When Lisbon starts to feel too much like a city, head to Sintra along the coast for palaces, parks, and a little R&R. This article first appeared in Fathom, September 2017.
SINTRA, Portugal – We asked for a fairy tale, and we definitely got one. For a long weekend away from busy Lisbon, we went to the wooded mountainside of Sintra because it is home to a bounty of castles and palaces representing architecture and history spanning millennia. Perfect for hiding out. From medieval to Art Deco, our goal was full fairy-tale immersion in the UNESCO cultural landscape that is said to have inspired Walt Disney’s famous castle. Our hotel, the romantic era Tivoli Palácio de Seteais fell right in line with the fantasy.
Rates start from $490.
A standalone palace set in the higher foothills of the Sintra Mountains, where the entire expanse of the Sintra-Cascais National Park is at your feet and the romantic Palácio Nacional da Pena and the medieval Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) sit high on the rocky peaks above. The hotel is walking distance to the town of Sintra, and taxis are on call.
The late 18th-century neoclassical palace is a period piece, a Portuguese Downton Abbey with elegant period furniture and decor that immediately transported me out of the 21st century. Though it is a palace with regal sprawl, the experience is incredibly personal and intimate. In spite of crashing a christening party, we felt the manor was ours and ours alone.
This Place Is Perfect For
Couples seeking a discreet and gorgeous weekend getaway. Groups (weddings!) wanting a full-service sojourn with lounging, spa, photo ops, and Michelin-worthy meals. And flawless families clad in luxurious linen who need a few days off.
But Not So Perfect For
Families with small, active children who may not appreciate antiques.
What's on Site
Seteais is a micro kingdom, a stately palace with gardens, tennis courts, a 19th-century topiary maze, a beautiful pool, and a wood-slat terrace. The two-wing palace is divided by a neoclassical arch, a historic monument immortalizing Prince Regent John VI and Princess Carlota Joaquin. Sitting rooms, dining rooms, and salons network the ground and bottom levels; guest rooms fill the ground and first levels through both wings. The bar extends to an open-air terrace decorated with fruit trees. The former dovecote is now a tiny and delightfully tranquil spa.
Food + Drink
We had brunch and dinner at the Palace restaurant, and both were rich in taste and design. But our favorite meal was lunch from the bar on the terrace overlooking the pool and valley — an amazing and light sopa de peixe (fish soup) and a tiger prawn risotto. The setting was magical. (I can only imagine what it must be like caught in a rain storm during tea time). In the late afternoons, we enjoyed lemonade and ices freshly made from Seteais’ own fruit trees poolside.
Number of Rooms
Thirty period piece rooms and suites. Our ground-level room faced the entrance courtyard, which gave us a front-row view to the mist over Palácio Nacional da Pena. The garden and valley views are even more spectacular.
You had me at queijadas, those tiny egg pastries made with fresh cheese that appeared every afternoon alongside a bottle of port. We only glanced at the mini bar filled with local snacks, water, and beverages, and the de rigeur Nespresso machine. My daughter entertained herself with domino and Spillikin sets from the Tivoli Kids welcome bag, and we caught up Disney’s Soy Luna in Portuguese on the flat-screen TV. My favorite Elemis products were in the bathrooms.
After enjoying a cornucopia of a Sunday brunch, the weekday breakfast was a bit weak.
Palácio de Seteais has decidedly maintained its late 18th- and early 19th-century architectural history, from the original royal arch to the garden maze. Thanks to the unique microclimate of Sintra, Palácio de Seteais is incredibly atmospheric — foggy in the mornings, sunny midday, chilly by late afternoon, and cozy cold in the evenings.
Sinatra is a beautiful, walkable town with lots of boutiques and restaurants, set in the green hills of the Sintra mountains. The area is great for laid-back walks or more strenuous hikes through the Parque de Sintra and visits to the numerous historic castles (from early medieval to romantic to 20th century) that hide in the hills. In 1992, the entire area became the first UNESCO cultural landscape. In other words, you can get your nature and culture on at the same time.
What to Do Nearby
The historic center of Sintra is a labyrinth of boutiques, wine bars, and restaurants. Souvenir shops abound, but the Sintra Bazar is a hub of traditional crafts. For culture vultures, plan to spend the entire day in the Parques de Sintra exploring fantasy Palacio de Pena, the medieval Moorish castle, a quirky chalet, a convent, and more. Then visit the eclectic Quinta de Regalieria, a turn-of-the-century architectural folly. My restaurant favorites are both set into the hills of historic Sintra: Tascantiga, a small tapas spot with a 21st-century vibe that definitely requires a reservation in the summer, and Tacho Real, an historic home with outdoor street seating, live Fado music, and traditional Portugese dishes.
Good to Know
Bring great walking shoes and a scarf. Plan to arrive early at Palacio de Pena (no later than 9.30 a.m.) for the ticket queue. You’ll want to buy the combined Pena/Moorish Castle ticket or, for the more ambitious, the five-park ticket.
What I Didn’t Do But Wish I Had
A horseback riding trail tour through the park.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
Lisbon International Airport (LIS) is 20 miles (a 35-minute drive) from Sintra. The airport is served by flag carrier TAP Portugal, along with US airlines American, Delta, and United, as well as most major European carriers like Alitalia, British Airways, Turkish Airways, and Air France.
You will need a car to get there, but not once you are there. There are buses, taxis, and tuk-tuks, but the entire area is walkable.
Cheat Sheet: Day Trip from Lisbon
I stayed overnight, but Sintra is an easy day trip from Lisbon, accessible by local trains, Uber, and taxis. (The locals prefer Uber to taxis.) For a perfect day, wake up early and catch an Uber to Sintra. Start with a visit to Palácio Nacional da Pena, where the exterior is more interesting than the interior, and doesn’t require waiting on an insane line. Next stop, the less crowded Castelo dos Mouros, where the interiors and exteriors are both outstanding. Then go to Tivoli Palácio de Seteais for a long, leisurely lunch on the outdoor patio, followed by a stroll around the hotel where you should totally pretend it’s all yours. From there, walk to Quinta de Regalieria and wander for hours around the Game of Thrones castle through the grounds and turrets, pausing for pictures at the subterranean tower. The only reason to leave Quinta is because you're tired of walking. From here, it’s a 20-minute walk back to the shops and cafes in town for souvenirs and refreshments and to catch the train back to Lisbon.