TRAVEL | A Guide to Visiting Sintra, Portugal

Two words: be prepared.

When you visit Lisbon, going to Sintra is almost a mandatory step. We've all heard about or seen photos of the green mountains and the bright Palace of Pena, and all the other historical landmarks that make up Sintra and look straight out of a fairytale. I've had the opportunity to visit Sintra during what is probably the busiest time of the year, so here is my little guide if you want to plan a trip there in the future - which I highly recommend!

What is Sintra?

Sintra is a town (and in fact a whole municipio) near Lisbon, surrounded by the mountains and by the ocean on the coast. It concentrates several major sites of cultural importance for Portugal. Castle after castle, garden after garden, Sintra is a real gem and deserves to be seen. It is a very popular area with thousands of visitors each year, and you'll soon understand why. I will talk you through the places I saw there, and hopefully make you want to see it for yourself! Let's start with the most eccentric palace around...

Monserrate Palace, the exotic dream

Built in the mid-19th century, Monserrate was originally a summer residence. Its style is called eclectism, which basically means that the architecture is of mixed inspirations: Neo-Gothic, Oriental, and of course Romantic - almost all the palaces around Sintra have that particular Romantic style to them which is really difficult to describe because of its multiple influences, but very recognisable. Architecturally, this is the palace that caught my eye the most. I mean, could you do more extravagant than that?

The palace is so ornate and beautiful, the Indian and oriental inspirations for the carvings and ceilings are unlike anything I've ever seen before. The interiors are unfurnished, but the beauty of the building itself makes up for it. 
I also highly encourage you to wander around the gardens, which are divided in several areas with ponds, ruins and exotic plants of all kinds. These gardens are a bit wild, but definitely fit in with the unruly atmosphere of Monserrate.

Quinta da Regaleira and its fairytale gardens

Another dreamy location, and gardens that seem straight out of the darkest fairytales. This was probably my favourite, it is easy access from the centre of Sintra - meaning the closest landmark you can get to by foot - and the buildings, as well as the gardens, really mesmerised me. Just as Monserrate, the Quinta was built and modified over time, to materialise the architectural dreams of its owner at the time. The Palace is heavily influenced by the Manueline style proper to Portuguese architecture and dating back to the 16th century. One can only imagine the architects sketching and getting inspiration from the past to build this whimsical structure.

The inside of the palace and of the chapel (the last picture above) are as beautiful as the outside. Once you've done a little tour of these buildings, you can walk around the gardens. My top tip for the gardens of the Quinta is to take a map at the entrance, because otherwise you'll get lost. Trust me, we even got a little lost with the map. The gardens are a beautiful maze, inspired by Romantic ideals - you'll see plenty of turrets, fountains, sculptures... You should allow around two hours if you want to have a pleasant walk around without rushing. The crowds gather around the main attractions of the gardens pretty quickly, so you might need to wait in turn to get that pretty photo.

Truly, these gardens were rather impressive. It felt like being sent back in time, in a medieval, almost mystical atmosphere. One of my favourite parts of Sintra, surely the one I'd like to see again the most!

The National Palace of Pena, aka where the controversy comes in

Now, this part of the post is where I get a bit more critical... Because unfortunately, the visit of Pena didn't meet my expectations. To tell you the truth, I was so disappointed that I was almost angry and swore I'd never go there again. Dramatic I know, but I still stand by that statement today - Pena hasn't made me want to give it a second chance.
This is the most popular landmark of Sintra, the one we see a lot online and in ads. And that is for a reason: the architecture of the palace is like no other, with its bright colours and incredible towers. Admiring it from afar, it does feel like a promising place to see.

The creativity displayed here is so unique, and you can't help but look at every little detail, every turret, every mosaic, exclaming 'ooohs' and 'aaaahs' as you turn your head around. As you walk around the walls of the castle, the view gets absolutely breathtaking. The castle is so high up that the temperature drops a little and the wind seems ready to blow you away!

