Some of my favorite experiences last year were my Lisbon day trips to Sintra, Belem, and Cascais. Sintra and Belem offer amazing sites that will make anyone fall in love with architecture. Cascais is a seaside town that allows you a chance to soak up some European sun and sea. And they’re all nearby, making them perfect day trips to add to your Lisbon itinerary.
Portugal is quickly becoming a top destination to visit in Europe. My own trip last year showed me that it has a lot to offer for American tourists. You can travel to the county fairly easily, most people speak English, and it’s not too expensive. If you’re planning a trip to Lisbon, be sure to allow time to leave the Portuguese capital and visit the beautiful destinations of Sintra, Belem, and Cascais.
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Sintra was perhaps my favorite experience from last year. I already knew I loved European architecture, but getting the chance to wander around historical castles in a fairytale land made my romantic heart skip a beat.
Distance from Lisbon: approximately 30 km (18.6 mi)
How to Get to Sintra from Lisbon
I’ll start off by telling you how not to go to Sintra, don’t drive yourself. The roads are narrow and winding, and there is limited parking. We used a private driver our hotel arranged for us. He drove us to Sintra and around to the sites, then back to our hotel in Lisbon. I personally think this is the best way to get to Sintra from Lisbon if you don’t mind spending a little more money on the experience. Your hotel will likely have recommendations, but if you want to arrange in advance you can book a private car tour via Get Your Guide. You can also purchase group tours and private day tours with them.
You can also take a train from Lisbon to Sintra. From the Rossio station, trains operate every hour and half-hour (during peak times) to Sintra and only costs a few Euros. The train ride to Sintra will only take 40 minutes, however, the bigger consideration is what you’ll do once in Sintra. It’s a city with steep roads and little to no sidewalks. Once you’re off the train you’ll see tour operators and tuk-tuk drivers ready to take your money to get you to the attractions.
You can also take the 434 bus on a loop up to the hills. However, if you have a private driver from Lisbon you won’t have to worry about any of that. If you’re planning to use public transport, look into getting a Lisboa Card which works as a 3-in-1 transit card, museum pass, and discount card. You can get free entry to a lot of national monuments and unlimited use of public transit.
Things to Do in Sintra
With only one day in Sintra, you’ll have to pick and choose what you most want to do. Wandering castle grounds can surprisingly take more time that you would guess if you’re enjoying the views and taking a lot of photos.
Palácio Nacional da Pena (Pena Palace)
Definitely one of the best things to do in Sintra. I would challenge you to find any article about Sintra that doesn’t showcase the colorful Pena Palace. You can buy tickets in advance, which would be useful. We waited about 10-15 minutes to buy tickets at the booths. There were ticket kiosks for quick ticket purchases, however, they required a chip with a PIN credit card. Most US credit cards don’t have PINs with the chip.
You can buy two types of tickets for the Pena Palace, one gives you access to the grounds only and the other gives you access to the grounds and castle. If you’re just looking for great views and gorgeous photo ops, go for the grounds ticket. If you really love history and historical interior decorating, add the castle tour to the ticket. The grounds tour grants you access into the courtyard of the palace, which also allows you to walk around the turrets and castle walks. You can also add the Castle of the Moors onto your ticket purchase if you’re planning to visit both.
The Palacio de Pena is at the top of a large peak in Sintra, on the site of an old monastery. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of Portugal.
Quinta da Regaleira
This was by far my FAVORITE experience. Again, maybe it’s because of my romantic heart. The Quinta da Regaleira is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and another place with amazing grounds for you to wander around. In addition to the palace and chapel, you’ll also find fountains, lakes, elaborate benches, and even hidden grottos. Definitely go down the Initiation Well!
Palácio de Seteais (Seteais Palace)
This palace is an easy walk from the Quinta da Regaleira. It’s actually home to the luxury Tivoli Palacio de Seteais hotel. The grounds themselves are worth a stop. There’s a beautiful view from their back patio, and even a maze you can venture into. If you’re planning a romantic getaway, this would be a fabulous hotel for an overnight stay in Sintra.
We only had time for the three things above, but here are the other popular things to do in Sintra:
Palácio Nacional de Sintra (Palace of Sintra)
This palace is located in Sintra and was a royal residence from the 15th to 19th century. It’s most notable for its two giant cone fireplaces. You can also wander around town since the palace is in the main city center.
Castle of the Moors
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sintra, this is a Moorish castle that was used by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries and was taken over by Christian forces in the 12th century. It’s mostly in ruins with paths and walkways around the castle which offers an amazing view of the surrounding countryside.
Cabo da Roca
If you’re a geography geek, this is one stop you’d appreciate. Cabo da Roca is a cape that marks the westernmost point of continental Europe. There’s a beautiful lighthouse on the cliff point, as well as some sandy beaches.
Tours for Sintra:
Tips for Sintra
- Pack for cool temperatures
- Wear good walking shoes
- Leave early to give yourself a full day in Sintra
- Avoid rush hour times since the Lisbon-Sintra route is a commuter route
- Buy a Lisboa Card if you’re visiting multiple attractions and/or using public transit
- Read more about Sintra from We3Travel
Belém is one of the easiest day trips from Lisbon because it’s very close. It’s what we’d consider a suburb. Definitely worth a visit if you love old churches and gothic architecture. The main attractions are also within walking distance, making it a lovely city to tour on a blue sky day.
Distance from Lisbon: 8 km (5 mi)
How to Get to Belem from Lisbon
We took the easy way, Uber. It was by far the quickest and most efficient way from Lisbon to Belem, and it only cost about €7 one-way. You can take the number 15 tram from Lisbon to Belem but it’ll cost almost the same as an Uber and you’ll have to deal with crowds and pickpockets.
