If you’re in Lisbon, you can’t help but go to Sintra. Visiting Sintra with children means taking them to a fairytale corner of Portugal, visiting extravagant palaces, ruins of mysterious castles, elaborate gardens with legendary wells. In short, a place worth discovering – and above all, just 30 minutes from Lisbon.
Sintra is a town in the Portuguese hinterland, nestled among the green hills of the Serra de Sintra. It was born as the summer residence of Portuguese rulers during the 19th century, and if you’re wondering if they really needed a “holiday retreat” so close to the city, the answer is yes. Sintra is surrounded by pine forests, therefore when it’s hot in Lisbon, the climate in Sintra is cool and pleasant. In March (when we visited it) it can even be cold.
If you are spending several days off season in Sintra with children (as we did) and the weather is just not too good, here is a tip: put a t-shirt in your backpack and take the train into Lisbon. As a result you will have a pleasant and much warmer day.
How to visit Sintra
Sintra can be visited in different ways, however you should note that the main attractions are located at the top of the hill. You can walk up to the top but you should keep in mind that the paths are steep and it takes at least 1 hour for the entire hike – but they are very nice. Given that, with children it would maybe be wiser to use some form of transport to go uphill and then return to the village on foot.
To visit Sintra with children we chose to ride bus 434 and bought a one-way ticket to the Palacio de la Pena. It costs less than 4 euros, and children do not pay, by contrast the day ticket costs 15 euros, but it allows you use all local buses. We preferred it this way because we intended to return to Sintra on foot. Let me add that we really enjoyed a nice walk through the forest, despite the rain.
As an alternative you could opt fot the red hop-on hop-off buses, which cost 20 euros but have the advantage of a recorded explanation. With children, nevertheless, you may prefer something less structured, such as a guided panoramic tour by tuk-tuk (we did not test this, however). Finally one last (eco-friendly) opportunity would be to rent a twizy (a small and bizarre two-seater electric car) but from the back seat the view is very limited for an adult, let alone a child.
What to visit in Sintra with children?
It really all comes down to how many days you have. In Sintra there are certainly no shortage of attractions. At the tourist office they recommend 2 or 3 visits per day at the most, so that people can enjoy these magical places without rushing from one attraction to the other.
Here is a list of all the Sintra area has to offer:
- Palácio Nacional da Pena
- Castelo dos Mouros
- Palácio Nacional de Sintra
- Quinta de Regaleira
- Palacio de Monserrate
- Palacio de Seteais
- Convento dos Capuchos
- Ermida da Peninha
- Villa Sassetti
On top of that, you will find numerous museums (including a very special one for children) and art galleries. If budget is not an issue, you can also stay overnight at Palacio de Seteais
Palácio Nacional da Pena
The real must-see attraction in Sintra is the Palácio Nacional da Pena, which was our first visit. After having admired it in photos, we can confirm that it is really one of the most beautiful palaces we have ever seen and your children will not be bored.
At the entrance (and online, which I highly recommend) you can buy a ticket for the park, or if you prefer, a combo one for the park and the inside of the palace. The entrance is about 15 minutes away from the palace on foot, uphill and with several steps. There’s a shuttle bus service, though – and tickets can be purchased at the ticket office. Check it out if children don’t walk much. Also remember that the palace and the gardens are not accessible with strollers, so with small children it’s best to use a carrier.
We chose the combined ticket so we visited both the gardens (a small part of them) and the palace, but what my son liked most was the walk along the narrow passage on the walls. He marveled at how high up we were, and together we climbed many turrets. If you are scared of heights, you might want to give it a miss.
If the weather is nice, I suggest skipping the palace and spending more time walking the many paths of the garden, the ramparts, the hidden lakes. We have been told that from the height of the cross (Cruz Alta) you get the best panoramic views. However we can not confirm it, as it started to rain.
If you are hungry or thirsty before entering the building, on the upper floors of the shop there is a restaurant and a tiny cafeteria. Another cafeteria is located outside the park, before the ticket office.
Castelo dos Mouros
After visiting the Palacio de la Pena, we walked to the Castelo dos Mouros – less than 10 minutes away. The castle dates back to the ninth century and, as you may have guessed from its name, was built by the Moors on the hill above Sintra. The entrance to the castle is along the road, but to reach the ticket office you need to follow a path in the woods. Strollers alert: once again, you’ll need a baby carrier.
