we recommend as the lines continue to grow throughout the day. The entrance to the castle is about a 10-15 minute walk through the forest from the turnoff/dropoff on the road. There is a ticket office at the top of the road and you can ask them for information if needed too.
The best way to see the Moorish Castle is to simply walk the walls. A word of caution, there are very few railings on the interior side of the wall so we kept a hold of Eleanor’s hand lest she trip and fall. You can see the walls of the castle and what I mean about the low sides in our 60 second video here:
The Third and Final Stop:
We’ve saved the best castle for last! From the Moorish Castle make your way to Quinta de Regaleira via tuk tuk or cab. This castle is on a separate route for the busses anyway so flag down a ride and enjoy the open air. Be sure to negotiate the rate before hopping in as the ride is pretty quick. We are also pretty sure the tuk tuk can drop you off right in front of the palace so make sure you will get a full ride as we did not on our visit and had to walk 10 minutes from the road again.
As we were not sure we’d make it to the 3rd palace in one day, we did not buy tickets ahead of time. There was a short wait, but we made it through pretty quickly. If you want, you can easily purchase tickets online ahead of time. We're not sure why, but this castle is not on the must see list for the 1 day trip on most itineraries. Those people are missing out, but the good news for you is that it is less crowded. Yay!
This was our favorite castle as there are so many nooks and crannies to explore. The interior castle is smaller than anticipated and the upstairs was closed during our visit. But, the interior is not what you come here for. Nope, it’s the underground passages between the wells and the mystic symbolism of the masons and Knight's Templar. You might even feel like you are in a Dan Brown book.
It took us quite a while to find the wells so what you are looking for is the Unfinished Well. This is the smaller of the two and it’s a shorter walk down. Once at the bottom, you can make your way to the larger well and the stepping stones with the waterfall. While there are some lights, there were spots that were completely dark so our phone flashlights came in handy. Older kids might prefer to bring their own flashlight.
Wrapping up the Day in Sintra
When you have finished exploring you can walk from Quinta de Regaleira to the old town if you are in time for dinner. Trains continue to run until 1 am, but in our experience it looked like the town started to close up pretty early. Remember, Sintra is best known as a day trip so the rush has left by dinner time and there are fewer places open.
Catch the train back to Lisbon and enjoy a great night's sleep. You will have earned it after a long day of walking.
My Apple Health stats after our day in Lisbon showed we walked over 18k steps and up 74 flights of stairs!!
Where We Stayed in Lisbon
We are often asked where we stay when traveling as a family. Airbnb has been our best source for finding spacious, yet affordable accommodations. By renting an apartment we do get to live more like a local, save money on eating out by making a few meals at home, get a better night's sleep because Eleanor gets her own bed and room, and have space to work. Our experiences have been positive and we have met some cool people this way. Lisbon was no different. Use this link to save $40 off your stay with a new account. Can you believe this 2-bedroom, fully-furnished apartment only cost us $127.50 per night (including all fees)!
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