Sintra has got to be one of the funnest and most unique places that you can take your kids. Castles galore (but all very different from one another,) lots of places to run around and expend energy, and a huge variety of sights in a fairly condensed area.
The challenges with Sintra are the crowds and the sheer amount of walking. Here are my top tips for enjoying Sintra with your kids, and minimizing these challenges!
While you’re reading, click here to open my post about all the sights that you can’t miss!
Travel Off Season
When is this not a good tip? I’m sorry for being predictable with this one but with how booming Sintra is in the off season, I CANNOT imagine it in the Summer. If you simply MUST go outside of the school year, travel as soon as school gets out, or consider Christmas. The village of Sintra in itself is not much, every attraction involves a drive, a queue, and operating hours. It is not like destinations where you can walk by and take in the sights any time you want. (Bonjour, Eiffel Tower!) This is why off season is so important, the crowds only have so many places to go.
Stay in Sintra
(but plan accordingly and choose carefully)
Where else would you stay? Well once you start planning, you will find that many visitors stay in nearby Lisbon (approx 50 minutes by train) and head to Sintra for the day. We visited in November and chose to stay in the village to give ourselves easier mornings and a head start to the attractions.
Plan accordingly because outside of summer there will be far fewer places to eat in town, and most close very early. We bought groceries and cooked for ourselves, this is really the only way to manage. (More on that in a moment.)
Choose your accommodation carefully. Sintra is all hills, so something can appear to be very convenient and close to attractions on a map, but actually be a steep hike from everywhere, and that is no fun with kids! Search reviews for the keyword “hill” or “walk” and if that doesn’t reassure you, try Google street view or Google earth.
It is most convenient to stay in the old part of Sintra, so search for something near the National Palace. Because you will likely head to Lisbon often, something near the train station may also work well for you. We preferred the views and ambience of being in the old town, and while the train station is about 15 minutes on foot, it is a beautiful and safe walk, and also the flattest walk you are likely to do in Sintra!
Another perk to staying locally, is that when little legs get tired, you can always take a break at your accommodation. We typically like to go out in the morning and take a break sometime in the late afternoon.
Grocery stores in the town are expensive, difficult to find, and limited in selection, so we would shop in Lisbon when we were there. If you don’t want to run out for supplies as soon as you arrive, try picking up enough for one meal and breakfast on the way through Lisbon.
We found the most convenient grocery store to be Continente at the shopping mall (Centro Vasco da Gama) by Oriente station (or Estação do Oriente.) It is a HUGE shopping centre and we found ourselves there often as a convenient destination to and from Sintra. The underground is easily accessible here to enjoy more of Lisbon, and some places are within walking distance.
If grocery shopping on your way through town doesn’t appeal to you, pasta is an easy three ingredient meal that travels well and can be purchased in minutes! Pasta, sauce, and mushrooms or cured meat. If you choose something like prosciutto, pick up a loaf of bread and it can also be fried and served with toast in the morning. Voila!
I WISH we had thought about this earlier in our trip! When you are planning your transportation to the sites in Sintra (most are a drive) you will probably find the only way to get there on public transit is with the hop-on hop-off buses. On a whim one day, when the bus was late and a huge crowd was waiting for it, Jason checked Uber. Faster AND cheaper!! Say whaaaat?
Bus tickets are charged per person and Uber is obviously one price for your group, so Uber was actually about half the cost of the bus. There are plenty of Ubers in the area during the day so you can schedule a ride between sites whenever you need one. We carry a mifold (travel booster) for our kiddo, but every driver had a booster seat. The best part is that you arrive off schedule from the buses so the queue at ticket lines will be shorter. Granted buses are frequent, so there could be one just in front of you, but arriving even slightly separate from 60 other people is a relief in my book. Have I mentioned that I hate crowds?
Just a tip: pay attention to where you wait for the uber and try to pick a place where they can reach you easily, preferably a two way street. Most of Sintra is now a HUGE one-way loop. So if you stand in the wrong spot, an Uber that is only 50 feet from you would have to drive the whole 10km(?) loop to pick you up.
Plan to Walk
Sintra is a LOT of walking, and a lot of walking up and down hills. All of the main attractions have huge grounds that are well worth exploring. Your accommodation is also likely to be uphill either coming or going, and you will probably be frequent flyers at the train station, which is a decent walk.
First of all, definitely, whatever you do, do NOT attempt to walk to the attractions up in the hills unless you:
1.) are planning and prepared for a hike
2.) are in great shape.
The first time I was in Sintra the locals said, “Oh you can just walk up. It’s about 2km.” I have no idea if that distance is correct, but it is uphill the entire way and STEEP. That’s a no from me (or rather, should have been!) I was so sore that I had trouble walking the next day, and you are going to need your legs! What you can do is walk between some of the sights once you are already up the mountain. There are a couple that aren’t worth calling an Uber for, and are a nice walk.
Make sure that the whole family has comfy, broken-in shoes, and bring water for the day. For the kiddos that are still smaller, this is definitely a trip where you want to bring a stroller. If they are borderline, bring it!
Plan for Rain
Being in the mountains, we found that Sintra’s weather throughout the day was somewhat unpredictable. Only June, July, and August are fairly dry with October to April having a significant amount of precipitation. If you are travelling when it’s less busy, plan to get wet! I personally didn’t mind the rain. The mist and low cloud is really pretty and adds to the mystical feel of everything.
Bring a packable rain or water resistant jacket. While rain boots wouldn’t go amiss, I pack light and I have never been able to justify enough room for them. I had searched at one point for packable rain boots and finally found a pair, but while they folded small, they were extremely heavy. For future trips I might look into waterproofing a pair of sneakers, or investing in a weather proof pair. With Chelsea boots being in style now, those could potentially be more versatile and take up less space as well.
Both times I have visited Sintra, I made the same mistake. Allowing for only 2 or 3 full days when the area needs more time. When I went before kids, 2 days was too little. With a kiddo, turns out 3 is also not enough! Both trips I left having missed the same stop (arrgh!) Being mindful of the fact that every sight has almost the same hours, there will be only so many things that you can fit in one day. I would not plan on doing more than two in one day, and Pena Palace in particular, is probably best explored in a day of its own.
Your arrival day probably doesn’t count, so if you are with kids and want to see Pena plus more than two other sites, make sure that you have three or four FULL days. This is a good idea anyways, because if someone is having an off day, its best to have a flexible schedule. Especially in winter, opening hours are limited and often the last admission is an hour before closing.
Visit the City
Not exactly a Sintra tip, but a way to make evenings more fun! We would finish out a day of touring, take a break at our apartment (snack or meal, change, rest, etc.) and then head to the train station for an evening in Lisbon. As mentioned before, the journey is only a 50 minute ride, and it goes quickly, flying past little Portuguese villages, and people watching. One night we simply went to the food court at the mall I mentioned earlier by Oriente Station, and then grocery shopped. Another, we ate at a restaurant in the old part of Lisbon, and took the street car. For us it didn’t seem like too much of a journey, and there really isn’t much to do in Sintra at night.
I hope you enjoyed these tips! Sintra is such an experience to remember, and so much of it is perfect for kids who love to explore!
For more about Sintra, including a list of attractions (and which ones the kids can’t miss!) see my other post: Sintra, Portugal – Don’t Miss These Sights!