The negative part however, comes when you step into the grounds of the castle. Crowds everywhere, noise, queues to enter the caste itself... I was very disappointed with how we visitors were managed. As beautiful as it is, the castle wasn't made to receive such a number of people at the same time - understandably. But nothing has been done to improve that. Even when queuing to buy the tickets, the wait was neverending and very uncomfortable, especially in the summer heat. 
I have to say the interiors of the castle were very disappointing as well. The route to follow from room to room was very narrow, so we ended up queuing all the way. The decor itself was rather poor, I was particularly disappointed with the walls, which were covered in trompe l'oeil wallpaper all the way through. There was no richness nor depth to the art, just a series of spiritless, meaningless rooms. I couldn't wait to get back outside and admire the view instead.

Now of course this is just a personal opinion and some might adore Pena, but if you have a particular inclination for castles and palaces like I do, it's easy to spot these little things. For me, the standards promised by all I'd read online before visiting were not met. The castle should definitely be made more visitor-friendly, because presently, I find it a very unpleasant experience.

My Tips to Visit Sintra

Book in advance the places you want to visit. Sintra has become a very popular destination recently, so try and save as much time as you can before getting there. Buying your tickets online will allow you to only queue at the entrance of each palace. 

If you want to visit all of Sintra (or at least as much as you can), you should do it over two days. We only spent one day there and ended up rushing a lot to see all we wanted, which was properly exhausting. If you really want to enjoy the different sights, arrange for a two-day visit. There are plenty of places to stay overnight around Sintra, the easiest being Lisbon, which is only a short train ride away.

Transportation to and from the different landmarks is really bad. There are buses that link the different sites but they're always really crowed, with queues waiting to go in and very unpredictable timetables. The best thing is to either go by car if you can drive, or use tuk-tuks - a bit unusual I know, but there are lots around so it's easy to catch one, and it'll get you where you want to go quickly!

In terms of food and drinks, there are cafés in all the main palaces, but I'd advise you to take some snacks and drinks with you - a much cheaper and probably better quality option.

Wear good walking shoes, and do not go there if you're not in a state to walk. Sintra is literally a mountain. Lots of steep paths, ups and downs, and the gardens of each palace are so extensive that if you want to see it all, you'll be walking all day. So heels aren't the best option to go for!

Have you heard about Sintra? Which of these three palaces would be your favourite?


  1. I haven´t heard about Sintra yet, but it sounds like a place I´d love. with the exception of the Castle, which I guess I´d admire from afar like you recommend.

    Linda, Libra, Loca: Beauty, Baby and Backpacking

    1. I'm glad you'd follow my recommendations Anne! I also think you'd love Sintra, going there is a real adventure! xx

  2. Such a helpful guide, loving the photos too!

    Anika | anikamay.co.uk

  3. Oh my god!! The Fairytale Gardens in particular look absolutely spectacular - I've bookmarked this post for future reference, there's no WAY I'm going through life without seeing those for myself in person! I had no idea Portugal harboured such gems, wow!


    1. Oh you'd love those gardens, I can totally see them on your blog it's everything you like! Glad I made you discover something new :D xx

  4. Sintra looks stunning, I adore the architecture and you have captured it so beautifully! It's so sad about Pena, but I adore the look of the fairytale gardens :D Such great tips Julia! xx

    elizabeth ♡ ”Ice Cream” whispers Clara

    1. There are always good things and not-so-good things about all places, but overall Sintra is indeed stunning and I'd recommend anybody to visit! xx

  5. Amazing photos. I would love to visit this place one day.

    Nina's Style Blog

    1. Well I do hope you'll get to see it Nina! xx

  6. It does look very pretty!! I have been Portugal years ago but I didn't visit Sintra x

    S x

    1. Oh well now you have a good reason to go back, right? haha! xx

  7. Beautiful photos! I wish we had more time on our recent trip to Lisbon, we would have loved to visit Sintra! It's such a shame about The National Palace of Pena - i've read so many negatives about the crowds etc. but it just looks so stunning in pictures! Quinta da Regaleira looks right up my street, hopefully I'll get to visit one day xx


    1. Thanks Beth! Everything does look amazing in pictures, and for the most part they are beautiful places - it's a shame that external factors make the experience less enjoyable! xx

  8. Good walking shoes definitely sound key to exploring this beautiful place. I'd love to visit Portugal it looks stunning! Sintra looks beautiful, your photos have me wishing I was there xx

    Sending light & love your way,

    My Lovelier Days

    1. Oh yes, going to Sintra is like going on a proper hike with all that uphill and downhill walking! But so worth it, you should go there if you get the chance! xx