Sintra, Portugal – Stunning and Sublime

One of the best things about traveling full-time is discovering awesome new places. Sintra, Portugal, was such a place. This enchanting town, less than one hour from Lisbon, is brimming with historic palaces and castles.

Steve and I spent seven weeks in Portugal visiting six cities in the fall of 2018. Our tour of the country included stops in Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve. But Sintra was the one that has remained in our hearts.

Read on to learn about Sintra and five of its most visited attractions.

A Little About Sintra

Sintra is situated in the Sintra Mountains 15.5 miles (25 km) west of Lisbon. It is famous for its 19th-century architecture known as Romanticism, and the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this area, you can explore several palaces and castles and their beautiful grounds. You can also visit the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park.

Sintra is often recommended as a day trip from Lisbon. However, if you love exploring as we do, you will need more than a day to do it justice.

It can be reached by car, but the roads are narrow and hilly, and parking is limited. It is better to take the 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. We got around the town by bus and walking with no problem at all.

Colorful buildings with tree-covered mountains in the background
Part of Sintra as seen from the National Palace of Sintra.
National Palace of Sintra (Palácio Nacional de Sintra)

Exterior of large white palace

The National Palace of Sintra was a popular summer resort and hunting retreat for Portuguese royalty for many centuries. When Portugal became a republic in 1910, the palace became a national monument. It is now a historical museum and the only medieval royal palace still in existence in Portugal.

The oldest part of the palace is the royal chapel. It is believed to have been built in the early 14th century. Much of the remainder of the palace dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. It underwent restoration in 1940.

The palace is located in town and is sometimes referred to as the Town Palace (Palacio da Vila). It is easy to spot because of the two large cone-shaped chimneys rising almost 100 feet (30 meters) from the roof. They provided ventilation for the palace’s two kitchens.

Close up of hand-painted doves

This is a part of the painted wall in the chapel. The doves represent the Holy Ghost descending to Earth.

Room with partially tiled walls and swans painted on the ceiling

The Swan Hall features an intricate ceiling featuring, you guessed it, swans.

A close up of azulejo tiles featuring a faun and flowers

The walls of the Coat of Arms Room are covered with azulejo tiles like these.

It is worth a few hours of your time. I recommend a tour to learn about the symbolism found in the various rooms.

Park and Palace of Monserrate (Palacio de Monserrate)

Side view of the Palace of Monserrate

The Park and Palace of Monserrate is located in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains about 2 miles (3.5 km) from the center of Sintra. While not particularly large, the palace is a lovely example of Romanticism. It combines Moorish and neo-gothic design elements. The gardens feature 1,000 species of plants in several themed areas, including a rose garden, a Japanese garden, and a Mexican garden. And how can you not love a place that has an area called fern valley?

Legend has it that circa 1093 a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected on the site. In 1540 the hermitage Our Lady of Monserrate was built on the site of the palace. From that time until 1863, the estate saw several owners and was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1755.

In 1863 Sir Francis Cook purchased the estate of Monserrate. He commissioned the construction of the current palace, which became a summer residence for his family. He also renovated the gardens.

We visited in November, so the gardens weren’t at their best, but it was still fun to explore.

Hallway with marble columns and filigree details

This photo of a hallway in the palace shows the great attention to detail.

Close up of a fountain near the palace

You can see this fountain as you exit the palace.

Hedgie overlooking the palace lawn

Our travel buddy Hedgie couldn’t wait to run on the lawn.

Pena Palace (Palacio Nacional da Pena)

Exterior of Pena Palace from the road below

The most colorful of the Sintra attractions is the Pena Palace. Much of the exterior is painted red and bright yellow. The oldest section is the Manueline cloisters, which date back to the 1500s. Most of the current building was constructed between 1842 and 1854 under the behest of King Ferdinand.

The palace is brimming with an eclectic mix of architectural elements, including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance. The interior of the palace was restored to reflect the decor as it was in 1910 when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil to escape the revolution.

Gargoyle-like creature on the outside of a building

This handsome guy symbolizes the Creation. Be sure to say hi when you see him.

Terrace and pillars overlooking a valley

The Queen’s Terrace is a popular photo spot.

