In the past, it has been an understatement to call me a travel over-planner. There is no term really to describe the levels to which I would typically plan the fun out of a trip. It always came from a good place, an excitement for the adventure coupled with the desire to not miss anything. Except over-planning is one of the best ways to ruin a trip, whether or not you’re able to tick everything off of your list. Truly understanding this theory of travel has taken me far longer than it should have, but when I visited Portugal I put my newfound acceptance of a more laid back style of travel into practice. It did indeed make me a happier person and enabled me to experience places I probably wouldn’t have had I planned out every second of my day. The best example of this was my unplanned daytrip to nearby Sintra, a town any visitor to Lisbon should really have on their to do list. So how did I end up in Sintra and what did I find? Let’s find out.
The Sintra Proposition
I was in Lisbon to join a fantastic river cruise with Viking along Portugal’s Douro River, but I arrived a couple of days in advance since it was my first time in the city. I had a general idea of the places I wanted to go and famous sights I wanted to explore, but nothing concrete and certainly not the complicated itineraries of previous trips. In conducting my pre-trip research I learned about Sintra, a commonly recommended daytrip option for visitors to Lisbon. It sounded interesting and certainly a place I would enjoy, I just didn’t think I’d have time to spend an entire day there while also seeing everything in Lisbon. The capital city was my priority and so I forgot about Sintra almost immediately. But then I arrived into Portugal and Sintra would not leave me alone.
Checking into my hotel, the Corinthia Lisbon, I was asked about my plans and when the concierge learned they didn’t include Sintra, she seemed truly saddened. Over the course of two days this was a common occurrence, and almost everywhere I went people told me that I HAD to make time for Sintra. Feeling as if the universe was shouting at me, I decided to shift a few things around and committed myself to taking the short train ride out to Sintra to see what all the fuss was about.
Sintra Made Easy
My first inclination was to book a daytrip through a local company that would include transportation and guiding. But the overtime length of the trip was around 10-12 hours, and I didn’t want to lock myself in with a group for that long. From my experience those tours include too much free time at uninteresting spots, so I started to research the logistics of going on my own. Google once again saved the day and even directed me to blog posts from a couple friends of mine who, as luck would have it, provided excellent advice on how to easily and quickly travel to Sintra.
The train ride from Lisbon to Sintra is only about 45 minutes and trains leave from the Rossio station frequently throughout the day, just be sure to check the timetable before making plans. The tickets are very inexpensive, about 5 Euro for a return trip but as I entered the station I noticed a poster for a Sintra package deal that I decided to purchase. In conducting my very speedy research, I knew that once I arrived into Sintra I would need to get tickets for the circuit bus (#434) that follows the tourist loop to the top sights around town. I would naturally also have to pay for admission to these palaces, so I’m glad I noticed that poster for the Sintra Green Card. Prices change so I won’t list them, but the card bundled everything I needed to do conveniently and was even cheaper than buying everything à la carte. Since I was unsure about the process of buying bus tickets, this was an easy choice for me. The card worked seamlessly and really did make my day easier than it would have been otherwise. Once I arrived into Sintra, I found the bus and started my adventure around this historic town.
Why Visit Sintra
Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its incredible cultural landscape; a history that spans the centuries from the Moors to the Portuguese royals. This peaceful spot in the hills was the summer retreat for the rich and privileged and over the years many palaces and elaborate estates were built to show off that wealth and prestige. It’s into this posh getaway that thousands venture every day, including myself. A major reason why people visit is to admire the beauty of these spots, but on the day I visited there was one glaring problem – the weather was terrible. It poured, and I mean poured, almost all day and the fog greatly obscured the most beautiful of these famous palaces. The day was still fun though and the palaces I detail below are well worth visiting, no matter what the weather is like.
One of the most important buildings in Portugal, walking up to this colorful fortress felt like approaching a real life fairy tale castle. Built on the site of a ruined monastery, King Ferdinand II commissioned the opulent and strangely designed palace in the mid-19th century in what is now recognized as the height of Romanticism. Islamic elements, vault arches, Medieval design and more all combine to create what really is a building you’ll never forget.
National Palace of Sintra
Located in the center of Sintra’s touristy old town, it’s hard to miss this massive building. The National Palace is the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal and was the holiday getaway for royals from the 15th to 19th centuries. Like the other palaces, the tour is self-guided and follows a well-marked path. Inside the rooms are elaborately decorated and offer a peek into what life was like for the super-elite.
Queluz Palace & Moorish Castle
This is where the weather really impacted what I was able to see and do. Since the downpour was torrential, I decided not to visit these two sights – it just wasn’t reasonable given the conditions. But, they’re commonly included on the so-called Sintra circuit, which is why I mention them now. Queluz is just really a grand house and estate rather a palace per se, but is known as a great example of Rococo design. The real draw here, and why I didn’t visit, are the elaborate gardens that are worth a meander through if the weather is decent. The Moorish Castle is actually just a collection of ruins, and the reason to visit is for the incredible views across the region to Lisbon. Since the fog was pea soup when I was there, I decided the trek wasn’t worth the effort. And I was right.
What doesn’t get enough attention, at least not that I could find, is the town of Sintra itself. Undeniably cute, even on a terrible day, I enjoyed wandering around the labyrinthine old alleyways and making my own discoveries. I escaped the weather by enjoying a nice lunch, followed by some gelato before catching the bus back to the train station and my return to Lisbon.
Ultimately, I’m happy that I decided to switch some plans around and spend the day exploring Sintra. Do I wish the weather had been better? Sure, but it was December and honestly to be expected. It was nice to leave Lisbon and see a different part of the region and Sintra is one of the best ways to do that if you’re staying in Lisbon. I’m proud of myself as well though for not overscheduling my visit and allowing for somewhat spontaneous decisions like visiting Sintra. I hope it’s a new trend for me because it really did make the entire Portugal trip much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise.