If Portugal is not on your list of top ten places to visit, we think it should be. This sunny peninsula boasts Mediterranean AND Atlantic beaches, perfect Portuguese hospitality, and stunning castles galore.
We started our trip by way of British Airways business class, which was divine from start to finish. BA offers expedited check in, so we flew through security lines and customs. They had surprisingly great food on board, and they even had Grand Siecle champagne (my favorite)! Fully reclining seats made it easy to catch a few zzz’s, and of course all the necessary comforts (cozy socks, quilted blanket, noise-canceling headphones) were provided.
We touched down in Lisbon, which is Portugal’s capital city and a thriving port. This is the main destination for most people traveling to Portugal; BUT we recommend heading outside of the capital to the nearby township of Sintra. It is incredibly easy to get to Sintra from Lisbon; by train in 40 minutes, or by car in 20! The municipality of Sintra is rather large, so you will want to stick to the Historical District and the coast for the best views and attractions.
Why I love Sintra: Sintra is famous for its variety of 19th century Romantic architectural monuments. The highlights of these are Peña Palace, the Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros), Sintra National Palace, Monserrate Estate, The Convent of the Capuchos, and my personal favorite, Quinta da Regaleira.
Many of the architectural sites in Sintra bear a distinctly Moorish design, that embody the Portuguese Gothic flourish of Manueline style (a 16th century style in which buildings were ornamented and cloaked with ornate nautical motifs, shields and crosses).
The Moorish Castle, Peña Palace, and the Sintra National Palace are all built on the foundations of Muslim occupations. Huge boulders can also be found nestled between walls or built into exteriors. The palaces house excellent examples of intricately detailed and vibrant Moroccan mosaic tile work, as well as stunning coffered and quadratura ceilings.
I was specifically interested in seeing the Moorish/Iberian cultural cross-pollination in Portugal, and in Sintra there was a palpable harmony of African/European, Moorish/Catholic, and New/Old world influences.
The Monserrate Estate is an excellent example of this charming discordance. Constructed on the ruins of a neo-gothic mansion, Sir Francis Cook reformed the abode in a Portuguese Romantic style in 1858.
Today, Monserrate is a sprawling villa replete with Mogul-inspired details. The highlight of Monserrate’s interior is the grand hallway, where you can pass through a series of marble arches decorated with intricate relief carvings reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. It is like walking through a castle made of the finest lace!
I mentioned that Quinta Regaleira was the highlight of Sintra, and this is why: beauty and leisure. Regaleira is another Romantic palace, and a fine example of Manueline style. The palace itself is truly lovely, but the gardens are where the magic happens!
There are all kinds of pleasant diversions, from an old ‘Initiation Well’ (where you can get baptized or sworn into a secret society) to the splendid Labyrinthic Grotto. You can amble around for hours because there is so much to see.
After wandering the gardens, I lunched at the quaint al fresco café on the grounds, which has an unobstructed view of the palace and a good house wine. Between the wild forest and the civilized majesty of the palace, I did not want to leave this special place.
Sumptuous architecture aside, Sintra’s beaches are natural stunners. The coast in Sintra included Cabo da Roca, which is the westernmost point of Europe and home to incredible rock formations.
Like big slices of cake cut from the mainland, the frosty rocks jut up out of the atlantic all along the coast. Caiscais is a cute little beach town with very nice resort options, and Praia da Ursa is where the locals hang out.
There are also some pleasantly exerting hikes along the cliffs in the area – the moderate climate makes for perfect walking weather.
Sintra is a sweet treat in the southwest of Portugal, but this small country is surprisingly diverse. You can head up north toward Galacian country to enjoy a bit of Celtic flavor, or travel southeast to the Algarve for a Mediterranean vacation among the whitewashed fishing villages. The mountainous Montalegre municipality in the northeast is a nature-lover’s paradise.
The next time you are planning a little getaway, consider Spain’s beautiful lesser known sister, and travel to Portugal!