Exploring Pena Palace and the Main Attractions of the UNESCO World Heritage City
Less than an hour’s drive from Lisbon, the magical town of Sintra is located in the northwest hills of Serra de Sintra. It is a cultural landscape, drawing in visitors from around the world curious to see the fortress-like castles, enchanting palaces and magnificent villas all nestled into the scenic mountains and overgrown greenery.
Those who visit are amazed at how their expectations were far exceeded not only by the fascinating architecture but also by the unbelievable natural beauty and geography. The amount of greenery is a stark contrast to the tiled buildings of Lisbon and the jagged cliff beaches just a stone's throw away.
Its unique and often cool microclimate attracted the royal families and wealthy elite to establish their summer residences in Sintra. But, you will have to read more below to find out how this extraordinary town came to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of the wealthiest municipalities in Portugal.
What is Sintra?
Understanding the history of Sintra, even in a brief glance, will help to navigate the city and its rich heritage.
The history can be divided into three main eras. Beginning in the 9th century, it was the Moors who ruled Portugal. After years of constant battling with the Christian crusaders, they lost control of the Iberian region. In the 15th to 18th centuries, Sintra was overrun by the royals who controlled the area and built their palaces here. Shortly after, beginning in the 19th century, Romanticism swept through Portugal and resulted in the extravagant palaces and villas you find today.
After spending a day in Sintra it is easy to argue that all three eras are elegantly intertwined with one another, showing themselves in the architecture which is unique to the area.
Exploring the Old Town of Sintra (Vila Velha)
At the base of all of Sintra’s monumental and majestic palaces and castles sits its charming and quaint old town. The big attractions listed in this article normally are first on visitors' agendas, but Vila Velha should be explored between attractions or after.
What to see in Vila Velha
Here you will discover a variety of establishments, from boutique hotels to traditional Portuguese eateries, tourist centered souvenir shops, bakeries with window displays filled with sticky sweets, floor to ceiling bottle-lined wine shops, artists selling handmade goods, the famous Queijadas da Sapa- baking cheesecakes since 1756, the tourism office and the Parque da Liberdade, the public park of the city.
The town hall and clock are marvelous examples of revivialist architecture from the early 20th century, featuring medieval details. And perhaps, the most stunning feature found alongside the overgrown roads of Sintra's forest is the Fonte Mourisca fountain- an unbelievable work of architecture, tiling and a beautiful photo opportunity if there ever was one.
How to go to Sintra from Lisbon?
Taking the Train
Catching the Bus
We suggest using a form of public transportation as Sintra was not designed to accommodate the amount of car traffic which now fills the small city. Parking is almost impossible and the roads are narrow and windy.
Once in Sintra there is a shuttle bus that makes a loop of all the major sights. It is numbered as the 434 tourist bus and is named the Circuito da Pena.
It picks passengers up at the Sintra train station and then makes a round through the historic center, Castelo dos Mouros, Pena Palace, back again to the historic center and finally ends at the train station. This allows for a quicker tour and to visit most of the big sights without unnecessary time wasted.
What to do in Sintra?
There is enough in Sintra to keep a visitor busy for days, but we have chosen to highlight the top attractions which can all be seen in a day.
1. Pena Palace (Palácio da Pena)
As Pena Palace is the main attraction in Sintra, we will be explaining it briefly here and in more detail later in the article.
Being the most popular attraction in Sintra, it’s ideal to see the palace first thing in the morning. Arrive shortly before the doors open and you can hopefully skip the long longs and be rewarded with the chance to take some incredible pictures without too many other tourists in the background. Pena Palace is regarded to be one of the best castles in all of Europe.
- Compare the top-rated Pena Palace Tickets HERE.
2. The Quinta da Regaleira
The Quinta da Regaleira is a Neo-Gothic private mansion with gardens more incredible than you can imagine- complete with all the features that make them feel as if they were pulled from the pages of a fairytale.
The estate was built in the first decade of the 1900s as a project of Carvalho Monteiro. As it grew in size and grandeur it was nicknamed “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire.” The house became a masterpiece of architecture and the landscaping included grottos, fountains and tunnels.
