A trip to Portugal is not complete without visiting Sintra. Although it’s close enough to Lisbon for a daytrip, we opt to spend three nights in Sintra at the end of our Portugal vacation.
Situated in the mountains between Lisbon and the Atlantic Ocean, Sintra is teeming with palaces and oozing with romanticism. We travel from Leiria to Lisbon via intercity bus (easy with no issues), then on to Sintra by commuter train (our most unpleasant experience with public transportation in Portugal by far). Once again, we have difficulty locating our Airbnb apartment, but this time we’re in a taxi instead of a rental car, so the driver calls our host, Izumi, for directions.
The apartment is located on a travessa, which apparently means very tiny street used mostly for parking cars and scooters. The gate on the yellow wall is the entrance to the courtyard of our temporary home.
The apartment itself is perfect, nicely equipped inside plus a lovely garden with sitting areas out back. It’s a quick two minute walk to the bustling center of the old town.
Sintra is home to four prominent palaces, and we make it to three – Quinta da Regaleira, Palacio Nacional da Pena, and the Palacio Nacional Sintra – plus the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) perched high above town.
Quinta da Regaleira
With five stars, Quinta da Regaleira is Trip Advisor’s highest rated visitor attraction in Sintra, and it’s our first stop. In 1892, the 10-acre site was purchased and developed by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a wealthy Brazilian who inherited his fortune from Portuguese parents. Characterized as a little eccentric by the press, Monteiro sought to create “a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies” (quote from Wikipedia). The property is now owned by the municipality of Sintra.
We don’t delve into the symbolism aspect of the place, instead electing to experience the buildings and grounds on a more superficial level. And there’s a lot to like! Here are photo highlights from our 2.5 hour visit.
We do a quick walk-through tour of the five-story palace that contains beautiful and intricate architectural details, although only a few rooms are open to the public. My photos are unimpressive, so we’ll move on.
The highlight of our tour of Quinta da Regaleira is the grounds. Meticulously designed with towers, sculptures, tunnels, caves, and secret passageways all connected by meandering footpaths through the forest, we are amazed and entertained at every turn. Not your typical walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination!
The most intriguing structure on the grounds is an elaborate initiation well – a subterranean tower descending over 80 feet, accessible to visitors by a spiral staircase and connected at the bottom to a tunnel system and another smaller initiation well. Never intended to be water sources, the wells were used for ceremonial purposes, including Tarot initiation rites.
After eating lunch at Quinta da Regaleira’s outdoor café, we venture up the hill and back in time to another Sintra tourist attraction.
Castelo dos Mouros
The Moorish Castle is visible from downtown Sintra – barely. You can see it on the ridgeline in the photo below. We find a tuk-tuk driver to transport us up the steep hill.
A military fort built around the 10th century by Moorish rulers who occupied the Iberian peninsula at the time, the castle was taken over by Portugal’s Christian leaders during the 12th century and remained an important defensive outpost for another 200 years or so. By the 15th century, its military relevance was declining, as most of the population had relocated to the town of Sintra below.
Despite efforts to preserve the history and even restore parts of the property over the years, not much remains of the castle structure. The views, on the other hand, are spectacular, and we soak it all in. Including our first glimpse of the colorful Palacio Nacional da Pena, our destination for tomorrow.
After touring the Moorish Castle grounds, we hike the mile (or so) back to town on the Vila Sassetti footpath, a safer alternative to the busy, narrow, and winding road filled with motorized vehicles large and small. Along the way, we pass the Vila Sassetti mansion, which is undergoing restoration and not yet open to the public, and meander through the adjacent garden.
And so our first day of discovering the wonders of Sintra comes to an end. Time to soak up some sun on our back patio and relax with a glass of Portuguese wine.
Palacio Nacional da Pena
Built in the mid-1800s, the architectural design of the Pena Palace is largely Romantic in style, with distinct elements of Gothic revival, neo-Manueline, Moorish revival, and Renaissance revival. With nearly 2 million visitors annually, it’s Portugal’s most popular palace for tourists. Which means that we need to arrive early in the day before the influx of big tour buses.
The first order of business is just taking it all in from the outside. So many colors, patterns, angles and interesting details. Notice how the palace was built right into the rocks.
After a short wait in line, we walk through the interior rooms that are open to the public.
As expected, the interior design, décor, and furnishings are magnificent. Every room is beautifully presented but difficult to fully appreciate and impossible to take good photos – too many people and not enough time to linger and savor the experience.
After the inside tour, we head back outside to enjoy the sunshine and explore the grounds – 200 acres of forested and intentionally designed landscapes with over 2,000 species of plants, many of which are non-native to Portugal.
The camellia garden falls into the category of non-native plants, but they are in full bloom and gorgeous.
Unlike the palace, the garden is not overflowing with people, and we can meander at our own pace. We walk for hours in this magical place, and enjoy everything we encounter, especially the Chalet of the Countess of Edla. Built in the 1860s (and painstakingly rebuilt after a fire in 1999), it’s straight out of a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, who, by the way, visited Sintra in 1866 and concluded that “the most beautiful and celebrated part of Portugal is undoubtedly Sintra.”
The architectural details on the exterior of the home are fashioned from cork.
The interior is equally interesting. In the first photo below, cork was inlaid to create the geometric patterns on the walls and ceiling.
Here’s a gallery of other photos from our visit to the Pena Palace garden:
After a delightful day visiting the beautiful Pena Palace, we wind our way down the hill on the same walking path as the day before and enjoy a very late lunch at Dona Maria Restaurante and a quiet evening in the apartment.
Palacio Nacional Sintra
One more (half) day in Sintra = time for one more palace, so we make the five minute walk from our apartment to the National Palace of Sintra.
The National Palace lacks the romantic elements prevalent in the two previous palaces, probably because it’s hundreds of years older. This medieval structure dates back to the 12th century (at least), with significant enhancements made during the subsequent 300 years. Wikipedia calls it “the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal.”
The National Palace also lacks the crowds of tourists we encountered at the Pena Palace, so the self-guided walking tour is more relaxed. And it’s spectacular, perhaps in part because it’s so much older. There are fewer rooms to visit as well (we think that’s because significant restoration work is still underway), so we are in and out in about an hour.
We’re glad we could fit this national treasure into our short time in Sintra – here are a few photos.
And after seven magnificent weeks in Portugal and southern Spain, it’s all of a sudden over – we’re leaving from Lisbon tomorrow morning on an obscenely early flight. Thanks for joining us on our journey!
We have more travel plans starting soon, but one thing’s for sure – our memories from this trip will always be very dear to us. Thank you to the people of Portugal and Spain for your hospitality and for sharing your treasures with us!