Get enchanted during a fairy tale day trip in Sintra
Are you into exploring the most colorful palaces you have ever seen? And love to wander around in mysterious castles with secrets waiting for you in their charming gardens? Plan a day trip to Sintra in Portugal! This city is the perfect mix of breathtaking sites and views, luxurious villas and gardens, and unique fauna and flora. All of these treasures are placed in the Sintra Mountains with views on the blue Atlantic.
Sintra is one of the wealthiest municipalities in Portugal. The city has been a royal retreat since the Portuguese Renaissance. But when King Fernando II of Portugal built his dreamy summer retreat, Pena Palace, the popularity of Sintra took off even more! It became the perfect city for Portuguese nobility to build their ultimate summer residences.
Nowadays, the city, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its high standards of living. No wonder even Madonna bought a house in Sintra (check out her fancy crib)! In this blog post, I will take you along in the historical center of Sintra, the quirky Quinta da Regaleira, and the colorful Pena Palace which are easy to combine in a day trip.
Map of Sintra
These are the 3 sites we visited during our day trip (marked in red on the map) to Sintra:
1. The historical center of Sintra (and the National Palace of Sintra)
2. Quinta da Regaleira
3. Pena Palace
The historical center of Sintra
When you arrive in Sintra by train your journey begins at the historical center of Sintra. Discover the heart of the city by visiting the National Palace of Sintra, one of the best-preserved medieval royal residences in Portugal. You can easily recognize this whitewashed beauty with its terracotta rooftop by the two massive chimneys!
Follow the cobblestone path and make your way up to check out the fine details on the outside of the palace. The palace has a mix of Gothic, Manueline and Moorish architecture. This combination turned out really beautiful if you ask me! I loved how subtle, yet eye-catching the ornaments are applied around the windows.
So is there still a chance of you running into Portuguese royalty at the palace? Unfortunately not! The palace was used by the Portuguese royal family until 1910. Then it became a national monument.
The inside of the palace has dazzling rooms, such as:
- The Swan Room: a romantic grand room that was created to impress guests. Look up to check the beautiful ceiling decorated with images of swans.
- The Coats of Arms Room: a room that exhibits the coats of arms of King Manuel I and his contemporary 72 noble Portuguese families. The walls are covered by Azulejos (colored glazed tiles) representing hunting scenes.
- The Palace’s kitchen: a huge space where you could easily prepare a royal banquet for over a thousand guests. You can admire the original roasting spits and various copper and iron kitchenware.
Opening hours, admission and duration
- The National Palace of Sintra is open every day from 09:30 until 19:00 (last entrance at 18:30).
- The entrance fee is €10 (for adults).
- A walk inside the palace takes about 30-60 minutes.
After visiting the palace, take a stroll in the city’s narrow streets! The center is tourist-friendly and packed with cute pastel-colored cafes, souvenir stores, and boutiques. If you are interested in buying traditional Portuguese tiles, hand-painted ceramics or hand-made lace don’t miss the historical center.
Before Michel and I headed to our next stop, we grabbed lunch at Puro Sabor. This tiny restaurant had a nice review on TripAdvisor which convinced us to check it out. Also, we didn’t feel like joining the busy touristy restaurants we had come across earlier. Don’t expect any special Portuguese delicacy at Puro Sabor because they mainly sell sandwiches, wraps, salads, sweets, and ice cream. However, everything seems freshly prepared. Even the apples of my apple juice were put in a blender in front of my nose. Yum! Plus you have the option to choose your own toppings when you order a sandwich or a salad. Ask for take-out and eat your lunch outside or along the way.
Since we love hiking and experienced a warm spring day in Sintra, we walked to all of our points of interests. From the National Palace, it’s about 15-minutes to reach Quinta da Regaleira. All sites in Sintra are situated on (steep) hills, so comfy shoes are a must.
Quinta da Regaleira
This lush-looking residence with its amazing garden looks like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I soon learned this estate was not the set of a Johnny Depp movie. It was created by the idea of former owner António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. With his huge family fortune, he built the magical Quinta da Regaleira, designed by creative genius Luigi Manini. Get ready to be surprised at this fairy tale property and open your mind to the unusual world that takes place in it.
The garden is the main reason why you want to visit the property, but don’t forget to head inside the Regaleira Palace. The palace and its chapel breath romance although I would be scared to death to walk around in the dark here! The outside has a Gothic façade and the interior is richly decorated with beautiful frescoes. Keep your eyes open for detailed ornaments wherever you look.
