Of course you do. A day trip to Sintra from Lisbon is, after all, one of the most well known excursions from the Portuguese capital city, thanks to the colourful facades of Pena Palace, but we’ll get to that in due course. I’m not here to give you a detailed history of the ancient buildings of Sintra – you can find that anywhere online, however there are a few key tips that you should keep in mind to retain your sanity in amongst the throngs of tourists all headed in the same direction as you.
Don’t just get an early train, pre-book your ticket
I’d read that the most pain-free way of visiting Sintra is to get up early to beat the crowds onto the train, but a pain-free holiday for me also includes a lovely lie-in, so I hoped for the best by rocking up to the train station at 10am after a lovely pastéis de nata at Fabrica da Nata. By some small stroke of luck, we managed to get a seat on the train, but plenty didn’t, and that was only after we’d queued around the train station to get to the ticket machines. Maybe get your nata fix a little earlier in the morning and save yourself the hassle.
Turn left out of the train station
As everyone streams out of the station, they will head to the free bus service directly outside to the big ticket palaces . Absolutely get the free bus because the palaces are way up steep, winding roads without safe pedestrian footpaths, and if you get them after the first waves off the train get on, then you’re likely to get a seat too. So, in the meantime, turn left and walk into Sintra old town where you can see the National Palace of Sintra first of all and grab lunch before venturing uphill.
Eat at Tascantiga Sintra
We peeked into a couple of restaurants as we weaved in and out of tiny streets, and even sat down in one with a particularly good Google review until we realised it had no windows and everyone in there already looked like they had really regretted trusting the internet for their lunch choice. A short way from the obvious path was Tascantiga Sintra, a damn sight calmer and more friendly then everywhere else we’d contemplated.
We shared tapas dishes of egg with Portuguese sausage, excellent fresh prawns with garlic and coriander, salty cod dumplings with olive purée and smoked ham dust, and buttery portobello mushroom au gratin with parma ham and a slab of melted goats cheese. I also highly recommend what is on the menu as ‘local beer’, a light ale made by the owner’s next door neighbour which he calls Maria, after his wife. To a beer drinker, that’s pretty much the most romantic thing I can imagine.
Save some money and explore the palace exteriors
I travel under the premise of ‘flexible luxury‘, which in short means I travel on a budget in order to save money for a luxury experience as part of the trip. A last minute Air BnB cancellation meant that that ‘luxury’ actually had to be spent on a hotel that was available, but more than we’d anticipated. It meant that a day trip to Sintra from Lisbon needed to be significantly cheaper than we might have liked, but what they don’t really advertise is that all of the palaces can be seen from the outside. The walkway to the main entrance of the Moors Castle winds through the battlements and gives beautiful views from the hillside (where you can stop and buy an ice cream if the weather treats you as well as it did us), read some interesting facts about the building along the way and move on to the next place.
The two biggest travel hacks for visiting Pena Palace
I hadn’t realised that Pena Palace actually amongst vast gardens and you require a ticket just to get into the surrounding area and then walk up to the palace, so prep yourself for tip number one if you are as unorganised as me:
If you don’t have a ticket pre-booked, buy an e-ticket online and skip the queue to go right in.
Feeling smug, we made our way up to the main Pena Palace buildings – the primary colour hues that you’ll no doubt have spotted on Instagram, where early risers or clever Photoshop-users would have you believe it’s relatively serene.
Reader, it is not.
In fact, as soon as we turned the corner to the enter the core periphery, we were looking at a snaking queue of about 150 people waiting to get inside. We almost quit there and then, but I was determined to at least get a glimpse of what everyone was always talking about. So we walked past the queue to get an idea of how long we might have to wait and then my fiancé decided he wanted to get a drink so we wandered into the adjoining café and this is where excellent tip number two comes in:
You can enter the most beautiful exterior parts of the palace by dodging the queue and walking through the mezzanine of the café.
The views, the colours, the battlements, the turrets, the tiles – you can see it all without paying anything extra for queueing for an additional 30 minutes. If you see the queue, ignore it (which goes against every British part of me), and you’ll get what you came for.
Is Sintra worth the day trip from Lisbon? Absolutely. It is, beneath the tourist sheen, a quiet, beautiful little town with a rich history and provides more visual storytelling than Lisbon. It is extremely busy because of this, but I think I would have been more stressed on a tour and having to go in deep with the crowds. A little self-guided trip at our own pace and without feeling the pressure to delve deep into the architecture and history beyond the leaflets we picked up along the way, made it a worthwhile addition to our Portugal itinerary.