Whimsical Sintra

Sintra is a charming Portuguese town, situated in the cool hills of the Sierra de Sintra. This is a town with whimsical palaces, extravagant villas and Moorish ruins.

There is so much to see in Sintra, and it covers a large area. A popular day trip from Lisbon by train, one day is not really long enough, so an early start is advisable if you want to see everything. A mere glance at photos of Sintra will leave you convinced to visit this beautiful town.

Sintra is nestled in woodland with fanciful palaces and centuries-old castles. With verdant greenery around this area and its cool climate, it’s no wonder that the Portuguese royal family established a retreat here. Magnificent villas and grandiose palaces abound all over Sintra with magnificent architectural and decorative features.

As an antidote to all this ostentation, the coarse ruggedness and unadorned simplicity of Sintra’s Moorish Castle works well, perched up on the ridge behind the town. We did not visit the castle due to time limitations.

Sintra’s crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly Pena Palace. It is a flashy structure that is so colourful it outshines other buildings and palaces in Sintra. The multi-tiered platforms, turreted towers and picture windows are a delight to the eye, with the forest below contrasting against the yellow, purple and rich red walls. The Pena Palace is a classic example of Romantic architecture. Both the inside and outside of this palace are absurdly beautiful and strange. It was constructed by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II as a vacation home. 

The opulence of the place may have something to do with why the royal family was exiled in 1910 (ala Versailles and the French Revolution!) and Portugal became a republic. It has some terrific azulejos too. There is plenty to explore inside, such as the Royal Dining room, multiple bedrooms, grand hallways and sitting rooms. 

As you head out onto one of the adjoining balconies, there are apparently breathtaking views of the entire valley spread out below. This was not evident to us as the castle was, mostly, shrouded in mist and a cold wind was blowing!

One of the oldest and certainly the most central of Sintra’s monuments is the National Palace (Palacio Nacional de Sintra). This is the first historic building seen a the entrance of Sintra-Vila, a royal medieval palace which looks like it has been modified and added to over the centuries. Its iconic double chimney stacks belong to the kitchen and are impressive from inside and out. It was the official royal palace for many centuries, without any opulence, and is considered to be the best preserved medieval palace in Portugal.

The palace takes in oriental cues, Arabian halls and courtyards, chinese pagodas and a kitchen with huge fireplaces. Australia is also ‘featured’ in the Hall of Magpies, with 136 magpies with a rose on their mouths adorning the ceiling.

Other special features include the ceilings painted with swans and ships and the fabulous array of original azulejos (painted tiles) which span many centuries.

And after having lunch in the town and seeing two castles, we call it a day and it’s back to Lisbon or a night in Sintra. This town is definitely worth the effort for a visit if you want to explore royal palaces set in stunning natural scenery and experience a medieval town. Most places date back to the 19th century giving a glimpse of Portuguese monarchy and associated nobility life from the 15th century.

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We have seen the best in this one-of-a-kind destination, if we only had some more time here…

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