So many palaces, so little time! How on Earth did I do it WITH time to spare? Read on for a detailed itinerary and tips to make your day trip run smoothly.
In January 2022, I took my first international solo trip to Lisbon. From Lisbon, many people take the opportunity to do day trips - two popular places are Cascais for beaches and Sintra for palaces. I opted for Sintra, since January is not particularly beach weather here. Besides, from the photos, I was dying to see Sintra's palaces in person!
One thing about me: When I travel, I like to do as much as possible because I'm just so excited to experience something new, and I MUST maximize my time and money spent. During my research on Sintra, I ultimately opted to look into a tour guide for a few reasons:
The constant warnings of the HILLS to climb to reach the palaces.
Figuring out how to get between sites was a pain. Like, yes, Castelo dos Mouros is close enough to Pena Palace, but what about getting to Quinta da Regaleira after that? And Monserrate after that? Trust me, I tried Google Maps, and it was acting very wonky and unreliable with its estimates.
I wanted the historical context from a local who is passionate about their city.
Apparently it is also difficult for cars to travel up to the sites, as some of them only allow parking with a special tour permit.
Looking up tours online, I could only find ones that take you to one or two palaces (Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, the most popular). Finally, I inquired in a Portugal Facebook group I joined about tours that would take me to all 4 palaces I wanted to see. (Helpful hint: join a Facebook travel group either for the specific place you want to go, or search a travel group for posts from others who have been there).
Sophiatours quoted me the best rate for an all-day tour (~8 hours), so we exchanged details through email, including my desired itinerary and payment method. I opted to pay in cash in person and to meet him in Sintra at the train station to save some money (vs. pick-up and drop-off in Lisbon). I later found out you can also book on his site or Trip Advisor!
I got up bright and early, had my hostel breakfast, and took a train from Lisbon to Sintra to meet my tour guide, Nuno, promptly at 9AM. Important note: Buy a roundtrip ticket!!! The ticket machines at Sintra were ridiculously slow, so much that I missed one train because the line was so long and was 2 minutes away from missing the next train 30 minutes later (it was Sunday). Also the machines only took coins. It was a HOT MESS! Back to the meet-up: Arriving at 9AM gave us just enough time to get to the first stop at opening!
Pena Palace - 9:30 AM
At opening time, the crowds were super low! The weather was also amazing for January. I was certainly feeling #blessed that day! As the expert guide, Nuno gave me a thorough background on Pena Palace including who built it, the meanings behind the intricate tiles and sculptures, and even why it is the colors that it is! I'm certain he shared a LOT more, but my brain couldn't process it all!
Next, we walked about 10 minutes through Pena's grounds to the High Cross, where I got a view of Pena from afar.
Castelo dos Mouros - 11:15 AM
Next, we walked downhill to Castelo dos Mouros, the oldest castle in Sintra that is now just ruins - ruins worth visiting! Here is where I found out Portugal has heavy Moorish (back then, what they called Muslims in Western Europe) influence. Also look out for the Door of Betrayal, a secret door that not only let inhabitants out, but unfortunately also let the enemy in, hence the name!
Town of Sintra - 12:30 PM
Next, we took the car into town, right in the area of Sintra National Palace - I didn't care to visit, but I probably could have taken a peek. In Sintra, I found out that cork is very abundant in Portugal, so much that you can buy cork merchandise like hats, slippers, jewelry, and bags! I copped a bag and we stopped for a pick-me-up at Casa Piriquita where Nuno introduced me to special treat of Sintra called the "Travesseiro de Piriquita" which translates to "pillow of Sintra." Boy, was it crispy, fluffy, and delicious! On our way back to the car, I topped off with a shot of ginjinha - a Portuguese cherry liquor - served in a chocolate shot cup!
Quinta da Regaleira - 1:45 PM
Next was the one I was most excited to see, Quinta da Regaleira! The grounds is full of lovely sites, fountains, and the famed Initiation Well and tunnels. Nuno had tons of interesting stories about the use of the well and tunnels for initiates of the Knights of Templar.
Monserrate Palace - 3:30 PM
Finally, we made it to Monserrate Palace, the smallest of them all in size, but the most beautiful in my opinion with it's colors, shape, and heavy Indian influence on the architecture - it was unexpected and beautiful! Fun fact: This palace did not house royalty. Also the grounds were the prettiest, from the diverse gardens (think bodies of water, Mexican cacti, and Japanese flowers) to the ruins of a on-site church. And SO MANY cork trees! Walking the gardens was the "long way" to the palace itself.
Cabo da Roca - 5 PM
I finished up around 4:30, and it was still bright out, so Nuno offered to take me on an additional stop 20 mins away to Cabo da Roca, the furthest western point of continental Europe! I figured this was the perfect place to watch the sun set, nothing in view for miles and miles other than the Atlantic and the sun.
I relaxed here for an hour, and we headed back to the Sintra train station where we parted ways. All in all, I had as close to a perfect day as I can imagine and highly recommend taking a trip to Sintra! If all of this sounds like too much to handle in a day, or you are adamant about doing it on your own, I'd suggest splitting this into two days.
Which palace would you be most excited to see? :) More photos in the I Love Portugal album!