It’s time to say olá, Portugal — and with good reason. Portugal may have been on the map since 1138 (it even rewrote the map during the Age of Discovery 500 years ago), but its heyday is now thanks to a phalanx of non-stop flights to Lisbon, its wallet-friendly affordability and limitless adventures.
If you’re planning to get to know Lisbon, you’ll want to work your trip around a weekend in Sintra. Just a 30-minute drive from the Portuguese capital, the fairytale town where castles bloom on the hillside is listed as a UNESCO cultural landscape.
History of Sintra
For centuries, the hillside town has been a revered outdoor retreat. Long before Portuguese nobility set up summer homes here for the fresh air and spectacular views, the Celts and Romans celebrated Sintra’s verdant vegetation and worshipped the moon gods. Moorish princes also would set up impassible outposts in its hills.
During the Middle Ages, Sintra was a favored residence of Portuguese royalty and nobility, and many grand palaces and castles were built in the area, including the famous Pena Palace. In the 19th century, Sintra became a popular destination for artists and intellectuals, drawn to its picturesque landscapes and historic architecture. Today, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination, known for its stunning palaces and gardens.
Sintra is located in Sintra-CasCais Natural Park, a reserve covering 145 square kilometers. Spaning from the Serra de Sintra Mountain Range and extending to the coast at Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s most western point, the vast expanse is a nature lover’s dream and it’s here you’ll find the most beautiful sites to explore.
On Monte de Lua, is the Parque de Sintra, a wooded labyrinth that seems like a scene in middle Earth, and worth the walk. Equestrians will marvel at exploring the sights is on horseback. Or you’ll want to hike the area. The hilltops of Sintra are known for beautiful trekking, but it’s an uphill climb of about 30 minutes from the city center.
Exploring the Castles
There are several castles to explore in the Parque de Sintra and exploring them can be simply a morning visit, a full day or spread out over a weekend (two days). It’s easy to lose yourself in the castles and their expansive grounds.
You’ll queue at Palacio de Pena entrance for tickets, but make sure you plan your visit before you queue because there is a lot to do and see. Options include economizing time with a combination Pena/Moorish Castle ticket with bus service or, for the more ambitious, the all-in-one five-park pass.
Castles to explore include the Palace of Pena , a colorful castle which inspired Walt Disney to the Magic Kingdom, the beautiful Palace of Monserrate, the medieval Moorish Castle and the wild Convent of the Capuchos.
But it’s not all about the architecture and history. Surounding the castles are gardens, lakes and other royal amusements.
Explore the Town
Make the windy two-mile trek back to Sintra’s city center, or hop in a tuk-tuk for a bumpy ride down the one-lane road. The tiny town is an intriguing maze of historic buildings, shops and eateries and, lately, it’s become a popular destination, so make sure to book dinner reservations in advance. Some of our favorite spots are Tascantiga, a contemporary tapas restaurant, and Tacho Real for traditional Portuguese dishes.
The small town of Sintra is walkable, but you keep your eyes on the road. From the center is a relaxing 10-minute walk to Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra’s most eclectic estate. The Regaleira palace is an architectural mélange of Gothic, Roman, Moorish and Renaissance features and its four-hectare grounds are ripe for exploration — discover the decorative gazebos, waterfalls, tunnels and even the Initiation Wells, a pair of subterranean spiral towers.
After storming all the castles of Sintra, you deserve to center some R&R, whether relaxing in the landscape or tasting the local favor.
Regional dishes not to miss include queijadas (tiny egg pastries made with sweet cheese and sugar) cozido à portuguesa (a hearty stew made with various meats, vegetables, and beans), bacalhau à brás (shredded cod mixed with sliced potatoes and onions, topped with scrambled eggs), cataplana (seafood stew), and travesseiros (large, pillow-shaped pastries filled with a sweet almond cream).
Don’t forget to toast with ginjinha, a liqueur made from sour cherries.
Where to Stay
Drop your bags at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais Sintra Hotel, an 18th-century neoclassical palace that captures the region’s romantic vibe. The 30-room property is both a period piece and hilltop kingdom — rooms follow the building’s original décor while the sprawling grounds consist of gardens with fruit trees, herbs and a topiary maze, tennis courts and a panoramic pool area overlooking the countryside.
Former monastery and exclusive resort Penha Longa Resort redefines oasis, with its wellness options including spa, golf course, and tennis and its nine restaurants and bars- boasting two Michelin stars – LAB by Sergi Arola and Midori. (Sister restaurant Eneko Lisboa in Lisbon aslo has a star).
For a more authentic experience, consider staying in a traditional Portuguese quinta (farmhouse) or casa de campo (country house).
A version article first appeared in Forbes Travel