Straight out of a fairytale, Sintra is a charming little town in Portugal that is home to several magnificent castles. Only about 30 minutes northwest of Lisbon, 1-2 days here is perfect for touring the area. In this post, I will go over which castles you can’t miss, how to get to each one, and which route to follow in order to avoid the crowds!
Though there are several monumental castles in Sintra, they are all incredibly unique. From the colourful walls of Palácio da Pena to the ornate details of The Monserrate Palace, not one of these castles is remotely the same.
The combination of the close proximity to Lisbon and the beauty of each of these structures means that Sintra is bustling with tourists most of the time. Despite the crowds, though, it is a must-see destination in Mainland Portugal.
First up, let’s go over how to get to Sintra.
By Tour: There are a few different methods, and the first is via a guided tour. Day trips from Lisbon are very common and the benefit is that your itinerary is completely taken care of. You don’t have to worry about getting yourself around or standing in line to get your entrance tickets, you just follow your tour guide and you’re good to go.
The disadvantages are that you will be visiting the castles at peak times with the rest of the tour groups, you are completely on their schedule, and you have very little flexibility.
By Train: The second option is to get yourself to Sintra via train. If you get on at the Rossio Station downtown Lisbon, you will arrive at the station in Sintra 40 minutes later. This way, you do not need to worry about parking, but you will need to either walk or catch taxis in between the castles. This option gives you a bit more flexibility without the added stress of driving and finding a place to park.
The disadvantages of this option are having to find transportation between the castles in Sintra and being slightly restricted by train schedules.
By Car: The third option, and the one that we chose, is to drive. This gives you the most flexibility and the most time to spend in Sintra. It is also a great way to get started on a road trip north as you can head straight to the coast when you’re finished.
The only downside to driving is finding places to park in the extremely busy town. If you do want to drive, I will go over where to park at each castle in more detail below.
How Long To Spend in Sintra
Other than the stunning castles and a few charming little streets, Sintra doesn’t have an influx of other things to do. 1.5 to 2 days is ideal in this historic Portuguese town, but it can be done in one day if needed.
Although the castles aren’t terribly far apart, they all cover a lot of ground and have entrance fees of 8 to 15 Euros each. In my opinion, it is not worth trying to cram them all into one day. It will feel rushed, expensive, and much less enjoyable. Seeing 2-3 castles per day is a realistic timeframe. If you only have one day here, choose your top 3 to visit and roll with that.
The Best Castles in Sintra
Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace)
This colourful palace is by far the most popular destination in Sintra. Because of that, we recommend arriving 30 minutes before they open, especially if you are driving yourself. This will give you time to get a parking spot and make your way to the gate. If you want the best photo ops, head straight for the palace when the gates open. You are likely to have a few minutes to yourself before the crowds start to form.
Walking around the vibrant castle, the museum, and the beautifully manicured grounds are sure to leave you in awe. The museum is interesting and certainly worth a visit, although the lines can get quite long depending on what time you visit. Make sure to walk around the castle walls for birds-eye views out over the grounds.
Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle)
This marvellous hilltop castle was constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries. On top of being fascinating to explore, The Moorish Castle also offers the best views of Pena Palace and the entire town of Sintra. Although this is the most “ruin-like” castle in Sintra, it was one of my personal favourites. The views from the walls are exquisite and it takes you back in time.
To get here, you have a few options. We would recommend leaving your vehicle at Pena Palace and following the trail over to Castelo Dos Mouros. It is only about a 15-minute walk to the property and you will save yourself from trying to find another parking spot. If you don’t have a vehicle, you can take a taxi or hike up from Sintra Town in less than an hour.
The Monserrate Palace
The Monserrate Palace is an exceptional gothic, Arabic, and Indian-designed mansion just outside of Sintra. The ornate details of every room and the meticulous gardens are a wonder to experience. On top of that, there is a ton of fascinating information in each room about the evolution of the property and the families who lived there over the years.
Slightly off the beaten path compared to the other castles, The Monserrate Palace is often skipped by day-trippers. This makes it less busy and a fantastic option at any time of the day. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful and underrated castles in Sintra!
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira is a magical palace surrounded by incredibly unique gardens. As you make your way through the estate, you will find several different caves, hidden passageways, and tunnels that you can choose to explore.
This castle is most famous for The Initiation Well, a 27-meter deep well with a spiral staircase leading down into the ground. If you only have one day, this is likely to be quite busy as your third stop. If you have two days, though, you can go in the morning for a much quieter experience.
BONUS: Praia da Ursa
While neither a castle nor in Sintra, Lonely Planet praises this beach as one of the most beautiful in the world. So how could you miss it? Only about 30 minutes west of Sintra, this is a great stop for sunset after a day of castle hopping.
Access to this beach can be a bit tricky because the path is steep and made of pebbles. Make sure to bring good footwear! Trust us, you will not want to hike it in sandals. Once you arrive, though, you will be greeted by white sand, impressive rock formations, clear blue water, and a whole lot of beauty.
If you are driving, I would recommend staying for a day and a half and including a stop at Praia da Ursa once you’re finished. To avoid the crowds as much as possible, start early and visit the castles in this order:
- Be at Pena Palace 20-30 minutes before it opens. This will give you the best chance of getting a parking spot. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, you’ll want to get through the gates and head straight for the Palace. We enjoyed a sweet 15 minutes of peace and quiet before the tourists began swarming in.
- You can then visit The Moorish Castle, which is only about 15-minutes walk from Pena. It is a bit of a hike through the grounds no matter where you park, but this way you don’t have to find another parking spot in the bustling town.
- Once you’ve seen The Moorish Castle, walk back to your car and drive to The Monserrate Palace. Slightly off the beaten path compared to the other castles, it is often skipped by day-trippers. This makes it less busy and a fantastic option at any time of the day.
- Grab dinner and find a place to stay for the night. We were in a campervan which worked out great. There are several quiet spots to sneak off the road and sleep just west of Sintra.
- The next morning, make your way to Quinta da Regaleira. While the day trippers are lining up at Pena Palace, you can enjoy these tranquil grounds all to yourself.
- Make your way to Praia da Ursa. This stunning beach is only about 30 minutes west of Sintra and is, according to Lonely Planet, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world!