Is Sintra worth visiting? You bet it is! This gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site of a town is located on the Portuguese Riviera, just north and west of bustling Lisbon. It offers a dreamy mix of architecture in an equally dreamy landscape, filled with castles, forests, and things you might think you’d be more likely to see in a fairy tale.
There are stacks of things to do here. Whether you want to soak up the scorching rays on secluded beaches, add to your catalog of historical knowledge on tours of the UNESCO center, or go hiking on the coast paths of the Cabo da Roca, it’s got something for everyone from history buffs to adventure lovers.
Still need a little convincing? You’re in luck. This guide runs through nine of the most glaring reasons why we think Sintra should 100% be on your Portugal itinerary this year. From the fantabulous castles to the eye-watering beaches, we’ll showcase the creme-de-la-creme of the region to get the wanderlust sufficiently stoked for you to press ‘book’. Let’s begin…
Table of Contents
The fairy-tale castles
Sintra is certainly a feast for the eyes. It has an abundance of pastel-colored palaces and whimsical castles – think Disneyworld meets Game of Thrones, only without the hordes of screaming kids!
By far the most impressive palace is Pena Palace. Surrounded by swathes of greenery, that mountaintop marvel was once a summer residence for Portuguese royalty. It’s now one of the top tourist draws in the whole Lisbon region. We think it looks especially moody on a rainy, misty day, when its Gothic-esque spires are often swirled in cloud.
But your fill of wonderment doesn’t stop there. The nearby Castle of the Moors dates back to the 8th century and was once a mighty vantage point that kept watch over the coast and hills. For just €8 ($9) entrance fee, you can transport yourself back in time as you walk along the outer wall and explore the turrets for incredible views.
We’d also recommend checking out the Sintra National Palace. It’s located right in the heart of the old town, a great white complex that was used by the Portuguese kings and queens as a summer retreat or hunting lodge for no fewer than eight centuries! A highlight there has to be the spectacular Coat of Arms room, which houses a domed ceiling with over 70 of the noblest families’ insignias.
The stunning beaches
Fancy stretching out on golden sands while Atlantic waves crash against the shore? Sintra could just be the place to go! Myriad beaches and cliff-backed bays exist on the shorelines to the west of the town, offering dramatic landscapes and come-laze-on-me powder alike.
The closest and most easily accessible beach is Praia Grande. It’s a long, sandy stretch that offers consistent Atlantic waves that are known to be particularly fantastic for bodyboarders (European championships in the sport were even hosted here!). Given that the swells are pretty heavy, swimmers might want to stick to the coastal saltwater swimming pool, which is one of the largest on the whole continent!
For something more secluded, check out Praia da Ursa. There’s a steep and rocky route down, making it a rather treacherous effort. The reward is crystal-clear waters surrounded by even more incredible iceberg-like rock formations. Finally, those on on a family vacation are sure to love Praia das Macas. It has plenty of amenities and a small swimming pool for kids.
You can also head south (the drive is only a little more than 20 minutes in normal traffic) to find the protected beaches of the Costa Estoril nearer to Lisbon, which are famed for the chic summer casino town of Cascais – a little like Portugal’s answer to Monte Carlo, only way more chilled.
Is Sintra worth visiting for the hotels? We certainly think so. There are bonuses to this town becoming one of the top draws in the Lisbon region, you know? Not only is it now super well connected to the capital but it also comes with a whole host of wonderful accommodation options that cater to the thousands of travelers who pass this way each year. They run the gamut from the downright luxurious to the budget-friendly.
Here are just a few of the top-rated hotels in Sintra:
- Penha Longa Resort ($$$) – A palace in its own right, this grand resort has a Victorian air about it and sits in the middle of the lush hills of the Sintra Cascais Nature Reserve.
- Chalet Saudade ($$-$$$) – If you’re looking for character you can’y go wrong here, because Chalet Saudade is a 19th-century mansion with Art Deco flurries and sumptuous rooms in the historic core of Sintra.
- Rosegarden House ($$) – Like something out of Wes Anderson movie, the Rosegarden House is a boutique home with loads of style.
- Moon Hill Hostel ($) – This affordable hostel is pretty darn cool. It’s in the middle of Sintra old town, has a lounge with a fireplace, and a really cool bar area where you can chill out with other travelers.
It’s easy to get to
Getting to and from Sintra shouldn’t be a chore. We’ll assume that you’re coming from Lisbon (most people do), which means you can catch a direct bus, a direct train, or just hop on any one of countless day trips up to the historic palace town. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of those main three options:
- Sintra Express Bus – This seasonal bus (April-September) leaves the capital from Marques de Pombal and goes direct to Sintra Station. It costs €10 per person each way but there are discounts on round-trip tickets.
- The train – Trains leave regularly from the downtown Rossio Station and take just 40 minutes to get to Sintra. This is by far the best option, the most comfiest way to travel, and the cheapest, with tickets coming in at just €2.25 per person.
- Tours – Most tours will pick you up early from the capital, right in the lobby of your hotel. They take between 5-10 hours depending on what they include and will drop you back at your hotel at the end of the day. These are pricy but you go by private minibus and get a dedicated guide along the way.
