Although a bit different than most of my weekend adventures, last weekend the husband and I went to Portugal and spent some time in the majestic region of Sintra! I'll get to why it was different than most of my weekend trips later but this one was still one for the books! It was my husband's 30th birthday weekend so we had to make a trip of this occasion, as usual.
Sintra is located less than a hour West of Lisbon and was mentioned by Lord Byron as a "glorious Eden", which this hilltop town certainly is. What was once a traditional summer retreat for Portugal's kings is now a fairy-tale setting of rolling green hills and impressive palaces. Sintra is a great day trip from Lisbon but we decided to actually stay in the Sintra hills which was better than I imagined!
Planning the Journey
This trip was my second time visiting the beautiful country of Portugal but my first time checking out this area, specifically the Central and Northern part of the of country. For this trip, I wanted to be like the young and spontaneous and just "go with the flow" but I learned that it's just not my style. I pretty much did not plan anything other than just going! I figured I could just find whatever comes up and although we had a great time, I would rather much prefer my trips to have an itinerary by the hour, or at least a flexible itinerary with back up plans.
Now, booking the trip in general was very simple; it was a quick RyanAir search of where I could go to the cheapest in March and Porto seemed to fit perfectly. Plus, I heard the wines are amazing (which they totally are). The flight was from Nuremberg to Porto because originally the plan was to just be in Porto but I just couldn't possibly miss out on Lisbon/Sintra. After doing a quick search, I learned that although cheaper, the bus or train route would have taken a big chunk of the time out and that a rental car would be best for the husband and I to get from Porto to Sintra. We ended up doing one day in Porto and the other two days in Sintra/Lisbon.
Booking the rental car was quite easy as I went through the USAA app to find rental car discounts. Minus the tolls from the motorway and gas, the rental car came out to $50 for the two full days we used it. The rental agent was super pushy about us upgrading to a bigger car and adding more insurance but we've rented enough cars to know what's worth paying for. She ended up upgrading us for free after we declined paying more for the car. So if anyone tries to tell you that you need more space in the car, just politely decline the offer if you certainly don't need more space. We definitely didn't as we were just two adults traveling with a small backpack and a weekend bag. I imagine traveling with children or more than 2 persons could make a trip uncomfortable in a tiny Fiat.
Finding accommodation was too easy while in Sintra thanks to Airbnb. The listing I found was almost too perfect for a couple wanting to stay in the Sintra region. The suite had been renovated last year and had a very private but romantic vibe to it. Anyone who was checking my Insta stories last week got the mini Airbnb tour. Standing from the balcony, you can see the blue coastline of the Atlantic and it was a great view to enjoy in the mornings. The location was the best as it was only minutes by car to the castles and palaces of Sintra. The hosts were very friendly and gave wonderful tips for places to eat and also the history of the home and suite itself.
Since I arrived into Portugal through Porto, the most convenient mode of transportation for two people would be by car. We actually rented a car through Avis using our USAA rental car insurance coverage for two days which worked out perfectly at $50 in total. I compared Avis.pt versus Avis via USAA and it was slightly cheaper that way and I booked the rental about 2 days prior to the trip.
The drive from Porto to Sintra was pretty much a straight shot on the motorway. It wasn't until we approached Sintra was when the anxiety kicked in with the driving due to the small roads. As far as tolls go, I want to say we spent about 25 Euro on tolls one way. It took us just about 3 hours to reach Sintra from Porto.
Things to do
You'll want to spend at least one full day checking out the palaces and castles but will probably end up using two days to do so. I went to 4 of them in one day but I was there from the time most of the parks opened, around 10am to closing time around 5pm in the low season. There was lots of walking to do so when we were purchasing our tickets, we were told we couldn't do more than 3 in one day. We pushed it and ended up doing 4 as it was only the two of us and we had a rental car but I could say that I felt more rushed towards the end to make it before closing time. If you've ever been to Disney World in Florida, the concept seems to be the same as the parks are spread out throughout the region so I would recommend taking your time.
Plan out ahead of time which palaces and castles you would like to see first and arrange the order you'll go in based off of their opening and closing times. Don't forget to take into account the time you'll have for lunch and finding parking if you're driving. If you are more of the planner than I was, you can purchase your tickets online and receive a 5% discount. Otherwise, you can purchase the tickets day of and buy a combination ticket with the spots you want to check out and still receive a small discount. If you don't have a rental car, you can use the hop on hop off bus numbers 434 and 435 to see the castles. We paid 11 Euro for two people to ride the 434 bus but ended up only using it for two of the palaces.