Pay attention while you are walking towards the castle: there are several places of interest along the way. For example there are holes dug in the ground that used to be Moorish silos for cereals, skeletons from ancient tombs (protected by a plate of plexiglas, a real hit with my son) and a small church turned into a museum.
Then you reach the real castle, or better, what is left of it. The building collapsed during the 1755 earthquake, but you can still admire the old stables, the parade grounds and the royal tower – as well as (of course) the walls and walkways – which are really spectacular. If possible, do climb up to the higher point, because the views are breathtaking, with the town of Sintra below and the Palacio de la Pena behind you. Be careful with the children as some areas are a bit exposed..
At the end of our visit we decided to return to Sintra on foot, along one of the many paths though the forest… The hike down took about 30 minutes and was spectacular, the trees were at times so dense that it seemed as if we were inside a rainforest. Also noteworthy are the huge boulders covered by a thick layer of deep green moss.
Quinta de Regaleira
The Quinta da Regaleira is a gothic villa located about ten minutes walk from the historic center of Sintra. You can find it by following the road that goes out of town, right past the tourist office. They recommended that we skipped the building and spent our time discovering the gardens, which are full of surprises. Your kids will be pleased, even if they will not understand the rich symbolism (Masonic, too).
The park is the real gem waiting to be discovered. Look around, search… and you will find secret passages, hidden tunnels, templar knights, caves, grottoes (don’t miss the Labyrinth Cave and Leda Cave), small lakes and decorated fortifications. If this is not enough for you, then there’s more: how about a 30-metre-deep and 9-storey-high initiation well, reminiscent of Dante’s circles? I’m not making this up… but clearly the architect was Italian (Luigi Manini)! Spectacular to say the least! For us it was definitely the highlight of the villa.
Palácio Nacional de Sintra
As you walk into Sintra for the first time, the first noteworthy building that you see is the town hall, whereas the Palácio Nacional de Sintra is the second one. You can already see it from a distance: it is huge, white and has two bizarre chimneys, shaped like inverted cones, rising from the kitchens.
I was obviously intrigued me but we didn’t visit it as soon as we arrived. Indeed, at some point I had even thought that I would give it a miss because I had just read that it had beautiful rooms covered with frescoes and azulejos, which I believed my son wouldn’t have quite liked. But alas, if you are in Sintra with children and decide to visit the exhibition Sintra Mitos e Lendas (myths and legends of Sintra), then the Palacio Nacional becomes a must-see. The palace is stunning and its Gruta dos Banhos alone is worth the visit.
One famous legend is about King João I, who was seen by his wife as he was kissing a courtesan in a garden. The king turned to his wife and said calmly: I have done nothing wrong, it is all for good (“por bem“). Everyone heard of this fact and gossiped about it. In an the attempt to make them stop, the king had 136 magpies painted on the ceiling of a hall, Each magpie has a ribbon in the beak, bearing the inscription “por bem”. My son wanted to see if the Hall of Magpies really existed. Once he had checked it out, he left the palace happy: it was all true!
Sintra Mitos e Lendas: myths and legends of Sintra
In the tourist office building you can see the exhibition myths and legends, which you really should not miss if you are in Sintra with children. It’s an interactive exhibition suitable for children up to 12 years old. Yet when I went with my son, there were only adults there. Thanks to an audio-guide you can go on a journey through 17 rooms where you will learn about some local legends in many different ways: holograms, 3D movies, historical reconstructions, fake forests.
Some of these legends are really captivating, like that of the mute shepherdess, or the one of the rocks that wanted to be given a name and a surname, the legend of the tomb of the two brothers, or even the tragic one of the Moorish girl and the Christian knight (a sort of Portuguese Romeo and Juliet).
If you were to ask my son about his favourite, however, he’d tell you something else. It was the legend of Friar Honorius and of the she-devil who tempted him on several occasions. Although he managed to resist the temptation, hewas aware of the danger he had been exposed to. Therefore he spent the rest of his life in a cave for penance, eating only on bread and water.