Sintra, Portugal: Day Trip into a Fairytale
Sintra is magical and otherworldly. A short 40 minute train ride from Lisbon transports you into a world of Medieval Castles and parks that make you wonder if the elvish lands in Lord of Rings were actually real. While you could definitely spend a night there and do two full days, we did a day trip from Lisbon. Below is a sample itinerary you could use and substitute stops with other attractions that are of interest to you.
We took the 9:11am train. You could leave earlier if you want to get ahead of crowds, but this worked fine for us. Trains depart from the Lisbon Rossio train station, right in the middle of town near the Rossio Square. You do not need to buy a ticket for a specific train, just a round trip ticket and hop on the train you want. You can also buy the ticket a day in advance if you happen to be near the station. They run 2-4 trains an hour from Rossio to Sintra and you can check the schedule on the Comboios Portugal website. It was $5 for the roundtrip and you’ll need your ticket to enter/exit the train station on both ends. Protip #1: sit toward the front of the train so you’re first in line for the bus up to the main Sintra attractions. Protip #2: board the train with your best east coast, rush hour train mentality so you get a seat for the 40 minute ride.
Once you arrive in Sintra, bus 434 will take you up to the main sights. You buy your ticket on board and it was $10.50 for “hop on hop off” all day. Not a great value compared to the train, but your legs will thank you for taking the bus to the top because more hills await.
Stop 1: Pena Palace
We bought 11am entry tickets for Pena Palace and paid an extra $3 for the bus that would take you from the entrance of the park to the palace. This was worth it for leg saving purposes. The bus ride is quick and you’re treated to a colorful, quirky castle upon arrival.
Recap: to this point you should have taken the train from Lisbon Rossio to Sintra, bus 434 to the Pena Palace stop, and the Pena Palace park bus to the palace itself.
You walk up the hill to get into line to enter the inside of the palace. Timed entry is required for this. They will not let you in early but it’s ok if you’re a bit behind. However, by the time we came out of the palace the line was crazy, so I recommend entry no later than 11am.
Pena Palace: worth it?
I did not enjoy the inside part because it moved very slowly and you were packed between people. It was also a fairly modern castle converted from the ruins of a monastery by a bored monarch in the late 1800s and the Portuguese people overthrew the monarchy and established a republic in 1910. Coincidence? I think not.
You can pay for access to just the grounds and see the outside - I’d recommend that if you visit this site.
Stop 2: Moorish Castle
From the Pena Palace, it’s a five minute walk back the way the bus came to the Moorish Castle. This was one of the most unique sites I have ever visited and you should go now before some American lawyers convince them to implement basic safety regulations.
From the park entrance, you walk 10-15 minutes to the castle entrance. You are then allowed to crawl all over the exterior, 10th century castle walls with no supervision. It was so windy the day we were there, I cannot believe I wasn’t blown off a wall to my death. But it was so much fun I would have accepted that as the way to go out. As a note, under no circumstance would I take young children here and I can’t believe they’re allowed in at all. For most of the castle walls there are no guardrails. In case all the castle stairs don’t get your blood flowing, the fear of death will. There is no way any of this would be allowed in America, making it all the more enjoyable.
Moorish Castle: worth it?
The Moorish Castle is my #1 must-do for Sintra and all of Portugal.
Stop 3: Quinta da Regaleira
After our nerves settled from the windy brush with death at the Moorish Castle, we got suspect directions and walked the 25 minutes into the main city center of Sintra. If the directions had been “turn left every time you come to a fork” that would have been better and more accurate. But if you’re headed downhill you’ll eventually make it. If people walk by you going uphill (very sad looking folks), you can also confirm with them you are, in fact, headed to the city and not somewhere else.
Once you hit the city road, you’ll see signs to Quinta da Regaleira and just keep going. We probably were at 15,000 steps by this point (and I’ll reiterate we took the bus all the way up the hill).
Quinta da Regaleira was a weird yet incredibly interesting place that I would describe as outdoor Disney World. It was developed in the 1800/1900s so it’s not historical but it is beautiful, like you’ve stepped out of the modern world and into a fairy world. There is an initiation well (or inverted staircase) that goes stories into the ground and looks like a place in Lothlorien. I don’t know if the “initiation wells” were ever used for any type of initiation or if they named it that to seem cool and help attract visitors to willing climb a four story hill to take the stairs back down it.
Quinta da Regaleira: worth it?
Yes, I loved every minute of Quinta da Regaleira and was sad I was already 15,000 steps in because we probably only covered one quarter of the grounds. I would go again but on fresh legs.
Stop 4: Dona Maria
For the “best views of Sintra” and a snack, we walked back along the road to Dona Maria. After being at Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle, on the two highest points of Sintra, the best view claim was overstated, but the food and wine was good. It was windy and cold, but they gave us a blanket so we could enjoy the patio. There’s a 434 bus stop outside of Dona Maria which unfortunately takes you back to Pena Palace before the train station, but we made the 5:10 departure. There is a bus stop that would take you directly to the train station, but I don’t know where it is and I wouldn’t have walked there anyway.
The 434 bus makes a circular route like this:
Train station → city center —> Moorish Castle —> Pena Palace → city center → train station
So you can’t exactly get lost, but you might spend a little extra time riding around.
But what did you eat?
We took a picnic lunch and ate when we entered the Moorish castle grounds (not the entrance by the road, the actual entrance to the castle). There were picnic tables there and we brought and shared this massive meat sandwich thing from a bakery in Lisbon. I do not know what the meat sandwich was called, but it weighed 3 pounds and had 4 kinds of meat. It was delicious.
We ate dinner upon our return to Lisbon, but you could easily find something in Sintra and take a later train.
Is there a way to save time?
Yes, buy tickets online. We bought a combo ticket for Pena Palace, the Pena Palace park bus, and the Moorish Castle online the day before we left. We were able to skip many lines this way. Even at Quinta da Regaleira, which was an unexpected stop, if you buy the tickets on your phone when you get to the gate it’s quicker than the ticket line. I encourage someone in your group to have internet access for their phone.
What else is in Sintra?
A guidebook can tell you all the things about Sintra that we didn’t see so you could substitute out stops with things that are more interesting to you. But don’t skip the Moorish Castle.