Start at the ground floor to stroll through a series of connecting hallways and discover charming rooms, such as the living room and the dining room. On the top floors, you can find bedrooms, offices, a dressing room, and an ironing room. Get high up for an impressive view from the chapel of Sintra and close your tour by checking out several rooms and an authentic kitchen in the basement.
After visiting the palace, Michel and I headed towards the enchanting gardens. I had seen photos of it coming by on Instagram and I could not believe my eyes. Mysterious grottoes? Hidden wells? A large network of tunnels? I had to see it in real life! Besides secret getaways, the garden is filled with fountains, lakes, ornaments, and statues. Keep your camera close, because I bet you might want to take a photo or two (I took at least 200 photos of the garden alone, lol). The diverse combination of all kinds of trees, plants, and flowers, are picture-worthy already!
Michel and I visited Sintra at the beginning of March and I was surprised by how green everything looked. I adored the Bougainvillea blossoms and bushes with orange, fuchsia, and purple blossoms. Hello, spring! The garden is very well maintained and it feels like time stood still. The whole garden experience felt calm and mesmerizing with birds flying around our heads.
Climb the Gothic tower for an amazing view on the ruins of the Moorish Castle and the historical center of Sintra. In the far distance, you can even spot the colorful Pena Palace. Explore all the little hidden nooks and crannies in the garden. And take your time to appreciate the many incredible structures, arches, gates, and statues of Greek gods and goddesses. Carvalho Monteiro succeeded very well in connecting the natural with the spiritual when you walk through the Promenade of the Gods!
After you have been bewitched in the garden, get ready to release your inner Lara Croft! The grotto part of the property is the most adventurous area. At times it’s completely dark and the path is not always smooth. All we heard was the sound of water dripping or ducks quacking. Michel and I used the flashlights of our mobile phones to make sure we didn’t bump into any walls (or other tourists, lol) or stepped into a puddle of water.
Although it was scary at times, we enjoyed this rougher area a lot! The underground labyrinth of corridors leads you to numerous unexpected exits and even a waterfall lake! The small green mossy waterfall lake stood out to me the most. It felt like entering a scene of Tomb Raider where someone would have found the gold treasure. Unfortunately, there was no gold. Maybe other tourists had snapped it already? Out of all the places, the grotto area was the most crowded. Consider to go early and make your way to the grottoes first or become a pro at Photoshop!
In the grottoes, you will find several underground passageways that lead to the Initiation Well. It’s not a real well, because according to legends it was designed to perform Masons initiation rites and rituals. The Initiation Well has several symbolic aspects:
- The spiral staircase has 9 levels and might represent the 9 levels of Hell from Dante’s Inferno.
- The total number of the steps, 139, is also significant. When you add up the numbers (1 + 3 + 9), you get the number 13, which symbolizes death and rebirth in esoteric philosophies.
- At the bottom, there is a compass over a Knights Templar cross. This could have been Carvalho Monteiro’s herald and a sign of his Rosicrucianism.
Nothing is known for sure about the real purpose of the well. What I do know is that being inside the well gave me a strange cold feeling. As I was descending to the bottom, sound and sunlight slowly decreased. I felt disconnected from what was happening in the outside world. Standing at the bottom of the well made me feel small and I wondered what might have taken place here. Michel took some photos from the top and I was happy to join him, with some goosebumps on my arms, afterwards!
Next up we stopped at the Unfinished Well. The two wells are connected via the underground tunnels. This, overgrown with moss, well is a bit smaller and more narrow. Getting around in this well is a bit more difficult because it’s darker and the path is more uneven. You can take the stairs to reach the mud-covered bottom of the well.
The purpose of this well is even more mysterious! There are no written records of what went on here. I guess maybe not knowing allows you to enjoy the mystery even more? Standing at the bottom I felt a little claustrophobic, but looking up into the sky was very special. It was like the tree of life was staring at me!
Quinta da Regaleira was one of the highlights of our day trip to Sintra. Personally, it exceeded my expectations because of the property’s unique character. The admission fee is very reasonable if you consider the beauty and size of this place.
Opening hours, admission and duration
- Quinta da Regaleira is open every day between 09:30 until 20:00 (last entrance at 19:00).
- The entrance fee is €6 (for adults).
