A Day Trip to Sintra’s Fairytale Castles

Y’all, get READY.  Because there’s about to be some serious princess vibes up in here.

When Mom and I looked at booking a trip to Switzerland to visit her friends, the flight deal we found took us through Lisbon.  So I decided that Portugal was finally going to happen for me, since I’ve been dying to visit.  And even though we only had two days in Lisbon, I was determined that Sintra would be part of our itinerary.  I’ve been obsessed with Sintra for a LONG time!

A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

What is Sintra, you ask?

Well, if you’ve been living under a Pinterest rock for the past few years, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a national park, castles, churches, and royal retreats.  It’s located about 18 miles from the Lisbon city center, so makes an easy (and can’t-miss) day trip on any Lisbon itinerary.

Due to its awesomeness and proximity to Lisbon, it’s incredibly popular—to the point it’s been dubbed the “Adult Disneyland”.  So bear that in mind when planning your visit.  I’ve provided my best tips below to make sure it’s as pleasant as possible, because the crowds can be pretty intense.

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A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

So I’ve put together all my research and best tips for planning your own visit to this magical place!

How to get to Sintra

  • To reach Sintra, take the train from the Lisbon Rossio station.  It runs every 15 minutes (€4.30 for a return ticket).
  • It will take close to an hour to get there, and I recommend taking the first train out to try and beat the crowds.
  • Once you arrive at the Sintra station and come out to the street, walk to your right and go to the second bus stop (NOT the first).  This is the bus you’ll take to the Castle of the Moors and Pena.
  • You want Bus 434, which is the main tourist loop and goes in this order:  Sintra Station –> National Palace / Historic City Centre –> Moors Castle –> Pena Palace –> Moors Castle –> National Palace / Historic City Centre –> Sintra station
  • An all-day ticket is 12 euros (when I was there), and allows you to ride the loop once, and you can buy it at the bus stop if you don’t already have it.
  • Both the National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira are walkable if you’re in the mood as well.

We got an early start, grabbed coffee and pasteis de nata from Manteigaria, and walked to the Rossio metro and train station, where we caught the 8:40(ish) train that got into Sintra at 9:25am.

We missed the bus we were needing to catch by like a second because I’d stopped to ask about the bus tickets, so had to wait 15 or 20 minutes.

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What to do in Sintra

We chose three of the castles with the day we had, but there are so many!  I tried really hard to find a good map of the different castles and historical sites to share here, but it was strangely impossible.  You should be able to get a map there.  The official website can help you plan which elements you want to visit, but I’ve outlined what we did (and recommend) below.

You have to start up at the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace, and then come down to town and walk to Regaleira.  In March there’s not so many people as in summer, plan to arrive around 9:30 at Sintra, take the bus up and you’ll arrive at opening hours.  You can buy the tickets for the Castle and Pena.  Regaleira is managed by another entity so you have to buy the tickets locally.

You want to start with the Moorish Castle and THEN Pena, because the bus doesn’t go the other way—it’s a one-way loop.

The Castle of the Moors

The Moorish Castle is  a giant stone fortress, medieval style with crenelations along the walls and towers, flags flying, the whole nine yards.  You can walk all along the walls, and the views are awesome!  It was built in the 8th and 9th century by the (as you might guess) Moors during the period of Muslim Iberia.

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The Castle of the Moors | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

The castle ticket office opened at 10:00 and we got there right as it opened, but were followed by a giant group of school pre-teens, who were quite loud and rowdy though otherwise fairly polite.  Mom and I climbed and descended tons of steep stone steps to look at all the angles.

As I mentioned above, one of the big draws of the Moorish Castle is its views—of the countryside as well as of Pena Palace in the distance.

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The Castle of the Moors | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

A view of gorgeous Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

We spent about an hour at the castle, which felt like a perfect amount of time.  Finally we made our way back to the bus stop to head to Pena Palace, the most well-known view of Sintra.

Pena Palace (Palacio de Pena)

We got back on the bus at the Castle of the Moors and headed around the super narrow, windy roads in a giant bus.  It took about 20 minutes to get there, and since we’d already bought our tickets, we immediately started walking up the steep path through the gardens to the castle.  I wish we’d had more time to really experience the gardens, because they’re beautiful, but we were on a tight timeframe so just walked through.

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Gorgeous Pena Palace | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

Approaching Pena is UNREAL.  You think the colors you’ve seen in pictures can’t look like that in real life.  I really was worried that my expectations were too high, but…

LOOK AT THESE PICS!

If anything, the colors were maybe even more vivid in person.  It helped that we had a gorgeous day and an impossibly blue sky to set off the colors.  Pena was built in the Romantic style during the 1800s, and it commits to the style not only in form but in color.

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Gorgeous Pena Palace | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

I was completely enchanted by Pena.  The bright colors, the fanciful details, and the odd but compelling mashup of different styles and pieces is so visually arresting.

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The entrance is an explosion of different tiles and details.  It’s like it’s saying, “Oh, just you wait…you have no idea what’s in store for you.”

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Pena was definitely more crowded than the Castle of the Moors, but since we were there in early April it wasn’t TOO bad.  But I can’t imagine how insanely crowded it gets in peak tourist season.

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Gorgeous Pena Palace | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

I probably took 300 pics of Pena alone.  Every corner I turned was an intricate tile, different colors and styles next to each other, or a fun new pop of color.  I was especially obsessed with this somewhat disturbing dude and his crazy detailed stone coral carvings.

