Window to the world: Sintra, Portugal
Surrounded by pine trees and overlooking miles of unspoilt cliffs and beaches, Sintra blends flamboyant architecture with Portuguese hospitality. With grand castles and fairytale gardens to explore and delicious local port and cured meats to try, this is the ideal late-August holiday location.
Not far from the bustling city of Lisbon, a visit to the enchanting and remote town of Sintra is the perfect weekend break, with the surrounding UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site which is nothing short of a playground for nature-loving explorers and holidaymakers.
A legacy of its fascinating past, Sintra used to be a haven for royals in the 18th century, and a popular location for 19th-century poets and artists to visit. With influences from the castle-building Moors and the moon-worshipping Celts, the area is a spectacular blend of ornate architectural styles with some spectacular sights to discover.
A fine town to explore
There’s no better time to explore Sintra than when the busy crowds of summer tourists have gone and the weather is still fine. The historic old town in the centre is a charming place with cobbled streets, traditional painted buildings and open squares. Here you can enjoy a sample of Late Bottled Vintage Port, (one of Portugal’s biggest exports) or take some time out to explore the boutique family-run shops.
Located in the main square in town, the Palácio Nacional de Sintra has a striking gothic exterior and two iconic cone chimneys that extend from where the kitchens were once situated. The palace was once a favourite with Portuguese nobility, making it the most used royal residence in Portugal.
Here, you’ll find yourself marvelling at the painted ceilings and unique decorative tiles, with some dating back to the 16th century. These tiles were often used in buildings to help keep the interiors cool.
Head to the mountains
Sintra’s most popular destination is The Palácio Nacional da Pena; visiting this unmissable castle in the mountains is sure to be a highlight of your trip. Sitting atop of the Monte da Pena, this brightly coloured pink and yellow castle was commissioned by Dom Fernando of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, who married queen Dona Maria II in 1836. After falling under Sintra’s spell, he brought the existing convent on the top of the mountain and the surrounding land to build a magnificent summer palace for his royal family.
The palace’s design is a sight to behold, incorporating iconic Portuguese architectural and decorative forms and built according to the revivalist taste. Throughout the palace, you’ll find more pink and yellow decorative tiles covering the walls and Moorish influences through the grand staterooms and terraces. With breath-taking views from the top of the mountain, you’ll want to bring your camera with you.
Ferdinand created an enchanting woodland park around the palace, inspired by the English garden style, which included many exotic tree species. Parque da Pena contains over 200 hectares of winding walkways and hidden paths that take you through the pine forests and offer numerous pleasant short walks. The maze of paths leads to an assortment of Romanticism-inspired features including a statue of King Ferdinand, decorative battlements, and hidden lakes. No matter what time of the year you visit, it’s still best to go early in the morning to appreciate the calm and tranquil gardens.
A fascinating blend of architectural styles
Quinta Da Regaleira is an extravagant 19th-century gothic mansion which was built by an eccentric millionaire. It’s an enchanting and mysterious place, with a bizarre tower that descends into the ground to a network of lit caves. Surrounded with some of the most elaborate gardens of Sintra, they are a delight to explore with decorative fortifications, mystic religious symbols and secret nooks at every turn. The central feature of the gardens is the initiation well, which was drained, expanded and possibly used for cult ceremonies.
For the finest example of Islamic inspired architecture, visit The Palacio de Monserrate – a 19th-century mansion known for its intricate geometrical patterns on the lattices, carved stone and Indian-inspired stone inlaying.
Where to stay, what to eat…
Located just outside Sintra, Tivoli Palacio de Seteas reflects an authentic Portuguese mansion with indulgent rooms and beautiful exteriors. This five-star hotel has thirty traditionally styled rooms and suites which ooze extravagance. Take a dip in one of the two pools, indulge with an evening meal at the excellent restaurant or spend a few stolen hours practising your serve on the tennis court.
For early morning breakfast, visit Saudade Vida, a brightly coloured café with quirky motifs on the walls. Here you can enjoy croissants, hot scones, and queijada, which are small, sweet cheese tarts – similar to baklava.
At the base of the mountain is a restaurant called Tascantiga, which is renowned for its petiscos which are large plates of food made into smaller portions that allowing you to try and sample a range of dishes. Similar to tapas, you can sample a range of local dishes featuring goats cheese, prosciutto, honey, olives, prawns, mushroom gratin, smoked ham, sausages, and octopus salad. Sit outside and enjoy watching the locals stroll across the cobbled square with a glass of wine.
What else is there to do?
Cabo do Roca is a 30-minute drive from Sintra. It is the westernmost point of continental Europe where you can enjoy a thrilling treck over a series of dramatic cliffs above the ocean. Head here in the early evening to see the most spectacular sunsets over the horizon.
If the idea of a day lounging on a deckchair sounds like your kind of holiday, you’ll find that the beaches surrounding Lisbon are some of Portugal’s finest and well worth a visit during your trip. A little off the usual tourist track, there’s a range of options from wild surfing beaches to calm, family-oriented beaches and charming resort towns. Serra da Arrábida and Praia da Conceição are particularly beautiful, quiet locations.
For equestrian fanatics, the Queluz National Palace is a sumptuous 18th-century palace built in the Rocaille style. Here you can enjoy a performance by the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art where even the most amateur of horse riders can appreciate the quality of the Lusitano horses, bred in Alentejo at the former Royal stud-farm.