For the past two months I have been working as a tour guide for Tugatrips. In this atypical year, when tourism almost stopped due to the pandemic, the most sold tour was Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais, also visiting Pena Palace, a palace I visited more than 30 times between September and October. When I learned that my contract was not going to be renewed and that I would have to return my Sintra Parks and Quinta da Regaleira Passes, I decided that I would have to take the opportunity to visit all the parks, palaces, castles and convents included in this ticket, before returning it. All spaces, except the Queluz Palace, are part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Here is my “summary” of the various spaces that can be visited in Sintra:

Pena Palace

This palace, in one of the highest points of Sintra mountain, visible from far, when the mountain is not covered by the usual clouds, is one of the most visited monuments in Portugal.

The history of this magical site reaches back to the 12th century, a point in time when there was a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena here. On this same location, King Manuel I ordered the construction of a Monastery, the Royal Monastery of Our Lady of Pena, subsequently handed over to the Hieronymite Order. The earthquake which struck Lisbon in 1755 left the monastery practically entirely in ruins. However, even while stricken, the Monastery remained active and it would only be almost a century later, in 1834, following the abolition of religious orders in Portugal, that it was abandoned.

Two years later Queen Maria II married Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German prince later known as Fernando II, who was bestowed with the status of King-consort. Ferdinand II was one of the most cultured men of 19th century Portugal. A polyglot, he received a thorough education in which he maintained a deep connection with the arts whether as an artist, collector or sponsor and becoming known nationally as the King-Artist. Shortly after his arrival in Portugal, he fell for Sintra and acquired, from his own personal fortune, the Monastery of Saint Jerome, then in ruins, as well as all the lands surrounding the property (today Pena Park). The original project was simply to restore the building as the summer residence for the royal family (now painted red) but his enthusiasm led him to opt for the construction of a palace and extending the pre-existing construction (painted in yellow and covered by tiles in part) under the supervision of Baron Eschwege, as a visitors wing, creating the pinnacle of Romanticism in Portugal. The palace incorporates architectural references displaying Manueline, middle-age and Moorish influences that together produce a surprising scenario.

The Palace was built as a gift for Queen Maria, but she died at the birth of her 11th child, without seeing the palace finished. King Fernando later remarries and is with the second wife, the Countess of Edla, that spends seasons in the palace and to whom he leaves the property in testament, a fact that did not please the Portuguese Crown. After some legal disputes the palace is bought by the state. The second phase of occupation of Pena by the Royal Family saw the presence of King Carlos I, grandson of King Fernando, and Queen Amelie of Orleans. These monarchs would spend part of the summer season in the palace and it is currently decorated as they left it, at the date of their exile to England, when the Republic was proclaimed in Portugal in 1910.

Inside, we find beautiful rooms, richly decorated, such as the Manueline cloister with Spanish-Moorish tiles; the Dining Room, adapted from the old monastic refectory; Queen Amélie’s room overlooking the Moorish Castle; the Arab Room with walls painted in tromp-l’oeil; the Smoking Room; the Noble Room with its wheeled chairs; the Deer Room where banquets were held; or the small chapel that withstood the earthquake. Outside, the highlight is the Monumental Door, in Manueline style; the Terrace of the Triton, which welcomed the visitors; the Arch Patio, with beautiful views above Sintra mountain and the Atlantic; the Wall Walk; and the Queen’s Terrace, where you can see a sundial, with a small cannon, which fired every day at solar noon, so that the queen knew it was lunch time!

Personal opinion: Without a doubt the most colorful Portuguese palace. If you only have time to visit one palace in Sintra, perhaps this is the right choice. Despite having very beautiful interiors, these are not the most beautiful of the different palaces in Sintra, so if you want to visit more than one palace and save money, I would skip the interiors of Pena to visit those of Sintra National Palace or Monserrate’s. It is also very worthwhile to get lost in Pena Park, especially to visit the Chalet of the Countess.

