How to spend a weekend among the fairytale palaces of Portugal's Sintra
No vacation is one-size-fits-all, but time spent in Sintra, Portugal comes pretty close. A mere 45-minute train ride northwest of Lisbon, this fairy-tale town is full of history, lies close to the coast, and has been named a Unesco World Heritage Site. Whether you have business in Lisbon or are heading south from Porto, this seemingly small town packs a punch per acre and makes an ideal weekend side trip to escape the city.
For arrivals via train, stop by the Fountain of Armes for a quick photo op on the way to Sintra’s historic centre. Covered in quintessential Portuguese tiles, the stately fountain gives visitors their first glimpse into the Moorish influence on the city. The walk from the station to Sintra’s centre affords lovely views and has art installations along the way.
Once arriving in the centre, peruse the whitewashed exterior of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. Explore the intricacies of the interior if you arrive before closing time, but forgo the inside if you are anxious to grab a bite to eat.
For dinner and drinks, wander the quaint streets of the historic centre to Romario de Baco, which offers authentic Portuguese cuisine. Stay until closing and enjoy the fruit of Portugal’s vines at its wine bar or, for post-dinner cocktails, head back towards the National Palace to Byron Bar, to catch a bit of traditional music as you enjoy a nightcap.
To savour a hearty breakfast, walk or hire a taxi and go to Cafe Saudade, which is known for its coffee and baked goods. If something on-the-go is in order instead, stroll the streets of the historic centre, which is filled with cafes where you can sample pastéis de nata, the nation’s favourite custard tarts.
For those feeling extra ambitious, Saturday morning is the perfect time to hike the Santa Maria Trail from the historical area to the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). To have a more relaxing morning, hop on the 434 Sintra tourist bus or take a taxi to the 8th-century structure. Walking the castle’s worn walls affords lovely views of the valley below.
Next door to the Moorish castle is Palácio Nacional da Pena, which is often considered the highlight of a visit to Sintra. The whimsical palace is known for its yellow and orange walls with facades covered in blue Portuguese tiles, and the palace gardens are also worth a visit.
If you chose to ride up to the Castle of the Moors, traverse the Santa Maria Trail back down to the historic centre – far less gruelling than going up – or you could jump in a taxi or take the 434 bus down. Either way, the pathway is interesting and contains a few archaeological features and outlook points.
Stop at Tascantiga for a late lunch, and take advantage of the outdoor seating to rest a bit and indulge in some people watching after a busy morning. Enjoy the tapas-style menu and signature wines as you scroll through your images of the castles.
After lunch, spend a relaxing afternoon perusing the plentiful shops of the old centre. Skip the kitschy souvenirs, and search for paintings by local artists or vintage Portuguese tiles to take home. During your walk, note the facades of the buildings, and duck into the side streets in the pedestrian area. You never know what you’ll find!
No trip to Portugal is complete without listening to Fado music, which is what a visit to Sinistra is all about. For dinner, drinks and music walk behind the train station to find this restaurant and nightclub, open on Friday and Saturday nights.
Another option, though it isn’t in Sintra proper, is to hop in a taxi and venture to the coastline to see the sunset during dinner. Restaurante Nortada (which has been noted with a Michelin Plate) offers freshly caught seafood and looks out over beautiful blue waters. Afterwards, take a post-dinner stroll along the sand.
If the beach wasn’t in order Saturday night, hire a taxi and head to Angra for breakfast. Gaze at the Atlantic while you savour coffee and grab a bite to eat on one of the terraces, and then meander along the coastline to put your feet in the sand before returning inland.
After breakfast, head to Quinta da Regaleira, a remarkable palace just outside the historic centre. Although Pena Palace gets most of the accolades, allow more time for Quinta da Regaleira. The interior is gorgeous, but the outside is what truly shines. From magnificent stone walkways and turrets to underground pathways, the site truly is a wonderland. Do not miss the two initiation wells that lead to tunnels on the property.
Return to the historical area, where you can take your pick of the quaint cafes, or pop into Tulhas for lunch. It's a cosy place to dine on traditional Portuguese fare within a converted grain warehouse.
After lunch, take the time to explore based on your interests. Several museums are near Sintra’s centre, including the Museu Anjos Teixeira, which is full of sculptures, or the News Museum, which consists of interactive displays focusing on journalism. A bit outside the centre is the Museu das Artes de Sintra, which houses one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the world.
As you prepare to leave Sintra, retrace the walk from the centre to the train station. A stroll down the art-filled, tree-lined pathway offers a chance to reflect on time spent in this mythical town filled with culture.
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