If you Google “things to do in Portugal,” there's one thing that's guaranteed to show up on just about any list you find: taking a day trip to Sintra.
Sintra is a town in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, about an hour northwest of Lisbon. The region is hilly, forested, and dotted with fairytale-like palaces and villas – making it a must-see for most visitors to Portugal.
There are tours you can book that will take you around Sintra for the day (like this one), but I recommend making the trip independently if you can so you can see things at your own pace.
Read on for all my tips for planning an epic day trip to Sintra on your own!
Don't want to visit Sintra on your own? That's fine, too! The info below is for people who want to travel to Sintra without a tour. But if you WANT to go on a tour, my top pick is this one: Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais Full-Day Tour from Lisbon, which includes visits to Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira.
Planning the perfect Sintra day trip
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon
First things first: I don't recommend driving to Sintra. Parking at the palaces and within the town is tough (as in, parking options are virtually nonexistent), and you don't want to waste half your day trying to find a parking spot. Instead, I recommend taking the train from Lisbon to Sintra.
Trains run regularly from Lisbon's Rossio train station (up to 6 times per hour during the busy season). You can check train times here – just put “Lisboa – Rossio” in the “From” box, and “Sintra” in the “To” box.
Tickets are €4.60 return (5.10 Euro total if you don't already have a Viva Viagem card, which is Lisbon's transport card).
There's also a combo ticket you can purchase for the train and Sintra buses for €14 (info on this combo here). If you're going to try to get this combo ticket, I recommend purchasing in-person at the station. Note that some people have reported issues either buying or using this combo ticket, but the link above comes directly from the CP website (Portugal's train system) and says it's still available.
Once you purchase your ticket, the journey from Lisbon to Sintra takes about 40 minutes on an Urbano train.
(You can also catch a train from Estação do Oriente, but Rossio is probably going to be more convenient if you're staying in one of Lisbon's popular neighborhoods.)
You'll want to take a fairly early train if possible, as the trains and attractions in Sintra get busy no matter what time of year you're visiting. Starting your day before 9 a.m. is ideal! (The buses in Sintra start running between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m., so if you can be there around that time, it will be less crowded than later in the day.)
Take the train all the way to Sintra station (not Portela de Sintra).
Pro tip: Try to get in a forward carriage so you can be one of the first ones out once you arrive in Sintra (this means a carriage the furthest away from the platform entrance at Rossio).
Getting around Sintra
Since I don't recommend driving in Sintra, the most affordable way to get around is by taking the tourist buses that run regular routes to Sintra's most popular attractions. These buses are the 434 and 435.
The 434 bus runs in a one-way loop and stops at:
- Sintra train station
- The historic centre of Sintra (Sintra Vila)
- Castelo dos Mouros
- Palácio Nacional da Pena
- The historic centre of Sintra (Sintra Vila)
- Sintra train station
In the summer, the 434 route runs from 9:15 a.m. to 7:50 p.m., while in the winter it runs from 9:30 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. Buses run up to 4 times per hour at each stop (but often will leave once a bus is full, instead of on a set schedule).
The 435 bus is another option in Sintra. This route connects Sintra to the Palácio de Monserrate, via the Quinta de Regaleira.
My advice is to make a beeline for the 434 bus line as soon as you arrive in Sintra (this is where my tip about riding near the front of the train can come in handy!). Exit the station and turn right to find the bus stop. Ignore the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who will try to sell you a tour – whatever they offer will likely be overpriced.
If you purchased a train + bus combo ticket in the morning, this will work on any of the Sintra buses. If you didn't purchase a combo ticket, you'll need to get a Sintra bus ticket. The best option will be the 24-hour hop-on, hop-off ticket for €12.50.
Then make your way onto a 434 bus (it will be marked with an orange circle that says 434, and will say “Circuito da Pena”). Early in the morning and at busy times of day, there may be multiple 434 buses running the same route.