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Gorgeous Pena Palace | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

Make sure you take the time while you’re there to study all the different styles and colors of tile sprinkled around the palace.  These are only a few examples, but can you imagine how much work it takes to make that first one with the knight??  There was a whole wall and archway covered in those tiles.

If you walk through the archway with that disconcerting dude statue above, you’ll end up in this little courtyard.  It’s got a great view of the countryside, and since Pena is on a hill it’s definitely worth a minute of your time.

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Gorgeous Pena Palace | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

Lunch!!!

At this point Mom and I were STARVING, so we grabbed the bus back into the Sintra town and quickly found a place.  It was just to the left of the bus stop, up a little alley/set of stairs.  I think it was called something generic like “Restaurant Taverna” and I was skeptical because it seemed touristy.  But I was pleasantly surprised!  I had delicious fried cod (bacalhau frito) and a SuperBock to wash it down, and it was exactly what we were looking for.

We spent just a few minutes souvenir shopping and then I located the little bakery Piriquita, where I wanted to try their famous egg and almond pastry.  Honestly, I thought it was just okay.  Give me pasteis de nata any day—that is my jam!

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Quinta da Regaleira

Our last choice for the day was one that a lot of people skip, but I have no idea why—Quinta da Regaleira.

I wish I’d had the forethought to check bus times for both before and after, because we ended up wasting quite a bit of time waiting.  But once we got the bus (a different one, more like a minibus), we made the looooooong walk uphill to the ticket office.  You have to go all the way up to the top and then as you walk through the gardens and complex you’ll wander back down somewhat.

The gardens are really cool, beautiful and kind of dark and mysterious, with a slight air of neglect.  Like they’ve been enchanted and just waiting for someone to come along.  It’s amazing how much imagination, time, and resources went into creating them.
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We went in search of the Initiation Well first, something I’d seen in a million Pinterest photos.  It was just as cool in person, but WAY harder to photograph than I’d though it would be.  You need to get more height to really capture it, which was a bummer.

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While it looks much older (to me at least), the current estate was only completed in the early 1900s.  The owner combined Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline styles to create something totally unique and eye-catching.  And he didn’t stop there—he added buildings allegedly holding symbols related to alchemyMasonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians.

Guy was a “go big or go home” type…

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Beautiful Quinta da Regaleira | A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, which castles to visit, how to plan your trip | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

Tired and hot, we finally caught the bus back down to the town and grabbed the train back to Lisbon.  I wish we could have spent more time in Sintra and visited all of the amazing historical buildings, but even the bits we explored were so amazing!

Tips for visiting Sintra

General
  • Be prepared for large crowds on weekends and midday, and absolute insanity during the summer. If you’re looking for a more intimate experience, visit very first thing in the morning.
How to get there
  • To reach Sintra take the train from Lisbon Rossio station, that runs every 15 minutes (€4.30 for a return ticket). It will take about an hour to get there, and I recommend taking the absolute first train out to beat the crowds.
Getting around
  • Once you arrive at the Sintra station and come out to the street, walk to your right and go to the second bus stop (NOT the first).  This is the bus you’ll take to the Castle of the Moors and Pena.
    • You want Bus 434, which is the main tourist loop and goes in this order:  Sintra Station –> National Palace / Historic City Centre –> Moors Castle –> Pena Palace –> Moors Castle –> National Palace / Historic City Centre –> Sintra station
    • An all-day ticket is 12 euros (when I was there), and allows you to ride the loop once, and you can buy it at the bus stop if you don’t already have it.
  • Both the National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira are walkable if you’re in the mood as well.
  • You can buy the tickets for the Castle and Pena here.  Regaleira is separate, you can purchase them here.  You can also buy both in person (which is what we did).
    • Note that if you plan on seeing more than one of the historic sites, you get a discount when buying your tickets at the same time. I paid for my tickets to Moors Castle and Pena Palace together at Moors castle at got a 5% discount. I obviously didn’t have to wait in line to get my tickets at Pena, which saved us some time. Quinta da Regaleira does not take foreign credit cards so you’ll likely need to pay cash for admission.
  • You have to start up at the Castle and Pena and then come down to town and walk to Regaleira.  In March there’s not so many people as in summer, plan to arrive around 9:30 at Sintra, take the bus up and you’ll arrive when it opens.
Other tips
  • You can’t get proper food or drink at the main sights (just a few little snacks), so make sure you plan time for real food and drink while you’re in the town.  The place we had lunch (mentioned above) was great, and make sure you grab the famous egg and almond pastry at Piriquita.
  • This is a tip I got before my trip, but didn’t get to take advantage of.  If you end up having extra time, consider taking the coastal bus to Cascais via Cabo de Roca.  The buses are nicely spaced so you have time to walk around and it’s supposed to be a stunning view—then you can catch the train back to Lisbon from Cascais.
  • If you’re staying longer in Sintra or just want to make a different choice, look at Monserrate.  In general, if you’re able to swing two days in Sintra and stay nearby, there is SO much to see and do there!

Have you visited Sintra before?  What tips have I missed here that can help other people plan their trips?  Or what questions do you have for me??  Hit me up in the comments!

Other historical adventures:

24 Hours of Immersion in Jerusalem

How To Spend a Day in Istanbul

A Fairytale Day at Neuschwanstein Castle

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A guide to visiting magical Sintra, Portugal, a perfect guide for any first-timer | What to do in Sintra, how to visit Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, & the Moorish Castle | Which castles to visit in Sintra, how to plan your trip to Sintra | Sintra is the perfect day trip from Lisbon, but you could easily spend a few days exploring all the amazing history! #sintra #portugal

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