Price: 14€ (Pena Palace – includes the interior – and Park) or 7.5€ (Pena Palace – does not include the interior – and Park) If the ticket is purchased online, you get 5% discount. There is also a shuttle that costs 3€ per person, all day, to move within the park.

Opening hours: Every day from 9:30am to 6:30pm (the park opens half an hour before and closes half an hour later)

Pena Park and Chalet of the Countess

Every romantic palace must have a garden and this one has 85 hectares of surrounding green spaces. Combined with the search for exoticism and the untamed wildness of nature, the king designed twisting paths that would take visitors off in discovery of key reference landmarks such as the Temple of the Columns, the Little Birds Fountain and the Valley of the Lakes; or where they could best appreciate some stunning views: such as the High Cross (the highest point of the mountain, at 529m altitude) or St. Catherine’s Heights. Along the pathways, in keeping with his interest as a collector, he planted tree species from every continent rendering the Park of Pena as the most important arboretum existing in Portugal.

Following the death of Queen Maria II in 1853, Ferdinand would later marry Elise Hensler, a Swiss opera singer, later known as Countess of Edla. Together, they built the Chalet of the Countess of Edla located in western en of the park, about a half-hour walk from the Palace, which served as the couple’s recreational place and romantic retreat. It is a two-story building with a strong scenic load of alpine inspiration and cork decoration. Following a judicial process – which was served with the intent of ensuring this heritage belonged to the Portuguese crown –, Elise ended up selling the Park and Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle to the state but retaining the right to use the chalet and its respective garden through to 1904.

In 1999, the Chalet of the Countess of Edla was destroyed by fire and only reopening to the public in 2011 following four years of restoration work in which Parques de Sintra carried out the reconstruction of this building of such great cultural, historical and artistic value. This project was distinguished in 2013 by Europa Nostra with the European Union Award for Culture Heritage in the Conservation category.

Inside the Park we also find Pena Farm. Here, visitors can visit the stables and go horseback riding through the Park. Around we find some farm animals – rabbits, goats and sheep, and a meadow with resting and picnic spaces.

Personal opinion: These are not the most beautiful gardens in Sintra – the gardens of Quinta da Regaleira or those of Monserrate put Pena Park in a corner – but they are the largest and most diverse. From Pena Farm with its animals, to the unmissable Chalet, it is a park worth visiting.

Price: 7.5€ (includes entrance to the Chalet and a visit outside the Pena Palace). If you also want to enter the Palace, the price will be 14€. If the ticket is purchased online, you get a 5% discount. There is also a shuttle that costs 3€ per person, all day, to move within the park.

Opening hours: Every day from 9am to 7pm (The Chalet closes at 6 pm)

National Palace of Sintra

Located in the centre of Sintra, defining its landscape with the unmistakeable silhouette formed by its two conical chimneys crowning the royal kitchen, there stands the only palace that spans the entire history of Portugal. The Palace of Sintra is first referenced by Al-Bakrî, a 10th century Moorish geographer, in conjunction with the castle that he placed in the lofty peaks of the surrounding hills, today entitled the Moorish Castle. In 1147, following the conquest of Lisbon by Afonso Henriques, the Almoravids of Sintra surrendered to bring an end to over three centuries of Moorish domination. 

Practically every king and queen of Portugal spent some time in residence at the National Palace of Sintra for varying lengths of time but nevertheless leaving behind their own respective marks and memories of their lives. Over the course of time, the palace was shaped by different styles influenced by the different artistic trends prevailing in each period, essentially the result from the construction campaigns undertaken during the reigns of kings Dinis, João I, Manuel I and João III.

The Palace and town of Sintra and the surrounding lands were bestowed upon Saintly Queen Elizabeth in 1287 by King Dinis. While the property remained in the hands of the crown, the queen became the beneficiary taking receipt of all income and tax revenues. A century later, the gifting of Sintra to queens had become a constant practice. On receiving the town and its palaces, the Queens of Portugal became masters of a vast area with the income ensuring they could maintain a House, that is, the large number of people who directly depended on her.

