This article covers Sintra, Coimbra, the monastery “triangle”, and Évora, all of which can be visited on a day trip from Lisbon. The towns, of course, easily support longer exploration.
Sintra ♥♥♥ is arguably more of a must than anything you’d see in Lisbon. This UNESCO World Heritage site requires planning and perseverance. It must be insane in high season, based on how it was already marginally insane in mid-April.
There are several named attractions on the WH designation. The National Palace ♥♥ has a number of nicely tiled rooms, most remarkably the Blazons Hall, and a few other outstanding features, such as the kitchen with dual chimneys.
Quinta da Regaleira ♥♥♥ is our favorite. The gardens are magnificent, with a number of outstanding features (grottoes, fountains, towers, terraces). The long line to the Initiation Well is probably not a deterrent to people who would find a visit without descending to the well incomplete – if you are one of those people, you may want to start there. The main house is an exquisite Manueline castle, with just half a dozen beautifully designed rooms. The audio guide is well worth the investment.
Pena Palace ♥♥♥ is awfully colorful and somewhat toy-like because of that. It is actually quite big, with a number of levels and terraces accessible on all sides. Getting up to the castle from the entrance gate is a half-kilometer uphill walk – or use the free shuttle, although there will be a fairly long wait in line. There is usually another long line, to enter the interior of the palace (tickets are being rechecked). The interiors are interesting, especially the dining hall, the Belle Epoque Grand Hall, the “3D” Arabic Room, and the kitchen.
The huge Pena Park surrounding the palace is reputedly full of delights, but doing that and Regaleira in one day may be taxing. If you are seeing Sintra over the course of more than one day, consider coming to Pena and to Regaleira on different days, and then definitely set aside time for Pena Park.
Moorish Castle ♥ is primarily about ramparts and lookouts, with nice views to the valley below and to Pena. The pathways are dangerous in some places: no railings, uneven stone surface, and strong winds. This is a monument of the ancient history of the area, rather than a royal retreat. On a lower level, there is a nice interpretive center in an old church. Overall, the castle is the least impressive of all sites in Sintra, but obviously something different from the rest.
The center of Sintra village ♥ is full of picturesque corners and is sufficiently commercialized.
The Palace of Montserrate is another key part of the World Heritage inscription, some distance away from the village center in a different direction.
Trains between Sintra and the Rossio Station in Lisbon’s Barrio Alto run once every 30 minutes. In Sintra, a 15-minute easy walk from the station will bring you to the city center. The train fare is inexpensive; it is free if you use the Lisbon Card, but keep in mind that nothing else in Sintra is covered by the card, so including a full 24-hour period of the card validity for a trip to Sintra is not at all smart.
It is possible to fit 4 sights and a sit-down lunch into one day in Sintra. If you give the town two days, combine the National Palace and Regaleira for one day, and add Monserrate to it. Then plan for Pena and Moorish Castle on the second day, and possibly add lesser sights close to the village center to that.
Sintra transportation barely copes with the volume – and most people will require the use of the bus to get to Pena. Walking up to Pena (and the Moorish Castle) cannot be a serious option for anyone but the most athletic; if you are not driving and do not want to depend on buses, hiring a tuk-tuk might be an option. However, the path between the center of the village and the castle can be an option for the return descent – it takes about 35 minutes – for those who do not want to deal with the bus on the way back; buy a one-way ticket when you ride up.
Avoid the bus drivers’ shift change midday, which will mean fewer buses picking up customers from the center of the village – and some idling by the train station for 20-25 minutes while the new driver gets ready. If you are going to Pena by bus during that period, you can easily lose an hour.
A place worthy of a specific dining recommendation is Tulhas, which is tucked away slightly off the main route between the village center and Regaleira; tight spaces, good vibe, great food.
The Monasteries of Alcobaça, Batalha, and Tomar
Three superb monastic complexes are situated half an hour’s drive from each other and just over an hour each from Lisbon. Each of the three is a UNESCO World Heritage site on its own merit, and each has incredible features well worth exploring.
The imposing façade hides a relatively subdued Gothic interior, but once you start paying attention to small details in the cloister, such as column capitals or gargoyles, you recognize how exceptional the Alcobaça monastery ♥♥♥ is. The Hall of Kings (with azulejo-covered walls and statues of monarchs) and the kitchen (incredible enormous chimney) are outstanding interior spaces. The rooftop terrace provides great close looks over those gargoyles. Every space in the complex has an English-language description on an information stand – no audio guide is needed. The monastery feels well cared for, which adds to the positive impression.
The town of Alcobaça has a small pleasant core, crossed by a river, around the monastery. There are many tiled houses and several atmospheric squares.
Batalha Monastery ♥♥♥ is decidedly Manueline in style, with elaborate decorations, but the lack of recent care clearly shows. There are three main parts to the complex: an impressive chapel with royal tombs, a beautiful large cloister with several rooms branching off it, and finally a breathtaking unfinished chapel – the killer feature of the place. There is also a second cloister which is much less impressive, but allows access to the upper level; a clock mechanism from the tower can be seen there.
The monastery is in the center of the eponymous town, which does not feel historical enough; you are unlikely to venture far from the cathedral square.
