15 Best things to do in Sintra (Portugal)

Leaving the western suburbs of Lisbon and climbing up to Sintra feels like a journey into another world. The town is nestled in a green mountain landscape of palaces, country estates, parks and medieval castles. In the center, the Palace of Sintra, the residence of the Portuguese royal family, is just one of many fine properties.

Another is the mystical Quinta da Regaleira, a playground for wealthy eccentrics, or the Pena Palace and its fairytale tower atop a peak. You can hike through 19th century woodlands filled with exotic giant trees. Or continue to the beaches beneath the cliffs of ot Cabo da Roca, on the edge of continental Europe.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Sintra:

1. Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regalera

António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro was born in 1848 to wealthy Portuguese immigrants in Brazil and increased his fortune in the coffee and gemstone business.

The wealth flowed into the dazzling Quinta da Regaleira, which is packed with small monuments reflecting his fascination with Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and the soothsayers.

His romantic palace is dreamlike, full of Manueline-style masonry, but it is in the palace park that Monteiro’s eccentric personality comes into play: underground a system of tunnels and grottoes designed to confuse and to please.

Above are ornate pavilions, sculpted benches and two “wells of initiation”, deep wells lined with spiral staircases that lead to the shrine of tarot rituals.

2. Pena Palace

Pena Palace, Sintra

Recently named one of Portugal’s “Seven Wonders”, Pena Palace was built on the tall ruins of an ancient monastery by order of King Ferdinand II in 1838.

The ornate Disney-style architecture and tall surroundings are reminiscent of Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle, but Pena Palace is actually decades older.

As fashionable at the time, the palace incorporates many historical styles from Moorish to Renaissance.

Built as a summer house, it has fascinating stuccoes and trompe l’oeil paintings, and the views from the park will blow your mind.

You must spend time outdoors because Ferdinand II planted trees from all over the world, such as redwoods, tree ferns, ginkgo biloba and the amazing rosen cypress.

3. Cruz Alta

Cruz Alta, Sintra

Of all the hikes you can do in Pena Park, the most rewarding is the trail through the magical forest to the highest point in the Sintra Mountains.

At 528 meters, this prominent place is marked with a Manueline-style stone cross and is interspersed with granite boulders.

At this height, one can admire the colourful towers of the Pena Palace and the green hues of the Sintra Mountains.

On a clear day, you can see parts of Lisbon and the mouth of the Tagus River.

4. Cape Roca

Cabo da Roca, Sintra

Sintra’s borders extend all the way to the coast and to the westernmost point of continental Europe.

Cabo da Roca is where the Serra de Sintra sank dramatically into the sea.

The promontory is located 140 meters on top of a granite cliff with powerful boulders and outcrops below, slammed by the ocean.

There is a lighthouse here, and a boulder with a cross to mark the headland, a famous seamark from Roman times to the Age of Navigation.

The ground here is a carpet of evergreen ice plants, an invasive plant native to South Africa.

5. Moorish Castle

Moorish Castle, Sintra

On one of Sintra’s northernmost peaks stand the ruins of a magnificent castle built by the Moors and expanded after the Reconquista.

The city walls have four square towers that meander at the top of the sheer cliffs, so they can be seen from below and a stunning vantage point from above.

Between Mellons, you can look out over mountain peaks, cliffs and rock spurs, the Atlantic Ocean and Sintra in the distance.

Historians can investigate some of the exciting remains of the ruins, such as the large Moorish cistern you can access via stairs, and the ruins of a Romanesque church with frescoes on its altar.

6. Monserrate Park and Palace

Monserrate Park and Palace, Sintra

Montserrat is located deep in the mountains, a little distance from the other palaces in Sintra, so it is not as crowded.

But that doesn’t mean you can pass it, as the Moorish Revival palace and grounds are glorious.

In the mid-19th century, Sir Francis Cook was beautified by the English nobility who was made Viscount of Monserrat by King Louis I. The park features bamboo plantations, grottoes, man-made waterfalls, ponds, exotic cedars and marine tree ferns.

As for the residence, the Islamic influence is undeniable, in the lattice of its arches, the arabesque stucco pattern on the stairs and the ceiling of the radiant music room where concerts are held to this day.

7. Sintra Palace

Sintra Palace

You’ll know the palace right away because of its pair of white cone-shaped towers above a medley of halls and outbuildings.

Sintra Palace is the oldest palace in the town, and no medieval royal residence in Portugal is better preserved.

The royal family lived here on and off from the 1400s to the 1700s, with each heir adding a bit of personality of their own.

One, King Manuel I was responsible for much of the interior decoration, adorning the walls with striking Seville glazing.

These are in the Mudéjar style (Moorish Revival) and feature geometric, carpet-like patterns.

