Nestled in the Portuguese mountains not far from Lisbon is the fairytale city of Sintra. The palaces of Sintra were once the summer homes for Portuguese monarchs and it’s a wonderful reprieve to escape the heat and humidity of the capital city. The historic center of Sintra is known for its 19th-century Romanticist architecture, royal palaces, beautiful villas, gardens, and Sintra Castle. If you’re looking to beat the heat while you feel like a queen for a day, there is no better place to go than to the majestic city of Sintra.
Not only was Sintra historically a place of exclusivity and royalty, but it remains so today. It is one of the wealthiest parts of the country and it is known for being incredibly picturesque with the palaces and quaint historic center set against its mountain backdrop. It’s a popular tourist destination and it’s known for luxury dining as well. Visiting Sintra is a fun way to walk in the footsteps of royalty and to enjoy some of the best of what Portugal offers.
Why I Visited Sintra
If feeling like royalty for a day exploring not one, but two amazing castles weren’t enough, Sintra is recognized globally for being a top place to visit. The “cultural landscape of Sintra” is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for being the originator of European romantic architecture.
For architecture buffs and people who appreciate artisanship, the use of Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance architecture was woven together so beautifully and seamlessly. It’s easy to see why Sintra is such a popular place to visit. When I planned my trip to Portugal, Sintra was one of my first choices to see. I enjoy visiting UNESCO sites and Sintra certainly did not disappoint!
Travel to Sintra
I took a train out of Rossio Station in central Lisbon for the 40-minute ride to Sintra. There are other options including taking a bus, a taxi, or driving, but I found the train to be the most convenient.
The station is only a few minutes’ walk to the historic center of Sintra. There is such a charming small-town feel here with some of the most breathtakingly beautiful architecture. I took a few minutes to wander around and to take it all in before setting out to explore.
The mountains were shrouded in fog when I arrived adding a sense of mystery to the area. And it was almost ten degrees cooler than in Lisbon — a very welcomed touch, and much less humid making it such an alluring place to visit.
Sintra center is stunningly beautiful. From the center, I could see the National Palace and when I looked high up in the mountains overlooking Sintra, I saw Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors looking down. Everywhere I looked were stunning buildings in all shades of bright colors around me. Heaven!
I stopped at Casa Piriquita to fuel up before making my way through the city, a shop that has been open since 1862. Based on the recommendation of this Sintra institution, I tried two pastries Sintra is known for including Travesseiro da Sintra and Queijada de Sintra. In a country known for its pastry, when I get a recommendation from a pastry shop, I take it!
First was Travesseiro de Sintra, or Sintra’s pillows, which is a long and slender dough-based pastry with a filling made of almost cream and other secret ingredients that they wouldn’t reveal. Then I tried a Queijada de Sintra, a mini pie made of cheese, eggs, flour, sugar, and dusted with cinnamon. The Queijada wasn’t too sweet and was a nice balance for the sweetness of the Travesseiro.
My first stop was a visit to the National Palace of Sintra, a huge white palace defined by two large conical chimneys. Like much of the city, it features Moorish, Gothic, and Manueline, or late Gothic styles of architecture. There are a lot of interesting details and symbolism on the facade as well as throughout the building representing nature, religion, and royalty (in the Manueline style).
The palace was originally built in the 10th century by the Moors but it was later embellished and sections were added on for several hundred years. It’s known to be one of the best-preserved medieval royal residences in Portugal. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake destroyed much of the center of Sintra and the National Palace was somehow mostly unscathed.
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira is around a 15-minute walk from the National Palace up a winding hill. This property is filled with mystery, mysticism, and symbolism, and though I absolutely love castles, it was my favorite part of the day as it was so interesting.
I toured the property with a guide and highly recommend getting one to learn all about the hidden features of this property. I took a quick tour of Regaleira Palace and stopped to see the impressive artistry at the Regaleira Chapel. But what I found most enchanting was the story of the Initiation Well.
The wealthy eccentric, Carvalho Monteiro, purchased this 4-acre property in 1892 to build a magical place to collect symbols that he was interested in. Throughout his place, you can find symbols related to the Rosicrucians, the Knights Templar, and the Freemasons. At Regaleira, people can walk on water to the path of enlightenment. It was not what I expected when I set out for Sintra that morning, but I was game!
The Initiation Well is fashioned after Dante’s walk through the nine gates of hell in his book, Divine Comedy. I climbed down 27 meters of spiral staircases passing through 9 platforms. At the bottom of the well, I was told to keep left through the branches of tunnels until I saw light from the opening. From there, I walked on water, carefully placing my feet on the stones to the end of the pond. It was such an interesting experience.
The entire day in Sintra builds to this: a visit to Pena Palace. What could be more stunningly beautiful than a 19-century palace designed in Romanticism-style architecture on the top of the mountains overlooking the charming city of Sintra? The gardens are beautiful and I recommend buying a ticket to wander around Pena Park. But of course, the highlight of this area is Pena Palace, also known as Sintra Castle.
There is a city bus that will take you to Pena Palace, but I was feeling a bit impatient to see this masterpiece that had been looking down on me all day from the mountains above the city center. I got a tuk-tuk ride up the hill and it takes a good 45 minutes to get there from Regaleira. For the money, I got an impressive Mario Andretti-style ride winding up the mountains. It was worth every bit of it.
It’s a fairly steep climb up, though they do have a bus that will take you to the gate if you choose. This palace was built on the former grounds of a convent that was destroyed by the Earthquake of 1755. (Yes, the same one that the National Palace managed to survive.) It was built in 1838 by King Ferdinand II, at which time it became a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. This palace was clearly built for royalty and I took a guided tour to see the inside of the palace and the rooms where the royal family once stayed.
The true masterpiece of this palace is the outer areas of the palace and the details are magnificent. Somehow, each angle is even more majestic than the last. It’s a stunning building and worth taking the time to wander. I also loved taking in the views from the palace, easily imagining how it must have felt to live here.
Sintra is a magical place to visit and I highly recommend a visit when you’re in Lisbon. If you like architecture and history, it’s even worth an overnight to explore beyond the top highlights. There are a lot of other incredible gems located in Sintra just waiting to be explored.
IMPORTANT! Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014. Click here to compare prices on travel insurance.
Click below to PIN so you can find Sintra Castle again:
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.
About the Author
Sam from My Flying Leap is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap, you can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip.