Just 40 minutes from Lisbon is a fairytale land of castles and palaces.
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.
Completed in 1910, Quinta da Regaleira was the private residence of a coffee tycoon who commissioned the flamboyant estate from an Italian architect and opera-set designer. Though the neo-Manueline house and chapel are outstanding, the real highlights are found in the whimsical gardens, which feature hidden tunnels, grottoes, and strange mystical symbolism.
From 1789 onwards, the Palace of Monserrate housed one wealthy Englishman after another, even earning a mention in a few of Byron’s poems. The eclectic building combines Gothic arches, Indian alabaster panels, Moorish stucco work, and East Asian porcelain. The palace’s botanical gardens are equally diverse, with flora from far-flung destinations like Mexico and New Zealand.
How to get there
Sintra is a 35-40 minute drive from central Lisbon, although finding parking can be challenging. There is a regular 40-minute train from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra station, located roughly half a mile from the town center and the National Palace. Wear good walking shoes to navigate the steep, narrow streets. When you need an energy boost try the local queijadas, Sintra’s version of a pastel de nata (the ubiquitous Portuguese custard tart) made with a sweet cheese filling. There are several tourist buses that run between the train station and Sintra’s main sights: The 434 goes to the National Palace and Pena Palace, the 435 goes to Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate Palace. Over the summer Sintra can get busy; visit during the week and as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds and ticket lines.
Source: Condé Nast Travel