If you’re looking for things to do in Portugal, or things to do in Lisbon, then usually at the very top of the list is a day trip to Sintra. Accompanied with photos of the stunning red and yellow Pena National Palace. It’s an exotic and fairy tale looking palace, surrounded by dense forested hills dotted with even more palaces, chateaus, and castles. Palácio Nacional da Pena is just a small part of what makes the cultural landscape of Sintra, a UNESCO world heritage site. There are multiple tours you can book, but we much prefer to do things independently and set our own pace!
How to Get to Sintra
First up, how to actually get to Sintra from Lisbon. The simplest and easiest route to Sintra is the train from Lisbon. A single trip from Lisbon will be €2.30, or €4.60, for a return ticket. If you have a local Viva Viagem card topped up you can simply use that and not purchase a ticket at all. Just remember to ‘touch’ in and out again at the train station. This saves any time at the train station waiting to buy tickets, as on busy days there can be long lines. You can top up your card at any metro station at any point of your trip – no lines, no queues on the day of travel! There are two train stations in Sintra: Portela de Sintra, and simply Sintra. For most of the attractions you’ll want to disembark at the more central Sintra.
You can also drive, but we don’t recommend it. It’s a small town and most of the roads to the attractions themselves are restricted. You’ll need to park in the town and follow everyone else up anyway. If you do choose to drive, then are a couple of free car parks. However, you’ll want to arrive early as these fill up quickly. During the summer season traffic is hectic and the potential for queues is high. Throw in any issues finding parking, and safety issues in the car parks, we think the train is the much better option. Alternatively, you can seek local transport, or a local guide, and there are many options.
Getting to Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena from Sintra
From the train station, it is around 2km to the entrance of the palace and its grounds. A strong word of warning though, it is a steep hike on some very tight roads. We personally believe it’s a much better idea to catch a ride to the entrance of the palace and save your legs for exploring the extensive grounds and the palace itself! However, if you do want to give the hike a go, there are 3 marked trails from Sintra town centre. All take around 1 hour to 1 and a half hours and are around 2km in length.
Public Transport to Pena Palace and Park – Bus 434
If you don’t fancy the walk, then you have several other routes to the Palace. Buses, tours, or private hire vehicles. This is where it starts to get complicated and choosing which one really depends on how much time you have available, and how much you want to spend. The cheapest option is the 434 Bus. The 434, also called the Circuito de Pena is a bus service that operates in a one direction loop covering the major sites in Sintra. Starting at the main train station, Sintra Estação (Sintra Station) > São Pedro de Sintra > Sintra Vila (the National Palace) > Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) > Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace). The first bus is at 09:30, and the last bus is at 18:20. The full schedule can be found here on the official website. If you do choose the 434 then the stop is right by the train station.
A 24-hour ticket covering all buses in Sintra allows you to ‘hop on hop off’ any bus in any direction and costs €11.50. For now there are no other options available to purchase.
Private transport to Pena Palace?
When you arrive, you’ll notice a large amount of tuk tuks. These three-wheeled vehicles are the vehicle of choice for many of the local tour guides and taxis, which offer you private tours, or transport to the major monuments. A word of warning is that these can be expensive, and aggressive in their pursuit of would-be passengers. As you walk out of the train station be prepared to be accosted and questioned on where you want to go. During April 2022, we were offered a 2-hour tour for €80, or simply transport to Pena Palace for €10 a person. €10 per person to Pena Palace seems like the standard tuk tuk price as we were offered the journey multiple times!
Uber in Sintra?
Uber and all the apps available in Lisbon (Bolt, FreeNow), are available in Sintra too. Not wanting to wait for the bus, and declining a €30 one way fare in a tuk tuk, we opted for Uber. A single ride up to Pena Palace cost just €6.68 and was the cheapest and most convenient method for us. We’d give everyone the same advice. Qalk away from the train station, and plan your trip in your own time, avoid the high-pressure sales tactics of the drivers and guides waiting at the train station and in the car parks!
Which Ticket to Buy for Pena Palace?
Two tickets are available, one that allows you entry to the Palace and Park (Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena), and one that is just the Park (Parque de Pena). Important to note, that the palace ticket is just for inside the palace. You can freely walk around the outside of the palace, viewing the turrets, walls, and those gorgeous terraces without entering the palace itself! Tickets for the palace and park cost €14.00 at the palace, or €13.30 online. Tickets for just the park cost €7.50 or €7.13 online. We strongly recommend buying them online, skipping the lengthy queues for tickets at the entry office itself. Walking in with online tickets is as simple as scanning the QR code on the electronic ticket, and the queues are much shorter.
Park and National Palace of Pena – Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena
With all that out the way, now its time to share and really explain what makes Pena Palace just so special! If you’ve followed our advice, then you should have pre-bought your tickets, arrived early, and be walking directly into the palace. A bus from the entrance of the park to the palace is available for €3, but we recommend the short walk. It really adds to the stunning arrival to the palace. As you walk up the hill you’ll start to see the stunning red and yellow palace peaking through trees and gaps in the forest.
