While planning the trip to Portugal, the recommendation I received the most from friends, family, and travel stories was to take at least a day in Sintra, the UNESCO World Heritage site about an hour outside Lisbon. With all the transportation options to the region, I settled on a day tour — I figured it’d be easier to have a guide to take me to all the destinations around Sintra and Cascais rather than relying on public transportation and offline maps. In some ways it was beneficial, but I regret not having more time to explore on my own.
I waited to book my tour of Sintra until I could get an idea of the weather — it was the rainy season and sightseeing in a downpour isn’t fun. Even with a favorable forecast, there were still a few showers along the way, but it didn’t put a damper on the day. I searched through dozens of potential tours, looking for the one that included all the main sights and would pick up at my hotel. Every one of the tours lacked something, so I settled on the one that seemed to have the most at a reasonable price.
While on the Free Walking Tour of Lisbon on the first day, the guide pointed out the train to Sintra. Had I done more research, I might’ve gone about the excursion with a tour that left from Sintra station rather than my hotel in Lisbon. The trains run every half hour and take 40 minutes between the stations. And it costs less than $3 each way. It likely would’ve saved time and allowed me to return to Lisbon later. But sometimes the convenience of a tour with hotel pickup is better for peace of mind.
The day started early with pickup at the hotel. Confusion began quickly as we continued to pick up more passengers in the opposite direction of Sintra — it seemed I should’ve been one of the last passengers to get picked up as it would’ve saved almost an hour. Arriving at Pena Palace (Palacio Nacional da Pena) earlier in the morning would’ve been better for photos and a more peaceful time admiring this colorful work of architecture.
Colorful World of Pena Palace
Pena Palace is a highlight of any tour of Sintra. It was built in the mid-19th century on the site of a monastery by King Ferdinand who wanted a mixed-design palace on the hill — the design incorporates Moorish and medieval elements and includes a 16th-century chapel that was part of the old monastery. And I guess he also wanted to ensure that everyone within miles could see it so chose the brightest colors.
The longest stop on the tour was obviously Pena Palace as it was the largest destination to see. I did my best not to dawdle as I took in the architecture and views. Granted, there was some waiting required to enter the palace with a timed ticket that I wasn’t told I should’ve purchased in advance to save a bit of time (communication isn’t a strong suit for tour companies booked through third-party apps). Fortunately, we were early enough that we could get the timed entry almost immediately — there was a line to get in after walking up the hill from the ticket office to the palace, but it was no more than a 15-minute wait.
The tour guide provided a decent introduction to Sintra and Pena Palace, but he didn’t go in with us; we were on our own. The group split up after entering, though we ran into each other at times and pointed out what we saw and which direction we came from.
With the colors, architectural styles, and artwork around the palace, it felt like it belonged in a Disney movie. Royalty never did have a concept of subdued opulence. Of course, there’s a typical Portuguese flair with ornate tile work around much of the buildings, particularly inside.
After checking out a few of the watchtowers on the way into the palace, I headed off in the direction with a bit more space — much of the crowd went right, so I went left to the open area. I came upon an impressive large gate and overheard a tour guide telling visitors that the angry-looking sculpture above was an image of Triton.
There are so many rooms and courtyards to walk through that it can be disorienting without a map. There were multiple times I turned around after realizing I had already been through one room or another — with limited time before the tour took us to the next destination, I had to ensure I visited as much as I could in the time allotted.
There are some interesting rooms around — the chapel is small but beautiful with the tiling covering the walls. It’s a bit small, so it can take time to get in for a picture.
One of the more interesting rooms was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting’s bedroom. It’s not that this room is anything special in any way — it is the servant’s quarters. It does, however, have the most unusual choice of artwork on the wall. Why is there a large painting of monkeys playing cards? Is this painting an original from the queen’s time at Pena Palace or is it just something the tourism office put up on the wall? Why is there no information about this painting — no artist, title, or anything?
There’s also the Great Hall with its servants lamps. Yes, those are supposed to be foreign servants standing with candles to light the room. The hall is set up to look as it did when the royal family last resided there in 1910, which is why a billiards table was removed, so don’t plan on playing pool during the visit.
There were many more rooms (it is a palace after all). It was difficult to keep track of what room was for what function. There were multiple dining rooms, the royal bathroom, the elk room (so called because of all the antlers hanging on the walls), and there was probably a storage closet or three.
With a little extra time at Pena Palace and larger crowds entering, I took off along the surrounding trails without a destination until I read the direction signs. I headed for the High Cross because it seemed the distance wasn’t too bad for the remaining time before departure. The view was pretty good, but it wasn’t as impressive as hoped considering the rapid stride necessary to make it in time.
There wasn’t much but some rocks to climb at High Cross. As it wasn’t raining, the view was beautiful and clear. There were only a few other people around, so I could’ve enjoyed the quiet had I had more time. Instead, I walked as quickly as I could down the hill to the waiting bus.
There’s a lot more to see in the area around Sintra. My tour gave us time to see Sintra National Palace, Cabo da Rocca (the farthest western tip of mainland Europe), and the town of Cascais. Within Sintra there are other castles and historic sites that we didn’t get to see, and I doubt a single day would be enough to see them all. With all the hiking trails and protected natural areas, I could have easily spent multiple days exploring Sintra and Cascais.
Have you been to Sintra? Did you spent more than a day exploring the region?