While we were in Portugal we went on a day trip to Sintra, here is our itinerary to visit this resort town in the foothills of Mountains and a couple of coastal town in the Portuguese Riviera. We left Lisbon early morning and drove along the scenic Atlantic coast dubbed as the Cascais Corniche to get to Sintra’s whimsical palaces and monuments. The wooded area with colorful villas and lush gardens has been a longtime sanctuary for the Portuguese royal families. Of course, we wish we had more time to linger and discover the area more but here are the highlights on what we saw on our full day in this pretty part of Portugal.
Pedro from The Portuguese Buddy picked us from our hotel in Lisbon and we drove on Estrada Marginal also known as the N6(EN6, the Estrada Nacional 6) runs westwards from Lisbon to Cascais, along the banks of the Tagus river. Alternatively, you can take the A5 but you would miss out on the coastal views.
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We saw the Belem Tower and the Discoveries Monument that celebrates the achievements of Portuguese explorers as we got to see other forts and tiled monuments dotting the coast. At Carcavelos we left the Tagus river behind while still driving on along the Atlantic coast. The area is less built up here and you’ll start seeing more and more beaches and it was clear we were leaving the city. The seafaring history of Portugal is pretty clear here – there are a few forts along the coast including the 16th century São Julião da Barra fort, a military defense complex in the Vauban style remaining in Portugal.
The next town along the Estrada Marginal before Cascais is Estoril, best known from the race track, the nice apartments with a sea view and the tennis tournament. After about 15 miles on the N6, the Estoril casino comes up on the right. You can’t miss it, just look for the huge park with the fountains in front of it. During the second world war, the Estoril Casino was populated by rich nobles, adventurers and spies from both sides. It inspired Ian Fleming, creator and author of the James Bond novels to write Casino Royale. We were short on time and wanted to make the most of our day trip to Sintra and didn’t stop, we just kept driving along till we got to Cascais.
After about 17 miles we finally reached Cascais. Pedro parked at the roundabout near the bay of Cascais and we had some time to get our second breakfast just like the Portuguese do. We stopped at Paul, one of my favorite french bakeries before we went wandering through the little town. Cascais has a delightful center with traditional fishermen’s houses, which have been converted into chic shops, bars and alfresco restaurants.
Cascais used to be a Portuguese fishing town and was later became the summer retreat of the Portuguese nobility. Today the town is an elegant fusion of decorative 19th-century architecture and modern tourist houses. No over the top glamour like Saint Tropez or the French Riviera but still subtlety sophisticated. No big resorts or hotels which I liked – I kept thinking I could live here, retire here.. 300 days of sunshine, beautiful coast, alfresco dining… Someday! Someday soon!!
If we had more time I would have planned for a stay in Cascais for sure. I highly recommend exploring the area as a day trip from Lisbon, but it would be lovely to spend a day or town here, walk around the cobbled streets of the historic center, visit the lavish mansions, imposing fort and fascinating museums. We of course had to take a photo with the city sign and waved patterns of the cobbled pavements.
A great spot to visit if you have time is the Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) is we heard. It is a collapsed cave and series of highly weathered cliffs, 2km to the north of Cascais. The unique rock formations of the Boca do Inferno have been eroded by the powerful Atlantic over the years.
Praia do Guincho
We then drove further north to the Serra de Sintra coastline with views jagged cliffs came into view along with vast beaches and dramatic natural scenery. Wild and windswept, the coastline hugs the Atlantic Ocean and is popular with surfers. Pedro says he comes here with his son to do biking or hiking or simply clear his soul. Lucky him, he gets to call this place home!
The Serra de Sintra coastline lies within the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais, and has limited public transport and a rental car is needed to explore the coastline or come with a local guide like the Portuguese Buddy.
Water is pretty cold here compared to the beaches in the south like Algarve but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying it. There were surfers, bike riders and people just enjoying the sun even in December. We got out of for a few minutes to smell the salty air and gaze out at the sea.
