This fairytale flight of fancy, with its hilltop castles and parks, is a must-see stop on your next trip to Portugal – best tagged on to a Lisbon city break.
While Lisbon often grabs the attention, the Portuguese capital’s near neighbour, Sintra, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the country for good reason. With its curved mountains, dewy forests, exotic gardens and Crayola-coloured palaces, it’s a city torn straight from a storybook. Only an hour’s drive from Lisbon transports you to this mystical, Unesco-listed hilltop vision, making it perfect for a day trip. Oh, and did we mention its beach? Here are our top reasons to visit Sintra.
The colourful Pena National Palace is straight out of Disneyland
© Karol Kozlowski Premium RM Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
You might have to pinch yourself to believe it, but Sintra’s glorious technicolour Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace) really does exist and is as enchanting as the legends dictate. Perched atop the cobbled, rocky peaks of the Sintra Mountains and inspired by German Romantic architecture, its ornamental buttresses, twin chimneys and cartoonish gargoyles make it resemble a Disney castle. Get lost exploring the eccentric Moorish-Manueline-designed interiors, its elaborate tile work and colourful history where each room dazzles brighter than the last – especially against the backdrop of all those views.
It’s home to secret gardens and enchanting woods
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In case you hadn’t guessed it by now, Sintra is one big fairytale thanks to the castles and manors that are home to an array of gardens, each with its own unique charm. Perfectly manicured to make your social following green with envy, the mystical gardens and ethereal woods are filled with moss-covered trees and rocks, green streams and winding hiking trails. While each garden in Sintra is a worthwhile visit, guests tend to fall deeper in love with the botanical gardens surrounding the Monserrate Palace.
It has Unesco World Heritage status
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A smattering of pastel-hued cottages, villages, traditional castles and monasteries combine to make up the cultural landscape that has earned one of Portugal’s oldest inhabited locations Unesco World Heritage status. Captivating the hearts of King Consort Ferdinand II and his wife Queen Maria II of Portugal, the couple passionately created a wonderland of manicured parks, elaborate castles and manors that today lend the city an uncanny aesthetic. Indeed, the whole town is such a man-made (and natural) masterpiece that itinerant poet and politician Lord Byron described it as the ‘glorious Eden’.
To sample Portugal’s exquisite pastries
While the pastel de nata might be the pastry on everyone’s lips when you think of Portugal, Sintra’s travesseiros are sure to rival even the most ardent fans of the ubiquitous Portuguese custard tart. Sintra’s mouth-watering, flakey, almond-filled pillows are the one pastry locals swear by – most delicious when served piping hot from the local bakery. Completely homemade, we recommend sampling the very finest from Sintra’s oldest and most popular bakery, Casa Piriquita. Next, for a taste of Sintra that lingers longer, take home a six-box souvenir of queijadas de Sintra (Portuguese cupcakes), which should keep for two weeks – if you can resist.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a Bond film
Courtesy of Tivoli Palacio de Seteais / Expedia
If you’re a James Bond film buff or are simply seeking a bit of luxury, Sintra is the place for you. Of course, Walt Disney wasn’t the only one enchanted by Sintra’s mesmerising beauty. The town has also piqued the interest of other artistic visionaries, most notably Ian Fleming. Serving as the setting for Bond’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a favourite haunt for British and German spies, visitors can enjoy a martini-making experience at the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais or feel like 007 as they cruise through Sintra’s scenic roads in an Aston Martin.
The beach will take your breath away
Not just home to mystical castles and gardens, Sintra’s wild and unspoilt Praia da Ursa is widely regarded as the most beautiful in the area. Set on the rugged, Atlantic west coast, just north of Cabo da Roca, the breathtaking cliffs stacked across the golden sand make for beautiful vistas above. Even if it’s not bikini weather, it’s worth making a pit stop here to soak up the tranquility and sea breeze. The Adraga Restaurant at the end of the cliff offers a panoramic view of the beach below, but we also love Azenhas do Mar, a few coves away in the small seaside village of the same name, whose clifftop location and local servings of seafood are not to be missed.
To visit the edge of the Earth
This dramatic sea arch filled with spouting waves marks the westernmost point on the European continent. Indeed, Boca do Inferno is a symbolic spot for all Portuguese; the kind of place every tourist dreams of visiting at least once and offers another fantastic photo opportunity.
To sample seafood restaurants like Restaurante da Adraga
Portugal is renowned for its delicious seafood, but Sintra has some of the country’s finest – at much more reasonable rates than more southerly parts of the country. If you’re a fan of percebes (goose barnacles) or have yet to try this local delicacy, then this is your chance. Even if you’re not yet convinced, there are numerous other just-caught fresh fish dishes to try. We recommend the clams in white wine at the cafe on Praia da Adraga (Adraga beach) with its beautiful setting, or the giant spicy shrimps at the more upmarket Mar do Inferno.
Quinta da Regaleira
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This dramatic, surreal ceremonial well – on the grounds of the Romantic-era Quinta da Regaleira palace – spins down via a spiral staircase into a tunnel system that you could spend hours exploring, as you head down via carved columns and its nine atmospheric tiers. Believed to be linked to Tarot mysticism and Masonic principles, a visit to this Unesco-listed site is sure to be magical.
It’s one of Portugal’s most picturesque towns
Portugal undeniably has its fair share of quaint towns and villages but Sintra is without a doubt one of the most beautiful. Being home to a number of castles and manors and nestled atop the Sintra Mountains, the best of Moorish design, 19th-century Romanticist architecture and Neo-Islamic styles can be found here, not to mention the most stunning viewpoints of the pretty buildings below.
Some of Portugal’s best hotels are here
Courtesy of Sintra Boutique Hotel / Hotels.com
Given that the whole town is an architectural jewel, it comes as no surprise that the country’s best, oldest and most famous hotels are located here. Indeed, the whole town swells with hotels, ranging from ultra-luxurious to more low key offerings. With sweeping views of Sintra’s mystical woods right from your bedroom window, a trip wouldn’t be complete without a stay in one of Europe’s most sought-after stays.