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Sintra is a popular resort town in the Greater Lisbon area and renowned tourist destination which is part of the Portuguese Riviera, one of the richest regions on the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal & Spain) which includes Estoril and Cascais. It’s globally known for its picturesque charm and for its historic palaces, castles and outstanding scenic vistas like the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park and Sintra Mountains. The historic town centre is famed for its 19th Century Romanticist architecture, royal palaces and castles, historic estates, and villas and gardens - earning the town its coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Other Sintra landmarks include the mediaeval Castle of the Moors, the Pena National Palace, and the Sintra National Palace of the Portuguese Renaissance. Due to the spread-out nature of the natural attractions here (that you’ll definitely want to explore), a car is the only way to explore Sintra properly. Fortunately, pre-booking online with Enjoytravel.com is guaranteed to secure very reasonable pricing options for your Sintra vacation, so that you can have a hassle-free trip travelling to your own itinerary. For instance, a stylish wee Fiat 500 or similar mini-size car starts at just €3.49 (£3.18) a day in the off-peak season (under €25/week), a more spacious economy-size car such as the Toyota Yaris starts from €4.44 (£4.01) a day, while a hybrid SUV/Coupé Peugeot 3008 (standard size) is just €9.61 (£8.69) a day – seating five in comfort at an excellent price. Pre-book your hire car online with Enjoy Travel and enjoy carefree, independent travel around Sintra and Portugal, with great value and total reliability.
Guide to Sintra
Sintra is a dreamy but vibrant ancient town to the north-west of the capital Lisbon, in the centre of the lush Sintra municipality, which has its own stretch of Atlantic coast in a region that includes the Parque National de Sintra-Cascais among many other captivating and ancient sites. Inhabited since at least Palaeolithic times, in the 21st century Sintra is a stylish, well-kempt historic destination. One of the most famous archaeological finds here is the Sintra Collar, a Bronze-Age gold neck-collar retrieved in 1900 (and now in the British Museum, London) ̶ perhaps there’s no more appropriate better metaphor to describe Sintra – ancient and affluent.
Royal and dramatic history
The town and municipality of Sintra has been inhabited since the Stone Age, with rich evidence of various habitations like Penha Verde dating back to this prehistoric era. The name ‘Sintra’ translates from the mediaeval ‘Suntria’ as sun’ or ‘bright star’ and Ptolemy even referred to it as the ‘mountains of the moon’. Romanization of the peninsula began in the 2nd century BC and lasted to the 5th century AD - a road along the southeast part of the Sintra Mountains which is connected to the main road to Olisipo (a large trading hub) dates from this period. This region was also part of Al-Andalus, the Moorish Algarve region occupied between the 8th and 10th centuries by Muslim settlers from North Africa (‘Sintra’ in Arabic is ‘Xintara’). From the Conquest of Lisbon in 1147 AD —to reclaim southern Portugal from the Moors—the history of the region is typical of wealthy European countries, and constitutes a grand saga of royal disputes, charters, betrayals, weddings and more, which lasted well into the Renaissance and the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Later, in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, much of the town of Sintra was destroyed and later rebuilt. It was actually in this reconstruction period that the first hotel opened in 1764, a response to Sintra’s reputation within the burgeoning Romanticism movement. The Romantic poet Lord Byron described Sintra as a ‘glorious Eden’ and many foreign travellers were enticed by the dramatic landscapes (and pleasant climate, of course).
Sintra may be known for its rich architecture spanning millennia, but equally captivating is the Sintra region’s natural landscape. The Sintra-Cascais National Park is 145 m2 (55 sq mi) of dramatic forest and coast just 25 km (15 mi) west of Sintra town. The park includes the Serra de Sintra Mountain Range and goes all the way to the coast and to Cabo da Roca, continental Europe's westernmost point. It’s filled with natural and historical sites and attractions such as the Palace of Sintra or the Castle of the Moors. The N247 road loops around the park, and the N9-1 will take you from Cascais in the south to Terrugem at the north end of the park. The Sintra mountains are actually one granite massif 10km (6 mi) in length and are also known as the ‘Monte da Lua’ (‘Mountain of the Moon’), or ‘Promontorium Lunae’, which reflects the strong, ancient local tradition of astral cults.
Things to do in Sintra
If you’re looking for a charming old town layered with history, blessed with wealth and in close proximity to all that Southern Portugal has to offer, Sintra is a great option. Depending on when you go there are so many historic sites to visit that you’ll often find some alone time, despite the number of visitors. Furthermore, if you’re travelling with kids you’ll be happy to know that there’s plenty to keep them entertained.
Sintra, like many historic towns in Portugal, is full of ancient and sacred sites, the bulk of which seem to be castles, convents, churches and palaces (not forgetting the Roman sites). The Palace of Sintra, noted for its twin white cones, is the oldest palace in the town ̶ no royal mediaeval residence is better preserved in Portugal. Queluz, a city east of Sintra but in the same municipality, hosts the Palace of Queluz, which took shape in the middle of the 18th century and has exuberant Rococo architecture and gardens that look like something from the pages of a romance novel. And of course the unmissable Pena Palace was recently named one of Portugal’s ‘Seven Wonders’ and one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in southern Portugal. It was constructed by King Ferdinand II in 1838 on the lofty ruins of a 16th Century monastery, and like much of Sintra’s architecture it is a mish-mash of competing styles, ornate and colourful. On its perch the palace is surrounded by exotic trees like gingko, planted at the time of construction and towering to dizzying heights today.
