Visiting Sintra – What Went Right and What Went Wrong

We had heard about Sintra, the land of fairytale castles a short train ride from Lisbon. During our time in Lisbon we caugh a train to Sintra to check out the colorful and beautiful castles in the hillside. We loved our visit and have fond memories of exploring the romantic ramparts. But we definitely made a lot of mistakes that could have made our day better. Check out what we loved about Sintra, and what we would change if we could do it again.

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The red and yellow walls of Pena Palace in Sintra

Set in the hills, a short distance from Lisbon, Sintra has been inhabited since Prehistory. However, it’s cooler climate made it a favorite place of the royalty to establish summer residences. With castles from Moorish times up to the 19th century, there are all a several beautiful castles, palaces, and grounds to visit to soak in this rich, regal history.

What Went Right

The actual exploring of the castles of course!  After doing a little research, we chose two castles to explore: Quinta da Regaleira and Pena Palace

A woman at the Initiation Well, The picturesque walls and towers of the Quinta Da Regaleira in Sintra

Quinta da Regaleira: The Quinta Da Regaleira is a property that has a Romantic era place and chapel, as well as a park that includes lakes, grottoes, wells, and more. It was originally built for the Viscountess of Regaleira before it went on to several owners. Today it’s owned by the Sintra historic area and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When walking around, you feel like you are walking in a fairytale forest. There are towers to explore, gorgeous gardens, and stone walls that look out over the hills. Everything is obviously old, but also well maintained and beautiful. The nicest part was the Initiation Well. It was quite a hike up a steep path, but the hike is worth it. You look down into a well that looks like it goes on forever. You can actually walk all the way to the bottom, but we didn’t because my mother was waiting for us further down the path. But I would have loved to walk down the winding stairs to see what secret path it led to. Each path seemed to lead off to a new adventure and a new view.

The red and yellow walls of Pena Palace, the painted tile, and the gates of Pena Palace in Sintra

Pena Palace: Situated at the top of a hill above Sintra, prior to being a palace, this location was a holy spot with a chapel dedicate to the Lady of Pena and then a monastery. The monastery was destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. King Ferdinand II acquired the monastery in 1838 and the surrounding lands and transformed the monastery into a place that would be a summer residence for the Portuguese Family. Today the Pena Palace is a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Sintra.

Upon entering, you can purchase tickets to ride a bus to the bottom of the palace, then walked the rest of the way up to the walls of the castle. You can walk all the walls of the castle and the gardens without paying for the inside palace ticket. I was at first afraid of walking the walls of the castle (there are parts with low walls, and a long fall down), but it was truly an amazing experience. You could see all around the castle, and truly feel what it must have been like to live at that time and look afar for potential advancing warring parties. The colors were bright and vibrant, making it feel modern even though the architecture was from the 19th century. And of course, it is covered in the gorgeous blue tile Portugal is known for. Finally, like Quinta da Regaleira, there are paths and nooks and crannies you could explore all over the palace. And many of them have views of the gorgeous hills or the ocean in the far distance. It makes you feel like you are lost in time and nature.

A grandmother and her granddaughter on the train

In addition, the actual train ride from Lisbon was also easy and the right move. There was one every 40 minutes, It’s a smooth, easy ride and very economical. And it takes you right into the base of Sintra. There are so many options on how to see the sights of Sintra right from the train station. Here is a public tourist bus for just $5 a ride, but there are other options that might be more fitting for a family (see below in what went wrong).

What Went Wrong

I am never going to make you believe that a trip is all sunshine and rainbows. Especially traveling with two tweens and an older mother, I knew there would be some hiccups. We did a few things to avoid those hiccups, but they ended up not working out as intended.

People riding the Hop On Hop Off Bus in Sintra

Hop On Hop Off Bus:  I have had a lot of success with the Hop on Hop Off Bus in the past. So, when we got off the train and saw the stall for the bus in the station, I bee-lined for it. I knew Sintra had a lot of hills, and I was worried about my mom and her ability to handle them with her knees. I thought this would be the perfect way to get around and cut down on her walking. It also was very reasonably priced and seemed to have stops at all the places we were going. We bought our tickets and walked out of the train station where I IMMEDIATELY regretted my decision. Outside the train station were a plethora of options to get around Sintra, include private Tuk-tuks that could have driven us directly to the gates and let us set our own itinerary. Instead, we headed over to the stop where we found out the bus to Pena Palace had just left and we could wait an hour for it, or get on the bus to Quinta da Regaleira, which would leave in 30 minutes. Then, after Quinta da Regaleira, we had to walk backwards two stops, (up a hill) to get the bus on a different route to Pena Palace. And we wait over an hour at that bus stop for the next bus. We made one more stop, and that was the story there too. We spent almost as much time waiting for that bus as we did at our stops. In addition, the Hop on Hop Off Bus stops seem to be the furthers from the sties. So even after you get off the bus, you had to walk quite a bit to get to the entrance of either palace. Do yourself a favor. Walk past it’s tempting booth, go outside, and pay a little more money for a private bus or tuktuk. It will be worth it.

A gorgeous Octopus Salad
We got a good meal…after our trip to Sintra

Food:  Due to our debacle with the Hop on Hop Off, we didn’t really get food when and where we wanted. My husband (a diabetic) ended up with severe low sugar from all the walking at Quinta da Regaleira, so we bought a soda but decided not to eat lunch at the restaurant. After our long wait for the bus, we ended up eating at the restaurant at Pena Palace, which had mediocre food at best. The only good was its wasn’t as overly priced as most park restaurants are. If we had done the private Tuk-tuk or Driver, they could have taken us in town between the two palaces to hit up a better lunch spot. Also, I need to remember to pack snacks in my bag to fend off the hangry children and adults.

I didn’t plan our Portugal portion of our trip at all, which is very unlike me. But I wanted it to be flexible. And when we decided to visit Sintra, again there was no real plan. When that happens, sometimes things are spectacular. Sometimes they don’t work out how you expect them to. I loved Sintra so much and would absolutely choose to go again. But I think a little research about transportation options would have saved us a lot of hassle, and we would have enjoyed the trip even more. But that’s ok, because now you are learning from us! 

If you are interested in having a more structured visit to Sintra, with a guide, I suggest looking for a guided tour. You can do so through GetYourGuide, a tour aggregator who can help you find the right tour for your trip. This Sintra Day Trip has high reviews, provides guided tours, and provides time for lunch.

What travel mistakes have you learned from?

Visiting Sintra - What Went Right and What Went Wrong

* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography

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  1. Pingback: Top 6 Things to Do in Lisbon | Around the World with Kids

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