Sintra - the hidden sights and secret attractions
Sintra and the Serra de Sintra is a diverse and fascinating region containing many outstanding tourist attractions. Unfortunately, most visitors simply follow the same crowded routes and miss out on many of the hidden gems of the region.
If you are willing to be a little intrepid, you will be rewarded with stunning viewpoints, deserted monuments and a completely different perspective of Sintra.
The monuments detailed in this article may be less famous, but they are no less intriguing, and are free from the crowds that plague the common tourist attractions.
The interactive map below shows the location of these hidden gems and lesser-known sights of the Sintra region.
The sights are: 1) Convento dos Capuchos 2) Capela de Nossa Senhora da Peninha 3) Praia da Ursa beach 4) Sintra tram 5) Cabo da Roca at sunset 6) Vila Sassetti 7) Chalet da Condessa D'Edla 8) Seteais to Vila Sassetti hiking route 9) Praia da Adraga Beach 10) Cruz Alta or The Unnamed Viewpoint in Parque da Pena
The Convento dos Capuchos
The austere Convento dos Capuchos is in extreme contrast to the grandeur and excessiveness found throughout Sintra, and is the most atmospheric attraction in the region.
This simplistic 17th-century convent exemplifies the Franciscan belief that humans should not impact the earth, and the entire complex is in harmony with its natural surroundings.
Ancient forests are intertwined with the basic stone buildings, while the main chapel is hidden in a cave formed by the region’s massive boulders. The only compromise for the monk’s reflective and devout lives, was the use of cork as a natural insulation against the harsh winter conditions.
Today, the Capuchos Convent has been completely taken over by the forests, and this humble convent is one of the most fascinating attractions of Sintra, along with being one of the quietest!
Related articles: Convento dos Capuchos
Dense forests cover the Convento dos Capuchos
The simplistic altar is precariously balanced below a giant boulder
Capela de Nossa Senhora da Peninha
Ask a local where the best viewpoint of Sintra is, and they will confidently tell you the Sanctuary of Peninha.
Peninha chapel stands atop a craggy rock outcrop to the west of Serra de Sintra, and from this high vantage point (487m) are stunning views over the entire Sintra coastline.
This is a wild and barren landscape, at stark contrast to the tranquil pine forests of central Sintra. The promontory is subjected to intense and changeable Atlantic Ocean weather, fogs form almost instantaneously as the moisture-laden airs hit the steep hills, then are blown far away by the powerful winds.
An apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to local farmers in the 16th century and a century later the small Capela de Nossa Senhora da Peninha was constructed on the site.
Later, in the 19th century, a villa was built on the headland in the Romanticism architecture style of the Pena Palace (Peninha translates to Small Pena), but the savage weather conditions meant it was soon abandoned.
Related articles: Peninha guide
A sea mist forming over the Peninha headland (as seen from the Cabo da Roca)
The view of Guincho beach and the Serra de Sintra coastline, the constant breeze on Guincho makes it popular for surfing surfing and kitesurfing
The Praia da Ursa beach
In a region of such excessive tourism, it is astonishing that one of the most beautiful beaches has absolutely no tourist development, and is barely known by foreign visitors.
The Praia da Ursa is nature’s raw beauty at its finest, there are golden sands, turbulent seas and jagged rock pillars rising from the frothing waters.
Combined with the beautiful scenery is an isolated and untouched ambience. The beach is found on a remote section of the Serra de Sintra coastline, and is only accessible by gravel footpaths, which snake down the side of the cliffs.
If you want to experience undiscovered Sintra, then you will find it at the Praia da Ursa.
The well-worn paths leading down to the Praia da Ursa
The Sintra Tram
The quaint Sintra tram connects the historic centre of Sintra with the pretty beach resort town of Praia das Maçãs, 12km to the west.
The tram which trundles along the line has been in operation for over 100 years, and makes the yellow Remodelado trams in Lisbon look modern.
This delightful tram still retains its original features, with brass dials, polished wooden benches, and only barely travels faster than a jogging pace.
The tram may take 40 minutes, be bumpy, noisy and uncomfortable, but it will be the most memorable journeys of your holiday.
The tram on its way to Praia das Maçãs
Cabo da Roca (at sunset!)
The Cabo da Roca headland is hardly an undiscovered tourist attraction, and the endless stream of coach tours will attest this, but the secret is to visit at sunset.
