In the forests amongst the steep craggy mountains that are enshrined in a near constant mist and fog, lives a town as old as Lisbon. A cool retreat from the hot weather of the larger coastal city about 40 minutes away. A superb vantage point and secure location, this region has been populated from Neolithic times. By first one ruler and then the next, the ruling aristocracy of Lisbon have made their summer homes here. A patchwork of enormous palaces and grand estates. An ancient playground for the wealthy. The Moors built a massive stronghold here and later the blood money of new world conquest and slavery financed embarrassing opulence. Today new money still occupies the Portuguese Riviera but the city of Sintra with its massive palatial remnants is primarily a tourist destination. A day trip from Lisbon. Canyons of echoes of lost time on the cusp of being forgotten. For me, all such grandiosity is built on the backs of the helpless and the poor. Fairy castles don’t spring from fairy godmothers. And in that light these beautiful sites are especially horrific. But I enjoyed exploring them with the curious intensity of an otter. Consuming the whimsical magic. The years of human life that crafted them. I don’t think the marvel is of any consolation. But fuck if it’s not impressive.
Walking around downtown
The actual town of Sintra is broken up into several smaller sections of geographically flat spots amongst the steep hills with curvey roads connecting them. The main part of town is where the train station is with the municipal building, a variety of restaurants and shops and more residents amongst the larger estates. The area surrounding the Palácio Nacional de Sintra is almost entirely touristy. It’s the closest to the palaces so it makes walking easy and it’s fairly empty at night, but most of the bars are geared towards daytime snacks and close early. There are a few better spots at the top of the hill. There’s also a larger locals area of town away from the train station where you can find grocery stores and normal people living their lives.
Quinta da Regaleira
This palace is only a short walk away from the national palace and the one that I was most excited about. I had seen features in different books like the “reverse tower” which is a deep well with spiral staircase. We budgeted an entire day just for this palace and used all of that time exploring. The magic of the place didn’t come through in the photos as much as I had hoped. Just exploring the grounds was delightful.
Located near the top of the grounds, we went straight here from the gate. It was the most well known feature and it showed. There was a decent line even with the fewer tourists. They were distancing parties into the well. But the line still went fairly quickly. I could tell there were Masonic overtones to the symbolism but I didn’t really understand what they were. But the space was used ceremonially. The spacing, circular floors, and number of stairs have mystical significance. Once at the bottom you are connected to a system of tunnels that pop out at other features throughout the park. Most of them were blocked off so everyone exited at the same grotto, but you could see other entrances in other grottos.
One of many lakes, this one had a bridge over the top with an interesting waterfall in front of caves. There are stepping stone across the water and an entrance to more tunnel passages behind falls and then another path back out further along. These were blocked off while I was there but it fun to see even from a distance.
This was a fun collection of towers and sculptures that served as an entrance to the same tunnel system we had walked from the well. In the front is a large fountain with doors on either side that lead into a grotto area behind and then tunnels that are blocked off.
Terrace of the Celestial Worlds and Reservoir
This was a large flat area over a reservoir with a tall tower overlooking the Waterfall lake, the Guardians’ Entrance, and other shorter towers along the structure. There were castle-looking shaded benches and curvy trails leading into the woods below.
Eastern wooded stairs to the top and pathway back down.
Along the eastern border of the grounds we found a collection of steep stone stairs and tight switchbacks that climbed up a hundred feet or more. Once at the top we walked forest paths along the northern wall until we found another set of paths leading down across natural looking stone bridges and winding stone pathways.
After several hours of exploring the grounds we finally made our way back down to a cafe for lunch and then on to the palace itself. Just outside, along the way, was a small freestanding chapel.
Only the first floor of the palace was currently open to visitors but it was still quite impressive. Ornate locks, rich tilework, and intricate wood carvings on the ceiling. Once you exit you can walk along the lower balcony before arriving at the base of the ornate lower wall and front gate.
Threshold of the Gods
The southern border of the estate was closed by an ornate wall and gate. Above the gate was an ornate stone structure. And as the wall continued, a shaded park with sculptures, lakes, and benches.
At the far end of the southern wall is one last ornate gate. This is the first gate you see as you’re walking the road to the palace.
Other areas on the grounds
I couldn’t find names for all of these features but there were many towers, benches, and structures spread across the grounds. We had the most fun exploring all of these magical places.
Palácio da Pena
I had not previously heard about this palace but it was certainly the most visually striking structure in town. We booked a bus to the top of the mountain and yet another bus from the gate to the palace (the transfer bus is extra when you buy the ticket online but well worth it). This place is straight out of a fairy tale. Bright colors, imposing gates, whimsical mixed-style romanticism, intricate stone and tile work, striking views. It really had it all.
The entrance consists of a winding road that passes first through a gated wall, and then a second gated entry with a drawbridge, then a curving tunnel up past a series of towers. It is very imposing and well protected.
As the road winds upward past towers, it finally flattens off in a courtyard in front of the palace. Two very different entryways with tunnels lead to the Arches Yard on the back side of the palace with spectacular views of the town below and access to the chapel.
The Arches Yard is a courtyard at the back of the castle with stunning views of the town below and the surrounding country side. On a clear day you could easily see Lisbon. The bright yellow towers surround you and the red clocktower looms above.
The palace walls
From the Arches Yard you can access the wall walk that runs along the upper palace walls with spectacular views, and back around to the front with views of the entry approach and back to upper front courtyard.
Castelo dos Mouros
The Moorish Castle is a much older structure built in the 700’s when the region was ruled by north African Berbers. It’s only a short walk from the Palácio da Pena. Once through the front gate there’s a long leisurely walk along walls and wooded pathways until you get to the main gate of the castle. Inside, an imposing stone wall winds along the top of the tallest peak and following the existing stone outcroppings which make up a bulk of the walls. You can see this castle from everywhere in the valleys and the views are spectacular. Most of the structures are ruins but many of the towers still stand and the wall is complete. It’s a lot of stairs to walk the entire wall but worth the effort.
Eating in Sintra
Most of the bars near the National Palace feature meat and cheese boards or canned fish on toast. It’s overpriced but fine. We found a few good places like Villa 6 at the top of the hill with small but serviceable menus. You can find better restaurants around the train station but it’s still a mixed bag and many are tourist focused but also a few gems mixed in for the locals.
Cantinho do Lord Byron
This is about as touristy as it gets but it was only a few doors down from our apartment, we were hungry, and quite honestly it was really cute. Katy got the sardines on toast which were fine and I spent way to much on a mixed plate with canned sardine pate and cheese with a mug of ale, and for desert two shots of Eduardino in chocolate cups. Kind of tasted like Chartreuse.
This was the restaurant at the top of the hill. It had a small menu but the food was good and much cheaper than the more touristy spots. The prego was only 5 euros and was pretty filling.
This restaurant was closer to the train station but worth the walk. It had a very traditional menu and the prices were fine but not particularly cheap. My lamb ribs were delicious and the alentejana (bread and egg) soup was excellent. I sprung for the desert with a glass of port without realizing every meal comes with a small desert and glass of port, so I ended up having doubles of both.
This was a higher end French restaurant on the lower road from the train station. A little spendy but I was happy to have foie gras torchon and duck magret. Katy opted for the guinea fowl stuffed with cheese.
Other details of Sintra.
Sintra was a lovely town packed with aging estates and lovely parks. Just walking around you are likely to find all manner of interesting architecture or hidden gems.