The National Palace of Pena – Palácio Nacional da Pena
We arrived at opening and had the place to ourselves, although within the hour it quickly started filling. Following the steep walk, you’ll enter the palace through the Monumental Gateway and what seems like a short tunnel, before a turn leads you up to the first courtyard. It’s on this level where you have multiple viewpoints of the Palace itself, the sheer walls and many of its turrets.
Triton’s Terrace – National Palace of Pena
Following the path around you’ll reach Triton’s Terrace. This area is dominated by the blue and white azulejo section of the grand palace. With a pair of twinned, but very different archways. Both are seriously impressive, and completely different to each other. Of the two, you’ll want to check out the more fantastical marine and coral inspired archway first. It’s topped with a mythological sculpture of Triton – a Greek god of the Sea. If you’re paying attention, you’ll start to see lots of little details, shells, conches, and coral in other parts of the palace too! At the other end of the terrace is the second entrance, this one, with multi-layered carved rope adornments, these ship and sea like elements are typical of the Manueline period are you’ll find them in lots of places – like the Belém Tower, and Jerónimos Monastery.
Courtyard of Arches – Pena Palace
Walking through either of these entrances leads to the second terrace – the wonderfully named Courtyard of Arches. It’s here that many of the most popular and photographed angles of Pena Palace are taken. On a clear day you can see all the way to the ocean through the walled row of ochre arches. From the staircase behind, a great view of the red clocktower, staircase and the striking white and black roof of the entrance to the chapel.
If you’re not afraid of heights, then from here it’s best to take the so called ‘sentry walk’, it’s a short walk around the outside walls and behind the palace. The view from here allows you to look down on the nearby Moorish castle. Continue the path around and you’ll find yourself back at the main area and in front of Triton again. If you missed the details the first time, be sure to have a closer look!
The Interior of the Palace of Pena
Compared to the outside of the palace, the inside can be somewhat underwhelming. However, if you’re interested in history, and cultural artifacts it’s a fascinating insight into how royalty lived at the end of the 19th century. When we visited, by 11am, the queue into the palace itself was already around a 30-minute wait which meant for a sluggish crawl through the array of rooms and curiosities of the palaces’ previous inhabitants.
The interior has been restored to show how it looked when the Royal family departed in 1910. There are too many artifacts and curiosities to list, but some interesting pieces include the first hot shower in Portugal within the Kings bathroom, and one of the earliest telephone exchanges in Portugal within the telephone room. We loved the Arab room, and Indian room displaying a collection of items from Portugal’s period of exploration and colonisation too. Although the rooms are not as ‘in your face’ as many other areas of the palace, the sheer number of details and items make this a great place to explore. Again, you’ll want to visit here early, by the time we left the queue to get inside was over an hour long!
Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena – The National Park
That covers the main palace areas and its interior, but for visitors interested in exploring the grounds and gardens of the palace there is around 200 hectares of forest, paths, secret sculptures and even exotic plants to discover. Taking a slow route through the park really impressed us, mostly because we had the entire park to ourselves and rarely came across anyone while exploring. It’s a nice place to take a break from the crowded terraces of the Palace.
There are too many places to list within the palace park, so we’ll share a few of our favourites; the High Cross, The Queens Throne, The Queens Fern Valley, and The Valley of Lakes. All of these are worthy of your attention and the walk between them will no doubt reveal what feels like ‘secret’ areas. When we visited, it felt like we had the entire park to ourselves!
The Queens Fern Valley was particularly fascinating to us, the majority of the species are actually from New Zealand and Australia, and were ordered by the king for a lavish and exotic garden. The unique micro climate of Sintra and the flowing pools of fresh water allow them to survive. Equally notable is a Western Red Cedar, a species that was brought over from Canada and planted at the same time. It’s now one of the largest trees in the park!
How long to spend at Pena Palace and Park?
Now for perhaps the hardest question of all, how do you plan a trip and how long do you spend at the park and palace? Well, speedy visitors can easily visit the interior of the palace in less than 45 minutes, another 30 minutes to walk around the terraces, add in 10 minutes to walk up and down from the ticket office. All in all, it’s possible to do complete Pena Palace in 1 and a half hours.
But is that the best way to visit? The motivation behind writing this guide was that so many travel guides seem to skip over the national park, we lost hours wondering its many paths. Compared to how busy the palace was, it was a wonderful and peaceful experience that made us appreciate the area even more. If you arrive when it first opens, you can spend the first hour or two exploring the palace itself, then easily spend another couple of hours in the grounds and gardens of the palace if you enjoy walking, exploring, and taking your time!
Should you visit the National Palace of Pena?
The palace is rightfully one of Lisbon’s major cultural attractions. Despite this, it’s also one that’s surprisingly a ‘quick tick’. Take a look around the palace, look out at the incredible views from its terraces, and move on to the next attraction. Sintra is incredibly fortunate to be dense in palaces, monuments, and attractions, but the sheer amount of them make it so people rush to see as many as possible in a day trip. We really, really recommend spending at least a few hours in the grounds of the palace. From its winding secret paths to its exotic gardens, and even just further viewpoints of Pena Palace itself, it’s a magical place that surprised us.
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