With its enduringly romantic, secluded charm, Sintra, Portugal is a lush, forested town about 30 minutes outside of Lisbon on the Portuguese Riviera. Defined by indigenous cork trees and ubiquitous craggy mountains, it’s a beautiful natural escape from the city and the perfect day trip from Lisbon, Portugal that has become increasingly trendy in recent years.
The tiny historic town is shrouded in an ethereal mystique that beckons people here annually from all over the world– and with good reason.
Whether you’re looking for a majestic natural getaway or a quiet afternoon exploring the quaint town center, Sintra, Portugal offers a little bit of something for everyone. There are plenty of delicious pastries to sample, crumbling historic battlements to explore, and magical castles in the forest to hike around, as well.
Unlike Art-Deco inspired Lisbon, this local settlement outside of Sintra National Forest is hilly and cobblestone-clad. It’s much more Midevial in its design than what you’ll see in the city. Thus, it’s a good idea to wear comfortable walking shoes and best to take an Uber or Taxi here, as parking can be difficult in Sintra.
Herewith, some insider tips on the best things to do, see, eat, and explore in Sintra, Portugal. Bookmark this page for easy reference later.
Enjoy your trip!
Visit Pena Palace
Pena Palace, or “Palácio da Pena” is one of the single most photographed destinations in Portugal. This gorgeous and colorful Lego-like Palace is a must-see if you have time to explore the outskirts of Lisbon. It looks like the set of a Disney movie!
The Romanicist-style castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and great for people who want to explore nature and historical architecture at the same time. It’s absolutely magical. You have to hike a steep series of switchbacks to get to the castle, which I love because the jungle is lush and gorgeously overgrown from Spring to Fall (the ideal window in which to visit).
As a result, all sorts of Eden-like plant matter abounds, from camellias (more on those, below) to giant ferns.
Before approaching the palace, one must drive through a narrow series of quarter-mile switchbacks just to get to the base of the mountain where you can hike to the castle. It’s quite the experience.
Pena Palace’s reputation precedes it, so go early and expect large crowds. Also, book a fast access ticket if you can. This will save you a lot of time and is worth the extra expense.
I also strongly recommend taking an Uber to Pena Palace if you’re coming from Lisbon. It’s only about 9 € without traffic, and it’s easy to call an Uber for your return. Most importantly, you won’t have to worry about parking a car on Sintra’s steep, narrow switchbacks.
Explore Sintra’s Lush Camellia Garden
This lovely, small camellia garden hidden at the foot of Pena Palace feels like a lost treasure. As a result, most people miss it! Before you enter the fortification for the castle, dodge the crowd and follow the signs to the left, towards Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
After about ~5 minutes of walking, you’ll encounter a small garden full of colorful camellia cultivars sourced from all over the world. Everything from the ancient stone benches to the central glass greenhouse is overgrown with moss, so the entire place has a very FernGully vibe. A visit here is a must for plant lovers!
Even just walking here under the canopy of trees is very peaceful. It’s great for families with small children. Plus, not many tourists make the effort to go here, so you’ll invariably have much of the garden to yourself whenever you visit.
For peak blooms, visit in mid-February.
Wander The Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros)
The other major palace to visit in Sintra is the Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). Set on a craggy, forested peak in the Serra De Sintra, this ruinous castle offers beautiful, serenely peaceful views of the surrounding Portuguese Riviera and the parish of Santa Maria e São Miguel. (It was from this craggy outpost that the castle once defended the entire region.)
History buffs will love climbing the crumbling battlements, which bear witness to the historic Islamic presence in the region. The property, moreover, was left to ruin when the Christian Crusaders took over in 1147. In subsequent years, the dense forests of the Serra de Sintra hills crept in. This has added to the historic site’s magical, overgrown-but-not-forgotten charm.
In the 1800s, the castle battlements were partially restored by Kind Ferdinand II– fortifications that, fortunately, have enabled visitors to safely explore and climb the defensive towers to this day. It’s very cool.
Be sure to wear comfortable footwear and pay attention to the signs. If you arrive early in the day, you might even avoid enough tourists to feel like you have the place to yourself!
Dine at Nau Palatina for Creative Tapas (+ Amazing Hot Chocolate!)
Nau Palatina is a great restaurant at which to have a casual lunch or dinner before or after visiting the castles of Sintra. A welcoming and cozy crowd-pleaser, this restaurant is a local staple, known for its offbeat flavor combinations.
Portions in Sintra and Portugal in general also tend to be huge, even when food is served tapas-style, as it is here. Keep that in mind. And be sure to order the pork cheeks if you want a special treat; these are not your mama’s tapas! Otherwise, look for any dish that features some of their homemade chouriço. (Aka classic Portuguese chorizo.) It’s one-of-a-kind.
In the winter, Nau Palatina also serves amazingly rich hot chocolate. (See above.) Sip it on the esplanade where you can also enjoy the fresh mountain air– it’s the perfect combo.
Ultimately, with its prime location a mere 1km from Sintra’s town center, the restaurant is super convenient. And with tapas starting at € 1.50, neither can the price!
