It is easy to sing the praises of Portugal’s capital. There is simply so much to do in quaint, but cultured Lisbon. However, one of its very charms is the abundance to do in its outlying regions and towns that feature a variety of delights and activities for domestic and foreign tourists alike.
One such location is Sintra, an idealised touristy kingdom in Portugal’s hills, that is a common day trip for visitors.
Located about an hour and a half outside the city, one can catch any of the multiple trains that connect these two municipalities together on the daily. I recommend taking the train from the Rossio train station in central Lisbon compared to Estação do Oriente (which is much farther away) by the shoreline. Rossio is easily accessible by the metro, which will save some time on the rails overall if one elects to take it.
A perk of taking the train to Sintra is the exposure one receives to Lisbon outside the city centre. Coasting through the suburbs, one will join many Lisbonites’ commutes in and out of the city for work and pleasure. The Sintra stop is the last one on the line, so expect a few delays here and there along the way and always give your seat up for old Portuguese ladies.
In the Mountains
Arriving in Sintra, tour buses and their representatives will immediately swarm tourists to offer them deals and transport throughout the town. It is easiest to just take the municipal 434 bus (by the train station) to the main sites (i.e. Moorish Castle and Pena Palace); however, these additional tour groups will offer their own fun experiences and insights on this historic town.
However, price-wise, the 434 will be cheaper overall – a mere €3.90 compared to tipping and paying, for example, a Hop-On Hop-Off for €20.
That said, one can definitely walk Sintra. However, the Pena Palace (the main iconic photo destination) does require vehicular assistance. It is more than a schlepp for sure. The Moorish castle can be reached, but it will be a hike for the ages.
While doable, most of Sintra is a hike to be quite honest, which is not bad if one has been gorging on Portuguese pastries and fried fish in Lisbon for a week prior. Sintra is extremely hilly and built into the inclines. Despite this topography, it has been conquered several times (the Moorish castle might give that away), but is now a vacation spot and one of the wealthiest regions on the Iberian peninsula in general.
The geography is just part of its overall charm, but also something that can leave visitors exhausted.
Restaurants and cafés will do their part to help with the heat and tiredness that travellers experience. By help, I mean charge exorbitant amounts for even the smallest quantities.
Given its relative isolation and popularity, although beautiful, Sintra is a tourist trap. Food and drink are expensive for Portuguese standards, especially when one compares them to local joints in the capital.
Souvenirs are also sold in the small alleyways at high prices, and at almost every turn, someone will try to sell you something. Fun, eh?
A coffee or ice cream might be enjoyable, but large meals might be too costly for budget travellers or youths like moi. Everything found in Sintra can be found in Lisbon too — but cheaper.
Off the Beaten Track
While Sintra excels at promoting its sales and such in the town centre, one can seek some shelter on its outskirts and around its many green spaces.
Hiking up around the Moorish castle is like going through a low-key tropical jungle, but in central Portugal. One feels like they have been transported to a completely different biosphere. Gorgeous foliage and shaded pathways are almost beautiful enough to be called magical.
For a reprieve, definitely head up the mountain for a wee hike. It is away from the crowds and salespeople and offers a contrast from urban Lisbon. A few small cafés and rest stops line the walk up, so do not worry about finding a WC.
Overall, I did not spend that much time in Sintra itself. I was meeting some friends at the beach back in Lisbon proper and wanted to go swimming. It is hotter in the mountains, and after hiking and abstaining from purchasing too much water/iced coffee, I was in need of some cooling down. Sintra’s altitude distances it from the shoreline, but it is humid!
If one has the opportunity to visit Sintra, I certainly would. However, I would not spend a whole day here and if one has to bump it from an itinerary, it is alright. Personally, I would recommend Cascais as an alternative.
Cascais is equally as touristy, but also has the beach and is slightly closer to Lisbon. Deciding between the two is the classic surf or turf dilemma, I suppose.
In sum, Sintra is a location that most travellers to Portugal get to experience. In fact, my parents came here for their honeymoon. They remember it as more of a village or town, and I am sure it was less heavily visited back at that time. There are still sparks of magic (and romance) especially when the sun sets upon this almost fictionalised hamlet. However, perhaps nowadays, one may have to try a little harder to find these moments and lookouts on one’s own, away from the crowds.
I have been travelling for such a long while right now that I have had no time to write! As of now, I am Scotland, which is very easy for me. A dog by my side and reliable wifi (if not a glitching computer), I will be finishing off many a post as well as continuing my language work, which has been delayed (also due to my computer failing me). Stay tuned for more about leaving Sweden, adventures in Germany, northern Italy, Cyprus, and Turkey of course! Oy, so much!