Often called the pinnacle of Portuguese nineteenth-century Romanticism, Sintra is the most popular daytrip from Lisbon, and 24 hours here offers plenty of things to see and do. The city’s pride and joy is its UNESCO-cited Pena Palace, the sumptuous former residence of King Ferdinand II, who outfitted the medieval monastery with a stunning combination of Gothic, Renaissance, Manueline, and Islamic styles. Between Pena Palace, the Quinta da Regaleira, and nearby Neo-Gothic Monserrate Palace, exploring Sintra feels like traipsing through a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, especially if you visit the crumbling ruins of the city’s eighth-century Moorish Castle. Visitors can still climb its ancient turrets for a panoramic vantage point of the surrounding forest and the low-lying villages. Perhaps the city’s most stunning testament to Romanticism is Pena Park, which surrounds the palace and also contains several kilometers of walking trails between lakes, horse stables, greenhouses, and King Ferdinand II’s “low-key” summer chalet. If you have one day to spend in Sintra, this itinerary can help you get the most out of your stay.
Morning: Walk around the Palacio Nacional de Pena
Constructed in 1839 from the ruins of a Hieronymite monastery, this hilltop castle became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. As Sintra’s crown jewel, it attracts tourists like a magnet, but for good reason; the multicolored building is an architectural cocktail, combining Gothic, Manueline, Islamic, and Renaissance influences. After elaborate renovations made by King Ferdinand II, Pena Palace was only inhabited for 20 years; it became a national monument as of 1910. Today, visitors can walk through the sumptuous, maze-like interior, through opulent bedrooms, reception rooms, a telephone room, the Arabic room, and a lavish tea room where the queen received her most “intimate” guests. Finish the tour with a photo on the Queen’s Terrace, which offers stunning views of surrounding Pena Park.
Another fantastic site to check out is the Palacaio Nacional de Sintra (Sintra National Palace). Most tourists march straight past this Moorish-Gothic-Manueline royal residence. Compared to Pena Palace, the exterior is nothing special, but in many ways its history is far richer and more interesting than that of the popular hillside castle. Originally the seat for tenth-century Moorish rulers, Sintra National Palace was captured during the Portuguese conquest of Sintra, and in the next few centuries it underwent various renovations and additions until the sixteenth century. Since then, little has changed, and the Sintra National Palace is the only Medieval palace to remain virtually unaltered from its structure pre-earthquake of 1755. The interior is sparsely decorated, but “fancy” doesn’t have to mean diamond-studded. Many rooms are named after elaborate ceiling paintings, including the Magpie Room, Mermaid Room, and Galleon Room. Be sure to check out Brasōes Hall, a circular hall lined with azulejo tiles, gilded woodwork, and no fewer than 72 royal families’ crests. Also notable is the Grotto of the Baths, where tiny holes in the azulejos used to send criss-crossing jets of water across a cavernous space, making for one hell of a fancy shower.
Lunchtime: Nosh on some cheesy tarts
Sintra’s famously cheesy queijadas are similar to Lisbon’s pastéis de nata but a bit smaller, flatter, and more cinnamon-y. A favorite of King Ferdinand himself, these addictive tarts make the perfect lunch when paired with a fresh salad on the side. Find a spot to dine al fresco and rest your weary legs from your busy morning exploring palaces.
Afternoon: Stroll through Castelo dos Mouros
A leisurely walk through Castelo dos Mouros is the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Built by the Moors who once occupied Portugal between the eighth and ninth centuries, the Moorish Castle may not be as regal as neighboring Pena Palace, but a walk around the perimeter wall is every bit as awe-inspiring. Surrendering to Christian forces in 1147, the castle was an important military lookout point for the old town of Sintra, and later for Lisbon. Because it lacks signage, touring the castle is mostly a self-guided affair—be sure to check out the ancient cisterns, which were capable of storing 600 cubic meters of water for the castle’s residents, and the ancient funerary tombs, where Muslims and Christians are buried almost side-by-side.
Next, the Sintra Art Museum is a great pregame for the amazement to come once you start exploring the historic downtown at dinnertime. You’ll see sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings of Pena Palace, looming large in the background of shepherd-dotted pastoral scenes. The museum’s permanent exhibit, “Landscape: Image of Sintra,” showcases nineteenth-century painting, drawing, and photography of the ancient city. There’s more photography on rotation, as well, plus ceramic works by local and regional artists.
Dinner: Grab dinner and drinks in downtown Sintra
Historic downtown Sintra has plenty of adorable restaurants to enjoy a delicious meal of Portuguese classics. We recommend settling in at a wine bar and nibbling on some small plates of salt cod with garbanzos or marinated sardines. Or, sample some local favorites like foie gras with liver jam, traditional Iberian ham dishes, or Portuguese cheese plates. Wash it all down with a glass of local wine—the best way to end your day exploring Sintra.