Sintra is a three-dimensional anthology of architectural pleasure. Located on the Atlantic coast and only a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Lisbon, the Portuguese city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Sintra’s abundant architectural and historical attractions include a municipal building completed in 1154, the royal palace whose conical kitchen chimneys rise into the sky like twin birthday hats, and the Quinta da Regaleira with its enigmatic sculpture and mossy, fairy-tale well.
Anywhere else these would be showstoppers, but in Sintra, they are just the opening acts. Arguably, the three most impressive sites are the Pena National Palace, the Islamic castle, and the Monserrate estate.
Pena National Palace
This spectacular building rises out of the foggy hills just beyond Sintra city limits, and with the color-scheme of a Lego set. Formerly a refuge of monastic silence, the site received a royal makeover in the mid-1800s when King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II decided it would make a lovely summer retreat.
The result would be an architectural mash-up of Islamic, Gothic, and neo-Renaissance styles with domes, parapets and vaulted arches arranged in dazzling juxtaposition. The royal family, though, only enjoyed it for a few decades before the Portuguese state bought the palace in 1889. It is still used for occasional high-level government meetings, but the most frequent visitors are tourists.
The Islamic Castle And Fortress Walls
Often called the Moorish castle, this incredible fortress was constructed around 1,300 years ago, possibly on the site of an older stronghold built by the Visigoths. For a couple hundred years, the castle passed back-and-forth between Iberia’s Islamic and Christian rulers as the faiths battled for control of the peninsula.
The impressive fortress walls wind up and down the hillsides, and on less foggy days offer spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. They also, in certain angles, look a bit like Great Wall of China.