By Julie Dawn Fox, Contributor (*)
Sintra may be less than an hour away from Lisbon but it’s a world apart. Nestled in woodland with fanciful palaces and centuries-old castles and convents, it’s no wonder that both Portuguese and British elites flocked here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Magnificent villas and grandiose palacetes sprang up all over, each trying to outdo the others with architectural and decorative features.
Planning your visit
If you only have one day in Sintra, you’ll be spoilt for choice with so many sights to visit. Those of you who like to cram as much into your trips as possible might appreciate one of the many tours to and around Sintra but as a slow traveler, I recommend taking your time to fully explore one or possibly two sites. Ideally, you’ll need two, if not three or four days to fully appreciate its charms.
To help you plan your trip, here are some of Sintra’s finest features to choose from. Some are easier to get to and therefore more visited than others but all of them are worthy of your time if you can spare it. You’ll probably want to factor in extra time to browse the shops in the historical center and sample the local cakes. If you overdo it with the pastries, you can always walk off the calories on one of the many walking trails around the town.
Amazing azulejos and chimneys at Sintra’s National Palace
You can see the National Palace and its iconic double chimney stacks from almost anywhere in Sintra. The chimneys belong to the kitchen and are equally impressive from the inside. Other special features of the town’s oldest palace include the ceilings painted with swans, magpies and ships and the fabulous array of original azulejos (painted tiles) which span the 15th to the 19th centuries. You’ll also find some splendid examples of Mudejar and Manueline architecture. Allow at least an hour for this visit.
Dazzling details at Quinta da Regaleira
What happens when you give an extremely talented and visionary designer unlimited funds and a free rein to renovate a property? Go to Quinta da Regaleira and you’ll find out. Luigi Manini, an Italian artist, set designer and architect, landed the job of transforming the property at the beginning of the 20th century. He spent the next nine years detailing every aspect of both the gardens and the house. The grottos, caves and secret tunnels that are scattered throughout the grounds bear a striking resemblance to his theatre sets. Follies include a Dante-
inspired inverted well, various fountains, turrets and bridges and a neo-Manueline chapel, providing immense fun for children and adults alike.
The house may not hold great appeal for kids but it merits more than a quick peek. My favorite room is the Sala da Caça (the Hunting Room), which was used as the family dining room. I’m no fan of hunting but the workmanship of the sculpted mantelpiece and doorways is awe-inspiring. Best of all is the brightly colored mosaic floor, decorated with scenes from nature and hunting.
Each room has a unique floor and ceiling, as you’ll see when you get to the upper floor which is filled with Manini’s designs and more information than you can possibly take in during a single visit. To be fair, this is probably of most appeal to architects and designers but the ground floor rooms should not be rushed. There’s a café in the grounds if you need a break between house and gardens. Expect to spend at least 2 hours here.
Battlements galore at Castelo dos Mouros
As an antidote to ostentatiousness, the simplicity of the Moorish Castle works well. Originally built in the 10th century, the castle has been added to many times over the centuries that followed and used in strategic defense. I haven’t visited since the recent improvements and developments from the ‘Conquering the Castle’ project but even before that, I enjoyed clambering around the ramparts and taking in the stunning views. You’ll need to factor in transfer times but once there, I’d say you’ll want at least an hour.
If you feel adventurous, there’s a new zipline system nearby and you can save money with a combined ticket. Read more about Sintra Canopy on Nick Robinson’s blog.
Fairytale excess and calming woodlands at Pena Palace
The multicolored icon of Sintra is Palácio da Pena. Never mind icing on a cake, it actually looks like an extreme wedding cake with its bright colors, teeming with turrets and extravagant architectural details like the famous window (see photo, left). It is definitely worth the journey uphill but being the most popular of Sintra’s palaces, expect to find tourists crawling all over it. You can get a discounted ticket if you visit very early in the morning and you should miss the worst of the hordes. Otherwise, at least try to avoid weekends and preferably come during the winter months.
