For a relatively small town, Sintra, Portugal is chock-full of sights. Perched high in the forested mountains northwest of Lisbon, it’s only a forty-minute train ride from the capital city. Because of its cooler temperatures, strategic location, and remarkable natural beauty, Sintra has been a popular retreat for centuries. In fact, there’s so much to see there that the entire “Cultural Landscape of Sintra” was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Once you exit the train station, you can either take a short bus ride or do what my Dad and I did; enjoy a leisurely fifteen-minute stroll to the town center. There are several sculptures and modern art pieces complementing the grand views along the scenic roadway.
The first major sight you’ll come across is the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. A hodgepodge of architectural styles—from Gothic to Manueline to Mudéjar—the castle’s most unique architectural elements are the two, giant conical chimneys poking up to the sky. Once upon a time, the Palácio was the summer residence for the kings and queens of Portugal. Built back in the 14th century, the palace still houses an impressive collection of antiquities and many of its walls are adorned in spectacular azulejos, the famous Portuguese hand-painted tiles. [Open Th – Tu, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed on Wednesdays. Admission € 7.00]
After you’ve seen the Palácio Nacional, you can either hike up the mountain to see the other major sights or hop on the #434 bus, which makes a circular loop around town. (A day pass costs €4.) Having only one day to explore Sintra, we opted for the bus. If you decide on hiking, there’s a picturesque, yet steep, trail that should take about an hour to do.
On the lower ridge of the mountain you’ll come across the ruins of the Castelo dos Mouros. Built by the Moors in the 9th century, it was captured in 1147 by Dom Alfonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal. Amazing 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside and mountains can be seen from the tops of the battlements and rocky towers. [Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission €3.50]
Probably the most photographed tourist attraction in Sintra is the Palácio Nacional da Pena. It was built for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II in the mid-1800s by a German architect named Baron Ludwig von Eschwege. (Here’s a bit of trivia: The Palácio Nacional da Pena was actually completed more than twenty years before the famous Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle was even started.) The Palácio looks like it belongs in Disneyland, with its lofty turrets, ramparts, arcades, and many fanciful details. It’s painted various shades of red, pink, yellow, and gray, with lots of intricate blue and white azulejos as well. Photography is not permitted inside the palace, but it’s exquisitely decorated with trompe l’oeil painted walls and ceilings, fine tapestries, and an abundance of antique furniture. Outside, there are several terraces affording spectacular views of sparkling Atlantic Ocean on the horizon. Despite it’s grandiose architecture, the castle is definitely in need of some upkeep, as the colors on the exterior have faded and the clock tower is even missing its hands. Surrounding the castle is a beautiful park of exotic trees that the king had imported from all over the world, including sequoias from North America and tree ferns from Australia. [Open daily. Summer hours – 9:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.; winter hours – 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission €11]
Another fascinating sight in Sintra is the Quinta da Regaleira, an estate built in 1892 for a wealthy and eccentric Brazilian industrialist, António Carvalho Monteiro. The opulent mansion is extraordinarily detailed with carved stone beasts, Manueline motifs and symbolism of the Freemasons and Knights Templar. The sprawling grounds feature lush gardens, stone towers, mysterious grottoes, and many fountains and ponds. My favorite place was the Poço Iniciático (Initiation Well), which resembles a tower that’s been inverted into the earth. A stone staircase spirals down the sides of the well with nine flights of fifteen steps each. It’s said that this symbolizes the nine circles of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the bottom, there’s a long, dark tunnel through the hillside that opens at one of the grottoes. [Open daily. February – April & October: 10:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.; May – Sept, 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.; November, – January: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Self-guided visits: adults €6 & children €3]
Other popular sights in Sintra that we didn’t have time to visit include: the Palácio de Monserrate, a Victorian mansion about an hour’s hike from the town center; the Museu do Brinquedo (Toy Museum), with its collection of over 20,000 toys from around the world throughout history; and the Museu de Arte Moderna with exhibits by Picasso, Miró, Warhol and Liechtenstein, among others.
To do everything in Sintra would take at least two days, but if you rush you can see all of the major sights in a long daytrip from Lisbon.
To get there: From Lisbon, trains leave about every half hour from the Rossio station (downtown). A round-trip ticket costs only €4.
For more information: There’s a visitor center adjacent to the Palácio Nacional. They have maps of Sintra for a nominal cost.
Be sure to check out my Top 10: Things To Do in Lisbon article too!