Sintra, home a cluster of architectural oddities not far from Lisbon. Note the Castelo dos Mouros on the hilltop.
Sintra has become a major tourist attraction for day-trippers from Lisbon and around due to its collection of elaborate and occasionally Disneyesque royal architecture. Encircling the town are mountains and attractive green walks in the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, along with royal palaces, estates, castles and other extravagances built by the wealthy Portuguese between the 8th and 19th centuries.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site 18 kilometres east of the Atlantic Ocean and 28 kms from Lisbon – an hour’s drive if you manage to avoid the peak-hour traffic jams on the IC19 highway. Sadly the rail route is equally busy.
Regaleira Palace (Quinta da Regaleira), considered by most tourists as the best attraction in Sintra, especially the gardens and curiosities therein.
Pena National Palace (Palacio Nacional de Pena), another odd, fairy-tale royal structure with a great park.
Sintra National Palace. Palacio Nacional de Sintra
Palácio de Monserrate Sintra, definitely an also-ran, cute but no cigar.
Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros).
The Castelo dos Mourous on one of the Sintra Mountains (not so high! ) with the distinctly odd Palacio da Pena in the background. Photo by Luiyo.
This medieval Moorish Castle built by Muslims in the 8th century surrendered to Christian forces in 1147. It makes a superb viewpoint and wonderfully atmospheric but apart from walking up and down the battlements and contemplating the panorama of Portugal’s major downside – lack of pretty countryside – there isn’t a lot to do.
Castelo dos Mourous ramparts and guard towers are in great shape thanks to a 19th century rebuild and the whole place emanates a serene strength and mystery not found in many fortifications. Maybe it’s the trees and shrubs sprouting in and around the structure, or maybe it’s the panoramic views, whatever, it’s a wonderfully romantic place and a stunning picnic spot.
Interesting artefacts and absurd ornaments are to be found elsewhere in Sintra.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
Palacio Nacional de Sintra. Photo by fulviusbsas.
This is the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal, a World Heritage Site and the easiest attraction to get to, but the least popular! Originally the Moorish governor’s palace built in the 8th century it’s been renovated/redecorated many times since by succeeding Portuguese kings who ultimately failed in the style race with other local celebrities.
A slightly over decorated dining room in Palacio Nacional de Sintra. Photo by Ricardo Tulio Gandelman.
Quinta da Regaleira, palace and grounds
Quinta da Regaleira, palace and grounds, a short walk from Sintra town centre. Photo by Maragato1976
A sizeable though still modest property until the 19th century, Regaleira Palace was bought in 1892 by Carvalho Monteiro, a wealthy Brazilian entrepreneur who decided to reshape the property in popular styles of the era – Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance. He also made a feature of both mythology and Portuguese history in the house and garden.
The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions. The palace is also known as “”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Mosteiro .
Palace da Pena
The mad Manueline elaboration of Triton gazing balefully down from another Sintra Palace, da Pena. Photo by Husond.
For hundreds of years after construction as a monastery in the 15th century Pena was a small, quiet place for meditation, housing a maximum of eighteen monks.
Then it had a palatial makeover in the 1800’s after the great earthquake of 1755, with King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II as chief designers using the basic concept of incorporating every outlandish architectural style popular at the time, Gothic, Manueline, Islamic and Renaissance for starters. The monstrosity – love it by the way! – was completed in 1847.
Palácio Nacional da Pena. Photo by Paconi.
The Pena National Palace is a weird and wonderful structure on a hill above Sintra, featuring an mixed-elements 19th century architectural style known as Romanticism, aka loony tunes. The architecture of the palace is – like most of the biggest projects at that time a mix of lavish elements, the main style being Romantic.
The interior offers tourists a look at royal life in those days, stunning furniture, porcelain and lamps. The most interesting areas are the church, the dining hall, and he tiled cloister in Manueline style.
Pena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
The mock-defensive gateway of Palácio Nacional da Pena. Photo by Carlos Luis da Cruz.
The Palace grounds encompass a huge 200 acre garden, Pena Park, conceived along the same lines as the palace, that is to say a mish-mash of imports brought from all over the world – North American, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and visited via a sort of labyrinth with just two exits.
Palácio de Monserrate Sintra
Palácio de Monserrate Sintra. Photo by Hugo Henrique.
The Monserrate Palace is another example of Portugal’s love of eclectic architecture, built in Romantic style with Moghul flourishes by an English baron in 1858. It later became the traditional summer retreat of the Portuguese court.
Not as spectacular as the other sights and the interior is dilapidated but the gardens are beautifully laid out, making a very pleasant walk. However, it is far from town so be aware of the bus schedule.
The Seteais Palace is another useful attraction as you can not only have a drink or a meal there but also stay the night if the budget extends to five-star life. Seteais is neoclassical palace completed in 1787 for the Dutch consul. It is has panoramic views and is now a luxury hotel, with restaurant and most importantly, a bar.
Getting around Sintra’s sights
You cannot self-drive to/around the hilltop attractions and must park in one of the town’s limited car parks. The easy, value solution from there is to catch the circular 434 bus that loops every 15 minutes from Sintra train station – Sintra town – Castelo dos Mouros – Palácio da Pena – back to the train station. Buy a ticket from the bus driver.
Walking is the fitness option with Castelo dos Mouros about an hour up a steep hill, through lush forest with a short uphill stretch after that to reach Palácio da Pena. Get a free map of the route from tourist information at the train station .
Walking from the town to Regaleira Palace, one of the best attractions, is an easy few minutes but Monserrate Palace will take about an hour, but is less steep than Castelo dos Mouros. You WILL require good walking shoes both for hiking to places AND for exploring their intricate and not necessarily foot-friendly gardens.
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon
• Trains run to Sintra from various Lisbon stations, including Santa Apolónia, Oriente, Campolide but mainly lovely Rossio, from where it’s a 40 minute ride.
• Cycles can be taken onto commuter trains for free so that’s also an interesting option. Rent a bike in Lisbon, hop on a Rossio train, cycle around Sintra (but note that several major sights are way up high! ), then cycle back through Sintra Nature Reserve to Cascais on the coast, from where you can take another train back to Lisbon.
• Buses also run there and may be found at the bus stop opposite Rossio station.
• Car. A useful way to travel especially if you’re heading off north to explore other Portuguese attractions, but as we mentioned at the top, it’s a short journey at 28 kms but do make an effort to avoid peak travel times and the jams that occur. Parking in Sintra is also in short supply at weekends and holiday times so choose a different day or go there early
45 minutes from Sintra is. . .
Mafra National Palace and monastery
Perhaps Portugal’s most extravagant building, this combination palace/monastery/church was started by Dom Joao V as thanks to God for getting an heir (God had it pretty easy in those days – someone gets pregnant and God gets a monument).
Set in an otherwise uninteresting little town this building had modest intentions originally – to host 13 monks. But thanks to gold flowing in from New World developments, particularly Brazil, the design and expense became bigger and bigger and bigger.
The building finally housed 450 monks, has two royal wings and the biggest basilica in the world.
There are 880 large rooms, 5, 200 doorways and the largest collection of bells ever. The baroque library is 88 metres long, the games room sports 18thC pinball machines, and much of the flooring is in multicoloured marble.
20, 000 – 45, 000 European artisans worked on the project for 36 years, kept in order by 7, 000 soldiers. Grandiose or what!
Visits are by guided tour only, twice a day, and the Queen’s garden is a pleasant place to wait. There is also a huge park with wild deer and boar which may, or may not, be accessible.
Mafra is about an hour by bus from Lisbon, 45 minutes from Sintra.