Note: You may be wondering if you can just walk to all the attractions in Sintra. Technically you can – but I wouldn't recommend it. The train station and the Palácio da Pena may not look that far away on a map, but getting there entails a VERY steep 45-minute hike; if you only have one day in Sintra, don't waste this much time. Just get the bus ticket!
Pro tip: If you need to buy a ticket in Sintra, have cash on you to buy your bus ticket either from the driver, or from a Scotturb employee at the train station bus stop. It will be faster than trying to use a card.
It's worth noting that these buses are NOT tours; they operate like regular city buses – complete with often-grumpy drivers and few announcements of when stops are coming up. They run a set route, though, so just be aware of how many stops are between you and your destination.
The best 1 day in Sintra itinerary
Once you arrive in Sintra and get your bus ticket, it's time to start your day of exploration! The whole area is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site, which should clue you in to how much there is to see.
You'll want to be strategic about your Sintra itinerary for three reasons:
- You want to fit in as much as possible.
- You want to try to avoid the worst of the crowds.
- Your bus ticket allows you to hop on and off, but buses only run in one direction, and it can take a while to make it around the circuit if you miss something.
Here's my ideal itinerary when you only have one day in Sintra:
1. Head straight to Pena Palace
Once you're on the 434 bus, skip the stop in Sintra's historic center, and roll right on by the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). Make straight for the Palácio Nacional da Pena (Pena Palace) in order to be one of the first ones there.
This brightly-painted palace is regarded as one of the very best in all of Europe, and it's definitely the most popular spot to visit in Sintra. This is why you want to visit as early as possible!
The palace is located within lush, forested grounds and perched on top of a hill (like many things in Sintra). Once you enter the gates you'll have to climb a steep hill to the palace itself – or you can buy a ticket for the tram that will take you right to the front door.
Chances are you've seen photos of Palácio da Pena before; it's red and yellow towers and crenellations make it the perfect photo subject. But did you know that this site has been an important spot in Portuguese history since the Middle Ages?
The first thing built on this site was a monastery around 1500, which was later mostly destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. The ruins sat untouched for nearly 100 years, until King Ferdinand II decided to transform what was left of the monastery into a summer palace for the Portuguese royal family.
What resulted was the Palácio da Pena, completed in 1854. The palace was designed by an amateur architect from Germany named Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege. He probably had no idea how influential his work would become.
Many say that Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (built between 1869 and 1886) was influenced by Pena Palace. And we know that Neuschwanstein heavily influenced Disney's “Cinderella Castle.” Danish author Hans Christian Andersen also spent time in Sintra at this palace and its gardens. So it's safe to say that Pena Palace definitely influenced some fairytales!
The castle itself is a mash-up of several architectural styles, ranging from Romantic to Gothic to Arabic. This mix of styles and colors probably shouldn't work – but somehow it does!
You'll enter the castle through an Islamic-style gateway that might remind you of something you'd see in the Alhambra in Spain. Then you'll wind your way up into a courtyard covered in azulejo tiles.
From here, you can explore the castle's terraces and courtyards, or head inside to see quarters that are decorated as they would have been in 1910, when the royal family fled Portugal during a revolution.
Your ticket for Pena Palace will include access to the Park/grounds as well as entry into the staterooms inside the Palace itself. I enjoyed going inside the castle, but it can get very busy and crowded with a long line to enter (even with timed tickets), so it may not be something you opt to do. The views outside are arguably the best anyway.
Before leaving, grab a coffee or snack from the terrace cafe.
PENA PALACE INFO
Note that in 2023, Pena Palace is still using timed tickets for anyone wishing to visit the interior of the Palace. If you want to go inside the palace, you'll want to book your timed ticket in advance. The time is ONLY for your entrance into the palace interior; you can enter the Park/grounds whenever you want.
The bus takes about 20 minutes from the Sintra train station, and it 10-15 minutes to walk up (or take the shuttle) to the castle itself, so keep this in mind when buying timed tickets.
