Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

On a recent short break to Portugal I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful hilltop town of Sintra. It’s an easy day trip from Lisbon, the capital, and was, in days gone by, the summer retreat of the Portuguese royalty.

The old heart of the city is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s full of pastel-coloured estancias, old churches and grand palaces. The city has captivated writers including Byron, Hans Christian Anderson and, more recently, JK Rowling – who named Salazar Slytherin, founder of Slytherin house in her Harry Potter books, after the former Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar.

Narrow-Sintra-street Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Palacio-Nacional-in-Sintra Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Sintra-street Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Sintra is also a popular excursion for cruise ships stopping at Lisbon, and the narrow streets echo with the sounds of sandals on cobblestones and the clicking of cameras. But get there early or late in the day and you’ll miss most of the crowds.

A trip to the Palace of the Pena – a fairytale castle with many turrets, domes, battlements and walls of yellow, pink and blue – was a real highlight.

Palace-of-the-Pena-1 Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Palace-of-the-Pena-drawbrid Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Palace-of-the-Pena-tilework Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

A short ride on a shuttle bus takes you to the hilltop palace, where you can wander through the royal apartments and take in fabulous views from the battlements of the surrounding park and gardens and the city below.

View-from-Palace-of-the-Pen Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Tilework-at-Penha-Longha Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Like other parts of Portugal, the region is well known for its golf courses. In the forested Sintra Mountains, a short drive from the city, is one of the best in the area. Penha Longa is another historic royal retreat that’s now a spa and golf resort set on the site of a twelfth century Franciscan monastery. It’s a great setting for a round of golf – winding around the old monastery grounds and taking in ocean views from the Atlantic course.

Monastery-building-at-Penha Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Atlantic-course-at-Penha-Lo Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

From Sintra it’s just a few kilometres to the windswept and rocky Atlantic coast at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of mainland Europe. It was from this wild cape that Portuguese explorers set off for the New World. The next landfall from here is somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, several thousand miles away.

Atlantic-coast Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Cascais Portugal: Sintra – A Fairy Tale Escape

Today, surfers come to tackle the pounding waves on this stretch of the coast, although more sheltered beaches can be reached a few kilometres further around the headland at Cascais and Estoril. Shops, casinos and seaside hotels line the streets behind the small curves of yellow sand.

Written by Duncan Mills

Duncan Mills is a journalist and editor with a passion for travel and photography, good food and the great outdoors. He’s visited more than sixty countries on six continents and was the deputy editor of Traveller magazine prior to joining the AB internal communications agency in 2013. He lives amid the scenic woodlands and rolling green hills of England’s South Downs National Park.


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  1. Dude…You nailed it when you said “fairy tale”. This place looks fantastic! I need to head down there one of these days.

  2. Sintra, Portugal is a beautiful place and definitely one I’d like to visit. I can see why it’s provided inspiration for writers in particular – so that’s where JK Rowling got the name Slytherin from. Thanks for sharing Paul and Duncan.

  3. Beautiful photos Paul, and now I want to go there. I visited Lisbon from a cruise in April this year, just for the day, and was absolutely entranced by the city, it’s heritage and beauty, despite the current financial crisis. I look forward to returning and will definitely make a trip to Sintra next time.

  4. Fabulous post and fantastic photographs – you captured Sintra perfectly. Not only is it a stunning place, but the coffee is delicious and the pasteis de nata are out of this world, I ate 4 in one sitting.

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