When I first brought up the idea of traveling to Portugal to my brother, a world traveling himself, he immediately began raving about a magical city north of Lisbon. He noted that it was one of his favorite things he saw in Europe after spending a year living in Spain and traveling across borders. I knew a day trip up to Sintra was a must and began looking up the best means to get there immediately.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was eager to see this fairytale village as there are numerous day tours available throughout the year. After reading a number of reviews, we settled on the Sintra Full Day Tour: Let The Fairytale Begin. We were awaiting the arrival of a tour bus to pick us up from the hotel when a young man came in with our names. Through some series of events we didn’t quite understand, we ended up on a private tour with Hugo. We loved that the day was on our time and made our trip even more enjoyable. Plus, he was eager to share his culture with us and always up for a photo op. Given that Sintra is an extremely popular hotspot, it’s nearly essential to get started before 8am if you want to avoid the mile-long lines. Despite being in the off-season, we still had to work through hundreds of people at each site. While the town center is walkable, you’ll need to have a vehicle (or tour guide) to take you up the mountains and to the castles. The day we visited was the first day of a new traffic pattern in the town as locals wanted to prevent tourists from blocking their small roadways. It was a hectic start to the day but over time it appears as though they’ll work through the kinks to allows locals and tourists to fit together seamlessly.
Let’s get to it! Here are my suggestions for the top things you need to check off your Sintra bucket list.
Stroll though Sintra Village Center
To truly set the stage for a visit to Sintra, it’s best to start early in the morning in the town center. Walk through the castle and the elaborately decorated buildings that look like they were pulled from the illustrations of a Disney movie. Get lost in the cobbled alleyways and spend time photographing the fog that sits heavy on the overlooking mountains.
Custard Tarts at Casa Piriquita
Since you’re certainly going to be hungry for breakfast, start the day with a sweet treat from one of the most famous bakeries in the region. We decided to get a custard tart and an almond danish to split along the way.
Explore Pena Palace
The glorious castle can be seen from the village if you happen to have a clear day. If not, you’ll drive up winding roads (the walk is rather long and steep) to a brightly painted and elaborately designed castle settled into the Sintra Mountains. Displaying the exotic tastes from the Romanticism period, the building itself matches the spectacular views. We decided against a set tour and opted to walk the rooms on our own, creating mystical stories in our heads. Although we would have liked to join a group, this is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal and the crowds were dense, even in the off season. Just be prepared to have some waiting time and soak up the views while you can!
Wander Quinta da Regaleira
This estate was one of my favorite parts of our trip. Not only is there another romantic palace to explore, but it’s also surrounded by lush gardens, unique sculptures and an exquisite chapel. While you can certainly wander the grounds and tunnels underneath at your leisure, we were lucky enough to have our guide, Hugo, join us to show us the path unto which you could become a mason. In the olden times, those wishing to become masons were instructed to trail down the well in the middle of the night and make their way through a series of underground tunnels that lead to stepping stones across a stream. Once the course was completed, you were then deemed a mason. Mind you, there are many tricks along the way and you will easily lose yourself in the maze. However, we did this under the bright afternoon sun so it wasn’t nearly as difficult as it had been in the previous time. This was a blast and one of our favorite parts! Plus, there is a sandwich shop here where we grabbed food for the road. We still had so much to see!
See Cabo da Roca
The last leg of our trip lead us through a series of scenic points that are well-known sites outside of Lisbon. We made our way to the westernmost point of Europe and stared at the vast ocean. We took pictures of the cliffs and enjoyed the salty air until we had enough of the endless wind.
Visit Cascais and Hellmouth
Next, we headed to the former vacation spot on the royal family. This beach town was clearly home to the wealthy and overflowed with stunning mansions and beach-ready vacationers. We began at Hellmouth, a cut out in the cliff that appears to be the gates of hell, and then headed into the quaint bustling village of Cascais to watch the fishing boats. Had he had another few days, I would have loved to spend more time wandering Cascais and enjoying a more beach-oriented vacation. The temperatures were much warmer here than in the city and the west coast vibe of the town was undeniable. Alas, we still have to make our way down to Lagos and would need to visit Cascais another imte.
At this point, we were both exhausted and eager to head back to Lisbon to get some dinner.
The day was jam-packed with experiences that truly shows you what makes Portugal so magical. The Sintra experience cannot be missed!
Do you take day trips from a major city? Have you ever been in a castle?