It is just a short train ride away but it is a different world altogether. Sintra is to Lisbon what Versailles is to Paris, or what Potsdam is to Berlin. It is the place where kings would go on vacation, and where the rest of the elite would follow suit. It is the perfect juxtaposition to the loud and hectic world of the capital. A place where fantasy and romance would rule those who decide to spend their days here. If you wonder what to do in Sintra: The sky is the limit.
Sintra is more than just a little town in the wooded hills of Portugal. It used to be the summer residence of the royal family, a playground for the rich and famous. There are not many other places where you would find such a high concentration of decadence and corrupted aesthetics. It has a magnet pull and an air of magic to it that is hard to resist. In short, a visit to Lisbon is not complete without a day trip to Sintra.
The town in the fairytale woods
As we visit this secluded town in the hills it feels like we are in a fairytale dream of dark and mysterious woods and trickling streams. This early in the day, the mist sits heavily in the valleys. It is adding little droplets of moisture to the tips of ferns and mosses. Like a forest of the Brothers Grimm, dark and mysterious, fragrant and quiet.
It is so unlike anything we expected from Portugal, like a dream within a dream.
The bus from town drops us off at our first destination for the day, Pena Castle, or Palácio Nacional de Pena. It is the former summer residence of the kings of Portugal. A holiday destination to flee the summer heat in the capital. From the entry gate we walk up the hill to the palace, surrounded by the evergreen forest, embraced by the cool mountain air.
What to do in Sintra: A Visit to Palácio Nacional de Pena
Finally, the palace comes into view. It is a colourful complex, the yellow round tower, the purple tiled main building, the blue foundations, the red square tower. Even today, under the dark and gloomy morning skies, it looks cheerful and happy. The mix of styles, the different textures and surfaces, give the building a surprising playfulness on the outside, like a toy castle.
The style is called Romanticist, the jolly composition of different architectural styles, each one of them more boisterous than the other. Look closely and you will find neo-baroque decorations, mudejar-style doorways, gothic pointed arches, neo-classicist elements.
Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle was build with this palace in mind for inspiration.
As we catch our breaths, we ponder about the wild mix of everything pretty, thrown together like a quilt to create something new, over-the-top beautiful. Or is it really beautiful? Is this supercharged attempt at romance really aesthetically pleasing, or is it simply a poster child for decadence?
We cannot quite decide. At first glance, the jumbled up styles look confusing and they frustrate the eye. But as we are getting closer, view the building from different angles, more and more details come into view.
On a tight rope between aesthetics and decadence
The mythological triton that rises out of giant sea shells and stems a tree that grows from its neck – an allegory of the creation of the world. The gargoyles that are shaped like crocodiles or toothy dinosaurs. The twisted ropes that decorate the facade and that continue in the ornate columns that are framing the doorways. The many, many details that find their equivalent in nature.
Inside in the 19th century rooms, the fantastical theme continues. Ornate walls and ceilings with geometrical patterns borrowed from Moorish architecture that are raised like imprints. Metal handrails which are formed like tendrils that run along the walls. Vaulted ceilings, lavishly decorated in trompe-l’œil details to create effects of depth and perspective.
An opulent family home, filled with details and the desire to please, fantastical yet decadent.
But the views from here, so high up on the top of a mountain, they are outstanding. A panoramic view across the valleys that are slowly shaking off their morning tiredness. A satisfying greenness, calming like a sea of sanity that is keeping the madness that is going on in this castle from leaking into the outside world.
Another Place to Visit in Sintra: Quinta da Regaleira
The are many other palaces, summer houses and estates that are open for visits, yet our choice falls on Quinta da Regaleira. There is one single reason for this decision: We want to explore the 4 hectare gardens that surround this millionaire’s mansion.
The park is indeed a wonderland full of little gems that await our discovery. It is filled with a wealth of symbols that refer to the mystical world of freemasonry, alchemy, the Knights Templars.
It is the perfect park to explore with children – you never know, around the next curve, behind the next hill, there might be the next surprise awaiting you.
A Fairytale Wonderland
We come past fountains and richly decorated stone benches. There are towers and turrets with winding exterior staircases to get you to the top. Gazebos and grottos, hidden entrances to interconnecting tunnels that go deep into the mountain.
The further we go, the more we leave behind the orderliness and framework of a traditional garden. The trees in this more primitive, more chaotic part of the woods grow taller, their canopy becomes denser, the light fails to reach the ground beneath our feet.
In a complex network of tunnels and bridges, we come across the waterfall lake, covered entirely in a carpet of lemna. You can hop across on stepping stones and find your way to the back of the waterfall. Or you can follow the bridge and disappear into the network of tunnels, until you reach the initiation well.
A round cylinder dug deep into the ground, like an inverted tower with a spiral staircase that overlooks the central circle inside. Up and down, down and up – our sense of orientation is challenged as we are losing ourselves in these amazing structures that have the sole purpose of inviting adults to play.
We can almost picture them, on those hot summer nights in the Sintra mountains, when the party guests would leave the brightly lit festive halls of the mansion and go to play in the dark forests of the estate. Lord Byron must have been among them, flickering lantern in hand, as he was smitten with the whole town. I am sure he would have been up for such folly.
Views of the Moorish Castle
From the enchanted forest we find our way back to the mansion which is now brilliant and tall under the blue summer skies. It is, just like Pena Palace, decadence in its purest form, an elaborate play on architectural elements such as pinnacles, gargoyles, capitals.
Yet altogether the mansion is less of a jumble of styles and more pleasing overall. Inside, most rooms are closed for renovations but what we do get to see are lots of tiny details such as pretty mosaics, lion head door knockers, wood carved ceilings. Through one of the windows we catch the views of the Moorish Castle, draped on top of a mountain like an enormous snake. Perfect and complete like an artificial addition to the landscape, just to please the viewer’s eye.
A mystical place for those who want to play
It is a strange place, this Sintra. A mystical place full of wonder and surprise. A place that has been shaped by men and women that have made their fortune in South America, that brought with them ideas of creating a world that is full of fantastical things and a spirit of playfulness. To be able to explore this world now in modern times, is a gift and a joy.
Madness is not the key theme here, it is fun. It is the daring exploration into a world of fantasy and bending the rules. You still wonder what to do in Sintra? Just let your curiosity guide you.