When Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the words “So many worlds, so much to do”, he could easily have been referring to Sintra, northwest of the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. The town is famous for castles and palaces, each one unique in design.
The palaces are located on hilltops over a considerable area, surrounded by a national park, and you’d need more than a day to see them all. So, if you only have a day to spare, decide in advance which ones interest you most. Then you’ll still have time to wander around the town centre afterwards to soak in the ambience, stop for a snack and do a spot of shopping as well.
If you want to attempt to visit all the castles recommended below, you can catch the bus up to Pena first, then backtrack to the Castle of the Moors. From there, take the bus back down the hill and get off at Sintra Villa for Palácio Nacional de Sintra. After that, it's a 15-minute walk to Quinta da Regaleiria.
However, if you're fascinated by details and love to absorb history, it's a big ask to try to see everything in one day. Instead, if you have the time, stay overnight at Chalet Saudade and explore the castles at your leisure.
Originally a small Moorish palace and chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the Palácio Nacional de Sintra is an architectural fusion of Gothic, Moorish and Manueline styles. This is because successive Portuguese rulers added their own touch to the palace between the 13th and 19th centuries. Once a royal residence, now it’s the only surviving medieval royal palace in the country.
Two white chimneys sit atop the roof, looking for all the world like giant upside-down ice cream cones. Other than this one touch of whimsy the outside of the palace is rather plain, unlike the interior.
A delicate marble fountain forms the centrepiece of the Sala dos Árabes, the Salon of the Arabs while the walls of the Sala dos Brasões are covered in 18th century azulejo depicting scenes of gallantry. The domed ceiling is decorated with brasões, the coat of arms of 72 royal households.
The wooden ceiling of the Sala das Pêgas, the Magpie Room, is hand painted with images of 136 magpies. No one knows the exact significance of the birds, but this was where Portuguese kings granted royal audiences.
The exterior walls of this Moorish castle dating back to the 8th century march over two ridges. Visitors can walk up and down the many steps to take in the scenery. All the land as far as the eye can see was once controlled by the Muslims who ruled the Iberian populations until Christian Crusaders stormed the castle in 1147.
Although the victors let the castle fall into disrepair it’s a picturesque place to declare yourself ruler of the world and perfect if you’re a big fan of historical fortifications.
Walking through the gold and ochre-coloured entry gates ofPena Palace, as everyone calls it, is like entering a Portuguese cultural Disneyland. Before you free your inner child though, here’s a bit of history. Built atop the Serra de Sintra, the crenulated walls look like a natural extension of the surrounding mountain range.
When Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, Prince of Bavaria, known as King Ferdinand II for short, first came here sometime after his marriage to Queen Maria II of Portugal in 1836, he fell for it straightaway. He paid out of his own pocket, even though all he got were the remains of a monastery established in 1503, abandoned after being damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which left most of the city in ruins.
Ferdinand II’s original plan was to restore the existing structure and build a modest summer residence in collaboration with Prussian mine engineer Ludwig von Eschwege. Luckily for us they got carried away.
The end result was a 19th-century medieval fantasy complete with parapets, a turret, the Queens terrace with its fanciful yellow arches overlooking the plains below, a tunnel and the popular but very narrow in parts wall walk. This path wraps around the building’s exterior and provides extensive views over the valley.
If heights aren’t your thing give it a miss and if you do walk it, take your time and be careful when passing people coming in the opposite direction.
The building exteriors are embellished with Neo-Manueline, Gothic and Romanesque masonry with some Islamic elements thrown in just because they could. They offer numerous photo opportunities, as do the lush green grounds.
However, pay the extra and go inside the palace itself to get a look at what life would have been like in this grand creative rendering in stone. Quirky luxurious feature pieces abound, from larger-than-life statues of Moorish servant figure standard lamps to lustrous wooden hand carved Indo-Portuguese bedheads and dining chairs.
Despite being one stop after the Moorish Castle, Pena Palace is actually located higher up in the hills. If you plan to visit both go to Pena first then walk back down. Whether you walk or bus here, be aware there's still a steep walk up to the main entryway of Pena Palace from the road.