Things to Do in Belém
Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos)
This was the main thing we traveled to Belem to see. Of course, we didn’t realize at the time that there are substantial waits to buy tickets, especially on a national holiday which we unknowingly were there on. We waited probably an hour to purchase our tickets. The Monastery is joined together with the National Museum of Archaeology and you can buy your tickets into the Monastery inside the museum — it will often be a shorter line than the one into the Monastery.
The Monastery itself has a lot to explore. It has two floors and is built as a square with a central courtyard. It is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and I found myself snapping photo after photo of the ornate arches and doorways. You’ll also find rooms that offer historical information, including one that shows the history of Portugal, the Monastery, and the world along a central timeline. The main chapel is actually free to enter and has a separate entry line, we chose to skip the chapel since we didn’t want to wait in another line.
Walking around the grounds of the Monastery is also pretty special. There are some beautiful fountains, plants, and green spaces. If we had packed a little picnic it would be the perfect spot to have lunch after touring the Monastery.
Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)
From the Monastery, we headed towards the water to see the Discoveries Monument. This is quite a sculpture to see in person and again, you can stand in line to enter and take an elevator up to the top for a lookout view. Each of the people on the statue represents important people in the history of Portugal’s Age of Discovery explorers.
Continuing our foot tour to the main things to do in Belém, we headed along the river to the Belem Tower. This is another attraction that you can purchase a ticket for, however, we were limited on time and decided to skip that and just admire the architecture from the outside. The tower is situated along the Tagus River near the estuary to the Atlantic. There’s also a park on site and I saw a lot of kids splashing along the river bank by the Tower (however, the water is pretty murky looking).
Pastéis de Belém
You can’t visit Lisbon without seeing pastel de nata, custard tarts, for sale around the city. Rumor has it that it all started thanks to a sugar refinery that was next to the Jeronimos Monastery. When the monastery was closed during the Liberal Revolution, a worker started selling the sweet treats to raise funds. You’ll find mixed reviews as to whether the original treats are worth the long wait. You can choose to get your pastéis to go or enjoy them inside, perhaps with a cup of coffee on the side. I can personally say that I didn’t really notice any flavor difference between the pastel de nata we got in Lisbon and this “secret recipe” version.
Those were the only things we did in Belem, but if you have extra time there are some other great museums, such as a maritime museum and art museum.
Tours for Belem:
Tips for Belem
- Beware of pickpockets – especially if you’re using public transit or in crowded tourist attractions
- Check the schedules – The Monastery and Tower are closed on Mondays
- The Jeronimos Monastery has free entry on Sundays from 10 am – 2 pm
- Uber is the easiest way to get to Belem
- The Lisboa Card grants you free entry to many of the Belém attractions, however, you won’t skip the ticket queue
- Wear good walking shoes
- Pack your own snacks and maybe a picnic lunch – eateries are limited and most are national fast food
If you’re ready to escape the city and visit one of Portugal’s fishing villages, plan a visit to Cascais. While I’ll admit up front that much of the city is somewhat of a tourist trap, you’ll still find sandy beaches and a beautiful coastal path to explore. Cascais is very near to Sintra, so one option would be to stay overnight in Sintra or Cascais and tour both cities on the same trip out and back. I had an amazing stay at the Martinhal Cascais!
Related Reading: 5 Lisbon Hotels That Will Make Your Portugal Vacation Awesome
Distance from Lisbon: 31 km (19 mi)
How to Get to Cascais from Lisbon
Your easiest option is again going to be Uber. However, it’ll cost you close to €30 one way. The most economical option is definitely taking the public train. You’ll need to buy a Viva Viagem card and buy two one-way four zone tickets, which will cost you just under €5.
Things to Do in Cascais
The primary reason to visit Cascais is for a seaside escape. There are quite a few beaches around the area, just know that they might be busy depending on the season. In town directly there are two beach areas, Ribeira Beach and Praia da Conceição (Praia means beach). If you can rent bikes, catch the bus, or get an uber out of town, you’ll find better beaches. Two popular ones are Tamariz Beach (great for families) and Praia de Carcavelos, which are about 3 km and 10 km east of Cascais (respectively).
We visited in April and while we didn’t hit the beaches, we did take a bike ride along the rough, cliffed coastline to the northwest. This would be a lovely long day walk as well. One of our stops along the way was to see the Boca do Inferno, Hell’s Mouth. It’s actually just a unique cliff arch formation that is the result of erosion. Pretty dramatic name, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a great spot to fall into.
Once you’ve gone west of the city you’ll take a sharp turn north along the coast. If you keep going you can reach a popular surfing beach, Guincho Beach, and even reach the edge of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
If you’re a fan of sangria and ready to relax after a busy day of exploring, head into Cascais to the Cafe Galeria House of Wonders. It’s a restaurant but we just enjoyed a pitcher of sangria on the rooftop. It’s the perfect way to end your beach day.
Tours for Cascais:
Tips for Cascais
- Expect tourist trap shops in town
- Enjoy the natural beauty of the area
- Pack your sunscreen, sun hats, and sandals
- Public bikes are available for free at a few locations, but they run out quickly (helmets are not provided)
- Cascais is a great spot to end your Lisbon vacation, and one of the top resort towns in the Lisbon region
- Bring your camera – capture great shots of cliffs, beaches, fishing boats, and small town shops
These three Lisbon day trips will certainly keep you busy. You might choose only one or two for your own vacation depending on how much time you have in Portugal.