During the reign of King João I (1356-1433), the palace was subject to fairly wide reaching interventions. That which was the palace of Queen Philippa of Lancaster was also becoming a favourite of the king who here wanted to, through the opulence displayed in the new rooms, affirm his statute as founder of the new Avis dynasty, as is the case with the Swan Room. During the 15th century, the presence of the king in the palace became more frequent. The hunting was one of the main attractions bringing the court to Sintra. Another reason was the progressive emergence of Lisbon as the bureaucratic centre of the kingdom’s governance and hence leading the court to circumscribe its travels to an increasingly narrow radius around the leading Portuguese city.

Under Manuel I (1469-1521), the Palace received the decorative features that still today make up its distinctive characteristics, especially the Hispano-Moresque tile finishings. He added the imposing Room of the Coat of Arms, with its cupola ostentatiously displaying the coats of arms of King Manuel, his children and the seventy-two most noble households in the kingdom.

In the 17th century, there came more sombre times for this royal residence. Following six years in exile on Angra do Heroísmo, to where he had been sent by his brother who deemed him incapable of ruling, King Afonso VI arrived at the Palace of Sintra. There, he was incarcerated in the room that still today bears his name from 1674 to the time of his death that took place nine long and wearisome years after.

The revolution of 1910 brought an abrupt end to the time of the Palace of Sintra as a royal residence with Queen Maria Pia, widow of King Luís, the final monarch to live in the Palace and from where she departed into exile. In this same year, the National Palace of Sintra was declared a National Monument.

Personal opinion: One of the Palaces of Sintra that I enjoyed most visiting. The different initial rooms, in the Joanine wing, with richly decorated ceilings, such as the Swan and Pegas Room, left me speechless. Also in the Coat of Arms Room, where the Sousa family coat of arms (mine) appears, I spent several minutes studying each detail and each name! The chapel in Mudejar style is a must-see and the constant presence of the two giant chimneys, 33 m high, across the various patios always reminds us of where we are. Without a doubt a palace to visit!

Price: 10€ (the access to the gardens is free). If the ticket is purchased online, there is a 5% discount.

Hours: Every day from 9:30am to 6:30pm

Quinta da Regaleira

Located at the end of the historic center of Sintra, the history of Quinta da Regaleira as we know it today begins in 1892, when the romantic domains formerly belonging to the Viscountess of Regaleira, which gives the farm its name, were acquired and expanded by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, holder of a prodigious fortune, which earned him the nickname Moneybags Monteiro.

By the hand of the Italian architect and scenographer Luigi Manini, we find a 4-hectare farm, a palace and a chapel, surrounded by lush gardens, lakes, caves and enigmatic constructions, places that hide alchemical meanings, such as those evoked by Masonry, by the ancient Templars hidden under the new name of the Order of Christ and by the Rosicrucians. The space is modeled on mixed designs, which evoke Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline architecture. Most of the current construction of the Quinta began in 1904 and was completed in 1910, the last years of the Portuguese monarchy.

One of the places to visit is the Iniciation Well, an underground gallery with a spiral staircase, supported by sculpted columns, from where you descend to the bottom of the well. The staircase consists of nine levels separated by flights of 15 steps each, invoking references to Dante’s Divine Comedy and which may represent the nine circles of Hell, Paradise, or Purgatory. The well is said to be initiatic because it is believed to be used in rituals to initiate Freemasons. The symbolism of the place is related to the belief that the earth is the maternal womb from which life comes, but also the grave to which it will return. Many initiation rites allude to aspects of birth and death linked to the land, or rebirth. The well is connected by several galleries or tunnels to other points of the Quinta, such as the Guardians’ Entrance, the Waterfall Lake or the Unfinished Well.

Inside the palace we find several richly decorated rooms, such as the Hunting Room, the Renaissance Room or the Kings Room. This is the only palace that is not explored by the Sintra Parks.

