Mountain biking around Sintra and the Lisbon Coast

For some of Europe's most enjoyable mountain biking amid an incredible variety of scenery, head for the green hills and Atlantic clifftops just north of Lisbon.

The Sintra hills and nearby Atlantic coast offer something for every type of mountain biker; from technical freeride and North-Shore-style gap jumps off granite boulders to shady forest trails and coastal singletrack. Martin Thompson, who runs local bike hire and tour company Cycling Rentals, describes what's available.

The Sintra hills (Serra de Sintra in Portuguese), fields and the coastline below offer a remarkable variety. Within a short 30km ride you can find yourself pedalling through northern European pine and oak forest hardpack trails, then under North American sequoias on loamy tracks before rolling through dry Mediterranean scrub, agaves and cactus on your way to the sea.

It's all superbly accessible from Lisbon, just 25km distant. Not that you'd know it - Sintra and its environs feel far removed from the metropolis.

Approaching the coast from Sintra

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There are three prime areas in and around Sintra: the forested serra, the Atlantic coast, and the countryside to the north.

SINTRA HILLS TRAILS
If you are staying in Sintra, the trails just above the historic town centre offer some of our bread-and-butter loops through the woods. Just jump on your bike and in less than ten minutes from the town centre you are away from the crowds and can enjoy accessible riding for a recovery spin or a cross-country sprint along the hills. A mix of fire trails and singletrack with plenty of ascent and descent means that even the shortest afternoon ride gives you a great biking fix. The granite sand surface on most of these mountain bike trails drain perfectly and you can ride them all year-round.

Serra singletracks
Technically proficient riders love the rooty, and occasionally rocky, single tracks that wind down the sides of the Sintra hills. Balance and dexterity are the keywords here over outright speed. Both skills are tested on one of our favourite hand-crafted trails that throws low branches, log bridges and narrow tree-lined passages at you from all sides as you follow a stream bed down to a reservoir. Although the roots can be  slippery, winter and spring are the best times to ride this trail as you zig-zag across the stream on your way to the reservoir below.

Malveira DH
If big-hit and long travel are your thing, the freeride possy have been carving out some excellent trails around the area of Malveira da Serra, on the Cascais side of the hills, and more recently closer to the centre of Sintra too. With names such as “Kamikaze” and “Viuvas” (Widows), you get an idea of the North-Shore-style courses on offer, many of which take advantage of granite boulders and local acacia trees to maximum effect in drops, ramps and walls. Although many of the trails have chicken runs, you need to be a proficient DH / Freerider to enjoy these tracks.
Trails run right along the clifftops
ATLANTIC COAST
With exceptional views above some of Portugal’s best surf beaches, the Atlantic trails from Sintra to Cascais follow old fishermen's paths literally along the cliff edges. One of our favourite rides is a 40km loop that takes you from Sintra town centre up into the hill trails and down to Cascais along one of the most scenic stretches of jagged coastline singletrack, stopping at an excellent beach bar near Guincho beach, before heading back to Sintra along a little valley and up through the hills.

The trail type and surface on this loop are just technical enough to be enjoyed by most mountain bikers all year round - although they are truly stunning in April and May when the headlands get carpeted in a kaleidoscope of wildflowers.
 
Rural trail north of Sintra

NORTH OF SINTRA: FIELDS, VILLAGES AND COASTLINE

For longer cross-country rides of up to 70km you can ride out north towards Mafra on hardpack trails and the odd Roman road, winding your way through quiet villages (none more picturesque than the restored hamlet of Mata Pequena) along the way. The only difficulty riding out is a fair chance of headwinds - which swiftly turn to a helpful tailwind on the return journey along the Atlantic coastal trails; some of these have a few more technical sections, to test your tired legs. This route is best suited to endurance riders used to climbing and covering longer distances, and can be enjoyed all year round if you don’t mind the winter mud.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. The Coastal Loop

Descending from the mountain to the coast you’ll traverse an amazing variety of landscapes, from cool green forest to farmland edged by clumps of bamboo to wildflower-rich coastal heathland and towering cliffs. The single track from Malveira da Serra to just north of Guincho is a thrilling descent. Stop for a beer and a steak sandwich at the Bar do Guincho before looping back to Sintra via the village of Janes.

2. Night ride in the forest

Night riding through Sintra’s misty forests in the autumn and winter months is not for everyone, but it will certainly give you a sense of properly spooky mountain biking. The moss-covered boulders and granite sand trails gleam and glisten under your headlight. The best trails are the loops around Capuchos hermitage.

3. Cyclist's Refuge Tavern

A ride around the fire trails on the west side of the Sintra hills is not complete without a short, rustic lunch break or beers at the The Refugio do Ciclista in the hilltop village of Penedo. This little village has its own pulse, with a mix of friendly locals and a few expats, and superb views to the ocean from the church square.

4. Sunset over the Atlantic

Watching the sun setting on the Atlantic Coast on an evening ride along the clifftop trails from Magoito to Azenhas do Mar is a fantastic experience. You have the trail to yourself and the light and view of the setting sun is stunning, just make sure you have a decent headlight for the return journey.

5. Carb reload

Indulge in “Pão com Choriço” - local Chorizo rolls on a market Sunday after a hard morning's mountain biking. The best place is the Sintra fresh market in São Pedro (every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month) after a trail ride around town. The little bakery just before Praia das Maçãs beach, halfway along the Atlantic coastal trails is another favourite.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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With a temperate mid-Atlantic climate and the cooling effect of the hills, Sintra offers year-round cycling. Spring, and particularly April and May, is the most visually stunning season, with blooming wildflowers along the open trails and coastline. Summer months from July to early September are sunny and hot, although temperatures rarely exceed 30ºC in Sintra and there are almost always cool breezes on the coast.

If you are looking to avoid crowds, traffic and higher travel costs in general, and don’t mind a little mud and temperatures down to about 10ºC, risk coming anytime from November to February and you will have the trails to yourself - and a few of us locals.

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