Cabo da Roca
The Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point of mainland Europe. It is barren, wind-blasted landscape of massive cliffs and raging seas. There is a lighthouse that sits on the cliff but the main attraction of the Cabo da Roca is the raw beauty of nature. There are a few short hiking routes along the cliff tops, but most head here for the scenery, or to simply say that they’ve been to the “most westerly point”. The headland is 15km north of Cascais. This reminded us of the South Western Point of Africa we visited when we were in Cape Town. Just follow the sign and don’t break rules to get close to the cliff for taking photos. We saw a few people doing that. It can be dangerous.
Day trip to Sintra Itinerary
Sintra is a town in the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains, not too far from Lisbon. A longtime royal sanctuary, its forested terrain is studded with brightly colored villas and palaces. You can’t visit ALL of them unless you spend at least 2 to 3 days here. But on our day trip to Sintra itinerary, we covered 3 of the main attractions – The Chalet of the Countess of Edla, the colorful Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. We wished we had time to go visit Moors Castle and Monserrate Palace. We would have loved to stay in Sinta for a night, Tivoli Palacio de Setesais or Sintra Marmoris Palace would be a great options to spend a night or two.
If you had at least 2 days in Sintra then you could visit the Moors Castle, Monserrate Palace, the summer palace of the Portuguese court and the Moorish and Manueline-style Sintra National Palace with its dramatic twin chimneys and elaborate tilework in addition to the 3 attractions in Sintra we visited on our day trip to Sintra.
Chalet of the Countess of Elda
This cute colorful chalet is often missed when visiting Sintra. It belonged to the mistress and second wife of King Ferdinand II. The king wanted to give the bigger Pena Palace after his first wife died but Countess Elda did not agree to it and they build the Chalet together instead. It was restored recently and is quite charming. It has some of her personal effects and I loved her picnic basket. Even if you have just a day in Sintra, add it to your itinerary – it is less crowded than the other attractions in Sintra.
Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace)
The Pena Palace is a Romantic castle in the municipality of Sintra, on the Portuguese Riviera. The castle stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains above the town. It is a national monument and a pretty popular one at that. We visited on a weekday in December and it was pretty crowded and the lines were super long. We had bought the tickets at the chalet but you can also prepurchase your tickets.
The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. Pena Palace was ordered to be built by King Ferdinand II in 1838 on the ruins of an old monastery. The hilltop 19th-century Pena National Palace is known for a whimsical design, colorful facades, tile works and sweeping views of the valley.
Don’t miss the terrace and the chapel, it had some of the best views in my opinion. I loved the gardens, especially the huge camellias that were blooming in so many different colors. The king supposedly had trees from four corners of the world planted in his garden and estate. The chapel in Pena Palace was small and charming with a pretty stained glass window.
After visiting the whimsical palace we stopped for lunch Cafe Paris in the Central Hotel and ice cream in the town center before visiting walking up a small hill to visit Quinta da Regaleira. It was about a 15 minute walk.
Don’t miss visiting a pastelaria for one of Sintra’s sweet pastries and coffee – Travesseiro, a cylindrical puff pastry filled with an almond and egg cream and Queijadas de Sintra a small and delicious pie made from fresh cheese, sugar, eggs, flour and a little cinnamon wrapped in a crispy batter. Order a couple each at the Casa Piriquita in the old center.
Quinta da Regaleira
The extravagant and quirky property of Quinta da Regaleira is not to be missed on your day trip to Sintra. It consists of a Romantic palace and chapel, and a quirky park and garden that features lakes, grottoes, wells, towers and fountains. Apparently is linked to the Freemasons. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of the former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The palace was designed by the Italian architect Luigi Manini.
The “Initiation Well” in Quinta da Regaleira is a must see! It connects to other tunnels via a series of underground walkways. The Initiation Wells is not a water source but looked like somewhat of an underground tower lined with stairs. These are supposedly two wells but we saw only one.
Once you get to the bottom of the well, it connects to a series of tunnels and various caves and other monuments located around the park. The wells were used for ceremonial purposes.
The tunnel we took from the bottom of the well took us to a secret hideout behind the waterfall at Lago da Cascata. There is a way out that takes you across a lake with moss-covered stepping stones. Looked slippery but it is quite an adventure and so much fun for the kids.