One of my favourite places in Sintra, the Quinta da Regaleiria is an easy 20-minute walkfrom the station. The route includes a couple of gentle rises and takes you past Igreja Paroquial a small church, along pretty treelined streets.
The word quinta means farm but this is no humble estate. The Regaleira Palace and Gardens was built at the turn of the 20th for businessman António Carvalho Monteiro. It’s also nicknamed Monteiro dos Milhões, Monteiro of the Millions, in reference to the fortune Antonio made in Brazil.
The Palácio da Regaleira is the main building in the quinta. It’s an eclectic mix of revivalist architectural styles such as Renaissance, Medieval and Classical, but Manueline dominates.
The exterior is covered in elaborate examples of this style, strange fruits, ropes, nets, frogs and dragons, all carved from stone. The interior décor and displays inside the palace are a bit tame compared to Pena Palace, but it’s worth going inside to access the roof. From there, you can best see the overall design.
In the gardens, carefully laid out terraces rich with plants covered in misty dew lead to the dramatic yet petite Capela da Santíssima Trindade, a Roman Catholic Chapel decorated in Manueline style with the addition of a spikey Gothic spire. Broad leaf shrubs camouflage hidden entryways leading to underground passages.
The Portal dos Guardiães, a wall curving out from a central lookout topped by turrets on either side, hides an entrance to the Poço Iniciático, the so-called initiation well. This hollow tower sunk into the hillside descends through nine levels.
The gardens are quite magical. At any moment you expect to see the White Rabbit run by. You can have your own Alice in Wonderland experience by winding down through the well, but don’t be late or you’ll end up in a queue.
Drive yourself and chances are you’ll waste the whole time trying to find a parking spot in Sintra’s quaint but narrow streets. Take the train from Lisbon to Sintra instead. It takes about 40 mins and only costs a few euros.
Most people get it from Rossio Railway Station so queues for tickets can be long. I’d recommend buying a Viagem transport card in advance and load it before you go.
Remember to validate your card prior to getting on the train. Inspectors regularly do the rounds and playing the innocent tourist won’t save you from a hefty fine.
Sintra is a popular destination year-round, particularly in summer, so best head off early. If you aren't confident with public transport, you can also see two of the palaces on an organised tour.
When you arrive look for the number 434 bus waiting outside the station exit. The route starts and ends in the same spot, and only heads in one direction. After the bus passes through the town centre it begins a 10km loop through the neighbourhood of São Pedro de Sintra, Sintra Vila (the National Palace), Castelo dos Mouros and Palácio da Pena. Then it returns to the station via Sintra Vila.
There’s a 24-hour ticket, useful if you plan to stay overnight, otherwise provided you’re relatively fit and it’s not stinking hot, get a return ticket so you can travel to the highest attractions, walk to the next one and then take the bus all the way back down. Be aware the roads are windy and narrow so watch for passing traffic.
Take water and slap on plenty of sunscreen or a hat in hot weather. As well as wearing sturdy walking sandals or shoes, pack a light jacket if you plan to visit in fall or winter, especially if you know you’ll be staying late.
Sintra is located at a point where cool air from the Atlantic Ocean meets warm breezes from the Mediterranean Sea. This produces a microclimate with a fine mist early morning and late afternoon, even in summer. Add thick vegetation and Sintra can be quite humid year-round.
If you are looking for somewhere for lunch, try A Praça – Sintra. This family run vegetarian restaurant is a stand out in a country devoted to meat and seafood. They serve up a menu that changes with the seasons, offering soups, a Portuguese take on poke bowl salads, gnocchi and chickpea burgers in their space inside the Mercado da Vila de Sintra, the local Sintra market place.
Despite the industrial functional feel of the building, A Praça has a cosy welcoming vibe. Make sure to leave room for a slice of home-made tart. You’ll walk off the extra calories in no time.
Otherwise, for something a little fancy book a table at Incomum. Chef Luis Santos combines local flavours with international flair, serving delectable shrimps, traditional cod and contemporary salmon, along with mixed platters and meat mains. The décor, like the food, is Portuguese modern anchored in traditional values with a cool blue palette picked out in modern azulejo style.
Last Updated 17 October 2023