The ultimate guide to Sintra: palaces, hills and pine forests
We tell you what to see in the famous Lisbon suburb: iconic sights, beaches and favorite bakeries of the locals.
Sintra is 29 kilometers from Lisbon and has a lot to offer: eclectic palaces, conventions, gardens and parks. The small cafes with the legendary Sintra cakes – travesseiroos and queijadas – deserve special attention. Oksana Fedotova has compiled a large guide to the different, but always fabulous Sintra.
Quinta da Regaleira
Considered Sintra’s number one landmark, the estate is named after Baroness Regaleira, who acquired the estate in 1840. The place had several owners, but the history of Regaleira is due to the Portuguese millionaire, philanthropist and eccentric Antonio Monteiro.
Monteiro was an extremely unusual man and wanted the country estate to reflect his interests and philosophy, so the place turned out to be provocative and even mystical. Together with the Italian architect and scenographer Luigi Manini at the beginning of the 20th century, the patron turned the palace into an open-air mystery. Lakes, grottoes, caves and labyrinths are located on the vast territory of the estate. Elements of the architectural ensemble and park refer back to the times of alchemy, the occult, Freemasonry and the Templars, as well as to texts by Virgil, Dante and Camoens. The meaning of each piece can be interpreted differently, depending on one’s worldview and outlook-even the heirs cannot tell their meaning for sure.
Tip: Be sure to walk to Regaleira. Just a ten-minute leisurely stroll and you’ll see all the diversity of the local handicraft: colorful ceramic plates, azulejos, wrought iron bells, and other memorabilia.
Palácio Nacional da Pena
This colorful 19th century royal palace rises in the mountains above the city and is one of the most striking examples of romanticism in European architecture. The mixture of Arabic style, Portuguese Manueline and neo-Gothic has resulted in a paradoxical harmony of the ensemble.
The 85-hectare palace park has lakes, mini waterfalls, exotic plants and belvedere. The famous Cruz Alta stone cross, the highest point of the Serra de Sintra Mountains, is also there on the hill.
We recommend starting the walk at the Chalet of the Countess of Edla in the western part of the Pena Park. King Fernando II built this small log cabin in Alpine style for the Countess, the maiden opera singer Elisa Hensler.
Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)
The Moors built the fortress in the X century, during the Arab conquest of Portugal, so it keeps the spirit of the Reconquista confrontations. It is true that today it is a ruin – somewhere surviving from the original, somewhere restored by King Fernando II. Since 1995, the castle has been under UNESCO protection.
The Moorish castle is good with its spaciousness: even if there are a lot of tourists, they are scattered over a large area. From the stone walls you can see the center of Sintra, the Serra forest and the palace of Pena, which is located very close, on the next mountain, but with the fortress it is separated by almost ten centuries of history.
Tip: If the goal is Pena Palace or the Moorish fortress, take bus 434 at the train station. You can buy your ticket on the website of Scotturb.
A more difficult option is to walk up to the Moorish fortress (and to the Pena palace, if you have the strength). A nice bonus along the way is the recently restored Sassetti Villa and Garden with free admission. Bring water and a snack – you’ll find picnic tables along the way.
Palácio de Monserrate
Another example of the region’s architectural eclecticism. The palace’s appearance is a mix of Gothic and Islamic motifs, which together recall the Romanticism popular in 19th century Europe. There are fewer tourists in Monserrat than in the Palaces of Pena and Regaleira, which means there are more chances for a secluded stroll in one part of the park – such as the Mexican or the Japanese.
Tip: There is a bus 435 Scotturb to the “lace” palace of Monserrat. It has a beautiful route that includes as many as four palaces: the National Palace of Sintra, Regaleira, Seteais, and Monserrat.
Monastery of the Capuchins (Convento dos Capuchos)
The Capuchin monastery from the 16th century is hidden in the forest of Sintra. It is also called the “monastery of cork” – this lightweight and accessible material was used in the lining of almost all monastic rooms. Cork lined ceilings, doors and other interior details. Poverty, humility, asceticism, harsh weather conditions and a lot of hardships – all this can be felt if you move from cell to cell on a half-crouch.
Attention: A part of the monastery is under reconstruction. The cafe and souvenir shop are also currently closed.
Tip: You’ll have to take a car or a cab to the monastery. You can take an Uber – a trip from the center of Sintra will cost about 12 euros.
