Hill walking around Sintra and the Lisbon Coast
Lush forested mountainsides, granite cliffs with spectacular views, royal palaces and a superb cliff-lined coastline: it's hard to think of a better location for exploring on foot.
Sintra and its surroundings are perfect for walking as there is something for everyone: single-track mountain trails, hard-packed forest dirt roads and rocky cliffs - plus a remarkable amount to see. Local resident and walking enthusiast Virpi Oliveira describes what’s on offer.
The cool green hills of the Serra de Sintra are simply superb for exploring on foot: not only is the scenery sublime - forests of eucalyptus, acacia and pine and the rocky outcrops with fabulous views down to the Atlantic - but there's an amazing array of cultural and historic sights: opulent royal palaces, stately homes, royal hunting lodges and castles dot the hillsides around the town. It is the combination of the two that makes this area so special.
And then there's the coast, with clifftop walks and grand panoramas of the crashing surf. In between, and further north, are areas of bucolic farmland, typically Portuguese and rewarding to explore.
A trail leads through Sintra forest
World Heritage Sintra
This is the area around the historic town centre. There are several marked paths here, from 3km to 8km in length. Some lead to the incredible castles and palaces of the area; others are thematically arranged with the major objective to see nature and other places on the mountainside that are not necessarily the main monuments.
Walking routes are marked with wooden signs and red and yellow lines painted on just about anything; walls, rocks, trees. All start and end in the historic town centre.
The classic walk takes you up to Pena Palace - the resplendent yellow building high above town on top of the hill - and the rambling Moorish castle just to its north. A short walk beyond the Palace leads to the Moorish Castle, which dates from the 8th century. See below for more on this walk.The forest is park-like, covered in periwinkle and tall eucalyptus trees and acacias. There are occasional views down to the Atlantic Ocean. After around 45 minutes you arrive to the gates of the Pena Park. Once inside the grounds, numerous species of exotic trees and plants are in evidence, brought in from all over the world - including sequoias, cedars, junipers, Douglas firs, tsugas, rhododendrons, beeches and limes.
There are water fountains along many routes with natural spring water, and you can plan your walks so that you don’t have to carry your meals along, but stop in restaurants or cafés instead. Sintra town is at about 200 metres altitude, while the Pena Palace is about 500 metres, so there is a lot of up and down.
A misty spring morning in Sintra forest
This area covers the Serra de Sintra mountain and extends between the edge of Sintra, south to the slopes above Cascais and westwards towards the Atlantic seaside villages. As part of the forest is privately owned, the paths here are not usually marked, though access is no problem. There are maps available, and the navigation is easy.
The forest is mainly pine and eucalyptus and it is green year around. You can cross the mountain to the side of Cascais and Malveira de Serra. In several places there are clearings in the trees affording absolutely fantastic views down to the sea, and you have the option of single track paths and dirt roads. This area is popular for mountain biking and suitable for Nordic walking as well. Overall it is ideal for walks between 5km and 25km.
Cabo da Roca
The Atlantic Coast and small villages
The westernmost point of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca, is the starting point of the 27 km Atlantic Walk. The path follows the coast and follows a rugged line, up and down the cliffs. This is coastal walking at its best: the views are simply breathtaking, with sweeping vistas of the ocean accompanied by the sounds of the crashing surf far below. There are very few trees here and a lot of open space with low scrub and grasses, which are carpeted in flowers in spring and a good area for bird watching. Parts of the trail are quite steep.
There is an alternative, parallel route, less well known, which leads through small villages. It is easy to divide this into several smaller stretches, and take the time to visit the villages and perhaps stop for lunch.
The inland countryside
Restored houses at Mata Pequena
To the north and northwest of Sintra is a large area of typically Portuguese countyside: rolling farmland with gentle hills separated by deep green valleys, scores of small villages and quiet lanes and footpaths. Once threaded by a series of navigable rivers that now are reduced to slowly running waterways in the bottom of green valleys, this whole area is full of history - ancient bridges and and archaeological ruins.
There are plenty of marked paths that lead you from village to village or all the way to the coast following a river-path.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. From Sintra to Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle
Ascend from Sintra through park-like forest with occasional views down to the Atlantic. After around 45 minutes you arrive to the gates of the Pena Park. Once inside the grounds, numerous species of exotic trees and plants are in evidence, brought in from all over the world: it is like a magic garden. See the amazing palace and take in the views, before continuing to the 8th-century Moorish Castle.
2. Crossing the mountain from Sintra to Cascais
The wonderful thing about this 13 km walk is how the forest changes completely as your advance. From Monserrate Palace’s series of ponds and waterfalls, the pine forest full of ferns and springs changes into a eucalyptus forest near Capuchos convent and again into a fairy-tale like forest with a special light and huge boulders towards the Peninha sanctuary, the highest point of the mountain (500m) with excellent views to the Atlantic, Cascais and Lisbon.
3. Walking to the coast from Sintra
The 15 km walk from the historic centre of Sintra to Praia da Adraga has all the ingredients of a fantastic walk: varied terrain, great views, quaint villages, and the arrival to one of Europe’s best beaches as a cherry on the top! It is mostly very slow descent, though it has a few rises in the middle bit. Forest, vineyards and sand-dunes with bamboo, this walk has them all.
4. Cabo da Roca – Adraga roundtrip, partly on the GR Atlantic Walk
A bit more technical, this 10 km walk has a series of accentuated descents and ascents in the beginning, and breathtaking views of the green sloping countryside as well as the high cliffs and the Atlantic coastline. Full of colour most of the year round, the flowers are most plentiful between March and May. Almost treeless, you can feel the wind every day, as this is also the westernmost point of continental Europe.
5. The walk of the villages
This 16 km walk goes from the 400-year-old restored village of Mata Pequena to the coast through various little villages. Much of the walk is level, alongside of a once navigable Lizandro river, slowly descending to the Atlantic. There is a lot of green countryside, old Roman remains of buildings and bridges, and also windmills to see on the way.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The Sintra area has its own micro-climate due to the situation of the mountain and the sea. It is always green, year-round. It is never cold enough for snow, and the average rainy days even in the winter months (per month) is less than half of the UK days. February to May is fantastic for flowers. July and August are sometimes a bit too hot for longer walks, particularly outside of the shaded forest. From October to March there are less people about and the nature is lush and colourful.
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