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BlogDestinationsSintra & Pena Palace: Everything you need to know about this day trip from Lisbon
Destinations

Sintra & Pena Palace: Everything you need to know about this day trip from Lisbon

Apr 10, 2024 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

Sintra is a fairytale town, shrouded in mist, that lies near Portugal’s rugged coast. Here, lush forests and rocky mountains are dotted with colorful medieval castles straight out of a storybook. The poet Lord Byron once called it a “glorious Eden,” and when you visit it on the Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion offered on our Portugal tours, you’ll quickly see why. The delightful town’s sweeping views, quaint shops, and whimsical focal point, Pena Palace, will leave you feeling like you’ve stepped into a dream. “Our time in Sintra was magical,” said traveler Kathy after visiting it on our Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon tour. Traveler Marsha also went, saying: “Don’t miss the excursion to Sintra and the Portuguese Riviera. It was a favorite.”

Where is Sintra?


Sintra is about a 40-minute drive west of Lisbon, just inland from Portugal’s coast. Visiting the town is one of the best things to do during your free time in the country, according to our Portugal Travel Guide. (And when you join us on the Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion offered on many of our Portugal tours, we’ll take you there via private coach.) “Sintra’s hillside atmosphere was as fantastic as any European town we have visited in the last 10 years!” said traveler Charlotte, who joined the excursion on our Lisbon, Seville & Madrid tour.

What is Sintra known for?


For centuries, Sintra was a popular summer vacation spot for Portuguese nobility. Its cooler coastal temperatures and soothing mountain views prompted wealthy citizens to flock to the town to escape the inland heat. As a result, Sintra is filled with massive, colorful estates, some of which are now open to the public for exploration. The most famous of these is Pena Palace, a vibrant hilltop castle that once served as a summer retreat for Portugal’s royal family. And for good reason: It features whimsical architecture, sprawling gardens, and some of the best views of the village below.

In 1995, the entire town of Sintra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural landscape. It’s considered the first center of European Romantic architecture: In addition to Pena Palace, Sintra is home to the imposing ruins of the Moorish Castle, the exotic gardens of the Palace of Monserrate, and the mysterious Initiation Wells of Quinta da Regaleira. “Sintra immediately comes to my mind as my favorite town,” said staffer Jimmy when recounting his tour of Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve. “I just thought it was so beautiful. It has a prime location in the hills of the Portuguese countryside and is dotted with Renaissance mansions surrounding the Royal Palace. On top of that, the town has cobblestone streets that make for a nice walk along the shops and eateries.”

Discover Sintra on tour

When to visit Sintra, Portugal


The weather in Portugal tends to be beautiful year-round, which means there’s no bad time for a trip to the country—especially if you’re visiting a place as magnificent as Sintra.

  • Go in the off-season for mild temperatures and lighter crowds. “I enjoyed the entire Portugal tour very much, and October was a delightful time to go,” said traveler Liliana, who joined our Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon tour. The country’s warm Mediterranean climate makes it an ideal off-season travel destination. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing from October to March, and the spring and fall are generally warm and sunny, without being too hot.
  • Go in the summer to experience Sintra like royalty. While the weather in Portugal can get hot in the summertime, Sintra’s proximity to the mountains and coastline makes it cooler than other inland areas. The Portuguese royals and aristocrats of the 19th century flocked there in the warmer months to keep cool, and you can take a page out of their book on a summertime trip to Portugal. Visit the town for cooling sea breezes, misty mountain air, and long sunny days. (Just be prepared: It’ll be more crowded than in the off-season!)

No matter what time of year you choose to visit, try to get to Pena Palace early in the day—it’s a popular site and lines for entry form quickly. If you join us on the Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion offered on our Portugal tours, we’ll take care of all the logistics for you, so you can breeze past the queue.