National Palace (Palácio Nacional de Sintra or Palácio da Vila)
Before the royal family moved to the more modern and comfortable Pena Palace, the National Palace in the historic center of Sintra was the main summer residence. Construction began at the end of the 15th century, but it has been preserved in its original form. Of particular note are its two cone-shaped chimneys, each 33 metres high. The palace itself is hollow and interesting with azulejo and Arab traces in the architecture. Considering that Regaleira, Pena Palace and Monserrat are close by, one can not go inside but just look outside, take some photos (of the two pipes and the panorama of the city and the mountains from the terrace) and continue the walk.
Cabo da Roca
The westernmost point of Europe is located 20 kilometers from the city. Many tourists end their day trip to Sintra with a sunset at Cape Roca, though afterwards are left freezing in the twilight at the bus stop waiting for the bus back.
You don’t have to take a numbered certificate of stay at Europe’s westernmost point from a tourist kiosk, but it is well worth reading the line from Camões on the stele “Onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa” (“This is where the land ends and the sea begins”). It is at Cape Rock that such simple words have both literal and strong metaphysical meaning.
Be prepared for unpredictable weather. You can find both full doldrums and gusty winds knocking you off your feet here. Cape Rock can get bogged down in fog, even if the surrounding area is clear.
What if there are no palaces? How do you pretend to be a locale?
Above is a must-see tourist program, and you’ll find it in all the guidebooks and tips. But how do locals live surrounded by palaces, mountains and monasteries?
For example, the Portuguese love the Bonsai Museum (Museu do Bonsai e da Árvore). It is worth a visit for aesthetic pleasure: the museum is a Japanese postcard. The pride of the exhibition is a 112 years old murraya plant. According to the official information, it costs 15 million euros.
Address: Museu do Bonsai, Estrada Chao de Meninos 12, Sintra 2710-193, Portugal Facebook page: facebook.com/museudobonsai
Santuário da Peninha
The name of this small location comes from the Portuguese word “penha” (“rock”, “boulder”). Indeed, a medieval monastery stands on a rock between boulders. The 500-meter-high peninha is one of the highest points in the Serra de Sintra. On a fine day you can see Cape Espichel to the south and Eritrea to the north. And also Lisbon and the clear boundary between the green, mountainous Serra and the gentle, sunny Riviera.
Address: Road EN247, Peninha
São Pedro de Penaferrim Market
The conservative Portuguese respect the small open-air markets where farmers and farmers bring their crops to trade from stalls. Here you can buy almost all varieties of Portuguese cabbage (and even the trendy kale), starchy potatoes, corn, onions, garden apples, rustic oven bread, homemade sausages, sheep and goat cheeses, and simple utilitarian pottery. If you want to taste the local fruits and vegetables firsthand, and get the recipe and buy all the ingredients for the traditional caldo verde soup, you should definitely come here.
Address: Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Penaferrim
What about gastrotourism? Where is there?
The traditional family business is still alive here. If you sit down at an old table and order cod cutlets (pastéis de bacalhau), it’s likely that the hostess’s nephew will serve them. And the recipe for the dish itself must have been invented by your grandmother.
The center of Sintra should be climbed, or at the very least, walked on. But definitely not driving. Only on foot is it convenient to walk around all the nooks and crannies, peek in windows and shop windows, and catch the smell of coffee and a fresh batch of queijadas.
The most obvious gastronomic route is to make a “lap of honor of the happy plebeian,” as the locals say. Right by Queen Amelia Square, by the National Palace, stop for aperitifs at Bar do Binho (and wink at Johnny Depp – he’s watching from a newspaper clipping on the wall). For lunch, go to Café de Paris, a terrace near a towering sycamore tree. Instead of compote, get an ice cream at one of the cafés across the street.
Bar do Binho Address: Praça da República 2, 2710-623 Sintra Website: bardobinho.com
Café de Paris Address: Praça da República 32, 2710-616 Sintra Website: screstauracao.com
Everyone wants to eat where the locals go. Interestingly, the locals have been going where the tourists eat for a long time – such is the cycle. Here are a few more places that are good for both.
Tascantiga, a kind of tavern, is located in one of the narrow streets of the Old City. It serves snacks called petiscos in Portuguese. Try the grilled cuttlefish and the traditional octopus salad with wine vinegar. The tables barely keep their balance on the humped sidewalk, but it’s even more authentic this way.
