Imagine 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.
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.