Pena Palace: Sintra’s colorful castle in the sky


Despite what its heavy ornamentation may lead you to believe, Pena Palace was originally a 15th-century monastery. After falling into disrepair following an earthquake, King Ferdinand II transformed it into a mountaintop summer residence for the royal family in the 1800s. Today, it’s considered one of the world’s best examples of Romantic architecture, with its imaginative details, Crayola-colored facade, and sprawling gardens. The palace combines Gothic, Moorish, and even Egyptian styles—and as traveler Marilyn put it after visiting on our Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon tour, “the Pena Palace is truly a beautiful sight. The grounds are breathtaking.”

Take in the beauty of Pena Palace

Interesting facts about Sintra and Pena Palace


Sintra’s Romantic architecture and misty surroundings aren’t the only things lending intrigue to the mysterious town. Did you know that Pena Palace is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal? Here are some other facts you might not know about Sintra and its crown jewel.

  • The palace is full of symbolism. Christian iconography, mythical creatures, and scenes from nature were all built into Pena Palace. Keep an eye out for the iconic carving of Triton perched atop a doorway leading from one of its terraces.
  • Several films have been shot in Sintra. Scenes from The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polanski, Gulliver’s Travels, starring Jack Black, and several other films were shot in Sintra.
  • Nearby Cabo da Roca is the westernmost place in continental Europe. Not far from the town of Sintra lies Cabo da Roca—a cape that marks the westernmost point of not just the Sintra Mountains, but of all continental Europe. On clear days, you can even see it from certain vantage points in Sintra, like the Moorish Castle.

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Things you should know before visiting Sintra, Portugal


When you join us on the Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion offered on our Portugal tours, we’ll take care of all the logistics for you. That being said, there are a few things worth knowing before visiting this magical mountain town.

  • It’s very hilly. Just like most of Portugal, everything in Sintra might feel like it’s uphill. The town straddles the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, so be prepared for some steep walks. We’ll take you up to Pena Palace via bus and mini train, but it never hurts to wear comfortable walking shoes with grippy tread should you choose to explore on your own. If you want to go off the beaten path but aren’t feeling up for a hike, you can hop aboard a tuk-tuk in Sintra’s town center.
  • It has its own microclimate. Sintra’s elevated mountain location and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean create a microclimate unique to the surrounding area. When you visit the town on one of our Portugal tours, expect it to be cooler than Lisbon and potentially shrouded in mist.
  • Most of the palaces and attractions are ticketed. When you join us on our Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion, we’ll buy your tickets to Pena Palace. If you want to explore any of the other estates in your free time, you’ll likely need to purchase your own entries.
  • The gardens are equally (and sometimes more) impressive than the palaces themselves. Sintra’s lush gardens influenced landscape architecture throughout Europe in the 1800s—they’re one of the reasons why the town received its UNESCO designation. Thanks to the area’s microclimate, exotic flora thrives in Sintra, and estate owners leveraged it to plant thousands of trees and plants from all over the world in their gardens.
Grab your walking shoes and head for the hills

Things to do around Sintra, Portugal


Pena Palace should be your first stop, but there are countless other things to do and see when you visit this picturesque town on a tour of Portugal. Below are a few of our favorites.

  • Journey to the bottom of the Initiation Wells. In the garden of Quinta da Regaleira, you’ll find two inverted towers, known as Initiation Wells. The larger of the two features a spiral staircase leading deep into the ground, connecting to a network of tunnels that will take you beneath the gardens, past waterfall grottos, and back out into the daylight. The mysterious wells are thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes by the Masonic Templars. Initiates would make their way down the stairs blindfolded, then choose their own path out through the tunnels.
  • Explore the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. Pena Palace may be Sintra’s most famous, but the National Palace is undoubtedly worth a visit. This whitewashed edifice sits in the center of town and is the oldest medieval estate in Sintra. While its exterior might not be as flashy as Pena Palace’s, its interior is a great place to learn about colorful azulejos. (It’s covered in these intricately painted ceramic tiles!)
  • Visit Cascais. Just south of Sintra lies Cascais, an adorable fishing village of cobblestone streets, welcoming beaches, and laid-back locals. According to our solo traveler’s guide to Portugal, visiting a seaside town like Cascais is a must on any tour of the country. We’ll make sure you have plenty of time to explore when we stop here on our Sintra & the Portuguese Riviera excursion.
  • Eat travesseiros at a cafe in Sintra’s Old Town. The rest of the country may be known for its pastéis de nata—sweet egg tarts that are among the best things to eat in Portugal—but travesseiros are a local specialty. These crispy, fluffy treats are literally named “pillows” and are made with light puff pastry filled with rich almond cream.
  • Wander through the Convento dos Capuchos. This overgrown monastery was built by Franciscan monks who believed humans shouldn’t interfere with nature. Today, its rustic stone structures have been almost completely reclaimed by the surrounding forest, making it an excellent place to enjoy some quiet reflection.
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The best photo spots in Sintra