Personal opinion: Undoubtedly one of the palaces to visit in Sintra for all the mysticism that accompanies it. The interior of the palace itself is beautiful, but small, making it more worthwhile to spend some time exploring the gardens, wells, caves and lakes scattered around the property. The fact that it is so close to the center of the village, also makes it one of the easiest palaces to access, even by public transportation.

Price: 10€. The ticket can be purchased here.

Hours: Every day from 10am to 6:30pm

Monserrate Palace and Park

The history of Monserrate and the origin of its name starts out in 1540, the point in time when Friar Gaspar Preto ordered the construction of a hermitage here dedicated to Our Lady of Monserrate, following a journey across the Iberian Peninsula when he marvelled at the hermitage of Montserrat nearby Barcelona, in Catalonia. The property then belonged to the Todos os Santos Hospital of Lisbon, of which Friar Gaspar Preto was rector and he planned for the site to serve both as a place of workshop and for growing agricultural products for consumption in the Hospital.

In the 18th century, Monserrate was held, sold and rented by several entities, destroyed by the earthquake, restored by the English writer William Beckford until it was abandoned again. Even in a state of decline, the site still attracted many foreign visitors, especially among the British. One such example was Lord Byron, the renowned poet who holds such an indelible link with the Romantic movement, who expressed his love for Monserrate in the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”.

It is thus that, in 1846, following such a succession of owners, histories, restorations and abandonments, Francis Cook, a British trader and art collector, became the owner of the Estate of Monserrate. There, he commissioned the construction of the palace to James Knowles, that combines Gothic, Indian and Moorish influences. The Central Atrium, octagonal, the galleries, which link the different rooms of the palace, the library and the music room stand out. The exotic and foliage motifs on the interior decoration extend harmoniously to the exterior that was also reformulated and transformed into one of the finest of all Portuguese botanical gardens.

Representing one of the most notable Romanticism inspired landscapes in Portugal, the 33 hectares of the Park of Monserrate has received species from all around the world, which were structured into geographic areas to reflect the diverse origins of the plants and establish differing scenarios along the pathways running between the ruins, lakes and waterfalls. Thus we find the Garden of Mexico, the Garden of Japan, a rose garden with more than 200 varieties of roses and even a false ruin of a chapel. Also noteworthy is the large lawn in front of the palace, the first lawn planted in Portugal, with a remarkable extension and a singularly curved surface that required a creative irrigation system. In this paradisiacal scenario, the Cook family would spend their summer holidays and organise huge parties.

The Cooks also buy 13 neighboring farms (to welcome friends) and also the Capuchin Convent becoming owners and important employers in the surrounding lands, much like what happened in English country houses. Due to the work and efforts that Francis Cook had employed in the reconstruction of the farm, as well as the construction of two primary schools (for the children of his staff) in Galamares and Colares, houses and even a theater, King Luís I grants him the title of 1st Viscount of Monserrate.

The estate will remain in the possession of the Cook family until 1947 when Sir Herbert Cook is forced to sell the farm after the family lost much of its fortune in the first half of the 20th century. In this sale the valuable filling of the palace is lost and will be dispersed during the auction. Two years later, the Portuguese Government acquired the palace and the 143 hectares of Tapada de Monserrate.

Personal opinion: Monserrate palace, despite having a beautiful garden, is really worth it for the building itself, one of the most beautiful that we find in Portugal. So, everything there is to see there is good! Much more interesting than Quinta da Regaleira, with which we can compare precisely because it is a palace and a garden, it sins because it is not so easily accessible when going by public transport.

Price: 8€. If the ticket is purchased online, there is a 5% discount.

