A Guide to the Palaces of Sintra

A Guide to the Palaces of SintraImagine a day where you discover the most extraordinary palace of your life and then on the very same day you explore the most wonderful, magical gardens you’ve ever seen. That was what visiting Sintra was like for our family. Our visit here was the highlight of our recent trip to Lisbon.

The palaces of Sintra are a World Heritage Site. They are perched on hills amid lush forests and gardens and were once the royal family’s summer retreat. On one hill, you’ll see the 8th century Moorish Castle perched dramatically on the rocks and on another the brightly coloured fantasy which is Pena Palace.

You could easily spend a couple of days in Sintra but if you’ve only got a day, here are the highlights.

The Palace of Pena

“Today is the happiest day of my life. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.”

Richard Strauss, composer, on visiting Pena Palace.

The Palace of Pena is like nothing else on earth. It’s a fairytale palace with turrets and watchtowers, fantastical creatures and outlandish decorations. Its candy-coloured walls, spires and towers look as if they belong in The Land of Sweets from the Nutcracker ballet.

“It’s so beautiful it should be one of the seven wonders of the world,” my 10-year-old declared as we wandered around. We weren’t at all surprised to discover that it was Pena Palace that inspired Walt Disney to create his own fairytale castle.

The palace was built by Doma Maria II and Don Fernando II on the grounds of a ruined monastery as a summer retreat for the royal family in the 19th century. It’s considered to be the finest example of Portuguese Romanticism, combining some of the best elements of medieval, gothic and Islamic architecture.

There’s an impressive portcullis as you enter and on the Wall Walk you’ll find a huge stone triton holding up the bay window. Half man, half fish, his gruesome face glares down at you from a stone archway studded with coral.

There are lots more hideous gargoyles to be found as you wander around the outside of the palace, towers to climb into and intricately carved stonework everywhere you look.

Inside the palace there’s exquisite detail too. The Manueline Cloisters, which were part of the 16th-century monastery, are decorated with Moorish tiles, and the upstairs bedrooms have ornate vaulted ceilings, canopied beds and stunning views. Even the bathrooms are a work of art.

Get children to look out for the snakes in the ceiling of the Arabic Room and see what they think of some of the over-the-top decorations, like the life-sized turbaned torchbearers holding up gigantic candelabra in the Ballroom.

If you have time, take a picnic and explore the gardens with its lakes, temples and the Châlet built for the Condessa d’Edler.

The Palace of Pena is open every day from 9.45am until 7pm. Adults, €14; children, €12.50; under 6s, free.

The National Palace of Sintra

The trouble with Pena Palace is that after seeing it, everything else you see seems drab and ordinary. Apart from its two massive conical chimneys, the exterior of the Palace of Sintra isn’t as impressive as that of Pena Palace, but look inside and you’ll find stunning examples of azulejos, the ceramic tiles from the 14th to the 18th century that Portugal is famous for.

The Palace of Sintra was the residence of the Portuguese royal family from as early as the 12th century. In the middle ages it was used as the court’s summer retreat for hunting.

The rooms are named after the pictures painted on the ceilings. The ceiling of the Swan Room, the grand hall you first walk into, is covered with paintings of swans. Soon afterwards you’ll find yourself in the Magpie Room, so called since the 15th century because of the 136 pictures of magpies holding a rose painted on the ceiling. The story goes that King John I gave a rose to one of his queen’s ladies-in-waiting. A magpie snatched the rose and the king excused himself with the words, “Por Bem”, meaning ‘for the good’. He then had the room decorated with a painting of a magpie for every lady-in-waiting at the court.

The Galleon Room is a long, narrow hall built in the 17th century. Its rounded ceiling is illustrated with paintings of ships in full sail. Blazons Hall or the Coats of Arms Room has a hexagonal roof painted with deer and the coats of arms of 72 noble families. The walls of this room are decorated with stunning blue and white azulejos depicting hunting scenes.

