Sintra, Portugal. One of the most famous parts of the country, located right next to Lisbon. With its green and steep hills, historic castles, fairytale gardens, and colorful palaces, Sintra is one of the highlights and must-see’s of any trip to Portugal.
In all of my travels I have never come across a place like Sintra and its surroundings. The beautiful hilly landscape, right next to Lisbon, looks like a piece of heaven that was left on earth. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to spend more than a day here, but at least there more for me to discover! There are a few places to park your car somewhat close to the ‘attractions’. But keep in mind that in the high-season it’s very busy, and you probably won’t be able to find a parking spot that easily. So consider taking the hop-on-hop-off bus.
What to see in Sintra:
Palácio da Pena ***
A Romanticist castle (19th-century) that constitutes one of the major expressions of this era in the world. When you enter the garden (park) you immediately understand that it’s not just the castle that is worth the visit. Trees were planted from all over the world and has resulted in one of the most extraordinary parks in the world. Magnolia, Chinese Ginkgo, Sequoia trees, you can find them all in the park. You can either hike to the castle, while walking through the gardens, or take the shuttle bus for a few Euro’s (it’s quite steep). The castle is quite something, with it’s many colors and odd looks, it doesn’t look like anything I have ever seen before. Once inside you get a good look at how people used to live in that era. Wooden furniture, beds, large hallways, tables that are all ‘dressed-up’, it all looks very authentic. To be honest, for me, the inside of the castle wasn’t as interesting as the outside. From the inside it looked just like any other ‘ modern’ castle, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Cabo da Roca **
About a 20-minute drive from the town of Sintra, you will find a gorgeous view of the ocean. It’s a bit out of the way but if you have the time I really recommend you going here. The lighthouse, cliffs, rocks, sea, they’re really stunning. On a sunny day I think it would be the most amazing thing to relax and walk around. If you decide to take the detour you get to see more of the National Park, which is quite amazing! Don’t take the same road back, I could recommend taking the N247-3 back to the Moorish castle or the Pena castle, which should be your next stop. You will drive on a curvy road, through forests and hills, and it’s so much quieter! Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go here, because it’s not considered to be one of the top highlights in Sintra but, since it was a very misty morning in the hills, I diverted to this mist-free area anyway. Lucky me!
The historic Moorish Castle, built in the 8th and 9th century during the period of Muslim Iberia. It was the central place in a territory that was primarily agricultural, and was necessary to protect its population. After the conquest of Lisbon (1147) the castle surrendered voluntarily to Christian forces. It truly is a great place to visit, not only if you like history or castles, but also to get a great view over the area. You can learn a thing or two about the Portuguese history too! Basically you climb on the castle walls and you can go left or right, both will give you different views. Keep in mind that it’s a bit of a climb to reach the top, but nothing you can’t handle. And the view is worth it.
Funny enough one of the things I liked the most in Sintra wasn’t on the top of my own to-do list. Quinta da Reguleira is basically a very strange, yet intriguing, garden, made by someone who has way too much money on his hands. Mansions, caves, a church, a well, statues, it’s all there. Given the size of the ‘garden’ it’s truly a unique experience. The mansion is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. He was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies. I have to say, job well done, as it’s one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited.
Other things in Sintra:
The town of Sintra itself is a worth the visit as well. You can get amazing pastries at Casa Piriquita (try the ‘travesseiros’), or go for some great food to Dom Pipas. You can also visit the ‘Palacio Nacional’, were you can learn more about the history, or enjoy the buzz on one of the seats on the main square.
I did all the above AND drove to Peso da Régua (4-hours) on the same day. Although, admittedly, I shouldn’t have done the latter. It does prove that you can do all the highlights in one day, depending on the time of the year. Ideally you’d need two days to really enjoy this area to the fullest, if you want to take it easy and relax a bit as well.
* = nice to visit if you have time
** = really nice to see and you should visit
*** = a must see!