Opening hours: Every day from 9:30am to 6:30pm (the park opens 30 minutes before and closes 30 minutes after)

Moorish Castle

A privileged vantage point looking out over the Atlantic coastline, the floodplain and the Sintra Hills, the millennium-old Moorish Castle, founded under Islamic rule in the 8th century occupied a then strategic position for defending both the surrounding territory and the maritime access routes to the city of Lisbon. The Moors lived here through to 1147, when Sintra was handed over to Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, following the conquest of the cities of Lisbon and Santarém. Strategically and as a means of defending these lands, the running of the town of Sintra and its immediate hinterlands was bestowed on Gualdim Pais, a master of the Order of the Tempe, who received a charter in 1154.

With the settlement of a Christian population in the Moorish Castle, the Islamic Quarter began to disappear and give way to a Medieval town with its occupation ongoing through to the 15th century. At that time, the site was steadily subject to abandonment given that, with the conflicts between the Moors and Christians long over, the population no longer felt the need to seek shelter within the vicinity of the fortification.

Already into the 19th century, and in keeping with the Romantic spirit prevailing in that period, King Ferdinand II undertook restoration work on the castle, breathing new life into the medieval imaginary surrounding this site. These renovation works damaged part of the Christian burial grounds of the Church and, for this reason, the order was given to build a tomb to house the bones found there. Given the inability to distinguish whether these were Christian or Moorish human remains, the tomb bears the inscription: “What man brought together, only God may separate”.

The castle has been undergoing archaeological excavation ever since 1976 and has returned countless discoveries as regards the history of this site and its many inhabitants, which can be studied at the Interpretation Center, installed in the ruins of the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim. Here it is told the story of the peoples who succeeded and complemented each other, from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, through archaeological finds and multiple interactive tools. It is located before the entrance to the Castle, meaning it is free to visit.

Personal opinion: It is just a medieval castle with its walls. What makes this castle special are the views, both to the town of Sintra and its National Palace, as well as to Pena Palace and the entire Sintra Mountain. It is one of the only places where you can see the two palaces and for that reason alone it is worth it!

Price: 8€. If the ticket is purchased online, there is a 5% discount.

Hours: Every day from 9am to 6:30pm.

Convent of the Capuchos

Located in the midst of the Sintra Hills, the Convent of the Capuchos contrasts with the imposing and exuberant buildings prevailing elsewhere in Sintra. This Franciscan convent stands out for its sheer simplicity, completely lacking in unnecessary luxuries and comforts. The construction of this convent house was first backed in 1560 by Álvaro de Castro, councillor of state to King Sebastião as a result of a vow made by his father, João de Castro, who dreamed of building a modest place of worship on that site, dedicated to practices of contemplation and introspection. This convent, in which cork was applied profusely as a finishing and decorative material, was named the Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Hills but it is also known as Convent of Cork. The construction implemented the philosophy and ideals of the Order of St. Francis of Assisi: the search for spiritual perfection through shunning the world and renouncing all of the pleasures associated with earthly life. The woods surrounding the building were maintained intact by the religious community living there and today constitute one of the most notable examples of Sintra’s primitive forest.

In 1581 Philip I of Portugal (II of Spain) visited the convent and proffered an affirmation that was to become renowned: “In all of my kingdom, there are two things that are much to my pleasure: the Escorial, for being so rich, and the Convent of the Holy Cross, for being so poor.”

Throughout around two and a half centuries, the convent remained a place of worship and pilgrimage, inhabited by Franciscan friars, who the local population deemed “saintly men”. One of the notable friars in the history of this community was Brother Honório who, according to the legend, spent the final decades of his life in isolation, living off bread and water in a small cave in the convent’s grounds, after having succumbed to temptation (a cave that I visited and can’t understand how anyone could fit there, let alone live). However, in 1834, following the abolition of Religious Orders in Portugal, the convent was left abandoned before later being acquired by the 2nd Count of Penamacor who then sold the property to the 1st Viscount of Monserrate, Francis Cook, in 1873. The monument was only acquired by the Portuguese state in 1949, by which time the convent’s state of degradation was already advanced and increasingly difficult to reverse. At this stage, some prevention work took place on the site, but it was only in 2013 that Sintra Parks recovered the convent for the way we found it today.