It is here that the Romans believed the sun was extinguished at the end of every day, and there is still a magical quality to the sunsets at the Cabo da Roca, when the final golden rays of the sun illuminate the immense ocean.
The Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point of mainland Europe, and this feature draws in the coach tours, along with being a convenient attraction when travelling between Sintra to Cascais. During the peak hours, there will be hordes of tourists around the monument and the surrounding cliffs.
It is very easy to escape the tourist masses by simply following one of the hiking paths to the north or south.
The north is the recommended route as after 1.3km it leads to the picturesque Praia da Ursa beach.
Related articles: Cabo da Roca guide
The Cabo da Roca monument which is usually crowded with selfie-taking tourists
The jagged cliffs of the Cabo da Roca coastline
Vila Sassetti Mansion and Gardens
The grounds of the Vila Sassetti Mansion meander uphill from central Sintra to the cliffs at the base of the Castelo dos Mouros. These quiet paths and gardens pass through cooling forests and refreshing water features.
The gardens have an enchanting atmosphere and were designed in the Romanticism style that is found though out Sintra. The uphill gardens pass the Vila Sassetti Mansion, but this is unfortunately not open to the public. Beyond the gardens are the Penedo da Amizade cliffs and these are a favourite for rock climbing.
Along with being one of the quietest tourist attractions in Sintra, the Vila Sassetti grounds are also free to enter, and an enjoyable alternative to the Parque da Pena.
The stone tower and outbuildings of the Vila Sassetti
Chalet e Jardim da Condessa D'Edla
The Chalet da Condessa D'Edla is a fascinating house designed by Elise Hensler, the second wife of King Fernando II (who constructed the Pena Palace). This delightful building reflects an alpine cottage, but also incorporates decorative work in cork, inspired by the Convento dos Capuchos.
Underneath the charming exterior, is an architectural disaster with miss-aligned walls, doors that cannot open and false windows. This came about as Elise Hensler designed the chalet herself, without the use of an architect!
The Chalet da Condessa D'Edla is within the Parque da Pena, but on the southwestern side, far from the main tourist routes.
The pretty Chalet da Condessa D'Edla
The Seteais, Castelo dos Mouros and Vila Sassetti hiking trail
Sintra is frequently crowded with tourists rushing from one historic monument to another, but few have time to explore the areas in between. This includes the scenic hiking trails of the region.
One of the best routes, heads up from the Seteais Palace to the Castelo dos Mouros, and returns via the Vila Sassetti.
The whole hike takes around 1.5 hours and though the route passes every major tourist attraction in Sintra, almost no-one else will be on the footpath.
Be warned there are many steep hills to climb!
The hiking routes are well signed
Praia da Adraga Beach
The Praia da Adraga is another beautiful beach along the Serra de Sintra coastline.
Adraga beach has many characteristics as the Praia da Ursa, but is much more accessible, with a large car park, a café and lifeguard supervision.
The distractive black rock outcrops of the Praia da Adraga
The Cruz Alta and Unnamed Viewpoints
The Parque da Pena provides many fantastic opportunities to view (and photograph) the colourful palace and the Cruz Alta is widely regarded as being the best viewpoints. This is the highest point of the Serra de Sintra (528m), but the surrounding forests do limit the view of the palace and there can be many other tourist trying to get the perfect photo….
For a much more peaceful setting and an uninterrupted view, climb the hill 300m to the west of Cruz Alta (right on the guide maps). There is a small footpath which winds around the giant boulders and reaches the summit. This viewpoint is so unknown it doesn’t even have a name!
Advice: The best photos of the Pena Palace from either of these viewpoints are taken before midday, when the sun is to the east/south and behind you.
Related articles: Pena Palace guide
The view from the unnamed peak in the Parque da Pena
A cross marks the summit of the Cruz Alta hill
Quick Advice for if visiting Sintra during the height of the tourist season
Always start as early in the day as possible, the main attractions open at 9am and the first tourist bus is around 9am while the first train from Lisbon is at 6am.
The busiest times of the day are at 10:30-12:00 and 14:00-16:00, and it best to avoid the main tourist attractions and visit one of the lesser crowded sights in this guide.
All entrance tickets can be purchased online beforehand, and this removes the need to stand in long ticket queues. There are sufficient sights in Sintra for 2-3 days, so do consider spending a couple of nights here.
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