“I loved the Go Ahead tour of Portugal,” said traveler Elaine, who visited Sintra on our Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon trip. “I especially loved Porto and the optional excursion to Sintra. With the architecture, historic buildings, tiled walls, and sidewalks—as well as the seaside—it was impossible to take a bad picture. Just about everything I saw was worthy of capturing on film.” Below are some of our favorite places to snap a photo in Sintra.

  • Pena Palace. Its many terraces offer spectacular views of Sintra, as well as the palace itself.
  • The Moorish Castle. These rocky ruins present a panorama of Sintra and its surrounding mountains, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The top (or bottom) of the Initiation Wells. For a shot straight out of a fantasy film, snap a photo of the inverted tower’s spiral staircase from above, or make your way down the nine flights of stairs to capture daylight filtering into the tunnel’s depths.
  • The streets of Sintra. It doesn’t get much more romantic than the cobblestone streets and pastel buildings of Sintra’s Vila Velha, or Old Town. Take some photos of the town’s enchanting alleyways and fountains while exploring on foot.
Find the most picture-perfect spots in Sintra

Trips to Sintra and Pena Palace


Now that you know all the reasons why you should visit Sintra, Pena Palace, and the Portuguese Riviera, here are some of our tours that will take you there!

A Week in Portugal: Porto, Évora & Lisbon

Why you should book this tour: Our nine-day A Week in Portugal: Porto, Évora & Lisbon tour is the perfect way to experience the best of the country without taking too much time out of your busy schedule. You’ll get to explore three of Portugal’s most elegant cities, interspersed with visits to the countryside and stops in several charming towns—including Sintra.

Portugal for Solo Travelers

Why you should book this tour: Get to know the country, your fellow solo travelers, and maybe even yourself when you join us on our Portugal for Solo Travelers tour. This week-long adventure covers some of our favorite cities in Portugal and provides the perfect balance of group bonding activities and free time.

Grand Tour of Portugal: From Porto to Lisbon

Why you should book this tour: If you want to experience everything there is to see and do in Portugal, our 14-day Grand Tour of Portugal: From Porto to Lisbon is perfect for you. You’ll spend two full weeks traversing the nation’s vibrant cities, historic villages, and sunny shores.

Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon

Why you should book this tour: Our nine-day Portugal: Porto, the Algarve & Lisbon tour takes you south through the country, stopping at cities, chapels, castles, and beaches. It strikes a healthy balance between culture, history, nature, and relaxation—all without having to sacrifice too much precious PTO. “I learned an incredible amount of history on this trip,” said staffer Clarissa while sharing photos she took on this tour. “I especially loved the optional excursion to Sintra, where the streets are lined with beautiful mansions and the royal palace has stood since the Middle Ages.”

Lisbon, Seville & Madrid

Why you should book this tour: Our Lisbon, Seville & Madrid tour is jam-packed with some of the best history, art, and architecture the Iberian Peninsula has to offer. Get to know three of the most lively, warm, and welcoming European cities, with plenty of sun-kissed stops in between.

London, Paris & Madrid

Why you should book this tour: Join the Lisbon extension of our London, Paris & Madrid tour for the opportunity to add an excursion to Sintra (and a chance to check another European capital off your list).

Visit Sintra and Pena Palace on tour

Explore these two famous destinations with us on one of our Portugal tours!


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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