Sintra is lovely but requires planning and perseverance. It must be insane in high season, and it was already marginally insane in mid-April. Transportation barely copes with the volume – and you definitely require the use of the bus to get to the higher points of interest.
Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site with several major components.
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). Long line to the Initiation Well meant that we did not go – some people will find a visit without descending to the well incomplete, so you may want to start there. The main house is an exquisite Manueline castle, with just half a dozen beautifully designed rooms. The audioguide 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, the line to which may be pretty long. There is another line: to enter the interior of the palace (tickets are being rechecked), and that can grow to be half an hour or more long easily. Interiors are interesting, especially the dining hall, the Belle Epoque Grand Hall, the “3D” Arabic Room, and the kitchen. The cloister is prettily tiled.
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 the 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, strong wind. 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.
There is also a path down to the village from the main path to the castle – takes about 35 minutes to get down for those who do not want to deal with the bus on the way back (buy a one-way ticket when you go up).
The center of Sintra ♥ is full of picturesque corners and is sufficiently commercialized.
Palace of Montserrate is another attraction that we considered for our trip, but cut from the itinerary because it is some distance away from center.
Places to Eat
Tulhas ♥♥is tucked away slightly off the main route between the village center and Regaleira. We had nice tapas (there are also large plates on the menu). Very tight spaces, but they work; full dining room, good vibe. A polyglot waiter chats up all customers, with dry humor attempts. Our damage: €44 for two, including 2 glasses of wine. Last visit: Spring 2019.
Trains between Sintra and Rossio in Lisbon’s Barrio Alto run once every 30 minutes – highly recommended option if you make a day-trip from Lisbon. 15-minute walk from the station to the city center, on a reasonably level street. The fare is small; it is also included on the Lisbon Card, but nothing else in Sintra is covered by it, so including a full 24-hour period of the card validity on a trip to Sintra is not very economical.
It is possible to fit 4 sights and a sit-down lunch into one day in Sintra, but saving time on lunch may help the itinerary. Consider packing lunch.
If you give Sintra two days, combine 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.
Bus drivers’ shift change midday may mean fewer buses picking up customers from the center of the village – or idling by the train station for 20-25 minutes while the new driver gets ready. We lost about an hour because of all that. Nonetheless, walking up to Pena and the 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.