It was November when I visited and I still felt rushed as I peered into roped-off rooms, conscious of the continuous flow of people behind me. I dread to think what it’s like in the summer. Try to create space in your itinerary to allow you to explore the surrounding park and woodland at a more relaxed pace. You’ll need at least 2 hours for the visit plus travel time.
Simplicity and nature at Convento dos Capuchos
For a complete contrast to the excessive grandeur of Sintra’s palaces, head a few kilometres out of the town centre to the 16th century Convento dos Capuchos. This jumbled maze of low-level buildings is nestled in woodland, providing a relatively peaceful respite from the heavily touristed sites. It’s easy to see why the monks chose this location, surrounded by natural beauty with views that extend to the coast. As you’ll see from patchy, peeling plaster, mossy boulders and cork-clad walls, the convent fell into disrepair during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating insight into the austere lifestyle of the Capucho monks who lived and trained here. Enter the convent itself through the Door of Death and poke around the tiny dormitories, the kitchen, chapel and cloisters.
Although I walked from Sintra to the convent, it’s quite a trek and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially in summer. There’s no public transport, however, so the only alternative would be to drive or take a taxi. Once there, you can easily while away an hour or more.
Moorish delights at Monserrate Palace
This is another one of Sintra’s lesser-visited sites but well worth the extra effort involved in getting there. After all, it’s only a short bus ride (bus #435) or drive from the town centre. Monserrate Palace itself is smaller than I expected and has only been open to the public for about 7 years.
Although still beautiful enough to inspire Lord Byron to write a poem, Monserrate’s original neo-Gothic palace was already in ruins by the time he visited. The subsequent rebuilding, interior decoration and ingenious infrastructures plus much of the landscaped gardens you can see today were down to Sir Francis Cook who took over the property in 1858.
The ceilings alone are worth straining your neck for, especially the one in the main atrium between the colonnaded galleries leading to each end of the palace. There’s little furniture in the house now but the information boards have black and white photographs of how each room looked while the Cook family lived there. If that’s not enough, you can have a go on Edgar, the interactive butler, to find out more about the family and the history of the property.
It was raining when Mike and I visited in February but that didn’t stop us following the walking trail through the romantic and exotic gardens that separate the palace from the road. With waterfalls, lakes, ferns growing out of trees and tropical plants from around the world, it’s a wonderful sanctuary to roam. It too has follies, including a neo-Gothic chapel, deliberately ruined to create a whimsically romantic atmosphere. These days, it’s partially covered by a strangler fig and one of the ponds is home to a salamander lizard. Factor in a couple of hours for this visit, plus travel time.
Neoclassical features and afternoon tea at Seteias Palace
Seteias Palace was originally built in the 18th century for the Dutch Consul and is now a luxury hotel, part of the Tivoli Group. High on the hill overlooking Sintra, its noble neoclassical façade is matched by the period décor inside, including frescoes and beautiful wooden furniture. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can treat yourself to an afternoon tea buffet of cakes and savouries at 16:30 on Saturdays and Sundays for 20 euros or have lunch or dinner in the elegant restaurant. We did none of those things but the staff very kindly let us have a nosy around the public spaces for a few minutes.
Walks in and around Sintra
You’ll notice lots of markers around town for PR (Pequenas Rotas = Short Routes) walks painted with yellow and red stripes. Don’t waste your time asking at the tourist information office for leaflets or information about them though. I was told to look on the local council website which wasn’t very helpful considering I didn’t have access to a computer! If you are interested in doing some walks, plan ahead. I suggest paying 4 euros to download maps with the information you need from Walks in Portugal. I’ve downloaded them and although I haven’t been back to Sintra to try them out yet, they look good.
