Eighteen miles and a world away from Lisbon, it’s easy to see why Sintra—with its cool, lush hills and proximity to the Atlantic coast—is where Portuguese royals used to spend their summers. Today, the concentration of these former regal estates and equally fanciful gardens has turned this UNESCO World Heritage site into a popular day-trip destination. After seeing the 19th-century Romantic architecture, cobblestone streets, and dense forests, you’ll understand why Lord Byron once referred to the town as a “glorious Eden.”

What to do

Built by the Moors in the Middle Ages, the National Palace of Sintra was expanded by several kings over the centuries, resulting in a mix of influences from Mudéjar (an Islamic style) to Manueline (a highly ornate Portuguese style). But you don’t need to be an architecture buff to be impressed by the Coat of Arms room painted with 72 noble families’ emblems, or the restored 15th-century kitchens where regal banquets were once prepared.

Located on the top of a hill is another former royal residence, the Pena Palace. Inspired by German Romantic architecture, it looks like a Disney castle with its pink and yellow towers, ornamental buttresses, and cartoonish gargoyles. The interiors are equally dramatic. Don’t miss the intricately carved ceilings and walls of Queen Amelia’s apartments and the striking all-white reception room. If it’s a nice day, purchase a combo ticket that includes access to the royal gardens.


A fountain in the garden of the Quinta da Regaleira residence in Sintra.