Journeys, Travel Guides

Sintra, a charming sanctuary with fairy tale castles

(Last Updated On: March 13, 2019)

Feeling like a kid in wonderland is the best way to describe the atmosphere in Sintra, Portugal.

This natural reservation with castles sprinkled here and there is a great place to take your inner child out to play. The best part? You can find it only 25 minutes outside Lisbon (by train).

Set at the foothills of Sintra Mountains, this small town used to be the favorite resort of the Portuguese royalty, and it’s considered to be the first center of European Romantic architecture, thus included in the UNESCO’s heritage sites.

Today, Sintra’s architecture is a creative melange of Romantic, Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian and Renaissance elements, all blended into its stunning castles and dwellings.

Visiting Sintra’s top castles: Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira and Monseratte Palace is an amazing experience for an architecture lover like me. Still, I think the natural landscape is the magical ingredient of this fairytale destination.

Walking uphill towards Pena Palace felt like we were entering an enchanted forest filled with colorful purple flowers, birds singing in the nearby trees, and springs’ soothing sounds filling the fresh air. This movie kind of magic also resides within Monserrate Palace and Quinta da Regaleira premises.

Downtown Sintra, the wine bars and restaurants fill the narrow cobblestone streets, and small shops adorned with azulejos invite the curious traveler in for souvenirs.

Things to do in Sintra, Portugal

The best thing you can do in Sintra in just one day is to visit the top 3 castles: Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira and Monseratte Palace, which are closer to each other and accessible by bus.

Pena Palace, a fantasy drawing turned into reality

The best reason to become an architect has to be this: to turn a fantasy drawing into reality.

And Pena Palace is a place that makes you stay and wonder at every corner while capturing every façade, door, window, tower, and facade from every angle.

The bus left us at the bottom of the hills of Pena Palace, so we walked uphill for half an hour like we were hiking. Sure, there was a tuk-tuk and a bus transport option, but the enchanted forest looked so inviting that we were happy to hike.

(Also, I got some motion sickness from the first bus ride, that takes you from the train station to the foothills of Pena Palace, so the hike was more than welcomed.)

We spent more than 3 hours in Pena Palace, walking aimlessly and marveling at every detail of this dreamy castle, taking pictures and admiring the panoramic vista in the biggest inner courtyard of the palace. Yes, I’m a slow traveler who likes to see, experience and wonder at every tiny detail, so…

Time flew by and we couldn’t see the 3 castles in one day anymore, so a day trip from Lisbon to Sintra turned into 2 lovely afternoons in this beautiful mountain resort.


Monserrate Palace, Sintra

Oh, I wish I had a gown or at least a pretty summer dress for this place!

Monserrate Palace has these amazing golden corridors dressed up in lace-like architectural details that can make any woman feel like a princess, even the T-shirt and jeans type of girl :).

The geometry of this palace, its indoor fountain, and the gorgeously lit rooms can leave you wondering for hours. And we were fortunate enough to visit it at the golden hour when it’s probably the best time to photograph its beauty.

The palace is rather small, but the attention to every architectural detail, angle and geometric shape is fascinating.

The road leading to Monseratte Palace is a true botanical garden, with small cascades and springs here and there, and delicate succulent gardens right at the entrance.


Quinta da Regaleira

Maybe some fairy tales were born here after all.

Quinta da Regaleira looks like a medieval movie scene and it made me feel I could expect a knight and a villain to start a duel at any minute.

The jungle-like scenery of the estate gives you the impression of being out for a hike, and the only things that snap you out of this mood are the numerous hidden paths and ingenious shortcuts that lead to the famous well.

The Initiation Well

It’s probably the most amazing outdoor spiral staircase (also called an “inverted tower”).

This place seems to have its own micro-climate, with moss layers covering its stone made walls, and water dripping at each level just like inside a cave.

We found it by entering a secret doorway behind a fountain and took the stairs up to capture its beauty, which we thought as both peculiar and enchanting. As far as I read about its history, the Initiation Well was used for Masonic rituals.

Quinta da Regaleira is also included in the World Heritage Sites’ list by UNESCO. The Gothic details of the palace, but also of the fountains, chapels, and dwellings around it made me think of the great cathedrals around Europe.

We had only an hour and a half for the visit, but it wasn’t enough, so I would recommend at least 3 hours for exploring this magnificent estate in Sintra.


Other Architectural Gems in Sintra

  • National Palace of Sintra
  • Moorish Castle
  • The Municipal Building of Sintra
  • The Moorish Fountain
  • Old houses of Sintra

We walked around the National Palace of Sintra, admiring its beautiful architecture from outside, but we didn’t want to get in while the sun was still up and the resort looked fantastic.