- A visit takes about 3 hours (walking through the garden takes up most of your time).
From Quinta da Regaleira Michel and I hiked for 45 minutes to get to Pena Palace. If you don’t feel like walking the steep road, the palace stands atop a rocky peak, it’s way easier to take the bus. While hiking we saw its happy bright colors peeking from behind the trees. Seeing the palace from a distance almost looked surreal! It was like looking at a Fata Morgana, too good to be true. How often do you see a red-yellow-purple palace placed in-between green mountains?
My first impression upon arrival were some similarities the palace has with the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. The romantic round arches and windows, and the narrow pointy towers plus the color mix took me back to my childhood for a second.
In case you’re also wondering if any princesses had been sleeping here, I can confirm you they have! But way before that (in the 15th century) Pena Palace was a small monastery used for meditation by monks. Unfortunately, it got damaged by lightning and an earthquake reducing it to ruins. The chapel (nearly still the real deal) stayed intact. For decades the ruins remained untouched until King Ferdinand II decided to transform it into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. This made me giggle. When I think of a summer house I picture a small crib near the beach!
King Ferdinand II hired an architect and told him the palace should look like an opera! The beautiful dramatic entrance, decorated with tin-glazed ceramic Azulejos tiles, set the tone of what was waiting for us inside. As soon as you pass the gateway, you will be overloaded with colors and a range of styles from medieval, Renaissance, Gothic, Moorish to Manueline architecture.
At first, I told you the palace looked like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, but the ornate details reminded me of the Sultan’s Palace in Aladdin too! Michel and I had a hard time deciding which direction to take. Every bit of this palace seemed attractive. Therefore, we decided to aimlessly walk around and allowed ourselves to be surprised.
Because of the sunny and clear weather, the sky turned deep blue. I ended up with lots of photos in primary colors (my blue outfit was not on purpose though, lol)! There were a lot of tourists when we visited (this place gets even crazier during the summer), but since this was the last stop of our day trip, we had more patience to take photos.
The yellow, red and purple colors have not always looked this vivid. In 1996, the original painting from the mid-19th century had nearly faded. The palace underwent an extensive restoration project and the exterior walls were repainted in the original colors. The bold color scheme horrified some of the more conservative residents of Sintra. Fortunately, the painting job did get finished! In my honest opinion, I do think some walls could use another coat of paint though.
One of the cool parts about the palace is the amazing views you get overlooking Sintra. After our intense climb up on the hill, this felt really rewarding! There are several terraces and viewpoints which allow you to overlook different parts of the city. From the courtyard, you can even see the massive fortifications of the Moorish Castle.
Pena Palace has two wings: the former monastery (the red part) and the new wing built by King Ferdinand II. I couldn’t tell the difference between the old and the new. The different wings seem to match perfectly.
The purple middle part of the palace is nearly completely covered in Azulejos. This part attracted me the most because of its romantic ornaments. I could imagine the early morning sunlight shining on my face, walking up to the window, and overlooking the green Sintra landscape. From the balcony, you have the best view on the dreamy purple part.
The interior of the palace is equally as fascinating! All rooms have been restored and there is even furniture placed to show you how all the rooms were used. Some rooms are covered in tiles from the ground to wall to ceiling. Tile-mania! Other rooms breath luxury by the marvelous trompe-l’oeil frescoes. And, if you are a cook, you will love the royal kitchen. This is the largest space in the palace and was used to prepare banquets. I wouldn’t mind getting invited to a fancy dinner here, would you?
Our visit to Pena Palace was wonderful. The stunning architecture and bold colors make this palace truly unique and worth checking out! I would recommend including it during a day trip. We did not visit Pena Palace’s park but if you have some time left (it’s included in your admission anyway) I would check it out. It’s over 200 hectares and the park is created as a labyrinth filled with secret paths, pavilions, lakes, ponds, and exotic trees.
Opening hours, admission and duration
Pena Palace is open every day:
- Palace: 09:30 until 19:00 (last ticket 18:15 and last admission 18:30).
- Park: 09:30 until 20:00 (last ticket and last admission at 19:00).
- Tickets palace and park: €14 (for adults) or ticket park: €7,5 (for adults). The park ticket allows you in the park and on the balcony and terraces of the palace. If you are only interested to take pictures from the outside, this is the best option.
- A visit to the palace and the park takes about 3 hours. During the summer peak season it’s best to avoid going from 10:30 until 15:00 because most tourists buses arrive then.
