TRAVEL: The crown jewel of Portugal
"Perhaps in every respect the most delightful town in Europe" -- Lord Byron
If Portugal is on your travel agenda, there’s one special place close to Lisbon that no visitor should miss, whether for a few days or just an easy day trip. This is the historic town of Sintra, a World Heritage Site which has been the site of human civilisation since Paleolithic times, evidenced by fragments of ceramics and utensils discovered by archaeologists.
More visibly interesting is the town’s history as a retreat for Portuguese royalty and wealthy Lisbonites, with fine palaces, extravagant mansions and decorative gardens. The pine covered hills and maritime climate are ideal for resort-style activities ranging from Atlantic beach sports to hiking and nature-based tourism among the pine forests.
Added to that is today’s funky town centre with traditional buildings and cobblestone streets (ladies beware: forget the heels) lined with cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
A day trip from Lisbon is hardly enough to enjoy all of Sintra’s delights, yet when you’re on a busy itinerary it may be all you can manage… so here are some of the highlights that should not be missed.
Palacio National de Sintra
Although there was an ancient Moorish castle on this site, the present building dates back to the 14th century and is an interesting mixture of Moorish, Gothic and Manueline styles. It was in continuous use by Portuguese royalty until the abolition of the monarchy in 1910 and today, it is one of Portugal’s main tourist attractions because of the most extensive collection of azulejos (glazed tiles) in the world, magnificently decorated rooms and the two conical chimneys which are Sintra’s most recognisable landmarks.
Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle)
Set among the forests, this castle was built by the North African Moors to protect their fertile agricultural lands, but was conquered by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Partially restored, today it offers wonderful views over the region from the crumbling battlements.
Palacio de Pena
Extravagant and colourful, the palace was commissioned by King Ferdinand II in 1842 following his instructions to "create a scene from an opera". It’s a combination of styles from African Islamic to Gothic Medieval and is the highlight of any visit to Sintra, with its drawbridge, turrets, ramparts and domes. Pena Park which surrounds the palace has an air of mystery about it, especially in misty autumn weather cloaking the exotic plants, trees and fountains and of course the obligatory statue of Ferdinand II.
Palacio de Monserrate
Designed and commissioned in 1858 by an Englishman, Sir Francis Cook, this palace is the smallest but arguably the most beautiful, set among romantic subtropical gardens that have been described as a masterpiece of landscaping and botanical engineering.
These are just a few of the highlights of Sintra, one of Portugal’s (and Europe’s) most beguiling historic towns. Lonely Planet sums it up as "a page torn from a fairy tale". No matter how long your stay in Portugal, it’s an experience not to be missed.