The town of Sintra is one of the most scenic locations in Portugal. The celebrated 18th century English poet Lord Byron himself was inspired enough by its beauty to immortalize it in one of his poems calling it a “glorious Eden.” Other wealthy and prominent men of his time also found Sintra an ideal retreat. In the past the country’s Royal Family stayed there during the summer and other members of the nobility likewise put up huge residences and villas within the locality.
Even in earlier centuries Sintra has always captivated visitors. Romans made it a pagan worship ground for their moon goddess Cynthia from which its current name may have been derived. Moors followed and settled in the area building the Castelo dos Mouros (“Moorish Castle”) on top of the highest hill where one can enjoy the most magnificent views of Sintra. The Moors also put up fountains around the town.
Sintra is often described as picture-perfect. Some even call it a fairy tale land because of its dreamlike character. The place is rich in cultural heritage as can be seen from the classic architectures and art that can be found all around town. Its historical buildings look even more dramatic set against the backdrop of Sintra’s lush hills and surroundings.
The town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the first centre of European Romantic architecture.” Ferdinand II is said to have initiated the trend when he turned the ruins of an old monastery into a palace that combined influences of Moorish, Gothic, Egyptian, and Renaissance architectures. This is Sintra’s most popular building, the Pena Palace. The structure was built in the 1840s and features an assembly of towers, battlements and domes and even has a drawbridge and a gargoyle placed above its arch. The façade is washed in pleasing pastel colors.
The Pena Palace is surrounded by an equally diverse and extraordinary garden. Known as Pena Park, the garden is composed of an assortment of local and exotic plants from various former colonies of Portugal.
An older structure found in Sintra’s main square is the National Palace which was built in the 1300s. It serves as the town’s major landmark with its towering cone-shaped chimneys. It houses what is said to be the largest collection of coloured glazed tiles in the world.
There are a number of sites to see while in Sintra and it advisable to sign up for a guided tour if you don’t want to miss any of them. Notable places to visit include the Monserrate Palace that was owned by Francis Cook and rented by William Beckford for a time. There is also the Regaleira Estate, the Capuchos Convent, Queluz Palace, and the Moorish Castle. If you are touring the town alone you can take the bus that leaves every 30 minutes from a terminal behind a train station.
For the art enthusiast the Modern Art Museum is a must-see. It exhibits highly valued works of world-famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Miró and Francis Bacon. From the museum of modern art you could hop on to another very different kind of museum, the Toy Museum. Its huge collection of more than 20,000 items include Hornby trains from the 30s, authentic Nazi toy soldiers from Germany made during the war, the very first toy cars and even some 3,000-year old Egyptian toys.
From Lisbon you can usually take a day trip to Sintra but a day may not be enough to see all that you may want. You may opt to stay in the most famous hotel in the town, which is Lawrence’s Hotel, just like Lord Byron did more than a century ago. The hotel is the oldest one in the Iberian Peninsula.
The day trip would usually include a tour of the historical buildings and an excursion to the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The park spans from the Serra de Sintra mountain range to the nearby beaches and Cabo da Roca, Europe’s westernmost point.