- Palacio + Parque ticket (includes castle interiors): €14
- Transport from main entrance to palace entrance: €3
Palace opening hours:
- Open daily: 9:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (last ticket 5:30 p.m.)
(The grounds are open 30 minutes later than the palace.)
Recommended visit time: 2 hours
Pro tip: In order to avoid ticket lines (and self-service machines that didn't like my American credit cards), buy your Pena Palace ticket online in advance. (You still may have to wait in line to get into the palace itself, but you'll be able to skip the ticket line.) Buy your ticket here.
2. Parque de Pena
The grounds surrounding Pena Palace are shady and beautiful (and full of flowers in the spring!), so allow yourself time to stroll through some of them before you leave.
One of the more popular walks within the grounds is to the Cruz Alta, or High Cross. Walking to the cross from Pena Palace will take 20-30 minutes, and the well-marked trail is mostly uphill for the last half.
The view from the cross looks back towards the colorful castle – BUT I will let you know that the trees growing up there partially obstructed the view for me (I visited in early 2019), so keep that in mind if you're looking forward to epic photos.
If you spent a lot of time inside the palace, you might want to spend less time in the Parque.
3. Lunch in Sintra town
Next, it's time to hop back on the 434 bus and ride the loop back down into Sintra town. The line for the bus at Pena Palace may look long when you get outside, but remember that almost everyone on arriving buses will be getting off here, so you hopefully shouldn't have to wait too long.
Once back in town, I recommend grabbing lunch. There are several restaurants and cafes in central Sintra to choose from.
I grabbed a quick lunch and coffee from a cafe, and then picked up some Portuguese pastries at Piriquita. Restaurants in town with good reviews include Bacalhau na Vila and Romaria de Baco.
4. Visit Sintra National Palace
After lunch, it's worth visiting the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, or Sintra National Palace. The palace is immediately noticeable thanks to its two huge conical chimneys.
This palace isn't as flashy as Pena Palace, but historically and culturally it's just as significant. Sintra National Palace was used by Portuguese nobility from the 15th to 19th centuries, making it the most-used royal residence in Portugal. It was damaged in the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, but was restored as accurately as possible.
Inside, the palace is known for its elaborate tilework and painted ceilings. Highlights are the Swan Room, the Magpie Room, the Arab Room, and the Coat of Arms room.
SINTRA PALACE INFO
Ticket price: €10
Palace opening hours: 9:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (last admission 6:00)
Recommended visit time: 1 hour
Pro tip: Don't bring a huge backpack with you to Sintra if you can avoid it. You'll be asked to wear backpacks on your front when touring the insides of palaces, and it's just annoying if you have a huge bag.
5. Quinta da Regaleira
I feel like I might be saving the best for last in this itinerary. As much as I loved Pena Palace, my favorite spot in Sintra was the Quinta de Regaleira.
A quinta is a private estate, and this one is particularly enchanting. It includes a grand gothic house and extensive gardens.
The Quinta de Regaleira is on the 435 bus route that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, but it's within walking distance from Sintra town – about 15 minutes up the road, and you're there (and only the last little bit is uphill). I recommend just walking if you can!
The land that the Quinta da Regaleira now sits on was bought by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro from the Viscountess of Regaleira in 1892 – hence the name. Carvalho Monteiro was a wealthy guy, and the estate he had built between 1904 and 1910 is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire.”
You can go inside the 5-story house here, but it was undergoing renovations when I visited, so you couldn't see much. I didn't mind, though, as it's really the exterior of the house and the Quinta's 9 acres of gardens that really shine here.
The afternoon is a great time to explore the Quinta de Regaleira's grounds. I picked up a map from the ticket office, and made a beeline for the Initiation Well at the top of the gardens first. This spiraling well is just one of several features in the gardens that represent ancient secret orders like the Knights Templar and the Masons.
