Sintra: Visiting Portugal's Fairytale Town of Royal Palaces

Tree covered mountains, dotted with bright & colorful Palaces, play coy to the dramatic Royal past of Sintra.  North of Lisbon, Sintra is the perfect day trip.


Located just 30 minutes from Lisbon, is Sintra, perhaps the most fairytale-like town we’ve ever visited. It’s a town dotted with palaces, castles, royal retreats and truly impressive architecture. From what used to be the former summer escape for Portugese royalty, is now a highly acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular day trip with tourists and locals alike.

Palaces aside, the area does a really great job of showing off the natural beauty of the landscape. The Sintra Mountains seem to glow in the background and as far as you can see is lush greenery dotted with bright pieces of architecture. We knew we wanted to spend a day wandering around the castles and the area, so when we discovered that our hotel, The Four Seasons in Lisbon, could arrange a private car and tour for us, we were all in. We spent the day admiring the scenery and taking in all the incredible and chaotic architecture.  


Pena National Palace

Honestly, it was seeing pictures of the Pena National Palace that sparked our interest in visiting Sintra. Perched high atop a tree covered mountain, its brightly colored towers and (frankly) bizarre architecture captured our imagination.  Technically the style of architecture is Romanesque Revival, but better described, as a intentional mixture of eclectic styles.  The pointed arches are Gothic, the brightly tiled walls are Islamic and the whimsical colors and setting are very Romantic. If I were a princess, this would be my castle!

Arriving at the the Pena National Palace, our driver dropped us off at the monument entrance, which is located about 1km from the Palace itself. At this point we had 2 choices, we could make the 1km walk (uphill) to the Palace, or we could pay €3 euro each and take a shuttle bus. Needless to say, we took the shuttle bus, and were up at the monument in about 3 minutes, which definitely beat walking.


Once we arrived at the entrance, we both were in complete awe. Towers and domes stood tall in front of us and bright variations of every color in the rainbow made a presence. Once inside you are taken through a maze of rooms and spaces that are decorated with restored and re-created pieces of furniture. It’s fascinating to see how life was, only a few hundred years ago.

To see some of the most impressive views of the area, make sure to spend some time wandering around outdoors. There are several walkways and corridors that wrap around the Palace, allowing you to get those birds-eye views. Even if you aren’t into history or visiting castles, the creativity put into this architectural masterpiece is worth the visit alone.


Quinta da Regaleira

While Pena National Palace was what drew us to this amazing little town, we quickly discovered other sights that impressed us just as much. Our first stop was to Quinta da Regaleira, a former private residence that is now open to the public. We enjoyed wandering through the sprawling gardens while admiring the exquisitely detailed architecture of the Palace.  

The inside of the Quinta da Regaleira was a bit of a let down, as much of the rooms were dedicated to showcasing the architectural drawings of the building. Perhaps that’s your thing, but we only needed about 10 minutes to get our fill. One thing we are disappointed to have missed here was the 2 “wells” that are located on the property, which apparently were not actually wells, but instead were used for Tarot ceremonies. Yeah, exactly.


One of the wells inside Quinta da Regaleira. * Photo courtesy of Quinta da Regaleira


The Historical Center of Sintra

This rather small, but nonetheless charming town, provided a welcome break from visiting all of the Palaces in the area, and we easily spent an hour exploring it many winding alleys and streets. However, we quickly realized that this is a town that is driven by tourism, and it seems like every store is devoted to selling useless trinkets and bobbles. On the other hand, once you escape the throngs of tourists milling about, there are several areas of the town that offer peace and quiet, providing picturesque views of the famous Sintra National Palace and of the hills surrounding Sintra. In all, the historical center is worth a visit, but you won’t need more than a hour to explore this little UNESCO listed town.


The historical center of Sintra


Getting to Sintra

If you are planning a visit to Sintra, odds are you will be coming from Lisbon, and traveling in between the 2 places is fast and convenient. There are frequent trains and buses that connect the 2 cities, and you can easily make the journey in under and hour.

However, we opted to hire a private driver through our hotel in Lisbon; The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz. Not only were we picked up from the hotel in a brand new Mercedes AMG, and whisked off to Sintra in under 30 minutes, but our driver also provided a lot of interesting information about the history of Sintra, which provided valuable context for our visit...he also had great food recommendations that were off the beaten path!


Our driver taking us around in style

Would We Visit Sintra Again?

Maybe. The many historic Palaces and monuments located around Sintra were pretty spectacular and seeing the Pena National Palace was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip to Portugal. In addition the natural beauty of the area was amazing and provided a nice break after spending several days in the hustle and bustle of Lisbon.

However, aside from the architecture, Sintra did not really offer us anything special and the historical center of Sintra, while pretty, was far too touristy for our taste. Overall though, it was an easy and worthwhile day trip from Lisbon, and we’re glad we did it!