Sintra is one of the most impressive and attractive places to visit in all of Portugal. It is also one of the most maddeningly overcrowded. We were there in late April; boarding the local bus to drive up to the higher-situated sights, navigating the sole road that leads to those sights, or touring Pena Palace have all become rather challenging by early afternoon. I can only imagine how insane it may get in the summer.
That aside, Sintra is an exceptional mixture of nature and architecture. The inscription lists a large number of sights that comprise the overall cultural landscape. Having set aside a full day to explore it, we targeted four of the most prominent locations for our visit.
Here is an early morning (pre-crowds) view of the village center, with the ramparts and towers of the Moorish Castle high above it.
Our first stop was the National Palace, from whose steps the picture above was taken. It is seen here from an elevated viewpoint in the village, marked by its twin conical chimneys.
The palace dates from 15th century. Inside, there is a number of attractive indoor and outdoor spaces, with some incredible azulejo tilework and elements of Mudéjar and Manueline decorations.
Decorated wood-panel ceilings are among the most remarkable features of the palace. Here are a few examples.
One of the last rooms on the tour is the dazzling 16th-century Sala dos Brasões. The azulejos in this room are about 150 years younger and are simply phenomenal.
After the palace we proceeded about a kilometer away from the village center to Quinta da Regaleira, which ended up as our favorite sight in Sintra. The gardens of this 17th-century villa are simply enchanting, with a number of attractive features.
Here is a look at the romantic palace from one of the park terraces.
The palace itself is fairly compact, with only half a dozen rooms, each decorated in a distinct style. Here are a couple of details.
Another elevated – and quite remote (this was taken with 240mm focal length) – view of Quinta da Regaleira, from Pena Palace.
Pena Palace is the most colorful and the most visited of all of Sintra sights, occupying top spot of one of the Sintra mountains.
There was a medieval monastery at this site, partially destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 (which we mentioned several times on our photo-tour of Lisbon). In the 19th century, king Ferdinand II built a pleasure palace here that is most distinctively colorful and combines a lot of outstanding architectural features in a very eye-catching, if somewhat contrived, way.
The interior of the palace has a number of interesting rooms, among them the dining hall, the Belle Epoque Grand Hall, the Arabic Room with three-dimensional wall and ceiling paintings, and the kitchen. There was a half-an-hour-long line to enter the palace – entry tickets are rechecked there, for whatever reason – and we almost skipped going in, but decided to persevere for once, and that turned out to be a rewarding choice. Unfortunately, this is one place where photography is not allowed, so I can only share a somewhat illicit image of the prettily tiled cloister.
This shot was made in the palace chapel – separate entry, no line, pictures allowed.
A remote look at Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle.
The angle of the photo suggests that the palace is situated even higher than the castle, which we saw high above the village in the opening shot.
A couple of shots of the Moorish Castle fortifications. Dating from at least the 9th century, it is one of the oldest monuments in the Sintra landscape and obviously a sight not at all like the palaces.
We also spent some time in the heart of the village, which is quite commercialized yet full of agreeable visual details.
On the walking path between the village center and the castle – I don’t recommend taking it on the way up (use the bus instead), but you can certainly take it on the way down – you come across this unexpected plaque. If I had to name a famous 19th-century writer who spent a short time in Sintra, a Dane would not be my first choice.
As our experience shows, you can see key points of interest and get a good overall impression of Sintra in a single day, while travelling from/to Lisbon on the local train (which runs roughly every half hour from whichever terminal in Lisbon you choose – most people will go through Rossio). And we also did fit in a pretty good sit-down lunch, as well as lost over 40 minutes in midday while waiting on the bus for the driver shift change to take place.
However, the number of attractions in Sintra can easily support a two-day stay. In that case, you would still start with the National Palace on the first morning and then proceed to Regaleira (which has a partial perk of being managed by a different company than the one managing the other major sights – its absence on the combined ticket for those sights means that some visitors skip it altogether, which in turn means that it does not get as crowded even closer to peak times). But afterwards, you could include additional sights, such as Monserrate Palace, which is located a bit further afield and did not fit into our plans. Then, start the second day at Pena, which will have smaller crowds in the morning; and spend some time in the Pena Park, reputedly also quite delightful, which we had to cut from our itinerary. Afterwards, see the castle and you may even have time remaining for one or two lesser sights. I expect that we do something like that when we are back in Sintra.