Other highlights include the Arab Room with its moorish fountain. This was used as a bedchamber by King John I in the 14th century. We also liked the tiny Room of the Mermaids which was originally used as a wardrobe. Its wooden ceiling is painted with mermaids playing musical instruments.

One of the most interesting rooms in the palace is the bedchamber prison of King Afonso VI. It’s the only room in the palace to have iron bars. The king was stricken with madness and shut up here for nine years until he died in 1683.

The National Palace of Sintra is open daily from 9.30am until 7pm. Adults, €10; children, €8.50; under 6s, free.

Quinta da Regaleira

These lush gardens are an utter delight and not to be missed. The house was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family and the gardens were designed at the beginning of the 20th century by Luigi Manini, the Italian architect and set designer who worked at La Scala in Milan. They were intended to represent the cosmos and include references from the world of mythology and great literary classics like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Statues of classical gods and goddesses line the Promenade of the Gods and there are underground tunnels lit with a string of fairy lights like the thread that Ariadne gave Theseus to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

For us, the gardens were like something out of  Grimm’s Fairy Tales or The Lord of the Rings. There were stone doors, fountains, Rapunzel Towers to climb up, underground tunnels leading you into the dark and stepping stones across the water.

The gardens are full of mysterious places like the Initiatic Well, a 27-metre deep tunnel, accessed by a spiral staircase, and the Portal of the Guardians, twin towers either side of a central pavilion under which is hidden one of the entrances to the well.

These are truly magical gardens where children can let their imaginations run wild. Mine loved climbing up all the towers and turrets and whooped with delight at the joy of exploring the secret tunnels, grottos and underground passages.

You can do guided tours of the gardens. Numbers are limited so you should book well in advance. Children might find it more fun though, like ours, to discover the gardens on their own and make up their own stories as they explore.

Quinta da Regaleira is open every day from 10.30am until 8pm (it closes earlier in the winter months). Adults, €6; children, €4; under 9s, free.

Getting There

Sintra is a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. You can walk to the Palace of Sintra and the Quinta da Regaleira from the railway station but it’s better to take a shuttle bus to the Palace of Pena. Buses number 434 and 435 go from the station up to the Palace of Pena and back down the hill to the Palace of Sintra.

For more information about visiting Sintra, take a look at the Visit Lisbon website.

Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to the sights mentioned but all opinions are honest and my own.

I am linking up this post to #Wanderful Wednesday with Marcella from What a Wonderful World, Lauren from Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso and Isabel from The Sunny Side of This.

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48 thoughts on “A Guide to the Palaces of Sintra

  1. We’re off to Lisbon this summer and I can’t wait. Pena Palace has been on my wish list for ages. I always think it looks like it’s made out of Playmobil! I didn’t know about the Sintra Palace or the gardens so thanks for enlightening me. I’ll be coming back to your Lisbon posts nearer that time when I actually start planning our trip.

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  2. We are thinking about a city break in the early autumn and Lisbon is high on the list, I’ve really been enjoying your posts. Pena Palace looks amazing and can see why Walt Disney was so inspired by it. So much to see there and I love the close up shots! #CityTripping

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  3. The Palace of Pena really is like a fairytale and the gardens sound amazing too – I think my daughter would love them. We are looking at planning a Lisbon/Portugal trip for later this year so will definitely have to visit! Thank for linking to #citytripping

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  4. I have heard so much about Sintra, it looks utterly beautiful. Hoping to make it to Lisbon later this year so this is really helpful. Thank you. #citytripping

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  5. We had planned to visit the National Palace but lost the incentive after seeing the brilliant hues of Pena Palace. Did you make it to Castelo dos Mouros (Moors Castle) while you were in Sintra? That was completely different.

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    • I know what you mean. Fortunately, the interiors really were stunning and well worth seeing – I loved the stories behind some of those pictures. We didn’t make it to the Moors Castle, there was only so much we could do in one day and we wanted to see a few places well rather than rush around all the palaces. It was a very impressive sight up on the rocks though. Thanks so much for commenting.