Don’t make the same mistake we did. Be sure to visit the Parque de Pena as well. It covers almost 500 acres (200 hectares) and has over 30 man-made elements. Here is some information about the park.

A word of warning – the palace sits on the second-highest point in the Sintra Mountains. There is a road that leads from the train station to the palace, but it is a 50-minute uphill hike. Be sure to take tourist bus 434 unless you are looking for a workout.

Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)

View of the Castle of the Moors from a distance

We had so much fun exploring these medieval castle ruins that sit high in the Sintra Mountains. The castle was built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Moors and was used to defend the area through the 12th century.

In 1147 Christian Crusaders stormed the castle. With the Moors driven out, it was left to become a ruin. It was partially restored by King Ferdinand II in the mid-1800s as he liked to view it from the nearby Pena Palace.

Unlike the first two places discussed here, the castle does not have rooms to see. It is a ruin where you can walk along castle walls, climb towers, and take in the views of Sintra, including the National Palace and Pena Palace.

Man walking on a castle wall

You can take tourist bus 434 to get to the castle, or you can walk there from Pena Palace in about 12 minutes.

Quinta da Regaleira

Large neo-Gothic mansion

You can’t tell by looking at it, but the Quinta da Regaleira is the newest of the five attractions in this list. The neo-gothic palace and chapel were built by a Brazilian-Portuguese businessman named Antonio Augusto de Carvalho Monteiro in 1904. Monteiro died in the palace in 1920, but it remained in his family until 1987. It was then purchased by a Japanese company to be used for private functions. It became a national monument in 1997 and was open to the public the following year.

The villa is definitely worth touring, but the real attraction is the extensive and totally over the top park. It reflects Monteiro’s interest in mystical ideologies, including the Knights Templar, the Masons, and alchemy. The park is almost 10 acres (4 hectares), and in addition to the expected fountains and statues, it includes lakes, grottoes, tunnels, and caves.

Rocky entrance to a cave

Walkway, pond, and stepping stones in a park-like setting.

Note the stepping stones you can access from a cave.

There are also two initiation wells on the property. The wells were not meant for water collection. They symbolize the initiation ceremony of the Knights Templar.

Looking down into a large initiation well

The larger one is perhaps the most famous part of the park. You can walk down the spiral stairs 88 feet below ground and see the Templar Cross inscribed in the floor.

Man looking through a moss-covered opening

    Steve on his way to the bottom of the Initiation Well

Steve and I loved visiting all the places above, but when we think of our time in Sintra, our fondest memories are of the time we spent exploring the grounds of Quinta da Regaleira.

The Cats of Sintra

OK, the cats of Sintra isn’t really a thing. But we love to meet cats and dogs on our travels and take their photos if they consent. Here are three cats we “met” while taking in the gems of the town.

Grey cat sitting on a sandy walkway
Palace of Monserrate cat
Cat lying infront a a woman’s boots
Castle of the Moors cat
Tan cat crouched on sandy walkway
Quinta de Regaleira cat
But That’s Not All!

There are many more things to do in and near Sintra. In fact, writing the article made me realize that there is a lot we didn’t see there. We need to go back.

Here are some other things to enjoy in the area:

Cabo da Roca – cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at the westernmost point of continental Europe.

Convent of the Capuchos (Convento dos Capuchos) – the ruins of a16th century Franciscan monastery. The convent’s simplicity contrasts with the luxury of many of Sintra’s attractions.

National Palace of Queluz (Palácio Nacional de Queluz) – another incredible historic palace with gardens located between Lisbon and Sintra.

Air Museum (Museu do Ar) – learn about the history of aviation in Portugal.

Cascais – we did spend a few hours in this coastal resort town about 10 miles (16.8 km) south of Sintra. It’s definitely worth another visit.

Harbor in Cascais, Portugal
The harbor in Cascais
Trip Details

Dates: November 13-23, 2018
Number of days: 10
Total cost: $1,300
Cost per day: $130

Here is what we spent in Europe in eight months.

We’d love to hear about your experiences in and around Sintra. As always, I have done my best to be factual. If you find an error in my facts, please let me know.

Stay safe and healthy,
Linda

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