Two magnificent palaces, an incredible hilltop castle and a quirky stately home are just some of the many things to do in the pretty, picturesque town of Sintra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site to the west of Lisbon is surrounded by lush, tree-covered hills in the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais and was the favourite summer destination of the Portuguese nobility.
Needless to say with so much to see and do, Sintra was at the top of my list of day trips from Lisbon. The town is just 40 minutes by train and so on my third day in Lisbon, I hopped on the train from Rossio Station.
Forty minutes later I was in Sintra and I strolled down to the old town, which is dominated by the enormous National Palace and its distinctive white conical chimneys. High on the hills overlooking the town, I could just make out the dramatic Moors’ Castle and kitsch Pena Palace.
My first port of call was the National Palace as I was keen to get there early to avoid the crowds. But even though it was just after 10am, it was already busy with coachloads of tourists.
The enormous palace was originally founded as a Moorish fort in the 11th century, before passing to the royal family in the 12th century when King Afonso Henriques conquered Lisbon. The palace was rebuilt and extended over the centuries, and the present palace, with its distinctive shape, white walls and red tiled roofs, has remained pretty much the same since the 16th century.
Inside, the first notable room I visited was the Swan Room (above), a large rectangular space built during the reign of King John I in the early 15th century. The room features green and white tiles on the walls, heavy wooden furniture and a beautiful ceiling painted with swans. The room is still used for state banquets today.
I then wandered down to the central patio, an attractive outdoor space with a great view of the statuesque 33m-tall chimneys. Just off the patio is the water grotto (above), a pretty little space decorated with white and blue tiles, and stucco paintings that depict the creation according to the Bible, the four seasons and more.
Having had a good look around, I continued through the palace following the suggested route, passing the Magpie Room, which was used to receive dignitaries and ambassadors; King Sebastian’s bedroom; and the Mermaid Room, which features paintings of mermaids on the ceiling.
One of the most impressive rooms in the palace is the Heraldry Room. This square room with blue and white tiled walls has an incredible vaulted ceiling (above). The ornately decorated 16th century ceiling features the Portuguese royal family’s coat of arms; the coats of arms of King Manuel I’s eight children from his marriage to his second wife Maria; eight stags; and the coats of arms of 72 of the most powerful families in Portugal at the time. The palace is home to lots of unusual painted and decorated ceilings, but this is by far the most spectacular.
I continued through the palace, visiting the bedroom where King Afonso VI was kept prisoner for nine years by his brother Pedro II in the late 17th century and the Chinese pagoda room. This room is so-called because it’s home to an incredible miniature Chinese pagoda. Then it was on to the Palatine Chapel, which boasts some wonderful frescoes on its walls.
Towards the end of my visit, I ventured inside the striking Arab Room, which has green and white geometric-print tiles on the walls and is dominated by a bronze fountain in the centre of the room (above).
Then it was on to one of the most striking rooms in the palace, the incredible kitchen underneath its iconic chimneys. The 15th century kitchen is huge, with white tiled walls, a number of hearths, two massive ovens and lots of copper cooking utensils. It’s a fantastic space and quite unlike any other palace kitchen I’ve seen.
The National Palace of Sintra is a superb building but I came away feeling underwhelmed. When I visited, there were lots of tour groups who would crowd into the rooms for long periods of time, making it difficult to see what there was to see. Waiting them out, meant getting stuck behind them for long periods again in the next room, so I found myself skipping ahead to get past them and not really taking the time I needed to appreciate what I was seeing. Looking back at my photos, the palace is an incredible building but there were so many tour groups I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I’d love to go back and see it again, preferably when it’s quieter.