“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen.” — Lord Byron, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage
Sintra is one of those places that comes up when you’re looking for something else to do in Portugal besides the two cities you’ve heard of ––Lisbon and Porto. You’ve wandered the winding, hilly streets of both Lisbon and Porto, avoided the infamous 28 tram and fell in love with the melancholic music of Fado. What now?
One of Portugal’s wealthiest municipalities, the dreamlike city sits outside of Lisbon at the end of the aptly-named Linha de Sintra train. More importantly for city-weary travelers, it’s your entryway into Sintra-Cascais Natural Park — a blissful slice of green that blankets the land leading to Cabo da Roca, the western-most point of the European continent. This is where pre-15th Century explorers thought the world came to an abrupt end. (Much to the chagrin of Native Americans, Europeans eventually cracked that code.)
Mass tourism being what it is, of course you can take the comfortable route and high-tail it out to Cabo da Roca and check it off your list before the credits roll on a 90-minute rom-com. There are buses, tour buses, and private transportation.
But I’ve always argued that this form of drive-by tourism diminishes the impact that the wonders of the world can bestow upon us. A hike from Sintra to Cabo da Roca allows you to take in the rapidly changing landscape as your lungs fill with fresh air and the silence soothes your restless mind.
Here’s how to hike from Sintra to Cabo da Roca.
Sintra to Cabo da Roca by Foot Through Sintra-Cascais Natural Park
In all my searching, I didn’t find an official trail from Sintra to Cabo da Roca. You’d think there’d be one but the focus seemed to be on loop trails connecting Sintra to the nearby sights. Closer to Cabo da Roca, there are mountain bike trails that can be shared with hikers, but again, these seemed to be isolated loops.
So how the hell did I hike from Sintra to Cabo da Roca? I did what anyone does when trying to settle the score on an inane, trivial fact (that was John Favreau as Eric the Clown on Seinfeld!) — I googled.
Googling led me to an outdoor navigation app I’d never heard of before, Wikiloc. Much like other outdoor recreation apps, Wikiloc allows users to record their excursions (be it hiking, cycling, or another form of adventure) and share their route for future itchy feet to follow. That’s how I found a previously recorded route connecting Sintra to Cabo da Roca in approximately 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles).
(Note that you need a membership to use the trail tracking feature in Wikiloc, but you can sign up for a free trial. An annual subscription only costs $9.99 anyhow.)
Had I not found this route, it’s very unlikely I would’ve figured out how to connect Sintra to Cabo da Roca in an interesting, meaningful way. As it was, the route took me to the foot of Pena National Palace, a wildly colorful structure unlike anything I’d ever seen before, along rugged dirt trails shared with Portuguese mountain bikers, and finally up and down (and up and down again) coastal, grassy hills leading to the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca. Perhaps it was the post-hike high, but I immediately counted it as a top 10 hike in my fortunate life of hiking everywhere from Central America to Jordan and Japan.
Along the way, I noted painted trail markers, but they were infrequent and unreliable. I had to look down at my phone more than I usually care to while hiking, but it was worth it in the end. I did deviate from the route at times, adding a few extra kilometers to my tally, namely to climb up to Santuário da Peninha — a small collection of well-preserved buildings atop a rocky hillside with panoramic views stretching across the Atlantic. Only a handful of other tourists made the trek up here, allowing for a peaceful break before charging ahead on the final stretch of trail. It should go without saying that the hundreds of tourists I later saw at the Cabo da Roca posing for their selfies missed this tranquil detour.
Other Hikes in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park
I understand that not everyone is up for a 20 to 25-kilometer hike. If you’re looking to take it easier, you could hop on the 403 bus (picks up at Sintra’s train station) and cover some of the ground heading toward Cabo da Roca. There are also plenty of easier loops right within Sintra, like the one above leading to Pena National Palace through the quiet labyrinth of its surrounding gardens, up to the viewpoint at Cruz Alta, and finally over to Castelo dos Mouros — the cliff-top Moorish castle built in the 10th century. (Note that Pena is swamped with tourists whereas Castelo dos Mouros has a much more modest crowd.)
An added benefit of spending your day hiking is that you’ll mostly avoid the wave of tourists coming in from Lisbon on a day trip. Most of the travel literature out there suggests that you’ll regret it if you only do a day trip to Sintra. I wholeheartedly agree. Coming in for a day trip — either by train, by tour bus, or God help you, a cruise — you’ll be packed into the narrow streets with thousands of equally self-absorbed tourists, elbowing their way through the crowds because they paid good money to be there and deserve top-notch treatment.
By spending your day out in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, you’ll be busy relishing in the tempered serenity only nature can provide. Plan your return to Sintra in the late afternoon so you can head directly to your hotel, shower, rest, and by the time you head out for dinner, the bus tours and cruise crowds will be gone. Just be sure to make a dinner reservation. Even without the day trippers, Sintra is far from a ghost town.