How long should I spend in Sintra?
One day in Sintra is too short if you want to visit all Sintra’s highlights. There are numerous sites worthwhile visiting such as the Capuchin Convent, Moorish Castle, National Palace of Sintra, Palace of Monserrate, Pena Palace, and Quinta da Regaleira. If you want to visit all these sites I think three days in Sintra would be perfect. This allows you to visit two or three highlights per day at a relaxed pace.
When is the best time to visit?
After doing some research, we decided to visit Sintra (combined with four days in Lisbon) at the beginning of March. This turned out to be great timing because most places weren’t that touristy yet and the climate felt pleasant. Although these days you cannot check the weather app enough! If you can I would try to avoid visiting Sintra during the summer peak season unless you don’t mind large crowds and higher temperatures.
What’s the easiest way to get to Sintra?
Most people combine their Lisbon trip with a day trip to Sintra (so did we). Sintra is located about 25 kilometers from Lisbon and the best way to get to this city is by train. Taking the train is the most convenient way because it’s easy and pretty inexpensive. There are bus services, but the journey takes way longer. Also, it’s better not to drive to Sintra. The narrow steep roads are not designed for tourist traffic and car parking is very limited.
Trains from Lisbon to Sintra
There are two rail routes between Lisbon and Sintra:
1. Rossio Station to Sintra (a 40-minute ride – this is the train route we took)
2. Oriente station to Sintra, via Areeiro, Entrecampos, and Sete Rios stations (a 47-minute ride)
Trains to Sintra leave approximately every 30 minutes during daylight hours. You can check the exact time table of both trains on the official website. Both services start early and continue until late at night. There are usually plenty of free seats. We walked to the front of the train (we left at 08:26) and it was pretty much empty.
Train tickets and prices
Train tickets and seats cannot be pre-booked. I would suggest leaving early (don’t arrive 5 minutes before the train leaves) because there can be long queues to get a train ticket. All of Lisbon’s train stations are in the same zone. A single ticket costs €2,25 (adults). There are no reductions if you buy a return ticket. A return ticket is the same price as two singles, so €4,50 in total.
During the train route, there is not much to see. You will mostly pass residential housing estates. Some areas looked pretty rough. Sintra is the last stop of both trains routes.
How should I get around in Sintra?
Getting out of the Sintra train station is a little confusing. There is no sign saying ‘hey if you want to see palaces: take this exit’. Just head towards the tourist buses and tuk-tuk tours and you know you have the right exit. If you want to visit Sintra independently (like we did), these are the best options: walk, get on a tourist bus or take a tuk-tuk.
Walking in Sintra
If you enjoy hiking make sure you are prepared. Comfy shoes are a must (sneakers are good enough in my opinion). Especially, if you decide to walk up to Pena Palace. Also bring enough food and water with you, because there are barely any cafés/bars en route. Or have a proper lunch in the historical center of Sintra and get a drink and snack at one of the palaces/castles. Same goes for the restrooms. If you are in doubt, go again!
Bus services in Sintra
There are several bus lines, but the most popular one is the 434 hop-on hop-off bus. Taking the orange line is a must if you want to see Pena Palace by bus. This one-direction bus, that departs from the train station, follows this route:
- Sintra train station
- The historical center of Sintra (get out here and walk for 15 minutes to see Quinta da Regaleira)
- The Moorish Castle
- Pena Palace
- Sintra train station
You can buy your bus tickets from the bus driver. A single ticket costs €3,90. The entire loop as a hop-on-hop-off ticket is €6,90. Please take into consideration you only pay for one loop. So if you skipped a stop before, you have to get another ticket to see it afterwards.
There are up to four bus departures every hour, but be aware of long queues during the summer peak season. The other downside of a bus tour is everybody arriving at the same time at the same places. However, if you don’t mind some crowds, the bus is the best option. It’s cheap and perfect for a day trip.
Tuk-Tuks in Sintra
From Pena Palace Michel and I jumped in a tuk-tuk towards the Sintra train station. We had never been in one and didn’t feel like joining the crowded tourist buses. We paid €10 in total for the two of us (you can negotiate on the price a little and make sure you bring cash). It was a fun ride because the tuk-tuk takes a different route than the tourist buses. We arrived at the train station in no-time before the tourist buses. However, this option is a bit more expensive.
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