Sintra, a world UNESCO site, was a place I’d heard a lot about before my trip to Portugal. It conjured up images of fairy-tale palaces, spectacular gardens and fascinating ruins. The pictures I’d seen had me itching to go and so a day trip from Lisbon was a must! Unfortunately, I left feeling like Sintra had let me down just a little, and that perhaps better planning was needed for this destination that is loved by so many people.
We had been on a full day-tour the day before our visit to Sintra and so getting up early to catch a train from Lisbon was not something we ended up doing…mistake number 1. If you only have one full day to explore Sintra then you had better set that alarm and head out of town as early as possible. We ended up catching the train from Rossio Station at noon…far too late to see more than a couple of sites.
When you disembark in Sintra you will be bombarded by bus companies, taxis, and tuk tuks. This is where more planning will work to your advantage. We didn’t really have a clear idea of how we wanted to visit the sites and so we bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus…mistake number 2. This bus operates with limited routes and times, leaving us at the mercy of their schedule. We got as far as Quinta da Regaleira which we wanted to see, but the line-up was so long that we decided to continue on to a different site. The problem here was that we had to wait for the bus to show up…and have seats available!
Our next stop was the Monserrate Palace and lucky for us it was not at all crowded. The lawns, and the palace, are both gorgeous! We could have spent hours here wandering the gardens and exploring the different areas. I wrote about Monserrate on a previous post so check it out. I would highly recommend visiting this site if you venture to Sintra.
We next wanted to get to Pena Palace, but because of the bus’s route we ended up travelling all the way around Sintra and along the seafront to Cabo da Roca. This was an interesting side-trip, as it is the westernmost point on mainland Europe, however it was getting later in the afternoon and we were stuck on the bus willing it to get us to the palace as quickly as possible.
We finally made it to Pena Palace and it is incredible to see! The colours, the unique blend of architectural styles, and the views from the terraces are fantastic. We bought the combined ticket that includes entrance admissions to both the gardens and the staterooms…mistake number 3. The staterooms are not worth the extra money and they do not allow any pictures to be taken inside. Save your money and just purchase a “park” ticket, which includes all the outside areas of the palace. There is also a large garden area here which you can meander through, also included in the “park” only ticket.
We did get a great view of the Moorish castle ruins from one of the balconies at the palace. This site looked like it would definitely be worth the visit, both for the views from the top of the walls, as well as for the history of the castle itself.
By now we were starting to run out of daylight and sites were closing. It was time to wait…which we anxiously did…for the bus to take us back to the train station. Sintra had been full of surprises…some good, some not so good. Monserrate Palace and Pena Palace were both worth seeing, but there is just so much in Sintra that it really deserves an overnight stay. Another option, in my opinion, is a organized tour that will take you to the places you want to see, bypass the line ups, and maximize your time. What surprised me the most, considering it was late February when we were there, was the crowds of people everywhere. My advice…plan wisely to enjoy the best that Sintra has to offer! For more on Portugal check out my itinerary here.