A Magical Day in Sintra with Kids

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Sintra is a magical oasis set in the mountains just a short train ride from Lisbon. With a slew of historic palaces and castles, whimsical gardens, and winding cobblestone streets, a visit to Sintra is like stepping into a fairytale. The city of Sintra is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the most popular day trip from Lisbon. We were limited to one day exploring this special place, but I would strongly advise at least two days to better enjoy all that Sintra has to offer.

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Getting to Sintra is quite simple. The urban train from Lisbon- Rossio to Sintra takes 40 minutes and costs 2.25€ each way. Tickets can be purchased on site. Please note, Sintra is a hugely popular tourist destination and can get very crowded, even off-season. It is recommended to purchase tickets in advance for all sites. Children under age six are free, but do require a ticket. There are two hop-on hop-off buses that loop around Sintra. Bus 434 circles the historical center, Moorish Castle, and Pena Palace. Whereas Bus 435 will get you to outlying Monserrate Palace. The first 434 bus leaves from the Sintra train station at 9:30 and costs 6.90€ for hop-on hop-off privileges.

We decided to get a jump on things to beat the crowds. We took the 8AM train and snagged a cab up to Pena National Palace. We arrived at the palace at 9:15AM. The cab up the winding hillside cost 10€ and was the only public transportation we used during our day in Sintra. We were hoping we would be able to get a head start on the 15min walk up to to the palace, but the actual gates didn’t open until 10AM. We were third in line. Waiting 45 minutes in the rain was pretty painful, but as soon as the gates were opened we were running up the hill. There is a shuttle bus for another 3€, but it honestly was not a difficult walk.

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The wait was well worth it. We were literally the first ones up to the palace. Walking through the fog in this dreamy 19th century castle was incredible. We traversed the terraces and climbed the turrets as if we were the only ones there. We fully explored the palace and warmed up with coffee and hot chocolates as the masses were filing in. This is the grandest of buildings and one of the greatest expressions of romantic architecture. Once a medieval chapel and then a long-time monastery, the site was acquired by King Ferdinand II after the great earthquake of 1755. Pena National Palace was completed in 1854 and intended as an opulent summer residence for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria.

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The gardens surrounding Pena National Palace also reflect the King’s extravagant taste. A maze of secret paths with pavilions, ponds, and over 2,000 species of exotic plants covered in a thick blanket of mature trees. The kids thought we were in the rainforest and had such a glimmer in their eyes exploring the natural beauty of these majestic gardens.

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Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side, a theme for the day. The fog was so dense that we completely missed out on the panoramic views from Pena Palace. I would still recommend going early, packing a picnic, and planning for plenty of time to enjoy the gardens. Pena Palace is the “castle of castles” in Portugal and is a fascinating site.

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We exited the Pena Palace gardens by the Valley of the Lakes and walked about 5-10 minutes to the entrance of the Castle of the Moors. Originally built in the 8th and 9th century by the North African Moors to protect the city of Sintra, the Moorish Castle was ultimately left in ruins after the Christian conquest of Portugal. It was King Ferdinand II that restored the ancient ruins in the 19th century. Built around massive boulders and set high up in the Serra De Sintra Mountains, the Castle of the Moors is quite a feat.

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It was a long walk through the lush forest to reach the inner walls of the Moorish Castle. On the way, we passed several tombs, grain silos, and ancient artifacts. The kids were fascinated by the giant boulders, bright green moss, and the skeleton replicas, which led to a lot of questions we weren’t quite prepared to answer. Once inside the inner walls, we climbed the narrow steps and walked along the wall’s edge. Again, we missed out on some incredible views, but we did not let the weather stop us. We made the best out of a rainy day, stepping into medieval times and scaling ancient walls.

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Amazingly, we hiked from the Moorish Castle all the way back down to the Sintra city center. We finally got a glimpse of Sintra from under the fog. We settled in at cozy Cafe Saudade to enjoy a warm bowl of soup and sample homemade scones with honey. At this point, all the walking had caught up with us and we were ready to catch the train back to Lisbon.

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There are so many amazing places in Sintra. If we had another day, I would have loved to tour the gardens of Quinta de Regaleira, the lavish interior of the National Palace of Sintra, and the gorgeous Palace of Monserrate. Do check the weather and plan for the worst even if the forecast is clear. Wear good walking shoes. Bring a baby carrier for young children. Pack plenty of water and snacks. Most importantly, enjoy the magic!

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