Palacio da Pena - This palace is of the most majestic as it was built atop the Sintra mountains where it was visible from any point in the park. With its vibrant colors, you can only imagine the crowds this palace attracts each day. I would say this is the most popular (and most instagramable) palace that visitors were going to so I would recommend checking out this spot first before the grounds get flooded or last while checking out the sunset. Some parts were under construction inside but nonetheless, the outer walls and the rooms inside were worth the time spent checking out. There are guided tours which you can partake in every day at 2:30pm for 5 Euro.
Palacio de Monserrate - This spot was my favorite and was actually the least crowded location of the four palaces we checked out. There were maybe two other couples wandering the grounds while we were there which was great because we were able to enjoy the palace without the crowds and feeling rushed to leave the park. I believe the reason may be because the location is not clustered with the other palaces in one area such as the Palace of Pena, the Moorish Castle, and Palace of Sintra. The reason why it was my favorite was because of the intricate detail in the arches and columns presented throughout the palace. You'll find a mix of Neo-Gothic architecture, Hispano-moresque tiles, and Mogul-style panels at Palacio de Monserrate.
Quinta da Regaleria - There's lot to see at this park so don't underestimate the time needed to wander throughout the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family. The playful gardens hide fountains, grottoes, and underground caverns. Guided tours are offered at 8 Euro for adults but you can receive 20% off if you have the Lisboa Card. If you decide to tour the park without a guide, you will probably spend about 1-2 hours checking out the sites. You can also get the audioguide which is recommended for 3 Euro in addition to your entrance ticket. Don't forget to visit the Initiatic Well which sinks 27 meters into the earth. You'll barely be able to snap a photo without someone else already in it!
Castelo dos Mouros - This 3km hike from the center will give you all the 8th century feels and some of the best views in Sintra. You'll be able to see Palacio da Pena from this castle which is only 800m away (we ended up walking instead of waiting for the bus). We spent the least amount of time at this castle but definitely enjoyed the views and the greenery.
If you rent a car, be aware that the smaller towns have very narrow roads which can definitely cause some anxiety if you're not used to two way roads that look like a one way street. I noticed the locals would honk their horn twice when they were approaching a corner without the mirror present to see who is coming from the other direction.
Don't buy your tickets separately if you're going to see more than one site at a time. You can buy a combination ticket of the palaces and castles and the more you combine, the higher discount you will get. 10% was the maximum for 6 sites in one combination ticket but you won't be able to do 6 locations in one day, but definitely in two days. You'll save time getting all the tickets at once than waiting in line at each site.
Please. wear. comfortable. shoes. I made the mistake of wearing flats I had never worn before and that was the worst planned decision I've ever made while traveling. Breaking into new shoes should almost be a travel no-no (at this point, I'm fully aware) but also because of all the walking we did, up and down the hills, was enough to want me to throw the shoes away and walk barefooted. At one point, my husband asked me if I wanted a piggy back ride and I didn't decline his offer!
I am not sure if everywhere in the region is this way but most of the restaurants we had noticed didn't serve dinner until 7pm. My husband and I are early birds and wanted to be back to our Airbnb by 7pm. Luckily, there was a spot we found that, although started serving dinner at 7, the young gentleman at the bar gave us menus over an hour earlier and said "the cooks are here so you can order from the menu". This spot seemed to be one of those hole in the wall places and we are glad we found it because the food was really good and dirt cheap compared to the restaurants near the attractions. It seemed more like a snack bar where the locals could chat and watch football while drinking coffee or tea. We on the other hand really wanted to fulfill our hunger and we definitely were able to do that here. The portions were very large and were under 10 Euro.
Although I don't have small children, I would definitely recommend to leave the stroller at home if you are traveling with a baby. There were many steep hills, steps, and cobblestoned roads that I can see making traveling with littles in a stroller harder. In some locations, I did see wheelchair and stroller accessible paths but the hills were still pretty steep so that would be your preference to bring the stroller or leave it at home.
If you get a rental car, see what type of gas is needed for the car. We assumed we would be using the cheapest gas for our VW Polo but the gas pump did not fit when we tried pumping gas and instead had to use the more expensive gas.
Should You Visit Sintra, Portugal?
First off, if you haven't been to Portugal at all, then you MUST go. I'll spare you every single detail but basically, what's there to lose when this country has plenty of history, some of the best beaches I've ever seen in Europe, majestic castles and palaces plus don't get me started on the Port wine! Now, if you had the opportunity to check out Sintra, I would definitely give it at a minimum a full day but if you can do it, for sure two full days you'll get the best experience than just one day. Tickets from RyanAir can be quite cheap depending on the time of the year and the airport you fly out of. Being that I went in March, the weather wasn't absolutely perfect with the scattered rain storms but the crowds were not entirely crazy and we did receive some sunshine throughout our trip! If you're planning a trip to Sintra and would like to find out more about my trip, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.