So we sat in the big yard outside, from where you can also admire the Moorish Castle and the colorful little houses, some dressed in azulejos, some just showing their patina to the curious traveler.


Strolling around Sintra

The atmosphere of Sintra is so lovely after 6 p.m., around the golden hour, when the tourists get back to Lisbon, so you might want to linger more.

We walked the cobblestone streets of the city, the narrow paths offering some amazing corners, and we dined at a wonderful restaurant we discovered in situ, just by asking a local woman about her favorite place to eat in Sintra.

On our way to the train station, we found the Moorish Fountain and the beautiful Municipal Building of Sintra, as well as some old houses that looked a bit haunted to me, but nevertheless beautiful.


Where to eat in Sintra

Exploring Sintra takes a whole day, maybe two for the architecture aficionados, so there’s not much time for wining and dining. So before visiting the castles, we tasted some delicious Portuguese pasty in the Pena Palace coffee shop.

While I was shopping for table mats, Vlad had the great idea to ask a local shop keeper about her favorite place to eat in Sintra, and thus we arrived at this really nice restaurant called Tacho Real.

Later on, we found out Tacho Real is one of the top 3 restaurants in Sintra, Portugal. The place opens at 7 p.m., so we waited a bit for dinner, and I got the chance to explore more of Sintra’s empty cobblestone streets on my own.

We dined outside, and the food was delicious, the prices reasonable, and the interior styling just gorgeous. We were really happy that we chose to stay a bit more, after the tourist wave got back to Lisbon. It was a well-deserved quiet moment at the end of our journey in Sintra.


When to visit Sintra & Portugal

We chose the second week of June for our Portugal trip. The time was chosen because a friend of mine told me July and August are the two months when Portugal has really high temperatures. My guess September would also be a good time for visiting Portugal as the heat wears off.

In any case, I highly recommend wearing multiple layers of sunscreen at any time of day and a hat. Trust me! The windy weather can give you sunburns at only 20-230C temperature. Got some sunburns myself, on my shoulders and hands on my first day in Portugal, and suffered the whole trip because of it. So stay safe and wear sunscreen!

How to get there & Getting around Sintra

Sintra is the perfect one day trip from Lisbon, but to really enjoy it, you must take the first-morning train (about 8 a.m). One round trip is 3,80 Euro/person, and you can use your Lisbon transport card to pay.

Getting around Sintra is a bit more costly. We paid 5 Euro per round trip for each castle visit, so around 15 Euro per round trip/person to visit the top 3 castles: Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate Palace.

Going uphill to Pena Palace requires either 2 buses, or a bus and a bit of hiking, but you can also wait for the second bus or take a tuk-tuk for 5 Euro/ride/person. Pena Palace is very crowded with tourists, so maybe you want to visit it first, early in the morning, to avoid standing in the long lines at the bus stops.

Sintra’s buses are available until 6 p.m., so waking up early is a must for a one day trip to all the castles. The castles close around 6 or 7, but you’ll have to plan the trip according to the bus schedule. Taking the bus is pretty easy – one stop is just outside the train station, the other at a 30-minute walk, downtown Sintra.

Buying tickets for Pena Palace and Monserrate Palace is easy – there’s an office right inside the train station, and you get discounts according to the number of sights you want to visit. It’s a good option if you want to avoid the lines at the ticket offices inside the castles.

Quinta da Regaleira is a private estate, and we chose to buy tickets at the entry, but when we arrived around 5 p.m., the line was pretty short, so no worries.

Sintra is a great destination for architecture and nature lovers alike, so if you’re staying in Lisbon for more than a few days, a trip to Sintra is really worth it.

Portugal: Sintra, Lisbon, Cascais, Porto, Cabo da Roca | Visited in June 2016 | Copyright: ©Ana Matei & ©Vlad Isac

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  • Reply Anda August 25, 2016 at 11:09 am

    bravo Ana! Foarte frumos articolul. Daca uit vreodata ceva despre Sintra am aici tot ce trebuie.

    • Ana
      Reply Ana August 25, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      🙂 Mă bucur că ți-a plăcut. Mulțumesc mult. :*

  • Reply Raluca August 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Felicitari Ana! O sa urmez instructiunile tale in vizitarea Sintrei! Multumesc pentru ponturile referitoare la transport si cumpararea biletelor 🙂

    • Ana
      Reply Ana August 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      Mulțumesc. Cu drag. Te aștept cu întrebări, dacă ai nevoie de o informație anume. 🙂

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