Address: Escadinhas da Fonte da Pipa 2, 2710-557 Sintra Website: tascantiga.pt
Taverna dos Trovadores
White and red wine is poured in any volume and at any time of the day or night at this “tavern of the troubadours”. A variety of grilled meats is the menu’s strongest point. You can listen to live Portuguese music here.
Address: Praça Dom Fernando II 18, 2710-483 Sintra Website: tavernadostrovadores.pt
“Saudade” is a hard-to-translate Portuguese word that means a luminous sadness for something ephemeral. The mood is set right at breakfast and brunch, comfortably served here. Or at a cup of coffee with scone – sweet pastry that reminds you of cottage cheese from the Soviet Union times. If you like coffee with milk, order a galão in the morning or a meia-de-leite in the afternoon.
Address: Av. Dr. Miguel Bombarda 6, 2710-590 Sintra Facebook page: facebook.com/CafeSaudade
Pub Casa do Fauno
A medieval atmosphere place where you can taste the local mead, tinctures and herbal teas. By the way, herbs are gathered right here in the Serra woods.
Address: Caminho dos Frades 1, 2710-560 Sintra Facebook page: facebook.com/pubmedievalcasadofauno
Sintra’s most famous dishes are queijadas (from “queijo” meaning “cheese”) and travesseiros (from “travesseiro” meaning “pillow”). The former are humble round cakes made of simple ingredients: fresh cheese, cinnamon, sugar, and eggs. The latter are familiar-looking puffs with a soft, rich filling of the same egg, grated almonds, and sugar. Local señors in years tell me that some shops still keep the tradition of giving burnt cajadas to kids and other people in need, who throng at the back door early in the morning.
Tip: The route of the sugar odyssey is for those who aren’t afraid of a glucose coma at the end. Start at Casa Piriquita’s pastry shop (get the classic herbaceous as well as the apple and chocolate filled ones). Go into Sapa and walk through the cajadas. Move over to Casa do Preto and add something to your liking. Take a little breather and finish for an encore at Gregório. It’s four old-fashioned pastry mini-factories with authentic recipes. The locals, who have put up with the eternal tourist crowds, also go there.
Piriquita Address: R. das Padarias 1/18, 2710-603 Sintra Website: piriquita.pt
Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa Address: Volta Duche 12, 2710-631 Sintra Facebook page: facebook.com/queijadasdasapa
Casa do Preto Address: Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, 2710-194 Sintra Website: casadopreto.com
Gregório Address: Av. Dom Francisco de Almeida 35, 2710-562 Sintra Website: pastelariagregorio.pai.pt
Where to sunbathe and swim in Sintra?
Most travelers prefer the popular beaches of the Lisbon Riviera. But if you want to extend your Sintra voyage, here’s a list of scenic spots with aquamarine ocean water and fish restaurants.
Azenhas do Mar . An outdoor spot adored by Sintra and Lisbon residents. It is worth having lunch here overlooking the Atlantic or taking a dip in the seawater pool. Must-eat restaurants: A Adega das Azenhas, Água e Sal – traditional and delicious.
Ursa. The beach is located near Cape Roca and is known for its scenic beauty and icy water.
Adraga. Perhaps the only beach that the winds blow less than the others, so it is popular even in winter.
Praia Grande. An easy beach to visit without having to climb a rock. The locals even have a saying, “Not every trip to the beach has to involve rock climbing.”
Praia das Maças. This beach is the terminus of the Sintra streetcar. It is relatively large and has areas for beach games.
Magoito. The iodine-rich sand on this beach makes it possible to tan faster than on other beaches.
I want to go to Sintra! How to get there?
The most obvious answer is to take the suburban train from Lisbon, straight to the terminus. The boarding station is at the central station Rossio and you can buy a ticket at a ticket machine or at the ticket office. The last stop, Sintra, is the last one (don’t get confused with the penultimate Portela de Sintra). Travel time is 40 minutes. You can buy your train ticket in advance on the railroad website.
If you go to Sintra by car, from Lisbon city center take the A5, then take the N117, change to the IC19 (Sintra direction). It takes about 40 minutes, but you may have trouble finding a parking space, so it’s best to arrive in the city before 9 am. Don’t forget the parking meters: the cost of parking depends on the time of parking and the zone. In the center (Zona 3) you’ll have to pay 80 cents per hour.