Pastel palaces. Moorish castles with sweeping views tucked into lush hillsides. Winding cobblestone streets, and lavish estates with secret tunnels and waterfalls. These are just some of the treasures found in the enchanting town of Sintra, Portugal.
Located just a short drive or train ride from Lisbon, Sintra’s proximity to the capital combined with its charming landmarks tucked into the hillside make it easy to see why it’s an extremely popular day trip for visitors—or overnight stay for those with the luxury of time. Here’s why you need to see this spellbinding spot, and what to do when you get there.
National Palace of Pena
Sintra’s crown jewel is undoubtedly Pena Palace, a flashy structure that is so colourful it easily outshines anything the fine folks at Disney could ever hope to come up with. The multi-tiered platforms, turreted towers and picture windows are all open to the public, who delight in climbing all over it while snapping selfies against the canary yellow, royal purple and rich red walls.
The grandiose palace is so photogenic that it’s surprising it hasn’t yet reached the level of notoriety achieved by the likes of Buckingham Palace or Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Perhaps part of the reason is because it hasn’t always looked this way: the former monastery was acquired in 1838 by King Ferdinand II, who set about transforming it into a lavish residence by incorporating classical, romanticism and Arabic influences. It has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and underwent a paint job at the end of the 20th century to restore its famous vibrant colours, which turned a dull grey after the royal family was exiled from Portugal and forced to abandon the palace.
There is plenty to explore inside as well, such as the Royal Dining room, multiple bedrooms, grand hallways and sitting rooms. Head out onto one of the adjoining balconies, to marvel at the breathtaking views of the entire valley spread out below.
The National Palace of Pena has a direct vantage point of another famous landmark: the Moorish Castle. Built on the highest spot in Sintra, the military fort was established way back in the 10th century as a way to protect the Iberian peninsula. The structure’s hilltop perch, stone fortifications and round towers look like they belong in England or Ireland versus flashier Portugal, particularly when surrounded by swirling fog as can sometimes happen so high up.
Most people start their visit at the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim, which was originally a place of worship but now holds objects which were found in archeological digs of the site. Continuing towards the castle, visitors find themselves on a pathway lined with with massive hydrangea bushes overflowing with fragrant, multi-coloured blooms, which are a green thumb’s dream come true and photo heaven.
The highlight of any visit is of course exploring the castle itself, which is done by scampering up the many, many stone steps towards the very top of the hill. The narrow staircase offers viewpoints galore, of both the fortress and the colourful surrounding valley. Once you finally huff and puff your way to the peak, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the entire countryside along with a unique point of view of nearby Pena Palace.
Quinta da Regaleira
Transformed in the late 1800s from an estate to an extravagant summer residence, Quinta da Regaleira has plenty of spots to impress even the most discerning visitor. The vast estate is anchored by the five-storey Main House, featuring an impressive gothic facade that juts up above the leafy trees surrounding it, making it visible from the roadway. Despite how photogenic it is, that’s still not enough to outshine the lavish gardens surrounding it.
The estate is like a rich man’s playground, with its perch in the hillside providing ample space for the likes of labyrinthic grottos, a chapel, turreted towers, lakes, stables, tennis courts and a greenhouse. However, some of its treasures are also hidden, like the pitch-black underground walkways that link to a couple of the property’s most popular spots: the Initiation Wells and the waterfall.
The initiatic well descends 27 metres, which some liken as a journey into the depths of the earth and is deep with symbolism. A staircase winds down the nine platforms, eventually linking up to the underground walkway which leads to a not-so-secret grotto. Visitors pass the waterfall as they carefully navigate the stepping stones which lead to the gardens—a simple misstep could mean falling into the green water!
National Palace of Sintra
When it comes to Sintra’s palaces Pena typically gets the most attention, but it’s also worth stopping by the blindingly-white National Palace of Sintra. Nestled in the historic centre, its terracotta orange roof and conical features make quite a statement, particularly when seen from the Moorish Castle. Portugal’s royal family actually lived in the National Palace during the 12th century, and today it houses an array of art collections.
Convento dos Capuchos
Those who suffer from claustrophobia might want to think twice about visiting this unique spot, which was built in 1560 and inhabited by Franciscan friars. The peaceful convent is built into a lush hillside, and was designed to merge with the surrounding vegetation which includes oak, strawberry and chestnut trees—a stark contrast to the dark, cramped interior that makes up the convent.
Visitors are free to wander up the tight staircases and duck into the tiny rooms which were used as a library, infirmary, bedrooms, kitchen and church among other things. Only small beams of sunshine make it through the narrow windows, which means some guests end up using their smartphones to light the way. The friars’ pledge to live their lives with extreme simplicity is evidenced by the basic and primitive conditions—a stark contrast to flamboyant Pena Palace just up the road.
National Palace of Queluz
Out of all of Sintra’s landmarks, the Queluz palace and gardens are the closest to Lisbon. Just a 15 minute drive from the capital, it’s a popular attraction for visitors who don’t have time to see all of Sintra but still want to get out of the city. The royal residence is a prime example of Portuguese architecture, integrating baroque, rococo and neo-classical elements into its grand halls, throne room and chapel, which guests are welcome to tour.
The 18th century palace’s sunshine-yellow facade is surrounded by statues, fountains, lakes, and meticulously-manicured gardens—sprawling French-style grounds that give famous Versailles a run for its money. It takes at least a few hours to navigate through them, so be sure to give yourself enough time to explore the labyrinth hedges, waterfalls and intricate sculptures.
Tips for visiting Sintra:
Driving and parking: Driving in Sintra can be a nightmare, as it’s a maze of narrow, one-way roads meaning if you miss your turnoff you essentially have to do a huge loop through the town or up the hillside to get back. There are also tourists everywhere (at least in high season) which makes navigating around them and finding a parking spot tough. Save yourself the stress by taking the train or bus from Lisbon instead, then use the Hop On Hop Off service to get around town. If you insist on driving, arrive first thing in the morning when it’s not as busy, and make sure you know where the parking lots are located ahead of time.
Entrance costs: Separate tickets are required to enter each of the major landmarks, and can be purchased at the front entrances. If you buy passes online or purchase tickets to all of them at once, you’ll save 5%. It’s not much of a savings, but at least you won’t have to worry about getting in a queue at each new site. Occasionally, ticket prices are less expensive if you arrive later in the day, and as a bonus most of the day-trippers will have already left.
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