While planning our recent trip to Lisbon, I discovered that some of the most breathtaking images on my Travel Inspiration Pinterest board were taken just west of the city, in a UNESCO-listed area called Sintra.
Sintra is a sprawling, leafy area nestled in the hills, the tops of which are adorned by the stunning historical landmarks including the fairytale-esq Pena Palace and the sprawling battlements of the ancient military stronghold, Castelo dos Mouros, which have earned the area its World Heritage status.
The area is packed with beautiful buildings and royal residencies like these, and it is near impossible to visit them all in a single day. I don’t think I could ever go back to the south of Portugal without visiting again – not least because there were so many historical sites we couldn’t fit into the 12 hours we were there – and I can’t recommend it enough as a day trip from Lisbon.
It truly captured my imagination, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you, so here is my guide to what I consider to be Sintra’s top 3 landmarks.
3. Castelo dos Mouros
With it’s grey stone battlements rolling along the horizon, Sintra’s Moorish Castle is a real-life Disney castle. It was built in the 10th century, following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, and it is so well preserved and mimics the form of medieval fairytale castles so well, that it’s almost difficult to comprehend just how old it is.
As one of the highest landmarks in Sintra, when you stand on the curving battlement walls it’s possible to see all the way to the Atlantic coast. And in the other direction, the colourful architecture of Pena Palace balances on the horizon, further up in the hills.
2. Pena Palace
One of the jewels in Sintra’s crown, Pena Palace is unlike any western castle I’ve ever seen. The turrets are painted in vibrant, block primary colours so bright they look like they belong in an animated fairytale, while the walls are decorated with the stunning patterned Portuguese tiles that we so fell in love with while we were in Portugal.
We caught glimpses of the bright architecture from the moment we arrived in Sintra, as it was designed to be visible from anywhere in the area, so we couldn’t wait to explore it by the time the bus pulled up outside the castle gates.
The site dates back to the 19th century, and is the result of King Ferdinand II’s creative vision, which inspired him to transform and develop the area housing a former monastery into the sprawling, romantic park and palace it is today.
Around every corner, there were more and more colours and ice cream-white-dipped battlements and adornments to see.
1. Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira is by far one of the most beautiful and mystical places I’ve ever visited, and I cannot recommend it enough. Having admired photographs of the estate’s tunnels and wells on Pinterest for years before I realised where it was, I couldn’t wait to visit – and it did not disappoint.
While the Pena Palace and Moorish Castle were packed with tourists, we found Quinta da Regaleira bizarrely overlooked, and only bumped into a few other tourists during our visit. This, coupled with the shelter the leafy pathways provided from the baking heat, gave the grounds an eery but comforting energy, which made it seem all the more magical.
The land the gardens and palace are built on dates back to the Neolithic era, but it wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that owner Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro transformed it into the romantic, mystical landmark it is today.
The garden is rich in references to spirituality. Designed to represent the cosmos, it is littered with symbols relating to Christian and Greek mythology – and while I don’t consider myself a deeply spiritual person, it was hard to deny the energy the grounds seemed to hum with.
By far the most magical place in the grounds was the Initiation Well – a moss-covered well accessible via either a winding stone case leading all the way from the canopied top, or – better yet – via a secret underground passageway carved into the rock.
I could’ve spent days getting to know all of the garden’s secret grottos, statues, iconography, hidden, moss-covered ponds, bridges and towers. I was truly gutted to leave, and I fully intend to visit again the next time I’m in Portugal – and I really recommend you doing so, too.
Getting to Sintra
Sintra lies 40 minutes outside of Lisbon, and getting there via public transport is simple. Direct trains depart frequently throughout the day from Lisbon’s Rossio train station.
In Sintra itself, the winding hills housing the area’s many historic landmarks -including the Castelo dos Mouros and Pena Palace – can be navigated using the 434 bus.
Quinta da Regaleira is a short walk from the centre of Sintra, but there is also another bus which goes from the town centre, and is a good idea if you’re planning a full day of sightseeing as the gradients around the area can get pretty hard going even if you are quite fit!
More Information about Sintra
Parques de Sintra is a great one stop shop for information on many of the area’s landmarks.
All pictures are by me.