Fortunately, in Sintra the kids will be just as awed by some of the same sights as the adults, due to the Disneyesque scenes and buildings in which to tear around and have terrific fun. They can tour the town in a horse-drawn carriage, venture into the woods on a donkey or pony, get creative painting the famous Azulejo tiles or making mosaics out of sardines in a specialist workshop, bake some of Portugal’s legendary sweets and cakes in a cooking class, or even take a graffiti workshop!
Sintra isn’t famed for its nightlife, but nevertheless there’s plenty for the after-hours explorer to discover. Saloon Cintra is a bit out of town but is worth it for the vintage sofas, bric-a-brac décor and vibrant ambience. Sharing space and a name with the eponymous restaurant, INcomum Wine Gallery lacks a little panache in the surroundings (for Sintra, anyway) but it’s truly a wine-lover’s palace, while Fonte de Pippa is a Sintra mainstay especially for students and twentysomethings, with comfy seating in cavernous rooms.
Eating out in Sintra
Sintra has restaurants of all types, and luckily there are fewer touristy places and more authentic eateries that showcase local skills, creativity and ingredients. We’ve got you covered with some of Sintra’s best dining so you can spend more time sampling sumptuous Portuguese fare.
Sintra is a wealthy area and has appropriate dining excellence to boot. Situated at the Penha Longa Resort are Sintra’s two Michelin-star-eateries ̶ Midori, Portugal’s only Michelin-starred Asian (Japanese) restaurant and chef Sergi Arola’s Michelin-starred LAB, creative and luxurious (with matching prices – per head are about €155).
Even though Sintra is definitely high-end Portugal, it needn’t be expensive if you’re value-focused and you don’t mind a bit of wandering (and why would you in such a pretty place?). Stroll around here and you’ll discover several excellent eateries that won’t break the bank.
Nau Palatina is a very small, family run business where they pour the love into their food. It’s palpable atmosphere is a really wonderful spot to eat after a long day of sightseeing. This charming little Portuguese tapas restaurant is situated on the outskirts of Sintra, on Calçada São Pedro and before you enter the valley towards the castles and tourists hardly see this side of the village, so you’ll really feel like an insider.
Villa 6 is right in the old centre of Sintra, so it can be a crowded area. Subsequently, the restaurants here can be overpriced and overrated, but Villa 6 is the antithesis of those. It’s got great bistro-style food, cold beers and a lively atmosphere, making you feel less like a tourist and more like a local enjoying their hometown. The menu is succinct but plentiful and there are vegan options too.
Sabot Lucky Burgers is right next to the train station. It’s not fancy, but the food is consistently good and this is possibly the best spot to eat in Sintra for families ̶ the staff here are wonderfully accommodating to kids and every burger comes with fries at no extra charge (it’s a slightly unusual convention these days in international cuisine, but in Portugal fries are always charged separately). If you’re looking for VFM and terrific taste, you’ve found it. Alternatively, Kebabish in Sintra is a cheap and cheerful kebab house, but that doesn’t mean it’s not quality – you can eat very well here for under €10. From kebabs to ice cream sandwiches, this tiny hole-in-the-wall kebab shop on R. Rodrigues de Faria is welcoming, hearty and the perfect pitstop after enjoying a few refreshments.
Transport in Sintra
The international airport closest to Sintra is Lisbon Airport (LIS) at less than 29 km (18 mi) from the Old Town by car. At the airport Enjoy Travel has a wide range of quality cars including any vehicle you may need in which to comfortably explore this ancient and lush area.
The bus services are good around Sintra, with fixed price tickets available for daily and weekly travel. A useful bus number is the 434, which will take you up to the National Palace of Pena (you don’t want to walk/drive there) and which leaves from the train station.
Drive on the right-hand side of the road in Sintra. The speed limits are 120 km/h for the motorway, 100 km/h (60 mph) on expressways, 90 km/h (50mph) on other roads and 50 km/h (30 mph) in built-up areas.
Drivers have to an international driving licence, insurance documents, passport, MOT certificate and car hire documents. There are plenty of speed traps here, so please observe the limits. Drink-driving is not tolerated, and mobile phone use is prohibited, unless you have a hands-free system. Finally, you might traverse narrow, single-track roads where falling rocks and other obstacles are common, so please proceed with caution.
That said, the scenery is superb and there’s lots to explore on the road ̶ here are a couple of scenic drives:
Cabo do Roca is on the western Atlantic coast, and its rocky promontories and crags are immediately recognisable: a mixture of sandy beaches and cliffs, which the Romans called ‘Promontorium Magnum’ ̶ cliffs of more than 100 metres tall, cut into crystalline rocks and composed of strongly folded and faulted sedimentary layers. This is the westernmost point of the continent of Europe and it is essential sightseeing, especially if you’re exploring the wonderful Sintra-Cascais National Park.
Braga is Portugal’s most religious metropolis and so chock-full of religious monuments that it’s impossible to see even half of them in one day, so don’t rush. A good place to start is the Baroque Sanctuário do Bom Jesus do Monte, the city’s leading tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site which was masterfully constructed over a mind-boggling 600 years. The Archbishop’s Palace is another notable sightseeing spot, as is the Tower of Santiago, part of the ancient city wall. Braga is under two hours north of Sintra by car, and it’s a lovely drive in places.
Coimbra is a riverfront city in central Portugal, and the old capital city. It features a well-preserved mediaeval Old Town which rises from the Rio Mondego River. There is much more, like the historic, prestigious university built on palace grounds and charming cobbled streets which echo with the sounds of Portuguese guitars and fado singers. The population is just under 150,000, although it’s the 4th-largest urban centre in Portugal.