Another of his works is the magnificent Sala dos Brasões (Hall of Coat of Arms), with 72 coats of arms of Portuguese royalty and nobility hanging from the coffered ceiling.

8. Palácio Nacional e Jardins de Queluz

Palácio Nacional e Jardins de Queluz

Queluz is a city east of Sintra, but in the same municipality.

Worth seeing is the Cluse Palace, which was built in the mid-18th century and features lush Rococo architecture.

It was the summer resort of Dom Pedro of Braganza, who would become the king consort to his own niece, Queen Maria I. The interiors are beautifully decorated, with gilded stucco and ornate frescoes adorning the ceilings of the music room and the Queen’s boudoir with a delicate latticework pattern.

Outside, you can admire the baroque grandeur of the façade of French architect Jean-Baptiste Robillon, and the 100-meter-long canal composed of blue and white Tile boards surround.

9. Capuchos Monastery

capchos monastery

A short but picturesque drive or tuk-tuk from Sintra will take you to the remains of a 16th-century monastery.

The Franciscan friars who lived in this fraternity chose a life of extraordinary simplicity, in stark contrast to the luxury of Sintra.

They live in small cells dug out of rocks and decorated with cork, and live off vegetables grown in their vegetable gardens.

This is still visible below the main courtyard, where the Pátio do Tanque has a beautiful octagonal fountain.

With an audio guide, you will visit the cells, monastery buildings and chapels that have been abandoned since the monastery was dissolved in Portugal in 1834.

10. Sintra Old Center

Sintra old center

If you arrive in Sintra early in the morning, the first thing you should do is go for a hike in the old town center.

You need to get this done early, while the town is still waking up as the streets are packed with tourists in the evening.

The compact core coils around a steep valley with winding cobblestone streets, narrow staircases, churches and beautiful mansions and townhouses.

Some of them contain museums, such as the Museu Anjos Texeira and the Museu de História Natural, and some you can only admire and photograph from the outside.

Later, if you can brave the crowds, be sure to stop by a patisserie for one of Sintra’s sweet pastries.

11. Big Bear Beach

Big Bear Beach

On your way to Cabo da Roca, you can follow the signs that direct you to follow the dirt path to this beach.

Praia da Ursa is probably one of the most spectacular beaches you’ve ever been to, on that jagged coastline that can be seen from the promontory.

The beach is almost surrounded by tall jagged cliffs and outcrops that help calm the waves, so it’s a rare beach on the Atlantic coast where non-swimmers can paddle safely.

Getting there isn’t easy as you have to walk slowly along the cliffside trails, but at a small price for such stunning scenery.

12. Museu do Ar

Museu do Ar, Sintra

To change the rhythm of palaces and mountains, Sintra Air Base houses the Portuguese Air Force Aviation Museum.

The museum is approaching its 50th birthday and in 2010 the fleet moved from Alberca to this huge hangar.

You can run rules on a swarm of planes, helicopters, propellers, navigation equipment, dashboards, and tons of other paraphernalia.

The exhibition begins with a timeline of early Renaissance aviation experiments, from primitive biplanes (like the Tiger Moth) to World War II aircraft (like the Spitfire), and then into the jet age.

A highlight is the Douglas C-47A Dakota, which you can board, but only accompanied by Força Aérea personnel.

13. Praia da Adraga

praia da adraga

This is a sign of the high standards of the beaches in Sintra, the second best beach in the town and still one of the best in Portugal.

Adraga is next to Praia da Ursa, with equally sharp rocks and forbidding cliff walls behind.

The good news is that you can drive down and there is a restaurant next to the parking lot next to the beach.

If you explore carefully, this is a fun place to venture into the rocks in search of caves and tunnels.

The waves at this beach are a bit tougher than its neighbors, but there are lifeguards throughout the summer.

14. Sintra Tramway

Sintra Tram

Touring the palaces and parks can leave young children feeling forgotten, so they might have more fun on a tram trip from Sintra city center to Praia das Maçãs on the coast.

Trams have been running on this 11.7-kilometer route since 1904. If you’re vacationing without a car, it’s a convenient but bumpy way to see Sintra’s wooded mountains and rugged coast.

Fares are reasonable at just 3 euros one way, and the journey to the coast takes about 40 minutes.

As with Sintra, get on board early if you want to avoid the crowds.

15. Food in Sintra

Kehada, Sintra

There are several treats that are almost unique to Sintra.

One is queijada, a small round cake made with eggs, milk, sugar and cheese.

Yes, cheese is a mild, soft cheese similar to ricotta used in place of butter.

This gives the cake a smooth texture and an indescribably sweet and savory taste, but definitely tastier.

Another dessert to pair with coffee is travesseiro, a cylindrical puff pastry filled with almond and egg cream.

Order one at Casa Piriquita in the old center.

Where to stay: The best hotels in Sintra, Portugal
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