Convent of Christ in Tomar ♥♥♥ is a huge complex, comprised of what feels like a dozen of cloisters. There are some tiled rooms; the principal cloister is simply gorgeous; the Manueline window is one of the acknowledged highlights; and the richly painted and decorated circular church is the prime feature. Signs and descriptions with maps are present in each space, but it is still easy to get lost within the complex. Whereas it is possible to see each of Alcobaça and Batalha monasteries in the space of about an hour, you need at least two hours if not more to see all of the Convent.
There is a decent cafeteria on the premises (in a vaulted former study room). The Convent, unlike the other two monasteries, is not located in the village center, therefore there are no other options for food reachable on foot.
If you are staying in Lisbon and intend to see all three of these complexes on a day trip, keep in mind that the Lisbon Card includes access to all of them at no extra charge. Since the card provides great value in terms of sightseeing discounts and unlimited local transportation, consider getting a multi-day one that will cover the day of your visit to the monasteries.
Otherwise, a combo ticket to all three monasteries – available at whichever one you visit first – saves you €1 per.
Coimbra ♥♥ is a university town with a number of attractive features. The university – a UNESCO World Heritage sight – is well worth the exploration.
The historic core of the university – Alta ♥♥ – is located in the highest section of town, occupying the former Royal Palace and a number of surrounding buildings. The palace ♥ has a couple of impressive spaces and terraces. São Miguel Chapel ♥♥♥ is beautifully tiled, painted, and decorated, with a very colorful organ. The tower ♥ climb is not for those who are claustrophobic or overweight, and the views from the top are short of breathtaking (although you get a good look at the fountain on the river), but it is still a pleasant diversion. Finally, Biblioteca Joanina ♥♥♥ is amazing. You get less than twenty minutes to enjoy it (and no photography was allowed as recently as 2019, although I have now heard that changed), but it is definitely a marvel; you also get to look into the academic prison and the library archives, which are not as impressive, but nonetheless, offer another angle to the overall picture.
The vast central plaza of the university, Pátio das Escolas ♥ is quite impressive as well. Outside of it, imposing buildings – quite a few of mid-20th-century pedigree – and various statuary comprise the larger university grounds.
There are several other points of interest in the upper town. New Cathedral ♥ blinds with its opulent altars. Old Cathedral ♥ has a number of eye-catching features, such as the tiled framing of its chapels and an understated cloister with plenty of small details. The Botanic Garden ♥ is a pleasant park, but also short on knockout features (likely, it is more impressive in the period of bloom). The Science Museum can also be considered, although it is some distance away from the university core. A reputedly interesting historic park Penedo da Saudade is a few minutes further walk uphill from the Botanic Garden.
Church of Santa Cruz ♥♥ at the foot of the upper town is probably the most impressive of all non-university sights – its organ is spectacular, and its azulejo-covered walls are exquisite. The church is free to enter; for an extra fee, you can explore the entire monastery that it is part of.
Coimbra is considered a hotbed of Fado music; the daily performances at Fado ao Centro start at 6 pm, which will not work for anyone who comes to Coimbra on an intraday visit.
The lower-town part of the university, Sofia, named after the street around which it is clustered is not especially impressive – you would not necessarily even distinguish university buildings from the rest of the area. UNESCO site inscription also mentions Santa Clara Monastery on the other side of the river, but exploring that can only fit into a multi-day stay in Coimbra.
You can buy several combo tickets for exploring University sites. The “Program 1” itinerary covers all key places. Note that there is a tiny extra cost to climb the tower via a separate ticket. Access to the library is on a timed-entry basis, which will be determined at the time of getting the combo ticket. There is no way to reserve time in advance (as of 2019), and on busy days it may be sold out fairly early in the day. On the positive flip side, if you are lucky with your timing, it can take less than 2 hours to see all of the university core.
Évora ♥ is a pretty capital of the Alentejo region, a white town with yellow-orange highlights that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In many places, white walls are not in the state of perfect upkeep, so there is a dirty-ish tint to some perspectives, but still picturesque and overall very pleasant.
Unmissable because it stands freely and does not require any fees to see, the Roman Temple of Diana ♥ is probably the most popular major attraction in town.
Cathedral ♥ is not outstanding in the absolute sense, but has a couple of unique features, such as an elaborate center-of-the-nave altar to Our Lady of O. You can also get on its roof (“tower”), which is quite interesting, as well as look around the cloisters.
The beautiful church of São Francisco ♥♥♥ is among the most impressive that I have seen in all of Portugal. Uniformly designed but individually decorated chapels line up the perimeter of the nave; a marble main altar, an elaborate golden altar in the transept, and a separate room for secular members of the Franciscan order are other major features.
An entrance on the side of São Fransisco takes you (for a fee) to the unusual Bones Chapel ♥. The same ticket also allows entry to the church museum and a collection of Nativity scenes ♥, the latter is like a toy museum that is very likely to be especially appealing to kids.
One place worthy of a specific dining recommendation is Guiao (around the corner from São Francisco), with an uncommon “pay for the ones you tried” basis for a selection of appetizers that is brought to every table, and an overall excellent Portuguese menu.