• Elena

How (not) to Spend One Day in Sintra


During my last visit to Portugal, I only had one day in Sintra, so I wanted to make the most of it and set myself a goal to see three palaces there (Quinta da Regaleira, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle), knowing full well it might be a bit of a stretch. After the arrival at Sintra train station, my day trip to Sintra didn't quite go to plan, but it was certainly a memorable experience, so I want to share my one day Sintra itinerary with you. Apart from laughing at my epic fails, you will be able to find plenty of useful practical tips to help you plan your own visit to this stunning little town.

It was a lovely summer Sunday in August; the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky as I set off from my hotel wearing trendy leather sandals, a summer dress and with a small bottle of water in my rucksack. After all, I was just going to see some palaces in a town, what else would I need? Sintra was waiting for me with open arms.

Getting to Sintra from Lisbon is very easy as there is a direct train going there from Rossio train station, which takes 40-45 minutes. I took an Uber to the station, aiming for the 10am train. Make sure you check the timetable before you set off as the trains aren't particularly frequent.

Rossio train station in Lisbon

Having read up on the popularity of Sintra and going there on a Sunday in peak tourist season, I was fully prepared for queues at Rossio train station, but there were only a few people by the ticket office, so I got my ticket in no time. I asked for a return ticket, which basically means they load two single tickets onto a Viva Viagem card (the card costs €0.50 if you don't have one yet and a single ticket to Sintra is €2.25, or at least that's what it cost in August 2018). You then scan the card when you go through the barriers to the train platforms.

Rossio train station platform - train to Sintra

Sintra is the last stop on the route, so it's easy to find the right train as you will see 'Sintra' on the board. Again, to my surprise, the train wasn't particularly full and I got a seat with no issues at all. I went for a window seat to be able to see the surroundings, but, to be honest, there is not much to see as the train makes its way through some rather unspectacular residential areas.

Train to Sintra from Lisbon - plenty of seats free as you can see

After 40 or so minutes on the train, I arrived in Sintra at around 10:45am, ready for an exciting day. At the station entrance, several people wearing official tourism T-shirts were available to ask any questions, so if you're not quite sure where to go, they are a great source of information and can direct you towards the buses or the town centre, which is a bit of a walk from the station.

If you are at all unsure about your fitness level, I would strongly advise you take the bus. There are two routes covering the main sights, 434 (circular route of train station - town centre and the National Palace - Moorish castle - Pena Palace - train station) and 435 (linear route of train station - town centre and the National Palace - Quinta da Regaleira - Seteais Palace - Monserrate Palace). You can check the timetables for the buses here.

Inspired by a blog post by Intentional Travelers, I felt well-prepared and decided to skip the buses and walk everywhere. My way of thinking was that I would be able to get on a bus later if I got tired, so I went towards the stunning building of District Council of Sintra (Camara Municipal de Sintra) and then along the Volta Duche road to get into the historical centre of Sintra. It's an enjoyable walk with no big hills to climb and some nice views along the way. Here you can also find the entrance to Parque da Liberdade - it looked like a lovely park, but I had to skip it due to being on such a tight schedule.

Click on photos to enlarge

Before long, I was in the historical town centre of Sintra and could see the majestic building of Sintra National Palace. You can visit the palace (ticket price of €10 at the time of writing, discount available if tickets to multiple sights of Sintra are purchased at once), but I limited myself to taking it all in from the outside and then moving on.

Sintra National Palace

My next stop was the tourist office where I wanted to buy the entrance tickets for all the three palaces I was planning to visit in order to get a combined ticket discount and skip the queues at the entrance points. As it turned out, Quinta da Regaleira isn't included in the combination ticket and you have to buy the entrance ticket at their own ticket office, but I did get a small discount for buying the tickets to Pena Palace and Moorish Castle.

From there, I followed the signs for Quinta da Regaleira, which was easy enough to find. There was already a queue for the tickets, but in total the wait time was probably less than 10 minutes. When you buy the ticket, you also get a map of the grounds - if you want to study it in advance, you can find it here. For the latest ticket prices and opening hours, check here. There are also toilets at the entrance, handy to use before starting a long walk through the grounds. A quick look at the time - my exploration of Quinta da Regaleira started at around 11:30am.

Walk to Quinta da Regaleira - you can see the main house of the Quinta already

I had heard about the Initiation Well, so that's where I headed first. Obviously, I wasn't the only one as by the time I got there at about 11:40am, there was a queue to get in. You can get the idea about how many people there were from the photo below, so the way down the stairs was long and slow. If you want to avoid the crowds, you should aim to get there significantly earlier.

Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Once you get to the bottom of the well, to get out, you have to go through some underground tunnels. There are several tunnels that you can take - the one I went along took me out to the Lake of the Waterfall, which is absolutely stunning!

