This enchanting Portuguese town, famous for its romantic Manueline architecture is worth the 35-minute train ride northwest of Lisbon.
The entire town of Sintra (meaning sun) has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is a plethora of palaces, castles and attractions to enjoy. As a result, when you emerge from the train station you will have to run the gauntlet of assembled ‘very friendly and polite’ tour operators, guides, tuktuk and taxi drivers offering their services.
Palacio da Pena
Pena Palace is the top-notch attraction in Sintra so we chose to begin our day there. The weather began pleasantly enough with clear skies, but shortly after we arrived at the palace, icy winds kicked up accompanied by dark threatening clouds reminding that it is still only January. Luckily it stayed dry and we were able to explore not only the palace but parts of the park as well.
The vividly painted multicolored palace was commissioned in 1842, by King Ferdinand II who championed the arts, literature and music and wanted the palace to look like an opera scene. The extravagant Pena Palace was built using an eclectic combination of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance styles along with a few domes, towers, conical points, arches and spires. The palace indeed leaves you with a sense of playfulness and artist achievement.
Parque Nacional da Pena
Pena Park is 200 hectares of forested hills surrounding Pena Palace offering numerous pathways to enjoy. The day we visited, not many tourists braved the 800 meter steep walk up to Cruz Alta, the highest peak in the park. The path is excellent and you are completely surrounded by nature. Tall trees border the walk contributing to a sense of privacy. Our visit was in January and many of the trees are bare, allowing peek-a-boo views of Pena Palace, the city and ocean beyond. When the trees are in leaf we imagine those views would be hidden. Once you arrive at the peak of Cruz Alta, there is only one small area where you are able to take photos of the far off Palace. Unfortunately even here the tree tops are beginning to encroach on this amazing view.
On the walk back down the path we detoured onto other paths and discovered the Queen’s Table, a stone table located in a pretty spot beneath towering trees that had been a particularly favorite spot of Queen Amelia. Amidst the bare branches we also spotted the Warrior statue, a large bronze statue placed high atop a cliff.
Palácio Nacional de Sintra
The train delivers you near the center of Sintra so the first interesting architecture we saw was the brilliant white National Palace of Sintra. The iconic white twin conical chimneys that rise out from the kitchens are what initially drew our attention to the Palace. In the 12th century the village was reconquered by King Afonso Henriques, who took the palace that had been used by the Moors and had it rebuilt as his royal residence. It was continually used as a royal residence from the 15th century right through to 1910, when the monarchy collapsed. The National Palace is thought to be the best-preserved medieval royal palace in Portugal.
We toured only the outside of this palace because, after our trip to Pena Palace, it was mid afternoon. At this point we were quite chilled and hungry so we opted instead to sit at Cafe Paris across the plaza and refresh ourselves with a bowl of delicious warm soup and a savory crepe.
Castelo dos Mouros
The Moorish Castle, seen high on a peak of the Serra, might be of Visigothic origin but it was certainly used in the 9th century during the Moorish occupation providing them an unparalleled view of the town, the outlying areas and the sea beyond. The ancient ruins were restored in the 19th century and, at 1352 feet above sea level, they tower over the town of Sintra. The castle can be accessed on foot for the fit. It is a steep 3.5 km hike, but also easily accessible via bus, taxi or car.
Palacio de Monserrate
As a fan of Lord Byron it was interesting to learn he visited this palace in 1809. He was inspired by the palace’s magnificent appearance and he referred to the beauty of Monserrate in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, published between 1812 and 1818.
Monserrate Palace, owned, redesigned and rebuilt by England’s Sir Francis Cook, is a 19th century mansion that uses the eclectic building style called Sintra Romanticism, similarly used in Pena Palace and Quinta do Relógio. There are excellent examples of Islamic inspired architecture herein and the magnificent [Alhambra] in Granada, Spain was the inspiration. This palace is full of beautiful and intricate details throughout. Combining various architectural styles, details and colors makes Monserrate Palace extraordinarily interesting.
It is the furthest palace from Sintra and therefore much quieter than the other historical buildings. Sintra’s most iconic landmarks may be the medieval ruins of the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Sintra National Palace but they were busy and hectic even at this time of year. We preferred our time calmly exploring the lovely Montserrate Palace.
We also found Monserrate’s expansive gardens, planted with 3000+ exotic species collected from all parts of the world, refreshing and peaceful to explore. Not surprisingly, the Park of Monserrate is a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape, our first UNESCO Landscape discovery.
Other buildings that are included in the UNESCO umbrella but we did not have time to visit are the Palacio de Seteais and the Quinta de Regaleira and a few churches.
Palace of Seteais, (late 18th/early 19th century), has been converted into a 5-star hotel and is a mere 10-minute walk from the historic downtown.
The Estate of Regaleira (late 17th century), is a Gothic mansion that caught our attention as we passed it. Although a recommended site, it was the mention of the elaborate gardens, lakes, secret passages and caves that peaked our interest. The caves are said to conceal mysterious religious symbols from the Masonry and Knights Templar orders.
Sintra takes pride in their thoughtfully restored major landmarks of the Palace of Pena, the Moorish Castle, the Palace of Sintra, the church of São Pedro, Penha Verde, the Cruz Alta, the Estate of Regaleira and the Palace of Seteais and these sites do retain their authenticity. We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Sintra visiting many of the sites but our recommendation would be to spend at least two to three days discovering the charms this town has to offer.
Saúde from these sintraense,
Ted and Julia