My Tips for Spending a Day in the Whimsical Town of Sintra, Portugal

The picturesque village of Sintra, Portugal captivated me with its fanciful architecture and gorgeous scenery. With over ten remarkable national monuments in a relatively small town, Sintra easily has become one of the top tourist destinations in all of Portugal. And it’s no wonder: few places in the world have enthralled me as much as Sintra. My only regret is not having dedicated more time to this haven hidden in the pine-covered hills.

My Tips for Spending a Day in the Whimsical Town of Sintra, Portugal

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. In 1995 Sintra was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. In 1995 Sintra was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Context of Our Trip to Sintra

Several globe trotting friends raved about Sintra. “You must go,” they implored. So we carved out a day trip and overnight, adding it to our itinerary following our voyage to Lisbon. And since it’s situated only thirty minutes from Portugal’s capital city, it presented an enjoyable and easy option before we flew to Morocco the following afternoon.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. The Castle of the Moors as seen from the Pena Palace. The Berber castle comes from the 8th century.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. The Castle of the Moors as seen from the Pena Palace. The Berber castle comes from the 8th century.

1 – Don’t Drive in Sintra Unless You’re a Local.

We rented a car in Lisbon, providing us the flexibility to set our own agenda.  Furthermore the drive is short and easy on well-labeled highways.  But a part from that once you are in Sintra, ditch the car please.

Navigating the mountainous roads and one way streets of Sintra should be saved for the locals and professionals. Basically a single and narrow oneway thoroughfare passes the majority of monuments.  For example, I drove past the Quinta de Regaleria, not finding parking, and figuring I could return.  Boy was that a mistake!  I was then forced to drive out of town and then back around on a huge loop (because I was disoriented) adding an hour to our ordeal.

Plus the village recently changed the direction of traffic on many one way streets.  As a result, our GPS often lead us the wrong way.  More than once frantic drivers coming at me head on honked their horns, chastising me with their arms and hands for driving erroneously. Needless to say the venture proved quite stressful.

Then many sights like the Pena Palace are situated on obscure streets with access reserved for those with intimate knowledge of the town layout. Finding them can be practically impossible. I spent hours trying to find the Pena Palace only to discover I was totally lost.

Lastly many of the roads are narrow with sharp turns with unclear signage. Just driving from our hotel to the old part of town took an hour because we kept getting lost. Thankfully we ran into a guide who escorted us to the correct location. Only later did we discover it was less than five minutes from our hotel.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of Lisbon from the Cruz Alta, the best viewing point in all of Sintra.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of Lisbon from the Cruz Alta, the best viewing point in all of Sintra.

2 – Hire a Tuk Tuk from TukDreams

After two hours of driving in circles and feeling completely helpless and lost I felt ready to surrender. We had managed to only see the Palacio de Monserrate.  Luckily I spotted a bright yellow tuk tuk from TukDreams in my rear view mirror.   Immediately I stuck my arm out the window waiving him down.

Hastily I explained we were trying to find the Pena Palace but were completely lost. He agreed to take us in his tuk tuk and drive us around for seventy Euros.  Fed up and wiped out, we agreed.  The driver directed us to a parking lot where we ditched our ride and hopped in his. And that is when things improved.

He knew exactly where to take us and even pointed out hidden overlooks. Next, he helped us avoid queues by visiting the obscure, quieter ticket booths.  All of this transpired while he was providing helpful information on Sintra, as well as totally entertaining us with his sense of humor.  Without TukDreams we would have missed a majority of the sights because they were so inaccessible.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of the Pena Palace. The villa ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of the Pena Palace. The villa ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

3 – Visit the Pena Palace

This Romanticist style yellow and red palace rests atop a hill and looks like it’s right out of Disney World. It’s almost hard to believe this was someone’s actual home at one time. Then 1889 it was bought by the Portuguese state, and now constitutes one of the most visited sites in all of Portugal.

The climb up to the palace is steep, but a bus facilitates the venture. Although the crowds are huge, the views of the surrounding area are remarkable. And the palace in itself is probably one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of the Pena Palace. The castle's history started in the Middle Ages when a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was built on the top of the hill above Sintra.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of the Pena Palace. The castle’s history started in the Middle Ages when a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was built on the top of the hill above Sintra.

4 – Visit Quinta Da Regaleira

This decorative 20th century residence comes straight out of a romance novel.  With a fanciful style and gothic facade, this popular palace with well-groomed grounds also ranks as one of the most popular places to see in Portugal.  Built in the 1800s, it served as a private home until it was acquired by the Sintra council and opened to the public in the late 1990s.  Come, wander around and get lost in these spectacular walls and gardens.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Photo of Quinta da Regaleira. The palace is also known as "The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire", which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Photo of Quinta da Regaleira. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.

5 – Visit the Palacio de Monserrate

This palatial villa may be smaller than other more popular sites in Sintra, but it compensates with ornate artistry, charming halls and well-appointed, florid grounds.  Once the summer retreat of the Portuguese council, this 18th century home was acquired by the state in 1949 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with most all palaces in Sintra).  I could easily see myself living here.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Monserrate Palace. In 1995 Sintra Hills, including the Park of Monserrate, was defined as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape by UNESCO. The management of the Park of Monserrate was taken over by the Sintra Park in 2000 and its recovery and restoration program enabled the Palace to re-open to the public.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Monserrate Palace. In 1995 Sintra Hills, including the Park of Monserrate, was defined as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape by UNESCO. The management of the Park of Monserrate was taken over by the Sintra Park in 2000 and its recovery and restoration program enabled the Palace to re-open to the public.

6 – Visit the Historic Center

The delightful old village rolls out cobblestoned streets lined with alluring cafes and shops.  Allan and I dined at an outdoor venue while watching the world stroll by.  I felt privileged to be sitting in such an enchanting town surrounded by lush foliage and looming mountains.  After dinner we walked around, snapping photos of the adjacent National Palace cat sunset with its dual chimneys set against an orange sky.  Certainly this timeworn town magnetized me with a real allure.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of Sintra and the National Palace at sunset. The palace as 2 chimneys, setting it apart from other buildings as a place of wealth and prestige, as a sign of the times at its construction, having a chimney represented status.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. View of Sintra and the National Palace at sunset. The palace boasts 2 chimneys, setting it apart from other buildings as a place of wealth and prestige.  As a sign of the times at its construction, having a chimney represented high status.

7 – Consider Staying for More Time

For us twenty-four hours was just not enough time to fully-appreciate Sintra.  I wish we had booked a couple of more nights, allowing us time to drive to the nearby Cabo de Roca, a lighthouse and cliffs overlooking the ocean.  Then there is a long list of other alluring castles to explore like the Castle of Moors and National Palace.  Without a doubt, I will return to Sintra so I can more-fully appreciate the magic of this hilltop village.  It’s really no surprise why it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Portugal.

My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Allan I at the Cruz Alta with the Pena Palace in the background. The Pena Palace was completed in 1894 and represents the fruit of King Ferdinand II's creative genius.
My Tips For a Day Trip to Sintra. Allan I at the Cruz Alta with the Pena Palace in the background. The Pena Palace was completed in 1894 and represents the fruit of King Ferdinand II’s creative genius.

Do you have any questions or remarks about Sintra?

Please let me know in the comments!

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

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Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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