Lake of the Waterfall, Quinta da Regaleira

So far, so great. I explored some more structures in the grounds of Quinta da Regaleira, walking around, climbing towers, taking in the magnificent views towards the historical centre of Sintra, Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle before sitting down to have a quick lunch at the outdoor café in the grounds overlooking the main house, which was around 12:30pm.

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There was more left to explore at Quinta da Regaleira, so after lunch I set off again. I found some more underground grottos filled with water, which is where things started to go off course.

The grottos were dark and in some areas you couldn't see where you were going at all. First, I managed to hit my head on the rocky ceiling of one of the passages, which was pretty painful, though luckily it didn't bleed. Then, to add insult to injury, I managed to step right into a massive puddle, completely soaking those lovely leather sandals I was wearing. The splash was so loud that the family in front of me turned back to see what happened... So, please be very careful when walking through the grottos!

Click on photos to enlarge

After these two mishaps, with my head hurting and my feet wet and dirty, it was time to head to the next Sintra wonder. I left Quinta da Regaleira shortly after 1pm and started my search for the entrance to Rampa da Pena walking trail, which would take me up to Pena Palace and Moorish Castle. When I exited Quinta da Regaleira, I turned left and went along Rua Barbosa du Bocage.

Shortly after, I saw a gorgeous building on the right side of the road with a gigantic U-shaped driveway and an arched entrance to something that promised a view. The gate of the driveway was open so of course I went there to investigate. The building is Tivoli Palacio de Seteais, an 18th century palace turned into a luxury hotel. The view over the countryside was indeed extensive, but even better was the view of Pena Palace through the arch.

Click on photos to enlarge

Having admired the view, I went out through the other part of the U-shaped driveway and continued on Rua Barbosa du Bocage, looking for Rampa da Pena. And I walked. And I walked. And I walked. And no matter how hard I looked, I just couldn't seem to find the turn for Rampa da Pena.

I wanted to use Google maps on my phone to establish my location, but for some reason, the GPS was malfunctioning and telling me that I was in the UK no matter how many times I tried, so that was no help at all. Even worse, the phone battery started to deteriorate at an alarming rate, so I decided to stop using it altogether as I needed enough juice to get an Uber back to the hotel at the end of my trip.

It was very hot, around 30C and the sun was strong. What little water I had was starting to run out. I was also getting concerned about the time as it was the afternoon already and I still had to see two palaces and make my way back to catch the train. So after what was probably about a kilometre of walking, I decided to turn back and half walked-half ran towards the historical centre of Sintra.

And lo and behold - when I arrived at Tivoli Palacio de Seteais, I discovered that the entrance to Rampa da Pena was right opposite it, so because I went up the driveway to see the palace from one side and came out from the other side, I missed that stupid entrance! Gah! If you do decide to try and hike up to Pena Palace, Palacio de Seteais is your mark - if you pass it, turn around!

Click on photos to enlarge

Looking at the timestamps on the photos, I lost about 30 minutes on this detour, but due to the heat and dehydration, it felt like an eternity. I was exhausted and what I really wanted was to sit down somewhere in the shade and relax, but I pushed myself and started up the trail just before 2pm. It was actually a pleasant change from the Rua Barbosa, because there was shade and it's always nicer to walk on a forest trail compared to a main road where you have to watch out for cars.

Unfortunately, after a while, the forest trail ended and I was somewhere on Estrada da Pena, the steep and winding main road that the cars and buses use to get up to Pena Palace. I couldn't see any way to get onto any sort of off-road hiking trail, so I continued up along the main road with all the cars. By this time, my feet were not only extremely dirty, but also badly blistered and though I had some plaster, it refused to stick because of the heat, sweat and dirt and kept falling off. Learn from my mistakes - wear appropriate footwear! Though it was way too hot for proper hiking boots, hiking sandals or trainers would have served me much better than the pretty leather sandals.

At this point I would have happily taken the bus, but the thing is, there are no bus stops halfway up the hill! There is no option to bail out of the hike midway, so be sure you can do it before you commit. My optimism about making it up deteriorated to the point of 0 and it was only the lack of any other options that kept me going. There wasn't anywhere to sit down for a rest either and my water had completely run out a while back. I can't stress enough how important it is to set off with an adequate amount of water, even if it means carrying a bigger weight in your bag, and this is yet another one of my epic fails. Dehydration + heat = feeling very unwell.

Cars were passing by with the people openly staring as I struggled up like a victim of a zombie apocalypse and I was getting pretty desperate when all of a sudden a kind lady just stopped her car and opened the door for me. Without this kind lady, I don't know if I would have even made it all the way as the drive to Pena Palace felt like more than I could have handled at that point.