The nine acres of garden are truly the most impressive feature of the property and the best way to tour them is to wander the grounds. One of the highlights is the 27 meter deep inverted tunnel which was used as an Initiation Well by the secret order of the Knights Templar.
- Check out the most popular Quinta da Regaleira Ticket Options HERE.
3. Castelo dos Mouros
While Pena Palace occupies the top of one Sintra mountain, the Moorish castle with its fort walls holds its own on the neighboring hill and has earned the nickname, the Great Wall of Portugal.
It is believed to have been built in about the 9th century and was occupied by the Moors from North Africa until being pushed out by the crusaders. Over the years it slowly crumbled until, in the 19th century, King Ferdinand II had it restored.
A visit inside is well worth your time, and if you’re not afraid of heights and the narrow pathways at the top, we suggest climbing the Castelo dos Mouros walls.
→ Interested in seeing more castles during your visit to Portugal. Be sure to read about São Jorge Castle in Lisbon and what there is to see and do there!
4. The National Palace of Sintra
Located in the center of the historic old town, the medieval National Palace of Sintra, with its giant cone chimneys is impossible to miss. Don’t be fooled by them; despite appearing to be for decorative purposes, they are actually placed above the massive kitchens within the palace.
The National Palace was constructed in the early 15th century and was used continuously until the 19th century, making it the most used royal residence in Portugal’s history.
Like many of the structures in Lisbon and her vicinity, the palace was severely destroyed during the earthquake of 1755, but the tiling, ceiling art and luxurious decorative themes of the rooms were almost perfectly restored.
5. Monserrate Palace
Monserrate Palace is a lesser visited attraction in Sintra, as it isn't directly located in the center of the old town. However, if you can manage transportation to the palace, which is only a short drive away, you will be wowed once again.
Built in 1863, it is an intricately designed palace with arabian features. It was built on the site of a former chapel and home.
→. Sintra isn't the only place you can discover Lisbon's fascinating architecture. Download the easy to use audio guide Tour of Belém from YourMobileGuide and visit some of the top sights in the country!
A Guide to Pena Palace
Pena Palace is truly the jewel of Sintra. Eye catching with its vibrant colors, seated above all the other attractions, it’s easy to understand why this castle has been attracting visitors for centuries. A spectacular example of 19th century romantic architecture and taste which became widely popular at the time it was built.
The History Behind Pena Palace
Construction began in the 19th century and was completed in 1854. A young and somewhat inexperienced German architect, Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, was commissioned for the job, and it was his exposure to different architectural styles and castles around from Europe and Africa which resulted in the designs you will find at Pena today.
Despite being overwhelmingly Romantic, there are varying details which draw from Gothic influence as well as Moorish styles. It includes mythological statues, gargoyles who stand guard, terraces which look out in every direction offering panoramic views of the region and exterior tiling that will make your draw drop. And all of this is just on the outside of the palace. A tour inside will open up a world of lavish extremities and a glimpse into what money can purchase when there is no limit.
Pena Palace was home to Portuguese royalty until 1910 when the revolution began. They immediately fled the country, in search of safety in Brazil. Leaving the palace to fall into the hands of the public. But before the palace found its home here, a monastery was located on the site, built in the 1500s. There was also a chapel, established in the middle ages, dedicated to Our Lady of Pena. Both were destroyed from the earthquake of 1755 and left in shambles until King Ferdinard II had the palace built as his summer getaway.
Experiencing the Palace Gardens
The park gardens which surround the palace are not to be missed. They are so fantastic that they have been included in the Portuguese National forest service since 1910. The landscaping includes imported trees and plants, ornamental statues and viewpoints that are just as impressive as those from the terraces. Get lost in the whimsical gardens which feature lakes, ponds, waterfalls and fountains. It's debatable whether Pena Palace has inspired the castles of fairy tales or whether the fairy tales have inspired Pena, but rumor has it that it's the muse of the castle in Cinderella.
We hope this full day guide to Sintra’s top attractions and Pena Palace was helpful. If you have more time to explore Lisbon and her nearby districts, we have created a Three Day Guide to Lisbon, an Ultimate One Day Guide to Lisbon and a Guide to the Historic Alfama.
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