Souvenirs in Sintra’s historical centre
Sintra has cashed in on the never-ending flow of tourists and the narrow cobbled streets leading away from the National Palace are littered with souvenir shops, cafés named after famous poets and port wine tasting outlets. Some of the shops sell pure tat but there are some gems to be found. My two favourite shops in Sintra are Arte e Companhia Ilimitada, a treasure trove of gorgeous, quality Portuguese arts and crafts and Olaria S. Pedro, a ceramics shop that I first discovered in Óbidos.
Eating and drinking in Sintra
Some of the bakeries have queues out the door for the famous Sintra queijadas (sweet cheese cakes) but if you’re after something more substantial, it can be a bit hit and miss. Mike and I experienced the highs and lows of eating out in Sintra, the low being a plate of slop, sorry bacalhau com natas (cod with cream and potato), something I normally enjoy but resent being overcharged for when it’s way below standard. I can’t remember the name of the eatery but it’s on a corner as you walk out of the town center towards Quinta da Regaleira and has thick wooden seats. It looks pleasant but is a clear example of a tourist rip off joint.
Thankfully, the other meal we had was the other end of the spectrum if a little pricey. I had high hopes as the restaurant is called A Raposa (The Fox). It’s small, family run, elegant and in a room with beautiful fresco ceilings. The food was excellent although don’t go there if you need to eat in a hurry. Dishes are made from scratch and take time to prepare so relax and be prepared to linger over a meal. They also serve interesting-looking sandwiches and teas earlier in the day.
Places to stay in Sintra
Sintra has a wide range of accommodation from luxury palaces to modern design hotels, traditional guest houses and cute, trendy hostels. If you plan to go self-catering, note that we didn’t come across even a small grocery store during our last weekend stay in Sintra so if you haven’t got a car, you might find it tricky to stock up on supplies. We stayed at Casa da Pendoa and were very grateful for the thoughtful welcome basket they provided.
Getting to and around Sintra
It’s an easy, direct train journey from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra, although it’s a fair walk from the station into the historical centre. You can take the bus into town if you prefer but you’ll miss all the sculptures that line the avenue as well as a Moorish fountain and pretty parks with colourful fake animals.
There are many ways of getting around once you’re in Sintra. If you’re fit and have plenty of time, you can walk to the main attractions, including the hilltop Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. If you’d rather save your legs, bus 434 will take you to both sites from the train station or town centre. For Monseratte and Seteias palaces plus Quinta da Regaleira, take bus 435. For more information about your transport options in and around Sintra, see this Trip Advisor page.
Driving into Sintra itself is something I wouldn’t recommend in high season as the narrow roads quickly get clogged. I got so fed up of the traffic jams when I tried to visit last September, I gave up and drove back to Lisbon. Parking is also a nightmare unless you visit off-peak.
Having said that, having a car will give you the freedom to explore the area and head to the coast so if you can visit off-season, it’s worth considering. Try to find a hotel with parking facilities if you’re staying overnight.
The Parques de Sintra website has lots more information about each monument and helpful tools such as travel planners and ticket calculators. Bear in mind that you can save money by purchasing multiple passes. You can also find out about cultural events being held in Sintra’s monuments.
Quinta da Regaleira is managed by a separate foundation so you’ll need to visit its own website for more information.
If you’re not exploring Sintra with a guide, you can access information about the nature, heritage and history of various points of interest that you encounter using a free Talking Heritage app for iPhone or Android that works with QR codes and radio frequencies.
All pictures are © Julie Dawn Fox
This article originally published on “Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal”. Reprinted here with permission.
Julie Dawn Fox is a British writer and photographer who moved to central Portugal in 2007 and swiftly fell in love with the country. She is a contributor to Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guides to Portugal, Lisbon and Europe, the Huffington Post, CNN and AFAR, as well as the Portuguese American Journal. When she isn’t working on freelance writing assignments, she can usually be found exploring her adopted country, camera and notebook at the ready, or at her computer, researching or writing about her trips. She provides information, inspiration and tips for living and travelling in Portugal on her blog, Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal.