Guide to Sintra in Portugal
Sintra is a sparkling jewel in Portugal’s crown; a place of history, mystery and vibrant colour. It has the ability to make modern, white washed, marbled life look rubbish, and instead it has made me yearn for pattern, detail and rainbow hues. Here’s my guide to a long weekend in Sintra. Quick note, we went end of April 2018 which seemed to be busy to me but apparently it gets MUCH worse!
We booked with Expedia and stayed in Sintra at Hotel Arribas which is on the coast with lovely sea views over Praia Grande Beach. The good point side, it is nice and quiet, the bad side, it is a good 20 minutes (10-20 euros in a taxi) drive from the main centre. We flew into Lisbon and Sintra is about an hour away so we got our transfers included in the price (top tip as I’m guessing it would be expensive).
Now, you have to understand that Sintra is busy and has a LOT of tour groups. Add to that things are quite spaced out so it can be a bit of a logistical headache, however Google is fantastic for plotting routes, telling you when things are busy and also telling you how long people stay in each place on average.
On the first day, foxed by everything and desperate for a glass of Verde wine and a pastry, we took the Hop on Hop off Red Bus which was 20 euros each for 24 hours. The good thing was that we managed a 10 minute stint at Cabo Da Roca (below) before going onto our main destination, the picturesque Pena Palace.
HOWEVER, we ended up having a glass of wine and enjoying the sunset so we missed the final bus back to Sintra (approx 6pm in ‘Winter’) and had to find our own way back. So unless you are on your own or have an aggressive schedule to keep to and need to fly round Sintra - this may be an overly expensive option for you. Also we found ourselves waiting 40 mins for a bus, when if we had taken a taxi we’d have been at our destination.
Having said that, there’s nothing quite like sitting at the back of an open topped bus as it winds around the Jurassic Park style hills. An alternative is Uber or just a normal taxi. We found Uber the cheapest, reliable and super friendly so a lot of our Sintra knowledge came from them 🙂 Something to try once is the Tuk Tuk and you can slide down the hill for just 5 euros.
What To See
Pena Palace - you need 2-3 hours (30 mins from Sintra)
Top of my list was the multi coloured fairytale palace which were thought up by King Ferdinand II and are the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism. Top tip - book in advance as it will save you an hour queue. The grounds are sprawling with lots of little buildings and features like the High Cross where you can look out over Sintra, so take your time as there is plenty to see. The main castle is breathtaking and is total Instagram gold. It is probably the most tourist-with-back-pack and tour-guide-holding-an-umbrella-in-the-air heavy I’ve ever known so try and be early in the morning, or late at night so you don’t end up having a fight with someone. At 5pm you should be able to get straight to the restaurant with no queue and get yourself a glass of wine to toast the sunset in peace. Note it can take a while to reach the castle as traffic is very heavy so plan plenty of time.
Moorish Castle - you’ll need 1.5-2 hours (30 mins from Sintra)
Opposite Pena Palace so ideal to do together if you can! Again book in advance and ignore the first gate to go straight through the garden to the main castle. This is a more traditional, historic castle than Pena Palace and completely outdoors so please be cautious in wet weather (or go on a dry day). The walk around the castle walls is the main attraction here and the view is breathtaking. If you are worried about heights, go slow and take your time.
Quinta da Regaleira - you need 2-3 hours (in Sintra)
In the centre of Sintra, this is a big site so I would recommend taking your time. I don’t actually think this place ever really was ‘quiet’ because people just flocked to the hot spots. Check out the main palace, the wonderful gardens and the historic statues and architecture.
The pinnacle has to be the stunning inverted tower (Poco Iniciatico) which leads to an underground network of watery caves (Lago da Casata) - use your iPhone to see where you’re going. After you’ve battled the tourist-with-back-pack and tried to get a shot without someone with a red cagoule in it, head to the cafe. It has a great selection of food and wine which you can eat overlooking the main palace.
National Palace of Sintra - you’ll need 1-2 hours (in Sintra)
This was probably my least favourite - sorry Sintra - and was quick and easy to get around. It was a cold day when we visited and it was a cool place to be inside of. The main attraction were the perfect detailed ceilings and the astounding kitchen - which is home to the two impressive Madonna Cone Bra style iconic chimneys.
Monseratte Park & Palace - you’ll need 2-3 hours (10-15 mins drive from Sintra)
Holy Moly I loved this place. It had beautiful gardens which would be different depending on the season with landscape gardens created by Sir Francis Cook over 33 hectares. You’ll find a Rose Garden, Ornamental Lakes, a watrerfall, Mexican Garden and Fern Valley as well as architectural treats like the Indian Arch and Chapel.
The main palace reminded me so much of Versaille with the soft pink marble columns and intricate ceiling, a sign of the romantic era. This is a little out of Sintra and has an ‘in the middle of nowhere’ feel but the Hop On Hop Off bus stops here, and there’s always Uber!
Caba da Roca - you’ll need 1 hour (20-30 mins drive from Sintra)
This rocky edge of the Western coast reminded me so much of Cornwall; the cliffs, the tropical wild flowers and the vibrant turquoise ocean. We went twice - once on a windy and sunny day as a ten minute stop off on the Hop On Hop Off Bus and a second time when it was a more mixed but less windy day. The views are incredible but we did get caught in a bit of a rain storm - so retreat to the cafe when that happens for a cup of tea!
Cascais - you’ll need 3-4 hours (30-45 mins drive from Sintra)
This wasn’t even on our hit list, but time after time, it got recommended by taxi drivers, bar men and my friend Antonia Taylor PR. Cascais is a small town with the signature cobbled streets and tiled buildings about half an hour drive from Sintra.
We headed straight to Boca Do Inferno (or Devil’s Mouth) on the coast which was eerie as the devil really does seem to talk to you from the archway! Top tip - use Trip Advisor to find the best place to eat as we went to 5 Sentidos and had Monkfish with Shrimps and I was SO #BLESSED.
Dinosaur Prints - you’ll need 1 hour (20 mins drive from Sintra)
A lesser known fact is that there are dinosaur prints on Praia Grande Beach although it is not easy to find them. This location is 20 mins out of Sintra so unless you’ve got loads of time, or are on a Hop On Hop Off bus, it might not be worth the detour. Go to the far end of the beach where you will find a massive staircase. Halfway up, look up and you’ll see them in the rocks. The beach is gorgeous though for a nice stroll.
What to eat
EVERYTHING YALLLLL - YASSSS QUEEN! Sorry! I recommend croissants as big as your head - jeez they do such good chocolate filled heaven which I had every morning at the hotel. We had amazing spinach pastries at pretty much every palace (when in Rome as they say) and I also had a pretty phenomenal Pastel de Nata at Pena Palace.
For evening meals, it is pretty much fish all the way. My travelling companion Kate Gorbunova, loved an octopus and her favourite was from 5 Sentidos, although Incomum in Sintra came a close second and I loved my Scallop Risotto.
You also must try the famous Vinho Verde literally 'green wine' which is so crisp and clear and frankly gorgeous! It is all pretty reasonable - you can get an evening meal with a bottle of wine for two for around 50 euros.
What to pack
Layers. That icy Portuguese wind can get CHILLY. In end of April, I had a combination of top, cardigan, jeans or skirt, denim jacket AND sometimes my trench coat too. You just can’t tell. On the flip side beware of the sun with these high up castles and wear factor 50.
Read next - check out my Guide to Italy, Amalfi Coast & Capri.