The architects of Sintra had fun when designing the royal retreats in this hill town outside of Lisbon. They indulged every whim and fantasy to create a magical world of fairytale palaces surrounded by enchanted forests. Why not choose pink, purple and yellow as your colour scheme? Why not create a castle in the lake just for the ducks? And it’d definitely be fun to have a secret passageway that emerges at the bottom of a well.
If you are a fan of minimalism and elegance then Sintra’s palaces might not be to your taste. They are wonderfully extravagant, playful and over the top, and unlike anywhere else we’ve visited. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its importance as a centre of 19th century Romantic architecture which combines Gothic, Moorish, Manueline and Renaissance elements and parks featuring local and exotic species.
We loved Sintra so much that we visited twice but still only saw two of the palaces. There are so many details within the houses and especially the gardens that they each deserve hours to explore.
Palacio da Pena
The Palacio da Pena is the most extravagant and colourful of the palaces and a work of pure Romanticism high up on a hill above Sintra. It’s a crazy mashup of styles: a mock medieval castle with islamic domes, Moorish geometric tiles, and Disney-esque pink towers.
The approach is up a steep hill through an Arabic archway, the palace looming above; through a stone gateway and across the drawbridge.
Even the crowds don’t take away from the wonder of seeing the fairytale palace up close and climbing its turrets.
The main building is decorated with purple tiles of a Moorish geometric pattern, ornate carved stonework and golden domes.
The most striking feature is above the arched gateway—Triton is a half-man, half-fish allegorical creature who represents creation.
We loved the attention to detail that went into creating the flamboyant palace.
From the wall walk around the palace there are views of the Moorish castle with the sea in the distance. You can even see all the way to Lisbon.
The palace also has an extensive forested park with exotic trees and plants, a fern valley, follies, and a lake with black swans from Australia. There’s even a castle for the ducks to live in. It’s a peaceful escape from the crowds at the palace but allow plenty of time to explore as it is huge. You can walk up to Cruz Alta for views of the palace from afar.
Quinta da Regaleira
The Quinta da Regaleira is less colourful but just as ornate with gothic pinnacles, gargoyles, and an octagonal turret.
The magical gardens were the highlight for us filled with mythological symbols, secret passageways, grottoes, towers, ponds and a hidden waterfall.
One tunnel emerges at the bottom of a well 27 metres deep where you can climb up spiral stairs to get back to the garden.
The gardens must have been heaven for the kids who lived on the estate at the end of the 19th century—they certainly were for us.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
We didn’t actually visit Sintra’s National Palace but it dominates the historic centre and we enjoyed this view on the walk into town from the train station.
Other places you might want to visit in Sintra are the Moorish Castle, Monserrate palace, and the Capuchos Convent.
- Sintra is easily visited as a day trip from Lisbon by train from Rossio station, although it would be worth spending a few days here.
- From the train station it’s about a 15 minute walk into the centre of town, and from there another 5-10 minutes to the Quinta da Regaleira.
- The Pena Palace is located up a steep hill above Sintra. There is a bus but we chose to walk along the forest footpath. It took us about 45 minutes from the train station. It’s best to ask the tourist office at the train station for a map and directions.
- Entrance to the Quinta da Regaleira is €6 unguided.
- Pena Palace is €13.50 for the grounds and inside the palace (with a €1 discount before 11am). It’s gets very crowded so we recommend getting there early. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the palace.
Visiting the palaces of Sintra was one of our favourite things to do in Lisbon—see more of our Lisbon highlights.
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Have you been to Sintra? Leave a comment and let us know which palaces you enjoyed.