There’s no photoshop needed to make Sintra look gorgeous. Even as the train rolled into our final destination swathed in fog and cloud, I couldn’t have been more excited for the clouds to float aside and reveal the wonders it was concealing. In the mist, the mountain chill was apparent compared to Lisbon’s powerful sunshine but donning my jacket, I excitedly bounced out of the station to begin a day of exploring.
When you’ve only got a few short days to spend in a city, it’s tempting not to travel too far from the centre but if there’s one place you venture out to during your visit to Lisbon, it’s got to be Sintra. Don’t expect a hidden gem; during my day there in September, it was pretty rammed with tourists on day trips and I’d imagine it’d be the same each and every day during the summer season. But rather than sighing that it’s ‘soooo overrated’, I honestly believe that Sintra is worth braving the crowds for. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t crazy about Lisbon but it turned into my favourite part of my trip to Portugal. Let me tell you all about it…
How to get to Sintra from Lisbon
Advice online tells me that driving in Sintra is a bad idea and having seen the narrow, winding hills for myself, I’d parrot the same thing to anybody who asked! Apparently you can also catch a bus to Sintra but given that the journey times are longer than the train, don’t waste your time. Hopping on the train is the easiest way to get from Sintra to Lisbon by far and with a journey time of just 40 minutes, you’ll be powering up those country hills in no time. Consider that a warning if you aren’t a walker.
You can travel to Sintra from Oriente or Rossio stations: if you’re visiting directly from the airport, you’ll probably use Oriente but as we were staying in the city centre, I hopped on at Rossio station. This station is large, clean and fairly easy to navigate – although as you’d expect, the bakeries in here are much more expensive than what you’d find on the street. You’ll want to grab one of Lisbon’s ‘Viva Viagem’ public transport cards during your stay as you can use your preloaded credit on a journey to Sintra. In fact, it’s a great idea to top this up in advance because the queues at Rossio station can get super busy with visitors taking the train to Sintra. It’s a bargain at €4.50 for a return journey and unless you come dangerously close to missing the train like I did, it’s pretty easy to find your way to the correct train. Just make sure you stay on until the end of the line: we did the typical tourist thing and panicked when we saw a station marked ‘Porteia de Sintra’ and leapt out of our seats – only to realise that the correct stop was actually the next one!
Personally, taking the train to Sintra was simple enough that I’d recommend it to virtually anyone but if you’re more into fuss-free guided tours, you can book packages from Lisbon that include transport and some of your entry passes too. Here are a couple to check out:
How to get around Sintra
As you’d expect, there’s a crowd of taxi and tuk tuk drivers waiting at Sintra train station ready to whisk you away for a private tour. I guess if you’re looking to go at your own pace without being restricted to bus timetables, this could be a good option (especially if you’re arriving at sunrise before the buses begin!) but as I didn’t choose this myself, I can’t give much guidance on the price.
Following advice I read online, we used the tourist bus 434 to get around Sintra. Originally I’d considered walking but the roads are so steep that I was absolutely thrilled we chose otherwise, even if you do end up waiting in long queues for the bus at times. My thighs could not have coped with the burn from those uphill climbs, let me tell you that now. The tourist bus runs on a one way loop for €6.90 – expensive compared to the train, I know! If you want to read more about the cost of transport and activities in Lisbon or Sintra, I’ve written a whole post about how much to budget for a city break in Lisbon that’ll hopefully help you out.
What to see in Sintra during one day
The two most popular attractions are Pena Palace and the Moors Castle, both located fairly close to each other near the top of a hill. While the bus loop heads to the Moors Castle first, followed by Pena Palace, I’d actually recommend doing it the other way around if you’re keen to experience these sights with the least crowds possible. This means you’d stay on the bus until Pena Palace, then take the 15 minute stroll downhill towards the Moors Castle before hopping back on the bus to complete the loop back to the historic centre.
Not knowing this before our visit, we looked around the ruins of Moors Castle first which was beautiful in a very different way. Once our bus climbed out of the historic town centre, the clouds virtually disappeared and the glorious Portuguese sunshine returned. Walking through a beautiful forest to reach the castle, leaves dappling on the pathways as we went, it felt completely different to anywhere I’d visited in Lisbon so far. It almost felt stereotypically British to be walking along ruined castle walls but incredible views of Pena Palace and the countryside stretching down towards the Atlantic Ocean put that feeling to bed pretty quickly.
While it’s now an Instagram sensation, the bright red and yellow facade of Pena Palace isn’t a product of overediting. On one of Sintra’s official tourism websites, it’s described as flamoyant and how true. It’s unlike any palace you’ve ever seen before and just as stunning as in the photographs. Because of the sheer beauty and rich history of the palace, it’s also super busy. There’s no getting around it (unless you race to be the first on site in the morning – snaps to you for dedication) but it’s also totally understandable.
You can either purchase a ticket to the grounds and terraces or an additional access ticket that allows you inside the palace rooms. Sadly, we were on a time limit as we had evening plans back in Lisbon so only purchased the park and terrace ticket. With this, you still gain access to some of the most photographed parts of Pena Palace including the stunning yellow archways looking out over the countryside, the walk along the outer walls and beautiful surrounding gardens. The vibrancy of the primary colour combination astounded me at every turn: the deep blue sky contrasting with the vivid yellow and red walls to make unforgettable memories.
If you still have time after exploring the two main attractions, Sintra’s historic centre has lots more sights to see including the Quinta da Regeleira and National Palace. Sadly, we were so pushed for time that we could only grab a quick drink and bolo de arroz (my favourite Portuguese bakery treat) before dragging ourselves back onto the train but this is why I’d actually recommend staying in Sintra overnight. I know, it’s controversial considering Sintra is famous for being an easy day trip and I’ve written a whole blog post around spending just one day in the town. But hear me out.
Is visiting Sintra sustainable?
After Sintra saw a 17.5% increase in numbers in 2016 and 21.7% increase in 2017, I can only imagine this trend will continue. Each year, Pena Palace is the most visited attraction in Sintra (making it Portugal’s most visited palace!) so it makes sense to question whether overtourism could be negatively affecting the town, as well as the positive impact it brings.. Lisbon itself is really struggling with the effects of burgeoning visitor numbers and it was really sad to hear from locals about the how living costs have inflated in recent years.
I recognise that it can be hard to find a balance. Housing prices in Lisbon have been driven up by the sheer demand tourism places on the city so I’m half reluctant to suggest staying overnight in Sintra for fear that it could be promoting the same issue. However, spending the night in a locally owned hotel is a great way to put money back into the regional economy. You’ll also get more time to explore and you don’t need to wait for the first train to arrive to get started. This would give you a head start over day trippers so you could potentially check off the busiest attractions before the huge crowds started to appear.
If you’re looking for something a little different, I came across ‘We Hate Tourism‘ tours during my research and the concept really intrigued me. Their tours are all about living like locals (no, really) and they even break down exactly where the money you pay goes to, something I particularly love in a company. If I ever return to Lisbon, or take a trip to Porto, I’ll definitely be checking out one of their tours!
In short, Sintra really is worth the day trip from Lisbon and I’d genuinely recommend it to anybody I know visiting the city. But if you’re away on a longer trip, why not consider staying a night or two? Instead of seeing the highlights from the 434, you might just uncover something even deeper. Plus, the more time you can spend at Pena Palace the better. Can you tell I’m obsessed?
I’d better leave it there for now but if you have any questions about visiting Sintra, send them my way and I’ll do my very best to help as always!