Considered as the city of castles and palaces and declared as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, Sintra, merely 30 km northwest of Lisbon, is one of the most beautiful places you will ever visit.
Recently the online travel website TripAdvisor published a list of “10 breathtaking towns in Europe you have probably never heard of”, amongst which was also Sintra in Portugal. Less than an hour by train from Lisbon, the hillside village, Sintra is blessed with castles, gardens, museums and sceneries more than any town its size in the world. Although listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site for its stunning 19th century architecture, Sintra remains relatively unheard of for many travellers.
Located merely 30 km northwest of Lisbon, but a world away from the clamour of city life, Sintra nestles at the foot of the wooded Serra de Sintra, mountains that define the landscape of this enchanting destination. Its isolated location naturally attracted many writers and poets. Famous Britishpoet and traveller Lord Byron stopped here in the 18th century, writing that the town is “perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe”, and called it a “glorious Eden” in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. His fellow countryman Robert Southey followed him and saw it as “the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe”. Others made it their own private retreat, such as William Beckford (one of England’s wealthiest men in the 18th century), who lived in the Monserrate Palace, later bought by Francis Cook, a British merchant and art collector in the 19th century. It is indeed an extraordinary place with a surreal mixture of history and fantasy, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its fairytale palaces, incredible vistas, and museum collections make it a destination you should make the effort to see, especially if you visit Lisbon.
It is easy to reach here from the capital with train being the best option. Regular train service departs from Rossio Station in Lisbon to the hillside town where 33,000 residents live among the parks and gardens that compliment magnificent palaces and castles to the delight of any visitor. Two highlights are the 19th century Pena Palace and the National Palace of Portugal, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings.
Though regarded as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Portugal’, Pena Palace has not always been the luxurious structure that it is today. For hundreds of years, it was little more than a modest meditation site for the monks. Natural disasters, including an earthquake and lightning, left the former monastery in ruins during the 18th century. It was in the middle of the 19th century when reconstruction began to give Pena Palace the appearance it has today. Among the elements requested by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II, who began the rebuilding process, were medieval and Islamic aspects of architecture along with arches and an ornate window over the main façade. Vibrant red and yellow colours added flair to the palace that distinguishes it even today. The elaborate decorations combined with the architectural designs have made Pena Palace one of Portugal’s most popular destinations for visitors. Surrounding the palace is the Pena Park, filled with a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans.
Another palace which is hailed as the best-preserved example is Sintra National Palace. It began life in the early 15th century and grew organically until the late 19th century, providing diverse architectural styles that populate this fascinating town. Wandering through the styles and historical features of its courtyards, stairs, corridors and galleries, is one of the most exciting activities that can be placed on the itinerary of any visitor to Sintra. Whilst Sintra National Palace is now officially Portugal’s most-visited palace, its sheer size and majesty ensure that it is not just worth the visit but also that it never becomes too crowded to enjoy.
These two palaces are only the beginning. Sintra also features the Castle of the Moors, Monserrate Palace, Seteais Palace and Quintada Regaleira as well as countless gardens and parks that make it a historical and cultural paradise. While admiring the palaces, don’t overlook the museums. Modern Art Museum has a fine collection of modern art that is part of the Joe Berardo (a Portuguese millionaire) collection. Another interesting museum is Toy Museum. The man behind it, João Arbués Moreira, believes one can better understand the history of humankind through toys and has spent a lifetime researching their manufacture and history (he began his collection at the age of 14). He now has an extraordinary collection of more than 20,000 items. The town offers a range of attractions for visitors of all ages – a variety of restaurants offering fine Portuguese cuisine, a few bars and an extensive variety of traditional Portuguese pottery and souvenirs that make excellent gifts. This all makes for a great one day trip from Lisbon.