So, it’s come down to Sintra vs Lisbon. On the one hand, you have the bustling capital of Portugal, bursting with its vibrant cafe culture, exhibits dedicated to the Age of Exploration, and buzzy nightlife in the Bairro Alto. Then there’s the charming town of Sintra. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for its enchanting castles and palaces, which rise on the mountains in a swirl of pine forests and ocean mists.
Each of these places offers a unique experience. They also have some clear similarities – both are capped off by ancient Moorish castles and ooze history. What’s more, most travelers opt to visit both in the same trip, since there are stacks of day excursions from Lisbon to Sintra, not to mention direct trains to Sintra from Rossio Station in the capital.
However, if you’re short on time and can only see one place, this guide is the one you’ve been searching for. It will weigh up these two Portuguese treasures piece by piece, outlining where has the best hotels, the top things to do, the finest beaches, and the liveliest nightlife. Let’s begin…
Sintra vs Lisbon: Things to do
A trip to Sintra is mainly about wallowing in the stunning architectural makeup of the town and learning about the rich history that goes with it – the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remember? Be sure to walk the old center and spy out the Quinta da Regaleira (a gloriously OTT mansion with tunnel systems beneath), the Palace of Sintra (where the Portuguese royals have resided since the 1400s), and the exquisite Pena Palace (the most iconic castle-palace here).
Sintra’s also not just for history buffs. Why not trek through the various forests, parks, and gardens? The famous Santa Maria Trail is a top choice. It takes you up to a Moorish castle through groves of exotic trees. But there are also wild coast trails closer to Cabo da Roca, and even beaches for and sunbathers.
How does Lisbon compare? Well, like most capital cities, you won’t struggle for things to do here. As with Sintra, simply wandering can be a joy. That will let you explore the famous Alfama neighborhood and the immersive shopping strips of Baixa. Alternatively (or if it’s raining), you can hop on historic Tram 28, which weaves through the steep streets to take in many of the top-draw attractions.
Lisbon also brings epic museums like the National Museum of Ancient Art and the National Azulejo Museum (all about Portugal’s trademark blue tiles), and monuments like Sao Jorge Castle. But it’s no museum piece, because this town rocks after dark when the pink-painted alleys of the Bairro Alto get into full swing, while surf beaches and uber-cool eateries await in hip areas like Carcavelos and Principe Real.
Winner: Lisbon, for the variety.
Sintra vs Lisbon: Beaches
For the sun worshipers looking to get that tan on, or the thrill-seekers searching for the ultimate surf spot, this one will be top priority. However, the truth is that neither of these towns is smack dab on the coast.
Sintra sits behind a wall of coastal mountains that cut it off from the beaches of the Atlantic. It takes about 25 minutes to drive the main N247 from the center to the sands. Doing that will take you to one of the most glorious stretches of shoreline in the whole of the Lisbon region. Yep, the bays here are beautifully undeveloped and dramatic, with soaring cliffs of wave-splattered stone. We’d say that the best of them include…
- Praia da Ursa – Europe’s westernmost beach. This little gem offers a breathtaking concoction of dominating rock formations, luxurious golden sands and dazzling, blue waters. There’s a pretty gnarly hike to get to it, though.
- Praia Grande – The closest beach to Sintra’s center, Praia Grande is a popular surf spot. It can get busy in the high summer months.
- Praia da Adraga – Dramatic cliffs and rock arches await at this rugged beach.
The nearest beach to Lisbon is Carcavelos. It’s around a 20-minute train ride away from the center and well worth it if you’re short on time. However, that’s just one of many beaches on the famous Costa Estoril, the coastline that connects the capital to the Atlantic. If you’re willing to rent a car or travel for a little longer, you could also check out…
- Praia de São Pedro do Estoril – A sliver of golden sand that runs just below the train tracks, surprisingly empty a lot of the time.
- Praia da Ribeira de Cascais – The main beach in the resort of Cascais is a golden stunner, with casinos and lux hotels to its back.
Winner: Sintra – the wild Atlantic-facing coast is just more rugged and dramatic.
Sintra vs Lisbon: Nightlife
When it comes to nightlife, things could hardly be more different between Sintra and Lisbon. Seriously, these places are chalk and cheese on the party front. Sintra is definitely not a party town. It’s got a quiet and relaxed nightlife scene that revolves around just a few restaurants and low-key bars. Your best bets to find something going on are probably the chic bodega wine bar and cocktail joint of 4 Caravelas Sintra, or with the creative brews and aperitifs at Villa Craft Beer&Bread.
In stark contrast, the Portuguese capital comes alive at night. Crowds and crowds of both city slickers and vacationers attend the bars and clubs from the early evening onwards. Hotspots include the estuary of the Tagus (great for open-air bars in the summer) and the mirador lookout kiosks (our fav is Miradouro de Santa Catarina). From there, head to the Bairro Alto. It’s generally considered to be the best district for nightlife, filled with jazz clubs and quirky bars that go on until the very early hours.
Winner: Lisbon hands down.
Sintra vs Lisbon: Price
First up, Sintra. According to cost comparison website Budget Your Trip, the average daily outgoings in this town are around €92 ($108). That calculation takes into account hotels, transportation, and dining. However, what you pay really depends on how upscale you want to go. Obviously, if you’re a top-dollar steak connoisseur and only stay in five-star hotels, you’re going to pay A LOT more. We’d say the biggest charges here will be food, especially in the restaurants that have views of the old palaces, and hotels. You might also want to fork out more for a tour of the old sites, which usually cost €20-40 ($22-44).