You can also drive yourself to Sintra from Lisbon in as little as 30 minutes. Doing that will offer extra freedom, letting you drop by the beaches before or after seeing the palaces and have lunch somewhere in the hills. The quickest routes from A to B are on the A37 or on the IC15 and then the A16, depending on traffic and time of day.
The trekking and walking
The Sintra-Cascais Natural Park is one of the 13 natural parks of Portugal. It stretches from the mountains of Sintra to the beaches of Cascais further south. Within, you’ll find a diverse landscape of thickly forested trails, serene lakes, rugged cliffs, sand dunes, and oodles more. It’s the perfect place to pull on the walking boots and go for a ramble in the great outdoors.
The most famous hiking path of all in the area has to be the Santa Maria Trail. That links up the iconic Moorish Castle and the Palace of Pena (two of the most stunning buildings in the town), all while weaving through groves of ancient laurels and pines, and even palm thickets planted by King Ferdinand II way back when.
A great alternative to that would be the salt-washed Atlantic Walk. It begins at Cabo da Roca (the westernmost point in all of Europe, no less) and connects up some of the most beautiful corners of the central Portuguese shoreline – expect wildflower blooms on the hillsides above roaring waves on the beaches below.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Just wandering the streets in Sintra should make it easy to see why the town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was given the prestigious official classification – which puts it up there with the like of Krakow and Quito – in 1995 for its “cultural landscape,” the fusion of remarkable architecture and impeccable natural beauty.
Sintra became one of the first centers of European Romantic architecture back in the 19th century. Examples of that experimental and totemic period can be seen most prominently in Monserrate Palace, the Quinta da Regaleira, and Sintra Town Hall. They all show flamboyant touches of post-Gothic and Neo-Gothic building, elaborate medievalism, and Romanesque flurries.
The old town center also has its own more subtle charms. Delve into the cobbled streets there and you’ll pass a variety of ancient houses, cafes, and cozy little gift shops, offering a selection of the finest handmade crafts, jewelry, and Ye Olde Worlde souvenirs.
Whether you’re a seafood enthusiast, a patisserie connoisseur, or just an all-round foodie, there’s an abundance of tasty treats to whet your appetite in Sintra. For breakfast, why not try the town’s own claim to fame: The Quijada. These sweet, cheesy pastries originate from the area and are the perfect accompaniment to a strong coffee. We love dropping into Casa Piriquita for some of the best in town.
Remember that the ocean is super-close, too, which means the fish and the seafood of Sintra are sure to be top-notch. Head on over to Adraga Restaurant, where you can dine on clams in a white-wine sauce as you take in gorgeous Atlantic views. Or perhaps you’d prefer a platter of salted cod (a Portuguese speciality known as bacalhau) with coconut milk at the reasonably priced Metamorphosis.
Sintra has also developed a really wide range of international eateries thanks to its steady stream of day trippers out of Lisbon. They serve everything from slider hamburgers to French fries, which is great news for families with the kids in tow, or travelers who just want something quick to chow down on before hitting the UNESCO palaces. Look out for them in the area around the main train station and bus terminal.
Epic photo opportunities
If you’re one of those Instagram aficionados, always on the lookout for the next great photo, you’re sure to get a couple of gems to add to the album here. And we’re not just talking about the grand palaces in the town itself…
Blessed with stunning, uninterrupted views out to the Atlantic Ocean, the coastal spots of Sintra are perfect for capturing the ultimate sunset photograph. We’d recommend Praia da Ursa, with its captivating rock formations, or Praia de Grande, where you could snap a surfer spraying waves at the golden hour. The Cabo da Roca is also amazing, for photos of a silhouetted lighthouse against a shimmering horizon.
Another must for the evening light are the gardens at Monseratte Palace. They’re far from the coast and the frothing waves, but offer a chance to frame the sun creeping through a tree-lined landscape, with light reflecting through mysterious, arabesque doorways and arches. Stunning!
The mysterious Initiation Wells
Located in the grounds of the extravagant 19th-century villa, Quinta da Regaleira, the Initiation Wells are one of the most famous attractions in Sintra. The pair of wells consist of stony steps spiraling down 27 meters into the ground. They are thought to have been the site of an initiation ritual connected with the Knights Templar (a Catholic military order founded in the 12th century).
Legend has it that folk are supposed to imagine their darkest fears as they make their way down, leaving them at the bottom of the well as they exit. Whether that works or not remains to be proven, but there’s no doubt about just how intriguing the structures are. They ooze a sort of fairy-tale Gothic oldness that you don’t see in the palaces of Sintra, something that’s only heightened by the dappling of mosses and lichens on the stone.
You should pick your timing when visiting this spot. It can become very crowded in the peak season (May-August) and that often means queuing will be likely. Getting there early or late in the day would be your best bet for a quieter experience if you do visit during the summer months.
So, is Sintra worth visiting?
Sintra is totally worth visiting. This town causes a fuss for a reason, folks. It’s packed with palaces and castles that date back hundreds of years, and comes topped with an incredible castle raised by the Moors. That’s all been enough to give it UNESCO World Heritage status, but there’s also much more to it than that! Yep, this corner of Portugal also touts sylvan valleys for walkers, wave-sprayed beaches for surfers, and a whole range of top-class eateries and hotels to boot. Most people love it!