When someone tells you that they are going to Portugal, you probably assume they mean a week in the Algarve or a few days in Lisbon. For the most part you would be right but on a recent trip to Lisbon I discovered somewhere totally new to me. Somewhere I had never even heard of until I started to research my trip. Sintra is a very different experience to Lisbon despite being relatively close by and is somewhere I would highly recommend visiting. Although I was previously oblivious to its existence it is actually a very wealthy area of Portugal and property in the area is highly sought after. I soon discovered why!
Your high street travel agent may not be pushing holidays to Sintra to its customers like they do with the Algarve but this is an extremely popular place to visit. Perhaps one major reason for this is that the historic centre, Vila de Sintra, is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s right, the whole town centre is a World Heritage Site! If you like your trips away to have history, then this is somewhere you should really consider. Whether it be palaces, gardens, breath-taking views or the historic centre, any time in Sintra would be time well spent.
Getting to Sintra
It is easy to spend a day or two here if you are going to Lisbon so there really are no excuses. We caught the train from Lisbon to Sintra and it only took around 45 minutes despite having multiple stops on the way. Lisboa-Rossio is the station you will want as trains run from there to Sintra every 20 minutes or so and will cost you around €5 for a return ticket. There is a Starbucks inside Lisboa-Rossio if you need a hot or cold drink for the journey, depending on the time of year you are travelling. The drink will also prepare you for the walk at the other end as the historic centre of Sintra is about 15 minutes away on foot from the station. There are plenty of touts and tour guides stood outside of the train station and so if you prefer something a little more structured then you will be spoilt for choice. We decided to go it alone like dead professional travellers.
What to do
One thing you should know about me is that I am an absolute sucker for an old building. I am not really sure why but there is just something about intricately detailed buildings and seeing the architectural style of other countries that really floats my boat. This totally normal personality trait of mine was spoilt for choice in Sintra. It felt like every time we turned a corner of the narrow winding streets there was something else worth seeing. It is one of those places that I could have spent days in, just exploring all the little side streets and getting lost in the huge gardens. Despite being a bit of a tourist hotspot, that I had never heard of (I’m such a bad travel blogger), it manages to retain a sense of calm and a quaint feeling that I thought only existed in small French villages that smell of freshly baked bread.
The Pena Palace is one attraction that I absolutely loved in Sintra. Before I get into why I will start off with what is perhaps my best travel tip of all time… Do not walk there, take one of the small motorised Tuk-Tuk type taxi things up the winding road instead. I told my girlfriend it was about a 5 or 10 minute walk from the historic centre and 45 minutes later we were still walking and it was all uphill. I mean every single step was uphill. We actually like walking and have been known to rack up 35,000 steps (about 15 miles) in a day whilst out sightseeing but this was exhausting. It probably isn’t actually that far but because it is a winding road and it is 100% uphill, it feels like such a long way. The worst part is though that you feel like you wasted a bit of time by not just getting in one of the taxis that everyone else seemed to get.
Assuming you get the taxi ride up the mountain to the entrance of the Pena Palace you can purchase your ticket there and pick up a site map in the language of your choice. A ticket is €14 each which gives you full access although for just €7.50 you can get a ticket that will give you access to the park and palace terraces but not the state rooms. From the ticket office there is a shuttle that you can get to take you up to the palace entrance but to be honest I wouldn’t bother with that. We had just done a long walk and even we still decided to walk the final 10 minutes or so through the Palace Park to the entrance. Walking through the park is just a bit more relaxing and intriguing but be aware that it is also uphill. Both the park and palace are truly beautiful and the views that you get from the terraces of the palace are some of the best I have ever had. We deserved those views after all that walking!
My second recommendation would have to be Quinta da Regaleira which is basically an estate that is home to a palace, chapel and gardens. You might think that is sounds similar to Pena Palace from that description but it is totally different and perhaps even better than Pena Palace depending on what your tastes are. The gardens were, for me, the jewel in the crown of this estate and on a nice day it was a pleasure to explore them. There are towers, lakes, walking trails, fountains, caves, wells and ornate benches to sit and relax. I have honestly never been in a garden/park like it and I am not sure I ever will again. At just €6 for a ticket (which gives you access to everything), you really cannot fault this place. Make sure your camera has plenty of battery because there will be so many things that you want to snap whether it be the gothic architecture or just a selfie in a cave, because why not?
We also spent some time exploring the historic centre where the Sintra National Palace sits. What is it with this place and palaces? We explored the little shops that are hidden away on narrow walkways and bought ourselves a couple of small bottles of Sintra Liqueur, one was sour cherry flavour and the other was almond. I would really recommend you try these, the shop we got them from allowed us to try them before we bought them and served the sour cherry in a small dark chocolate cup. We were sold!
Although those activities took us all day and tired us out enough to make us get the train back to Lisbon for a bit of a rest at the hotel, there is lots more to do. Perhaps most notably would be the Castle of the Moors which is very close to Pena Palace and costs just €8 each to visit. The castle is basically ruins so don’t expect some grand untouched structure, but the walk around the castle walls looked really good from what we could see of it. I would also say that if the attractions we visited are anything to go by then the castle will be charming in its own right. It also provides amazing views being at a similar vantage point to Pena Palace.