If you’re looking for a day trip from your vacation base in Lisbon, I’d like to tell you about two easy options that are only approximately 30 minutes away from the city: Cascais and Sintra.
Using Lisbon’s excellent public transportation system, hop on the subway at the nearest Metro station, ride to a stop where you can connect with the commuter train system, the comboios, and you can easily and comfortably make your way to Cascais and Sintra like I did. You can also use your Viva Viagem or Lisboa Card on the commuter rails (in addition to the subway and city buses, etc.)
Located on the Atlantic coast, Cascais,a quaint seaside town and former fishing village, offers visitors stunning views, plenty of shopping, good restaurants, and lovely beaches (which in truth are better enjoyed in the summer than in November). The streets are packed with the adorable and colorful buildings and the tiled sidewalks I’ve come to love in Portugal.
Front and center in Cascais is La Cidadela, a 15th Century fortress that was built to protect against invaders from neighboring Spain. The fortress now houses an exclusive hotel, bars and restaurants and several shops but still has its lovely view over the Atlantic and the mouth of the Tejo River.
Perfectly walkable is the Parque Marechal Carmona in the historic center of Cascais. The grounds are lovely and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. During my visit, it was also full of birds: peacocks and chickens are everywhere.
There are a couple of other sites I’d recommend in Cascais. A short walk from the park lies the Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum and the Casa Santa Maria Cascais. The two attractions sit side by side and you can buy a ticket that covers entrance into both.
Casa Santa Maria, or the House of St. Mary, was built by an Irishman, Jorge O’Neill, who made a fortune in tobacco. The home conveys a sense of luxury and is full of those gorgeous Portugese azulejos. The home, built in 1902 was gifted by Mr. O’Neill to his daughter as a wedding gift. The house has changed hands a few times since then and owners have added their personal touches. Check out the amazing view from the dining room.
Just next door is the Santa Marta Lighthouse. Built in 1868, the lighthouse stands over what was a 17th Century fort. There are some interactive exhibits here and you can climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse for a spectacular view.
If you got your fill of ocean views in Cascais, visiting the hilly Sintra is another good day trip from Lisbon.
Sintra is filled with quirky mansions of grand design and is located up in the hills of the Serra de Sintra. The climate here can be quite a bit cooler than Lisbon, which is precisely why the well-to-do built their summer homes here. If you’re visiting during cooler months, be sure to pack a coat (and maybe even gloves and a hat).
I dramatically underestimated (a) how hilly Sintra is and (b) how many castles you could visit in a day. If I had my trip to do over again, I’d actually plan to spend a couple of nights in Sintra to really maximize what I got to see. That said, here’s how my day trip to Sintra actually went.
If you all remember from my previous posts, I was actually sick during my trip to Portugal. But, medicated with some amazing cough medicine and decongestants, I decided that I could make the trip to Sintra after all. I’m normally a planner, but being under the weather, I decided that I could just wing my day. Maybe not the best plan.
Upon arrival by train in Sintra, you’ll head out of the station and find several different options for touring the town. Now, you can walk Sintra, but it is incredibly hilly and you may not want to exert that kind of effort. There are lots of hop-on/hop-off bus tour options that drive you from castle to castle. You can hire a tuk-tuk. Or you can choose to rent an electric car.
We wandered in to the Go2Cintra electric car rental and rented an electric car (read: golf cart with cover) to hit the hills and castles of Sintra. Because I was hopped up on cold medicine, we decided my friend would drive.
The concept of these electric rental cars goes like this: rent the little car with your driver’s license and credit card. Have the agent help you add the What’s App messaging app and a Google Maps route to your phone. Head out and enjoy seeing all the castles in Sintra. (Side note: there is no way to experience all of the castles in Sintra in a single day. Cannot be done.)
Tiny electric car rented and me crammed in the back seat, we hit the hillsides of Sintra. Driving with actual cars in a glorified golf cart was interesting, especially around blind corners. Mindful that our golf cart had little acceleration and limited speed, I think we did ok. We were enjoying the scenery, making our way to the first castle, when we passed the parking for said castle and couldn’t figure out how or where to turn around to go back. No problem, we thought. We did find parking for castle two, but decided upon arrival that we’d rather save our time for a couple of other stops. We hopped back in our tiny car and headed back out on the roads and that’s when things got…interesting.
What the agent at the car rental neglected to tell us is that Google Maps can – and does – reroute you from your planned route when it thinks it knows better than you about where you are supposed to be going. Let’s just say, we were enjoying some of the off tour sites in Sintra when we got a phone call from the Go2Cintra office inquiring about our location. (Oh yeah, the office does track you via GPS, which is a good thing). After a brief call with the office, we were rerouted. At this point, we’d missed half of the castles, but what are you gonna do?
From the regular neighborhoods of everyday Sintra, we made our way to the coast and Cabo da Roca. This is the westernmost point in mainland Europe. It was cold. It was windy. And the view was totally worth it.
Windblown and back in the car, we headed back into the hills for our first real stop: Convento dos Capuchos. CLOSED. This quiet, Franciscan monastery is definitely at the top of my list for my next trip to Sintra. As is the Quinta da Regaleira, which we also missed.
Batting a thousand for castle stops, we finally made it to admire the outside of the Castelo dos Mouros, the ruins of a 9th Century Moorish Castle. This castle was restored in the 19th Century by King Ferdinand II and is worth a look.
Just down the road, we finally left our tiny car and toured the Park and National Palace of Pena.
Taking its place in the Portugese hillsides, it’s hard to miss the multicolored Pena Palace. I’m calling this palace the Frankenstein palace as it is a grand building that contains every architectural style you possibly think of. It’s both enchanting and odd all at the same time.
The castle is built over the foundation of a Middle Ages chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. According to legend, she appeared at the site and thus, a chapel was built in her honor. A monastery soon followed and it stood for years until being damaged by lightning and fires. It, eventually, succumbed to the power of the great earthquake that shook the greater Lisbon area in 1755.
In 1838, King Ferdinand II set his sights upon the ruins in Sintra and transformed them into the royal family’s summer home. The castle stayed in royal hands and had its last royal visitor when Portugal’s Queen Amélia, the last Portugese queen, spent her last night in Portugal here before being exiled.
We spent hours wandering the lush grounds. Gorgeous and green, there are chalets, ponds, and benches everywhere. Our last stop of the day was worth a somewhat frustrating experience of missing places we really wanted to see.
If you are able, I’d highly recommend the hike up to the Cruz Alta, the highest cross in Sintra. The cross sits atop the highest point of the Serra de Sintra. The walk up the hillside renders spectacular views and shouldn’t be missed.