The Top Things to Do in Sintra, Portugal

Cloister in Pena National Palace, Sintra (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1995), Portugal, 19th century
••• De Agostini / S. Vannini/Getty Images

One of the most popular day trips from Lisbon, a trip to Sintra should be high on every visitor’s itinerary. Once a royal vacation spot, you’re now more likely to see tour buses than regal carriages—but that doesn’t make this small town and its surrounding attractions any less worthy of your attention.

From extravagant palaces to spartan monasteries, Gothic mansions to sprawling parkland and more, you’ll never struggle to fill your time. These are six of the top things to do in Sintra.

  • 01 of 06

    Pena Palace

    Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal
    ••• Marco Simoni/Getty Images

    Standing alone at the top of a hill, on a clear day the UNESCO-listed Pena Palace is visible from as far afield as Lisbon. Commissioned by Ferdinand II in 1842, the brightly-painted buildings and mixture of architectural styles reflected the king’s love of the arts.

    The interior is almost as striking as the outside of the palace, restored to how it would have looked in the final years of the Portuguese monarchy.

    Easily the most popular attraction in Sintra, expect long lines, especially at weekends. The palace is open from 9:45am to 7:00pm in summer, so to try to plan your visit for early or late in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds.

    While you can hike up from the town to the palace, the trail rises steeply for at least an hour, and although generally shaded, the walk can be tiring in the summer heat. If you’d prefer to save your energy for exploring, you can take the 434 bus, or one of the many taxi or tuk-tuks offering rides up the hill.

    Entry to the palace and surrounding Pena...MORE Park (below) costs 14 euros for an adult ticket. Discounts are available if you purchase online, or if you’re visiting several attractions in the area.

  • 02 of 06

    Pena Park

    The Pena Park in Sintra
    ••• Chiara Salvadori/Getty Images

    With over 200 hectares (500+ acres) of hilly, forested trails, Pena Park is a walker’s delight. Created at the same time as Pena Palace, it houses over five hundred species of trees, ferns and flowers from all over the world, including the United States, New Zealand and Australia, China and Japan. Its sheer size means you’ll see few other people around, a rare delight in such a heavily-touristed area.

    As with the palace, the climb to reach the park from town is taxing, taking around an hour on foot, or ten minutes by road. Once inside, however, the paths are much less steep, with plenty of places to sit and relax as needed.

    Highlights of Pena Park include the Cruz Alta (an iron cross at the highest point on the Sintra hillside) and the wooden Casa do Regalo chalet, but there are many lesser-known fountains, sculptures and other ornate decorations dotted along the dozens of trails that criss-cross the hilly countryside. It’s worth picking up a free map from the visitor center to make...MORE the most of your time there.

    If the lines for the palace are too long, or you’d rather spend time in nature than indoors, a ticket for just the park costs €7.50. Expect to spend at least a couple of low-key hours wandering around, although you could easily take much longer if you wanted to.

  • 03 of 06

    Castle of the Moors

    Castle of the Moors, Sintra
    ••• Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty Images

    Dating back to the 8th century, and expanded and rebuilt several times over the next millennium, Sinta’s Castle of the Moors is an imposing structure. Like all good castles, it sits on top of a hill, protected by a pair of walls that stretch for nearly half a kilometer.

    Abandoned and largely forgotten after fires, earthquakes and the passage of time all took their toll, a major effort was made to restore the castle in the 1800s.

    Excavation work undertaken in 2005 uncovered many artifacts from as far back as the Bronze Age, as well as the foundations of Moorish houses and a medieval Christian cemetery. Several of the recovered objects are on display in a small church that has been turned into an interpretation center, alongside the castle.

    While the ruins and history of the castle are interesting in their own right, its the views of the surrounding countryside that are the highlight for many visitors. The 360-degree panorama from the castle walls takes in Pena Palace and its parklands,...MORE Sintra town and the National Palace below, and a view out over the plains to the Atlantic ocean.

    It’s logical to visit the Castle of the Moors immediately before or after a trip to the nearby Pena Park and Palace, as it lies within walking distance. Adult tickets cost eight euros, and the castle is open between 9:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. in summer.

  • 04 of 06

    Quinta da Regaleira

    Photographer at the top of the spiral stairs inside the towers of Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal, Europe
    ••• Roberto Moiola/Getty Images

    Back down in the township, squeeze your way through the crowded streets to the entrance of Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th-century estate just outside the historic center. The imposing palace is covered in turrets, spires and gargoyles, while the adjoining chapel continues the Gothic theme, full of frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows.

    As impressive as these structures are, though, the best part of the estate lies outside. The 10 acres of grounds are densely wooded, with occult symbols and Masonic imagery adding to the decidedly eerie atmosphere.

    What lies below the earth is as fascinating as all that sits above it, with an elaborate tunnel system that links several parts of the estate to each other, including the chapel, lake, and famous pair of ‘initiation wells,’ probably the most photographed part of Quinta da Regaleira.

    These underground towers were used for ceremonial purposes, including Tarot initiation rites. The larger of the pair has a 90-foot circular staircase from top to...MORE bottom, and the descent into the bowels of the earth is likely to be the highlight of your time there.

    Quinta da Regaleira opens at 9:30 a.m., and closes at 6 p.m. (winter) / 8pm (summer). Adult tickets are €6, with children, family tickets also available.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    National Palace of Sintra

    National Palace, Sintra
    ••• Mauricio Abreu / AWL Images / Getty Images

    Sintra’s National Palace is the only medieval Portuguese palace to survive almost completely intact to the present day. The exact construction date is unknown, but it was mentioned in historic texts prior to the Christian reconquering of Sintra in 1147.

    Used more or less continually from the 15th century through to the fall of the monarchy in 1910, the palace’s most striking visual feature is the pair of unusual conical chimneys rising from the kitchen. The relatively austere exterior gives little hint of the eleborately-decorated rooms inside, the most famous of which is the ‘magpie room,’ meant to reflect the chattering and scheming of the royal court.

    Ornate tapestries, a valuable copper celestial globe, and even a large model Chinese pagoda, are just a few of the other highlights of the palace’s collection of artworks on display.

    Adult tickets cost €10, and the palace is open from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer. As with several other sites in Sintra, the palace can get especially busy...MORE between late morning and mid-afternoon. To avoid the crowds, be there at opening time, or wait until a couple of hours before the doors close.

  • 06 of 06

    Convento dos Capuchos

    Convent of the Capuchos, dating back to the 16th century, in the middle of the Sintra mountain range forest, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Portugal
    ••• Mauricio Abreu/Getty Images

    In stark contrast to the opulent palaces and busy streets, a visit to the Convento dos Capuchos is an exercise in calm simplicity.

    This tiny Franciscan convent is barely distinguishable from the surrounding vegetation, built into and out of the surrounding granite with almost nothing in the way of comforts for the monks who spent their lives there.

    The only concession was the extensive use of cork inside the buildings, both as decoration and to help somewhat with insulation and waterproofing in Sintra’s cool, damp climate.

    Continuously inhabited for nearly three hundred years, the site was abandoned with the dissolution of religious orders in Portugal in 1834. The vegetation of the surrounding area is particularly impressive, one of the few parts of the Sintra hillside to survive deforestation over the centuries.

    Nearly five miles from town, you’ll need to take a taxi or your own transport to visit the ruins. Adult tickets cost €7, and the site is open from 9:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. in...MORE summer. Expect to spend an hour or so exploring.