The fountains and towers were elaborate and we spent some time wandering in the gardens and caught a nice sunset from one of the towers. We spent close to 2 hours here.
Since we ran out of time on our one day in Sintra I had to save these for our next trip to Sintra…
Castelo dos Mouros (Moors Castle)
We ran out of time to visit the Moorish Castle during our day trip to Sintra. Once you get back to the Pena Palace entrance you can walk uphill to the Moors Castle entrance which is about 15 minutes away. But the actual castle is further away, so we choose to save it fro next time and headed for lunch in the city center and to Quinta da Regaleira instead. The Castelo dos Mouros was established during the 9th century by the North African Moors to guard the town of Sintra, but it fell into despair after the Christian conquest of Portugal. It was originally built as a watch tower and restored in the 19th century. Plan for 1.5 hours to climb up and visit the castle.
Monserrate Palace is the traditional summer palace of the Portuguese court. We didn’t have time to visit this palace as its a little further away from Sintra. The palace combines Gothic, Indian, and Moorish influences and the park is one of Portugal’s richest botanical gardens. Like most palaces in Sintra, the Monserrate palace is said to offer a combination of romanticism and fantasy. If you stayed overnight in Sintra, you can plan for a visit to the Monserrate Palace and National Palace of Sintra on the second day. The photos I have seen of the palace are beautiful and warrants a visit. The palace is 20 minutes away and you would need about 1 to 2 hours to visit.
National Palace of Sintra
Located right in Sintra town center, is the Palácio Nacional of Sintra. Its two big white conical structures are hard to miss. The Moorish- and Manueline-style Sintra National Palace also has elaborate tilework and easy to visit if you have 2 days in Sintra.
Best way to get to Sintra from Lisbon
We hired a local expert to help us visit Sinta and the Portuguese Riviera. Pedro from The Portuguese Buddy picked us up from our hotel in Lisbon and drove us to the different points during our day trip to Sintra and the coastal towns. But if you want to do it on your own it is doable. The train from Lisbon is probably the smartest option as it avoids the crazy traffic that winds its way up the hill to Sintra. It is about a 45 minute train ride from Rossio Station in Lisbon to Sintra. Leave early morning so you will have an entire day.
Tips for visiting Sintra in a day
Once you get to the center of Sintra, you can hire a tuk-tuk or take a taxi to go up to the top. It quite a hike from the center of Sintra to the Peña Palace at the top of the hill, which typically takes up to 2 hours and the roads are narrow. It would be difficult with little kids. I highly recommend doing a tour like we did or taking a taxi. Each palace is built on a hill and each has their own gardens and grounds, which means a lot of steep walking.
From the entrance where you buy the tickets, you have to walk uphill to reach the actual entrance to the Peña Palace. There is a bus you can take, for 4 Euros they will drop you at the entrance saving you the walk uphill.
There are two ticket options to visit the Pena Palace: one to visit just the terrace and one to visit the palace rooms and terrace. Given how popular it has gotten these days the lines are long. Avoid visiting on weekdays if you can. It was a two hour wait to get inside the castle, so we opted to visit the terrace and the gardens instead. The line for which moved faster. And the best view were from the terrace anyway!
There are some walking paths that connect different attractions, like one from Peña Palace over to the Moorish Castle, while Quinta da Regaleira and National Palace of Sintra and closer to the old town center of Sintra.
Driving to Sintra may sound like a much better option, but in reality it is not unless you are staying in town for a day or two. If you are planning on 2 or 3 days in Sintra you can park the car at the hotel and take a cab to the attractions in Sintra. Pedro took us thought the back roads and through the wooded area to avoid the traffic. If you are driving not only do you need to deal with traffic – cars and busses as make their way up the narrow switchbacks to the town of Sintra, but there is also very little space to park. There was a small parking lot past the entrance to the Peña Palace.
It worked out better for us to arrange for a private tour for our day trip to Sintra and the Portuguese Riviera. We would not have been able to make it to the coastal towns either! But we would love to go back to spend more time in the area!
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