At the Initiation Well, you're meant to follow the spiral staircase all the way to the bottom, and then exit via a hidden tunnel. This is the only part of the garden where I ran into a large number of other people – but visiting later in the afternoon definitely helped.
Other things to see in the gardens include several grottoes, towers, fountains, and even a Roman Catholic Chapel.
QUINTA DE REGALEIRA INFO
Ticket price: €10 for a self-guided tour
Opening hours: Daily 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (last admission at 5:30 p.m.)
Recommended visit time: 2 hours
Pro tip: To walk to the Quinta de Regaleira from Sintra town, follow the N375 from Sintra Palace. You'll take Rua Consiglieri Pedroso up a small hill and follow it around to the right when it turns into Rua Barbosa do Bocage. The entrance to the Quinta will be a little further up the hill on the left.
6. Dinner near train station
After you've had your fill of following the footpaths through the Quinta de Regaleira's gardens, you can head back down to Sintra town. Here you can either catch the 434 bus back to the train station, or you can simply walk – it will take 15-20 minutes, but it's mostly flat or downhill!
If you want to have dinner in Sintra before you catch a train back to Lisbon, some good restaurants near the train station include Saudade, Incomum by Luis Santos, and Restaurante Metamorphosis.
After dinner, it's time to bid farewell to Sintra and catch a train back to Lisbon!
If you have more time…
If you're willing to pack more into your Sintra day trip (or if you have two days to dedicate to the region), here are the other things I would add:
Castelo dos Mouros
The Castelo dos Mouros or Moors Castle/Moorish Castle* is a castle ruin that sits on a hill high above the town of Sintra. The Arabic castle was built in the 9th century, but fell into disrepair after the Arabic people were chased out of Portugal during the Christian crusades. It was partially restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century.
The Moorish Castle, to me, resembles a mini Great Wall, snaking over the Sintra hilltops with its towers and crenellations. I didn't include it in my Sintra day trip itinerary, though, because it really is just a cool wall with lots of steps to climb.
If you have extra time and haven't visited a fortress like this before, then by all means go! But personally I enjoyed spending more time at Sintra's palaces.
The Castelo dos Mouros is on the 434 bus route, but if you get off the bus at the Castelo dos Mouros, it can be difficult to get back on going towards Pena Palace. (I would recommend walking down to the Castelo after you visit Pena Palace, but then walk back up to the palace stop to catch the bus again.)
*Note: The word “Moor” is not one that is used in polite conversation these days in Europe. Historically speaking, the term was used mostly by Catholic Crusaders to describe Muslims from North Africa. The term is an almost derogatory one today, but this site IS still called the Moorish Castle.
MOORISH CASTLE INFO
Ticket price: €8
- Daily: 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (last admission at 6)
Recommended visit time: 1 hour
One other spot in Sintra that I've heard great things about is Palácio de Monserrate, or Monserrate Palace. This palace-like villa is located along the 435 bus line outside of central Sintra. You could potentially squeeze it in before Quinta de Regaleira in the summer if you have a quick lunch and get through the National Palace of Sintra quickly.
This palace was built as a summer home for Sir Francis Cook in 1863 on the site of a former house and chapel. The current villa blends Arabic and neo-gothic architectural elements and is surrounded by beautiful gardens.
I'm sad I missed this one!
MONSERRATE PALACE INFO
Ticket price: €8
Palace opening hours:
- Daily: 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (last admission at 6)
Recommended visit time: 1-2 hours
Sintra tours from Lisbon
I know this post focuses on how you can plan a day trip to Sintra independently. BUT, if you've read all this way and have decided that juggling train schedules and bus tickets and walking up lots of hills just doesn't sound like fun, here are a couple day tours that would also be a good option:
- My top pick: Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais Full-Day Tour from Lisbon (including visits to Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira)
I hope I've convinced you to take a day trip to Sintra! Which palace would you most like to visit?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!