Personal opinion: This was the only space I had never visited before and I was impressed with how difficult it would be to get there in the past, with the minimum size of spaces in the convent, especially the height of the doors and with all the cork decoration. It is a place of introspection, which I really enjoyed visiting!

Price: 7€. If the ticket is purchased online, there is a 5% discount.

Hours: Every day from 9am to 6pm.

National Palace of Queluz

Queluz Palace, known as the Portuguese Versailles, was a royal palace for three generations of monarchs and reflects the evolution of the tastes and styles of the time, going through Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism.

In 1654, King João IV established the House of Infantado, which included the Queluz Country House, built on a commission from the first Marquis of Castelo Rodrigo, Cristóvão de Moura, and confiscated in the wake of the Restoration of Independence in 1640. In 1747, Prince Pedro appoints the architect Mateus de Vicente de Oliveira to expand what was then called the “Old Palace”. Years later, in 1760, the announcement of the marriage of Pedro to the heir to the throne, Princess Maria was cause for more extensive expansion works that sought to endow the property with the nobility of a royal palace. In this phase, the construction was under the supervision of the architect and goldsmith Jean-Baptiste Robillion. Removed from the politics and intrigues of the court, and in possession of both a considerable fortune and refined habits, Pedro III dedicated his attentions to this site, transforming it into a place for the leisure and recreation of the Royal Family and installing a series of reception halls, such as the Throne Room and the Ambassadors Room.

Following the 1794 blaze that destroyed the Royal Complex of Ajuda, which had been the Royal Family’s permanent residence ever since the earthquake of 1755, the Palace of Queluz became the official resident of Queen Maria I – who was widowed in the meantime – and, subsequently, the Prince Regents João VI and Carlota Joaquina, who stipulated the adaptation of some interior spaces and the construction of new buildings to accommodate the Court, the Royal Guard and their entourage of servants. Queluz thus also became the site where the Court would go to spend their leisure time, attending serenades, horse races and firework displays.

The palace was permanently inhabited through to the departure of the Royal Family for Brazil at the time of the Napoleonic invasion in 1807. In 1821, King João VI returned to Portugal but the palace would only again be inhabited under a regime of semi-exile by Queen Carlota Joaquina, accused of conspiring against her husband. The following generation, shaped by the Civil War that pitted Miguel, absolutist, against his brother, Pedro IV, liberal, closed the period of royal residence in the Palace of Queluz. Miguel lived in the palace in the period he was king and during the bloody civil war. Pedro was to win the war but, on the grounds of illness, abdicated the throne of Portugal in favour of his young daughter, Maria II. It was in the Palace of Queluz, in the Don Quixote Room, where he had been born, that Pedro IV ended up passing away, aged 35.

The palace gardens, outlined in French boxwood, take you from attraction to attraction. We have the Tiles Canal, where the Royal Family and the court took gondola rides over the calm waters (dammed by a floodgate system), enjoying the fantastic landscapes of the large tile panels, the Greenhouses, a space where in the reign of Pedro III pineapples were planted, one of the fruits most appreciated by the royal family or the Big Waterfall, an element common to many gardens of this time, constituting the most spectacular part of the entire system of ponds and water games.

As from 1957, the D. Maria I Pavilion, the eastern wing of the palace, began to serve the function of residence to heads of state making official visits to Portugal. In 1979, the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, with the purpose of fostering the teaching, practice and dissemination of traditional Portuguese Equestrian Art, opened its headquarters in the palace gardens.

Personal opinion: Although beautiful, I feel that the Palace of Queluz is “another European palace”, not standing out like the other spaces in Sintra, much more original. The gardens stand out in the landscape aspect, but I still prefer the “disorganization” of Sintra mountain.

Price: 10€ (Palace and Gardens) or 5€ (gardens only). If the ticket is purchased online, there is a 5% discount.

Opening hours: Every day from 9am to 6pm (the gardens close 30min later).

I hope you enjoyed this post and that it was useful for you to decide which monument to visit next in Sintra!