Most visitors to Portugal make Lisbon their first stop. While the capital city is certainly a great place to get your fill of Portuguese culture—be it in the form local cuisine or Fado music—the historic neighboring town of Sintra is an equally worthwhile spot to visit, and as it’s only 15 miles from the capital, it can easily be done as a day trip from Lisbon.
Although some of the earliest written references to this UNESCO World Heritage City were penned during the Moorish occupation, archaeologists believe that the city has been inhabited since the Neolithic era (5th Century BCE). However, most of Sintra’s present-day architecture dates back to the 19th century, when the Romanticism movement was at its peak.
Perhaps the city’s best-known example of Romanticist architecture is Pena National Palace. Construction on this national monument began in the Middle Ages, and for centuries the site served primarily as a chapel and monastery. In the mid-18th century the hilltop monastery was severely damaged by lightning and an earthquake. The site remained in ruins until the mid-19th century, when the royal family commissioned a palace on the site that blended elements of Islamic, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance architecture with the Neo-Manueline style that was all the rage in Portugal at the time. The palace was used by the family until the early 20th century, when it was transformed into a museum. Today Pena is one of Portugal’s most visited sites, and visitors come here to admire the architecture, stroll in the palace’s eclectic gardens, and explore the vast interiors that still contain royal artifacts and furniture.
Another must-see in Sintra is the fantastic Quinta da Regaleira, a beautiful private palace complex that was built at the end of the nineteenth century by a merchant family. The main palace here combines Gothic and Manueline architectural elements on its brilliant façade, and its interiors are filled with elaborately decorated rooms featuring extensive murals and molded trims. The multi-storied chapel at the base of the palace is equally ornate and features beautiful frescoes and stained glass windows. However, the best thing about a visit to Quinta da Regaleira is the extensive gardens that feature a network of intersecting tunnels, fountains, and grottos. Don’t miss the Masonic initiation well, which is flanked by a spiral staircase and connects to a long, dark cave tunnel.
Sintra is also a great place for shopping, and you can pick up everything from souvenir blue tile pottery and religious statuary to ginjinha, Portugal’s signature cherry liqueur. There are also plenty of little upscale boutiques here selling women’s apparel, and it’s one of the most popular places in the country to pick up antiques.