How does that compare with the capital? Surprisingly, many things are relatively similar in price between the big city of Lisbon and the quaint town of Sintra. However, coming in at an average daily cost of around €103 ($121), Lisbon is rated as slightly more expensive. That said, it pays (quite literally) to consider that there are many more options for saving in the capital. It has more hostels (where beds can go for as little as $5 in a shared dorm!) and a wider variety of places to eat, especially towards the budget end of the spectrum.
Winner: Lisbon, because we think it’s easier to live there on a tighter budget.
Sintra vs Lisbon: Accommodation
Sintra can’t really compete with Lisbon in terms of choice. However, it can certainly put up a good fight when it comes to quality. With gorgeous chalet guesthouses and hotels immersed in nature, Sintra has some enticing stays that are a little out of the ordinary. What’s more, there are also lots of villas in the surrounding backcountry, perfect for families or travelers seeking a touch more privacy. Some of the top-rated stays in Sintra include:
- Chalet Saudade ($$) – A stay that oozes character, Chalet Saudade has grandiose interiors and a quirky old-world charm.
- Arribas Sintra Hotel ($$$) – A more modern alternative, this is a sprawling hotel resort with a swimming pool that overlooks the coastline outside of Sintra.
- Casa da Estefanea Boutique GuestHouse ($$) – There’s just a handful of charming rooms in this bright and elegant guesthouse.
Now onto Lisbon. Being the capital and largest city of Portugal, it goes without saying that there is bound to be plenty of places to rest your head around here. There’s a bevy of five-star hotels for the ultimate in luxury, and bundles of budget-friendly hostels at the other end of the spectrum. What Lisbon does really well, though, is stylo boutique hotels that channel the city’s newfound edgy side. Check out…
- The Indy House – Rooms & Apartments ($-$$) – A very cool space that attracts digital nomads to its retro-come-surrealist rooms in diverse Martim Moniz neighborhood.
- Archi-Pelago Alfama Design Suites Guesthouse ($$) – Seamlessly mixing medieval walls with modern design features, this cool guesthouse isn’t one to forget in a hurry.
- The Hygge Lisbon Suites ($$) – There’s a cool Scandi touch to these spacious suites in the hipster district of west Lisbon.
Winner: Lisbon – there’s way more choice in the capital.
Sintra vs Lisbon: Nature
Wrapped in a landscape of alluring mountains, lush forests, and remarkable beaches, the town of Sintra is definitely a treat from mother nature. With many trekking, water sport and sightseeing options, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the beauty on offer. However, a trip to Sintra can’t be complete without doing the Santa Maria Trail, a route that takes you on an enchanting forest walk to two of the most dramatic monuments, the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace and Gardens. Plus, you get to see some epic panoramic views along the way. Lord Byron even penned his admiration for Sintra in the poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage…that’s surely got to give Sintra the edge for this one.
Although mainly known for its historical and cultural vibe, Lisbon is certainly not devoid of beauty spots. With several parks and gardens, as well as the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, the nature lover can still get their fill, even in the bustling capital. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are organized boat trips, where you can take full advantage of being located riverside and there are also plenty of hiking options from Monsanto Forest Park if being out on the water is not quite your thing.
Winner: Sintra, for that magical element
Sintra vs Lisbon: History & culture
And finally, last on our tourist checklist is history and culture. Which place will have you coming home loaded with a greater range and depth of historical knowledge?
Well, Sintra is blessed with being a center of European Romantic architecture, with Pena Palace being one of the best examples. This colorful feast for the eyes was transformed from a ruined monastery back in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II. Sintra was also named ‘the mountain of the moon’ in ancient times, and the Romans were said to be enthralled by this area. Today, there are still several remains signifying their presence there. This fairy book town was also a retreat to many of the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy, who built grand estates here to escape the crowds of nearby Lisbon. These estates, known as Quintas, have now become some of Sintra’s most fascinating tourist attractions.
A city built on seven hills, Lisbon has much to offer in the history & culture department also. Being one of the oldest cities in western Europe, it has a history dating back to its original settlement by the Celts. There are many opportunities to take in the capital’s rich past, from its extensive museums and galleries, to its many beautiful churches. It is also an area overflowing with culture from its Phoenician, Germanic, Viking, and Moorish influences. And be sure to take in a bit of Fado music when you’re there. This melancholic singing is a staple of Portuguese culture, dating back to the 1820s.
Winner: Draw, as each is steeped with plenty of this
So, we’ve reached the end of the battle but who came out on top? Sintra or Lisbon? Well, it’s a tough one, but we’re going to have to go with…Lisbon.
While both offer something equally worth a visit, Lisbon tends to have your back for most of the vacation checklist. The many museums, galleries and churches offer plenty for the knowledge and culture seeker, the nearby beaches keep the chilled vacationer satisfied, and the plethora of restaurants, bars, and clubs are enough to please any partygoers.
But do keep in mind, Sintra is only about a 40-minute trip from the Portuguese capital, so if you are able to see both, that would certainly be your best bet.