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  6. We visited Sintra a few months ago and absolutely loved it. Pena Palace was on my travel wish list for a long time as a castle obsessed person. We loved the old town area, all the tiles and shops and of course, the pastries too. My kids enjoyed exploring the palaces too. We didn’t go to Quinta da Regaleira but went to the Moorish Castle instead. Looks like we missed a great garden.

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    • I have read – and loved – some of your posts on castles! As a family of castle lovers we were also keen to see Sintra but were blown away by the reality of all those colours, turrets and wonderful details. We also tried the pastries. Of course! I do recommend the Quinta da Regaleira because it was such a magical place for children to explore. We would like to visit the Moorish Castle next time though.

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  7. I absolutely loved Lisbon and Sintra! We unfortunately only had one day in Sintra as well, but Pena Palace was more than worth the trip! That quote by Richard Strauss is one of my favorites as well! Beautiful pictures and thanks for linking up for #WanderfulWednesday!! 😀

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    • Thanks so much for such lovely comments, Lauren. It really is worth going to Sintra on a day trip from Lisbon – it’s so easy to get to and such a treat for the eyes when you do arrive! It was thrilling just seeing Pena Palace on the hill from the train as we headed towards the station. Richard Strauss pretty much summed up exactly what we felt too. It’s wonderful that you can get the same feelings of excitement as somebody from 100 years ago!

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    • Thanks so much, Isabel. I’m so jealous you’re getting to go to Lisbon and Sintra! We were only there in February but I was so blown away by both that I’m already looking forward to a return visit.

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    • It was so unexpectedly beautiful too. We had no real expectations other than it sounded like a nice garden to wander around in, but what a fantastic find. The underground caves and towers made it so magical – we had trouble getting my children to leave!

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  8. This definitely does look like a fairytale castle – maybe even better! I love how colourful it is too! Most castles in Germany where I’m from, are just brown or grey but this one just looks amazing. Totally brightens my day just by looking at it 😉

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    • I loved the colours too! From what I understand, the Portuguese king was inspired by the wonderful castles in Germany to create his own, but then added the colour which I think makes it so much more special – in an outlandish, crazy way that really appeals to me. Doesn’t it just brighten your day? I think I went round smiling the entire time I was there!

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  9. Ohhh, this looks wonderful! I love the way to described them all as I really got a feel for them and I love the fact that they all look different, but all so beautiful. Another reason to visit Lisbon!! Thanks so much for linking up with #WanderfulWednesday, hope to see you again next week! 🙂

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  10. Pingback: The Colours of Autumn in Santiago | WhatAWonderfulWorld
  11. Thank you for this post. We will be visiting Sintra this summer for sure. Any other places in Portugal you’d recommend? (We’re skipping Lisbon). Maybe something more off the beaten path?

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    • We absolutely loved Sintra – couldn’t recommend it more highly. We spent our time in Lisbon this time but I’d also like to visit Porto , Evora and Aveiro. Hope you have a wonderful time.

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  12. I will like to visit all these castles! This city has to have some sort of record of most castles in a determined amount of square miles. With the many sights in Sintra, I would like to stay one night in the area. Not sure if I am going to be able to see everything I want in a day.

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  13. I looooooved Pena Palace, I really want to go back soon and take my friends to see it. Haven’t seen The National Palace of Sintra, so that’s another reason to go back and visit. I remember laughing about that angry gargoyle too, haha

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  14. We fell in love with Sintra when we were in Portugal. I’d live there if I could. Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle were definite highlights. Now that you’ve covered a few sights we didn’t see, I’m eager to revisit. The garden at Quinta da Regaleira will be my first stop.

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    • I can honestly say that Pena Palace is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been to – and I’ve done a fair bit of travelling around the world. We did fall in love with the magical gardens at Quinta da Regaleira – the kids particularly loved them – but we didn’t have the time to visit the Moorish Castle so next time I think we’ll have to spend at least one night in Sintra. Thanks so much for commenting.

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