Luxuriate at Penha Longa Resort
For those who’d like to stay a night or more in Sintra, Penha Longa Resort is an amazing place to escape. This luxury hotel is nestled in the heart of the Sintra mountains, with an infinity pool that overlooks a crumbling fortress. (You really can’t make this stuff up.) It’s ruggedly beautiful and absolutely one-of-a-kind, with world-class food and spa experiences, as well.
Plus, with its direct access to 545 acres of lush gardens, a 27-hole golf course, and serene mountain lakes, it’s no wonder that Portuguese royalty has been escaping here since the 14th century. The entire property sits on protected parkland that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape. It’s lovely.
We love their incredible Michelin-starred on-site restaurants and the fervent attention to detail and seasonality that defines these upscale dining establishments. The pastry chefs even make their own chocolate bonbons (!), which are inspired by the ground’s rich heritage. And the high tea service is lovely!
Periodically, the resort also hosts special collaborations like elegant, experimental dinners made by notable Spanish chef and culinary trendsetter, Sergi Arola.
Spend a weekend exploring the beautiful golf course, hiking in the local forest, or lounging serenely by the pool. Or, soak in the comfort from the Imperial Suite’s jacuzzi overlooking the Sintra mountains. You decide!
Relax & Indulge at Penha Longa Spa
Even if you don’t stay on the property, a spa day at Penha Longa Spa is worth every penny. The critically-acclaimed “Best Luxury Wellness Spa in Portugal” earned this title for a reason, after all.
Here, you can indulge in your ultimate pampering of choice: luxurious massage, bespoke facials, softening body treatments, and more.
In addition to accessing the indoor pool, jacuzzi, and sauna, guests can also enjoy the Turkish bath circuit during their visit. (After you’ve enjoyed your welcome tea in the garden, that is.)
The spa also offers yoga and meditation in their wellness club, as well as a number of unique spa packages like a 50-minute aromatic massage + 30 minute facial for 100 € per person. (A great price for a double spa treatment at a resort of this caliber!) You can even add a 3D virtual reality meditation experience to any service.
All spa treatments feature luxury skincare products by Natura Bissé. For a unique experience, we recommend trying out a more exotic spa therapy, like the Lomi-Juma ritual. This signature relaxation treatment restores harmony, balance, and well-being using techniques inspired by ancient practices of Pacific and Mediterranean massage. It’s lovely.
View the full spa menu here.
Sample Local Travesseiro Pastry at Casa Piriquita
While it might not look like much from the outside, Casa Piriquita is easily the most famous bakery and coffee shop in Sintra. Expect a crowd. It’s a great place to try pastel de nata outside of Lisbon– but really, the two local-style desserts to try here are the Travesseiro and a classic Queijada.
A Travesseiro (which means “pillow” in English) is a cakey puff-pastry filled with egg and almond cream. (Try the Nutella-filled version for a real treat!) As any local will tell you, this world-famous Sintra pastry is best enjoyed with a “long white” coffee.
^ On a busy weekend during peak tourist season (~June and July), thousands of people will flock to this bakery just to try their signature Travesseiro, as the pastry was invented here during the XIX century. Depending on what time you arrive, the line may be out the door, but it will move quickly.
A Queijada, meanwhile, is a crispy phyllo-like pastry filled with a dense mix of fresh sweet cheese, sugar, flour, and cinnamon. This is another pastry that Sintra, Portugal made famous. Many foodies make the pilgrimage here just to try it.
I love and strongly recommend ordering them both!
Sit for Coffee, Sandwiches, and Sweets with Great Atmosphere at Café Saudade
Café Saudade is a gem of a cafe in Sintra that serves the area’s best coffee and sandwiches. Like Cafe Majestic in Porto or Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, it offers the quintessential Portuguese café experience. Thus, it’s a great place to linger and enjoy the ambiance.
Stop here for lunch after visiting Pena Palace. Or, swing by for refreshments and a glass of wine before heading back to Lisbon after a day trip exploring Sintra.
The service here is friendly and dependable– and on the days when they’re playing jazz music (most days!), it’s the perfect place to sit and luxuriate with a bold roast coffee and a perfect slice of apple pie.
The cafe is an extension of the charming Chalet Saudade guest house. (<— This is a lovely, quaint place to stay in town if you want a slightly more cozy but still upscale experience. Sintra, Portugal, is known as a destination for weekend getaways, and this is a great place to book one.)
Inside the cafe, however, the eclectic hospitality thread runs strong. Between the robust ceramic rooster collection, checkered marble floors, antique wooden chairs, and a rotating collection of local art on display in the back, it’s got a unique personality all its own. Like every good local gathering space in Sintra, low lighting and idle chatter abound. It’s a whole vibe.
Plus, the portions here are large and satisfying, from the at-times humorously large scones to the generous tostadas. Scone lovers: have at it. This is a great place to eat after you’ve worked up an appetite or want to sit and linger.
I also need to give a shout out to the bolo de cacao bread, which is absolutely delicious here. As you will no doubt discover throughout your trip, all forms of sweet bread are excellent in Portugal. Enjoy it all!
Related: A Gorgeous Guide to Lisbon, Portugal.