Visiting Sintra is an obligated step for anybody in Lisbon for at least a few days. The amount of palaces to see and breathtaking views to enjoy is unmissable for any tourists.
The way Sintra is though, perched among various hills, with the attractions scattered all around the forest, doesn’t make it easy visiting them all. Also, the sheer number of tourists flocking to the town each year make it important to select the exact order of visit to avoid the longest queues.
I’ve been twice to Sintra and explored it with different buses and in various order. So let’s see how logistically it is best to visit Sintra and what are the most common pitfalls to avoid.
Public Transportation in Sintra
If you’re staying in Lisbon, take the train from Baixa or Rossio stations. There are ticket machines also, you will need a Viva Viagem card to hold your tickets. I would advise to buy the daily train + buses ticket that allows you to use all the trains to/from Lisbon to the Sintra/Cascais area and all the buses within that area for 24 hours. It’s 16,3€, not quite cheap but it is great if you are planning to visit more than a couple of palaces and extend your day out towards Cascais or Cabo da Roca.
I wouldn’t take the buses or taxis as the former can take much longer than the train (which is around 40 minutes) and the latter can be extremely expensive. Driving in Sintra is quite difficult too, with tiny streets and a scarcity of parking spaces. Avoid driving.
Visiting the Palacio da Pena
The gem of Sintra and by far the most visited palace in the whole Portugal, not just Sintra, it is also the hardest to visit in tranquillity as long, and sometimes extremely long, queues can be met at the entrance. It is often a matter of luck to choose the right moment, when the queue is the shortest, but a few advises stand valid to increase your chances.
The bulk of the tours come at Palacio da Pena in the mid-morning and afternoon, not very late. They constitute the biggest source of visitors for the palace but not the majority; thus, crowds can be had even outside these periods. The most suggested option would be to come as soon as possible, taking the very first train from Lisbon so to be at the entrance of the palace way before anybody else but in summer I found it is not a great advise as plenty of people will attempt being first, resulting in queues already at the opening time.
Better would be to try to be at the entrance around lunch hours, as the vast majority of tourists will have already left the Palace or plan to visit it in the afternoon. Somewhere around 1-2pm would give you good chances to not meet with a large crowd when at the palace. This would be my first choice for the best time to visit Palacio da Pena.
Second would be as late as possible. A lot of tourists visit first Sintra and then move later towards Cascais and/or Cabo da Roca, as they are interconnected by buses till late evening. As the majority of tourists give an higher priority to visit Sintra than the others, it is reached first and then, if time allows, Cascais and Cabo da Roca can be visited too. Therefore, if you can visit those on a different day or are simply not interested in going, being at the Palacio da Pena roughly 30-45 minutes before closing time would give you a very good chance to be in relative solitude during your visit. Bonus point for being able to admire the waning sun from the top of the palace.
Whatever the time you choose, the bus you need is the 434 (Scotturb routes) that goes from Sintra train station through Sintra town and the Moorish castle.
Quinta da Regaleira
One of the oddest palaces in the world probably, with a 4ha area of gardens, wells, statues, chapels, last century castles, caverns, small temples and lots of pools and waterfalls. It is an idyllic place, where it is easy and pleasurable to spend up to 3-4 hours. Most probably you won’t have that much time but 2 hours are a minimum to appreciate the place.
The Quinta lays on a different bus route than Palacio da Pena: the 435 (Scotturb routes) that goes from Sintra station through 4 different palaces, the Quinta, Seteais palace, Montserrate palace and Sintra‘s one. Therefore to combine it with a visit to Palacio da Pena you will have to go back to the train station or to Sintra’s center. From the station you will have to wait for the bus to take you but from the center of the town you can walk towards the Quinta yourself. It’s about 700m on a uphill, but not too steep, shadowy road.
The Quinta doesn’t welcome nowhere close the number of visitors that Palacio da Pena does, you won’t have to wait in a queue more than 15 minutes at the worst times. My suggestion would be to visit it first thing in the morning, come back to Sintra and switch to the 434 bus route to reach Palacio da Pena around lunch time, hoping to be in a small company of tourists that had your same idea.
Castelo dos Mouros
I’m not particularly fond of this castle, as it is barren and unadorned. It is very green and has great views over the rest of Sintra though. If there’s a place that you could skip when in Sintra, it would be Castelo dos Mouros to me. But many think otherwise.
If you decide to visit it, most do it either first thing in the morning, as it is the first stop of the 434 bus that then goes to Palacio da Pena, or last in the day, after having visited the other attractions. The castle is mostly comprised of open grounds thus there’s a lot of space for everybody. You would hardly need to visit it in a particular order then, I would go there whenever you feel more comfortable going.
Palacio de Monserrate
A smallish, Mudejar-like palace further west from Sintra on the 435 bus route. Not a large percentage of the Sintra’s visitors decide to visit it so I would simply visit it after the Quinta da Regaleira, as it precedes it on the bus route, and enjoy its garden and decorated interiors in relative solitude.
I’m putting into this category also the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, the one right in the middle of the town, as it is similar to other palaces but in smaller measures. It can easily skipped if in a rush, and it has also the added issue to be quite crowded, being in the middle of everything.
The Convento dos Capuchos (Convent of the Capuchos) is way more west than the other palaces, isolated and forlorn. If you like remote places, calm and silent, it will be worth going there on your own (there’s no public transportation to the Convento). Walking, but it’s a long one, or a taxi would be the best ways to reach it. Otherwise, it is too far and in need of restoration to make it worth the hassle to reach it.
The Santuario da Peninha is a small palace built on a outcrop of rock facing west, near the sea. Is not in proper Sintra but the style of the construction is similar to the palaces there. You will have to come here on your own and the only reason to do so is for the views you can have of the sea in Cabo da Roca’s direction. The palace itself is small and uninteresting (but as far as I remember, free). If you want a different view of the ocean than the classic from Cabo da Roca, it’s an option.
If you have the time, probably more like a spare day given the dimensions, take a stroll through the vast green areas among the various palaces. Starting from Palacio da Pena and going towards the Moorish Castle is a good start. Here and there you will find places to picnic, waterfalls, small rivers, statues, tiny chapels and a few opening among the trees from where you can have beautiful views over the palaces or Sintra. It is a 200ha and more area and to be enjoyed it will need a full day, water and food with you. If you want to detach yourself from the tourists’ tours, it is a lovely way to spend a day in the nature and culture.
Surely any of these other places can be skipped unless you have plenty of time. For a simpler, not too long and still including all the best attractions way in how to visit Sintra I’d say Palacio da Pena, Quinta da Regaleira and another palace of your choice, the one you fancy more. That will keep the tour to a manageable length and won’t make you miss any of the most famous places in Sintra.