Guide to Sintra: Fairy-Tale Day Trip from Lisbon
Located in the hills just 25 km to the northwest of Lisbon, Sintra has been a forested retreat for generations, complete with beautiful villas, hilltop castles, and over-the-top palaces to gawk at. Even if you only have a short time in Lisbon, visiting Sintra is the perfect destination for a quick day trip. Highlights include the historic National Palace, the hilltop Moorish Castle, with expansive views over all of Sintra, and Pena Palace, occupying the hilltop across from the Moorish Castle, with eye-catching architecture and colors.
With so much to see, and so many wanting to see it, Sintra quickly becomes a nightmare to navigate for newcomers. Knowing where to go, and when, will not only save hours, but emotions too. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on for our top tips for visiting Sintra.
Pena Palace is what you’d get if you asked an 8 year old child to build their dream castle, in the best way possible. Walking its grounds, gazing up at its gaudy exterior, brings out your childish sense of awe and wonder. Bright colors and an ostentatious conglomeration of architectural styles mix for a whimsical, fairy tale experience. If you only have time to visit one sight in Sintra, make it Pena Palace.
The palace was commissioned in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II, who prior to marrying into the Portuguese royal family was known as Ferdinand August Franz Anton from Austria. The palace is said to have inspired King Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein, which in turn inspired the castle at Disneyland. Once you visit, it’s easy to see why. Pena Palace combines numerous architectural styles into one, grand, fantastical castle, with a grand view over Sintra.
Occupying the adjacent hilltop, with an equally good view over Sintra, the Moorish Castle makes for an exciting stop to explore. Constructed in the 9th century by the Moors, the castle was abandoned after the Crusaders invaded in the 12th century. Climbing its walls provides for breathtaking views, both due to the beautiful landscape and the steep slope of the hill you’re climbing.
To describe Sintra’s roads as narrow and winding is an understatement. Driving to Sintra should be avoided at all costs. Roads can backup for hours during peak tourist season and parking is extremely limited. Even if you plan visit during the slower months, simply driving its narrow roads can be a very risky experience. Instead, use public transportation.
For getting to Sintra from Lisbon, we recommend the commuter train leaving from Rossio Station. Rossio Station is conveniently located in the middle of Lisbon’s historic center and popular neighborhoods: Alfama, Baixa, and Barrio Alto. Because Sintra is technically within Lisbon’s public transportation network, you can “zap” with your Via Viagem transport card through the turnstiles and board the train. No advanced ticket reservation required.
The first train to Sintra leaves at 7:00 AM, and while it’s a good strategy to arrive early, with the trip taking about 40 minutes, and the main sights in Sintra not opening until 9:30, there’s no reason to start so early. Being a populate commuter train, there are multiple departures per hour, so simply look up which train you want to take the night before. Typically, departing before 8:30 will get you to Sintra just in time to catch your next form of transportation: the 434 bus.
Sintra is the last stop for your train, so you can relax and enjoy your 40 minute ride. Upon arriving at the end of the line, hop off of the train, exit the station through the turnstiles, and make an immediate 180-degree turn to the right and walk down the street along the station. A short walk down the street will bring you to the stop for the 434 bus. This bus route will take you almost everywhere you’ll want to go in Sintra, stopping first at the National Palace, followed by the Moorish Castle, and finally Pena Palace, before returning to the train station.
The queue to board the 434 bus increases quickly. You can buy a round-trip hop-on-hop-off ticket from the bus driver for about 7 euros, so simply get in line as quickly as you can. The first bus departs at 9:15 AM, with 4 departures per hour after that. Most tourists are disoriented after getting off of the train, so this is your opportunity to beat the rush.
Sintra’s top sights only continue to fill up with people the longer the day goes on. If you really want to slow down and avoid the crowds, and have extra time, you can spend the night, but this isn’t necessary. Instead, simply plan your stops on the 434 bus to see each sight at its least busy.
The 434 bus makes a loop through Sintra’s top sights just for tourists. From the train station, it stops at the following sights in order:
City Center and National Palace
Return to train station
Most tourists will use the hop-on-hop-off ticket to see the sights in this order. To best avoid the crowds, go straight to the Pena Palace first. After touring the palace, walk downhill, less than 1 km, to the Moorish Castle. After touring the castle, hop back on the bus to get back to the train station, and either make the short walk to the National Palace, or purchase another one-way bus fare.
Below is a quick bullet-point list of steps to navigate Sintra and see all of the sights.
Board the train from Rossio Station to Sintra prior to 8:30 AM. “Zap” your Via Viagem card through the turnstiles in Rossio, no ticket reservation is necessary, which means no reserved seats on the train either. Sintra is the end of the line, so you can sit back and relax, don’t worry about missing your stop.
Exit the train station at Sintra, and immediately make a sharp right turn down the street along the station. Get in line for the 434 bus. Purchase round-trip hop-on-hop-off tickets from the driver.
Skip the first couple stops and go straight to Pena Palace. Purchase tickets here for the palace, as well as the Moorish Castle if desired.
Pay 3 euros to take the Green Bus at the entrance to the palace further up the hill to Pena Palace, or walk up through its gardens.
After touring Pena Palace, if desired, walk down the hill, which the 434 bus took you up, to arrive at the entrance to the Moorish Castle.
After touring the Moorish Castle, hop on the 434 back to Sintra’s train station.
If you have extra time, or even an extra day, visit Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira. Not as popular as the sights listed above, though Instagram is quickly changing that, Quinta da Realeira is a majestic mansion built in the 19th century. Wandering its grounds, you’ll be enchanted as you encounter secret passages, caves, and well which has been drained and a spiral staircase built to take you down its depths. A short walk from the city center, you can also take bus 435, which the 434 ticket does not cover, to visit the mansion.
Do you plan to visit Sintra, or have you been recently and found the tips above helpful? Let us know in the comments below.