Again, looking at timestamps on the photos now, it wasn't long at all and I got out of the car at the entrance to Pena Palace at 2:20pm, only about 30 minutes after I started the climb at Rampa da Pena, but the steep hill, dehydration and heat made it feel like an eternity. I couldn't have felt less like sightseeing! When I got in, the first thing I saw was these guys - by the looks of it, they had also decided to hike up the hill... Honestly, I would have loved to join them!

Exhausted tourists at Pena Palace

If you remember, I bought my entrance tickets for Pena Palace at the tourist information centre at Sintra, so thankfully I didn't have to queue at the entrance. My ticket was the 'park' ticket, which allows you entrance to the grounds and terraces of Pena Palace, but not entry into the palace itself. If you are trying to cover several palaces of Sintra in one day, this ticket, in my opinion, is a very good option. It's half the price of the full ticket (check latest prices as well as opening times here) and allows you to get close enough to the palace to get gorgeous photos and then you can get away from the crowds by heading into the palace grounds.

Going up to Pena Palace

And there will be crowds at the palace, prepare yourself for it. People were everywhere! It's difficult to get a photo without tons of people in it. I thought I would be able to replenish my non-existent water supplies here and went to the café. It was rammed and there was a queue waiting to get in, so I had to leave empty-handed. In spite of the crowds though, Pena Palace is absolutely breathtaking and a must-see in Sintra.

Click on photos to enlarge

At around 3pm, I left the Pena Palace building and headed out to explore the grounds, which are lovely and really deserved more time than I was able to dedicate. You can have a look at the full map here. The grounds are a shady forested area, with cobbled pathways and hardly any people around. I walked to Cruz Alta and then decided to look for an exit that would be closest to the Moorish Castle, which took me to the Valley of the Lakes. It is here that I was finally able to get some water. As I was walking, I spotted a spring - no idea if the water was drinking quality or not - by then, I couldn't have cared less. All I knew is that I could finally get something to drink and refill my bottle, and it tasted like heaven!

Click on photos to enlarge

Finally feeling refreshed and not like a victim of heat stroke going through the motions in a zombie-like fashion, I used my newly recovered lifeforce to head to Moorish Castle. I got there around 4pm - I had my ticket already, but there was no queue to get it this late in the day, so it wouldn't have made a difference either way. For ticket prices and opening times, check here.

I followed the guiding arrows and started to explore the ruins of this extremely impressive 10th century fortress. There are a lot of steps to climb and descend, so be mindful of that when you go. The views over Pena Palace, historical centre of Sintra and the surrounding countryside are incredible!

Click on photos to enlarge

I stayed at Moorish Castle until around 4:30pm, so it was by far the shortest visit of the three. I went the whole way around, but kept to a pretty brisk pace, so if you stop and admire the views a bit more, you can easily spend longer here.

It was now time to head back to Sintra train station via the town centre. On the way in to Moorish Palace I had spotted a sign indicating the way back to the centre, so I went there and followed the arrow. The walk is downhill, mostly on cobbled roads - the only issue that I encountered is that the cobblestones have been polished to a very smooth state by lots and lots of feet over the years, so occasionally, where the slope gets steeper, it becomes rather slippery. But apart from that, it's an enjoyable route!

Click on photos to enlarge

I got back to Sintra train station in time to get the 5:40pm train back to Lisbon. It was rather full and hot (and got even fuller and hotter as we neared Lisbon), but I did manage to get a seat. I was exhausted, my feet were in agony (and extremely dirty and dusty), and I was super relieved to finally be sitting after hours of non-stop walking. But I have to say that in spite of everything that went wrong, I immensely enjoyed my one day in Sintra, and I hope you fall in love with this beautiful town too!

So, to sum up, this is what I recommend to make your day trip to Sintra as perfect as possible:

  • Unless you are super fit, take the bus to get up to Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle. And even if you are super fit, consider the bus as well if you are visiting on a hot summer day - don't underestimate how much of a difference 30C heat makes.

  • Seeing three palaces in one day is a whirlwind tour with no opportunity to stop and take it all in. If you want a more relaxed pace, I would recommend reducing the number of places you visit to two and perhaps come back again on a different day to see more.

  • Take adequate supplies of water - a 0.5 litre bottle is just not going to cut it and once you get out of the historical centre, opportunities to replenish supplies will be limited. Having some heat-resistant snacks wouldn't hurt either.

  • I don't know what went wrong with Google maps on my phone that day in Sintra, but as it turns out, GPS isn't always reliable, so having a good old paper map can be of a lot of help.

  • Good comfortable walking shoes are a must! If they are easy to wash, even better as they are likely to get very dirty and dusty at the end of the day.

  • Finally, watch your head in the grottos of Quinta da Regaleira!

If you are planning your trip to Lisbon, you may also like my city guide to Lisbon and day trips

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