An architectural style star that rose to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the 19th century, Sintra soared to become the epicenter of European Romantic architectural style. Thanks to King Ferdinand II who transformed old monastery into a royal summer palace, and parks that contained exotic species of plants and trees. The fusion of Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance, Egyptian, and even Indian designs made Sintra an architectural style star that rose to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Less than an hour away from Lisbon, Sintra is an easy getaway full of history and beauty. In recent years, it has become a favorite among travelers. I first stepped foot in Sintra when it was relatively unknown. A decade ago, alleys wrapping the Moon Hill were bare from tourists. Every corner oozed a certain quaint authenticity, equally alluring as the bed and breakfast owned by the friendliest local family.
Today’s Sinta may be saturated with folks from all parts of the world, but it’s still worthy of a mini staycation. If you’re short on time, Sintra can be done in 24 hours. But it’s highly recommended that you enjoy the lush destination with 1-2 nights of stay.
From the start, the Romans named the town “Cynthia,” after the goddess of the moon since Sintra was used as the site for moon worshipping. The Moors arrived afterwards and showed an endearing adoration for the town by building a castle, a palace, and many fountains. Later, the Portuguese royal family used Sintra as a summer residence and the town became a gathering hub for aristocrats who constructed luxurious villas and lavish mansions.
During the 18th century, British poet Lord Byron referred to Sintra as “Glorious Eden,” and described the charming town as “perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe” in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. With much to history to collect and beauty to observe, Sintra is one of the most popular towns in Portugal. Here’s how you should do it right!
From Lisbon’s Rossio Station – 10-minute walk away from the famous Praça do Comércio Square – trains leave approximately every 20 minutes. Sintra is the last stop, after 40 minutes of train ride. Note: with the Lisboa Card, you can ride the train for free. By car, the journey will also require 40 minutes.
What do see:
SEE: Sintra National Palace when it opens at 9:30 a.m.
Before the crowds start shuffling in. You’ll recognize Sintra National Palace from afar, since it has two large conical chimneys that have become the town’s symbol. The Moorish / Gothic / Manueline architecture contains the world’s most extensive collection of azulejos – Portuguese tiles. The palace is also known for its extravagant rooms, including: Sala dos Brasões (“Coat-of-Arms Room”) which showcases coat-of-arms of 74 Portuguese noble families. Sala dos Cisnes (“Room of the Swans”) is an extraordinary banquet room with swans painted on the ceiling. Sala das Pegas (“Magpie Room”) has unique magpie birds also painted on the ceiling.
EAT: Queijada de Sintra at Piriquita
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Sintra is known for its queijada which is a cheese tart with cinnamon. The most trendy place to get this popular local dessert is at Piriquita cafe, which is right next to the National Palace. You can also find queijada in most coffee and pastry shops!
SEE: Take the guided tour at Quinta da Regaleira.
A 15-minute walk from Sintra Palace is Quinta da Regaleria which is also known as “Palace of Monteiro the Million.” Here, you’ll see a romantic palace and chapel, a splendid park with grottoes, wells, benches, and fountains. There are many statues in the garden that symbolize gods. Don’t miss an iconic tunnel staircase that represents death guiding to a “Garden of Eden,” or “Entrance to Heaven,” or a sign of rebirth. With a guided tour, you’ll understand various symbolisms within the estate since there are too many to count.
DRINK: Wine Tasting inside Tivoli Palacio Hotel
The 18th century Seteais Palace has been transformed into a five-star Tivoli hotel with opulent rooms and a restaurant that you can’t pass up. Sitting inside the Seteiais, you’ll also indulge in the view of Sintra mountains alongside crystal chandeliers in the interior. If you’re not too hungry, who can say no to a little wine tasting?
EAT: Lunch at Incomum (Make a reservation!)
Situated close to Sintra National Palace, Incomum is the true definition of affordable but REALLY fantastic Portuguese cuisine. Trained in Switzerland, chef Luis Santos returned to Portugal and opened up Incomum in 2014 to rave reviews. Gastronomy has never been this accessible. Each dish is creative and refined, served by a friendly staff. We highly recommend coming here for lunch because for 11 euros, you’ll have: soup or salad, a main course, a dessert and a glass of wine. From Iberian Pork Loin w/ Clam Polenta to Foie Gras w/ Purple Cabbage, Cheastnuts and Port Wine Pearls, this place won’t disappoint.
SEE: Hike up 40 minutes to Pena Palace
A great way to get your exercise in, if not then take the bus which will take 15 minutes. Pena Palace is the other significant must-see in Sintra, also easy to recognize since it’s yellow and sits on hilltop. Inside this Romanticist castle, you’ll see a drawbridge, turrets, domes, ramparts, and a gargoyle. All the Edwardian and Victorian furnishings inside were left the way the royal family left them. Originally built as a chapel during the Middle Ages, King Ferdinand II acquired the monastery in 1838 to transform it into a summer palace for the Portuguese royal family.
DO: Walk through Pena Park after the Palace
If you remember a Roman Polanski film, “The Ninth Gate,” starring Johnny Depp, you’ll know that it was shot here. A lovely way to unwind is walking through Pena Park, filled with trees, beautiful plants, fountains, old villas, ponds with black swans floating by. At the highest point, there’s a statue of King Ferdinand looking toward his palace. If you’re a fan of epic views, there’s also another spot “Cruz Alta” where you can see the Pena Palace from here.
DO: Watch the sunset from the Moorish Castle
Just when you think Pena Castle is on the highest point of Sintra, it’s actually the 8th century Moorish Castle. It wraps along the mountain edge, and offers a spectacular view of the city. Unlike other Sintra Palaces, the Moorish Castle was constructed during the Muslim Iberia period. Later, much of it was destroyed during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Fortunately, King Ferdinand II invested much manpower and money into restoring the castle by consolidating the walls and conserving the chapel where he built a monument to collect bones discovered during restoration.
EAT: Dinner at Lab by Sergi Arola (Make reservation!)
It takes about 15-20 minutes by car to reach Lab by Sergi Arola from the Moorish Castle. Situated inside Penha Longa Resort, the celebrity chef’s elegant restaurant is a creative spin on Mediterranean cuisine with Portuguese produce. The 22-seat stylish restaurant offers the view of the golf course, and a vodka bar where you can lounge pre and post dinner.
If you stay for more than one day, don’t miss these other sites:
SEE: Monserrate Palace is a museum, a farmyard, and a park. Bought by Francis Cook and rented by Willian Beckford, the Monserrate Palace stands uniquely due to its one-of-a-kind architecture, and waterfalls in its gardens.
SEE: Capuchos Convent for an Alice and Wonderland Experience.