LivingTravelThe best places to visit in Sintra

The best places to visit in Sintra

One of the most popular day trips from Lisbon, a trip to Sintra should be at the top of every visitor’s itinerary. Once a real vacation spot, you are now more likely to see tour buses than actual carriages, but that doesn’t make this small town and surrounding attractions any less worthy of your attention.

From quirky palaces to Spartan monasteries, Gothic mansions, sprawling parks, and much more, you’ll never have a problem occupying your time. These are six of the best things to do in Sintra.

Peña Palace

Standing alone on top of a hill, on a clear day, the UNESCO-listed Pena Palace is visible from as far away as Lisbon. Commissioned by Ferdinand II in 1842, the brightly painted buildings and mix of architectural styles reflected the king’s love of the arts.

The interior is almost as striking as the exterior of the palace, restored to its appearance in the last years of the Portuguese monarchy.

Easily the most popular attraction in Sintra, expect long lines, especially on the weekends. The palace is open from 9:45 am to 7:00 pm in the summer, so try to plan your visit early or late in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds.

While you can walk from the city to the palace, the trail rises steeply for at least an hour, and while it is generally shady, the hike can be strenuous in the summer heat. If you’d rather save energy for exploring, you can take bus 434 or one of the many taxis or tuk-tuks that offer uphill rides.

Entry to the palace and the Pena park (below) costs 14 euros for an adult ticket. Discounts are available if you shop online or if you visit various attractions in the area.

Feather Park

With over 200 hectares (over 500 acres) of hilly and forested trails, Pena Park is a walkers delight. Created at the same time as the Pena Palace, it is home to more than 500 species of trees, ferns and flowers from around the world, including the United States, New Zealand and Australia, China and Japan. Its large size means that you will see few people around, a rare treat in such a touristy area.

As with the palace, the climb to get to the park from the city is strenuous, taking about an hour on foot or ten minutes by road. Once inside, however, the paths are much less steep, with plenty of places to sit and relax as needed.

Highlights of Pena Park include the Cruz Alta (an iron cross at the highest point on Sintra’s hillside) and the wooden chalet Casa do Regalo, but there are many lesser-known ornate fountains, sculptures and other decorations dotted around the dozens of trails crisscrossing the mountainous countryside. It’s worth picking up a free map from the visitor center to make the most of your time there.

If the queues for the palace are too long, or you would rather spend time in nature than indoors, a park-only ticket costs € 7.50. Expect to spend at least a discreet couple of hours wandering around, although it could take a lot longer if you want.

Castle of the moors

Dating from the 8th century, and expanded and rebuilt several times over the next millennium, the Castillo de los Moros de Sinta is an imposing structure. Like all good castles, it sits on top of a hill, protected by a pair of walls that stretch for almost half a kilometer.

Abandoned and largely forgotten after fires, earthquakes and the passage of time, they all took their toll, a great effort was made to restore the castle in the 19th century.

Excavation work carried out in 2005 uncovered many artifacts from the Bronze Age, as well as the foundations of Moorish houses and a medieval Christian cemetery. Several of the recovered objects are exhibited in a small church that has been converted into an interpretation center, next to the castle.

While the castle’s ruins and history are interesting in their own right, the views of the surrounding countryside are a highlight for many visitors. The 360-degree panorama from the castle walls takes in the Pena Palace and its parks, the city of Sintra and the National Palace below, and a view across the plains to the Atlantic Ocean.

It makes sense to visit the Castle of the Moors immediately before or after a trip to the nearby Park and Palace of Pena, as it is within walking distance. Tickets for adults cost eight euros, and the castle is open between 9:30 am and 8 pm in summer.

Quinta da Regaleira

Back in the municipality, make your way through the crowded streets to the entrance of Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th-century estate on the outskirts of the historic center. The imposing palace is covered in turrets, spiers and gargoyles, while the adjoining chapel continues the Gothic theme, filled with frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows.

However impressive these structures are, the best part of the estate is outside. The 10 acres of land are thickly wooded, with hidden symbols and Masonic imagery adding to the decidedly mysterious atmosphere.

What lies below the ground is as fascinating as everything above it, with an elaborate system of tunnels linking various parts of the estate to one another, including the chapel, the lake, and the famous pair of ‘wells of initiation ‘, probably the most photographed part of the Quinta da Regaleira.

These underground towers were used for ceremonial purposes, including Tarot initiation rites. The largest of the pair has a 90-foot circular staircase from top to bottom, and the descent into the bowels of the earth is probably the highlight of your time there.

Quinta da Regaleira opens at 9:30 am and closes at 6 pm (winter) / 8 pm (summer). Tickets for adults are € 6, with children, there are also family tickets available.

Sintra National Palace

The National Palace of Sintra is the only Portuguese medieval palace that has survived almost completely intact to this day. The exact date of construction is unknown, but it was mentioned in historical texts before the Christian reconquest of Sintra in 1147.

Used more or less continuously from the 15th century until the fall of the monarchy in 1910, the palace’s most striking visual feature is the pair of unusual conical fireplaces that rise from the kitchen. The relatively austere exterior hints at the elaborately decorated rooms inside, the most famous of which is the ‘magpie room’, intended to reflect the talk and intrigue of the royal court.

The ornate tapestries, a prized copper celestial globe, and even a large model Chinese pagoda are just some of the other highlights of the palace’s collection of artwork on display.

Tickets for adults cost € 10, and the palace is open from 9:30 am to 7 pm in summer. As with other sites in Sintra, the palace can be especially busy between late morning and mid-afternoon. To avoid the crowds, be there for opening time or wait until a couple of hours before the doors close.

Convent of Capuchos

In stark contrast to the opulent palaces and busy streets, a visit to the Convento dos Capuchos is an exercise in calm and simplicity.

This small Franciscan convent is hardly distinguishable from the surrounding greenery, built in and out of the surrounding granite with almost no comfort for the monks who spent their lives there.

The only concession was the extensive use of cork within the buildings, both as decoration and to help a little with insulation and waterproofing in Sintra’s cool and humid climate.

Continuously inhabited for almost three hundred years, the site was abandoned with the dissolution of the religious orders in Portugal in 1834. The surrounding vegetation is particularly impressive, one of the few parts of the Sintra hillside that survived deforestation along of the centuries.

About five miles from the city, you will need to take a taxi or your own transportation to visit the ruins. Adult tickets cost € 7, and the site is open from 9:30 am to 8 pm in summer. Expect to spend an hour or so exploring.

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