The country of Portugal is one of the oldest civilizations in European history dating back to prehistoric time and before its documented occupation by the Roman Empire in the early BC era.
Its location on the Iberian Peninsula where it meets the Atlantic Ocean has influenced the culture and the architecture of the region which can be seen in the many castles and palaces that still reside here.
Because of her location, Portugal was easily conquered and established by many empires each with its own military and purpose. The Portuguese people learned early to build strong and reliable fortifications from the Romans, how to create with elaborate stonework from the Moors who came from nearby Africa, and later used these principles to re-purpose some of these original castles for the Christians who conquered the land during the crusades and eventually designed the glorious palaces that were built by the royals who ruled the lands.
When you think of castles and palaces you think of storybooks and romance. Although storybook castles are fiction, real castles each have a story and much can be learned about the culture and history of the region from them.
Despite its small size as a country, Portugal has over 150 castles and palaces with the oldest in existence dating back to the eighth century. Today travelers looking for romantic castles and grandiose palaces travel to Portugal to castle-hop and explore some of her many picture-worthy candidates.
Sintra, a small Portuguese town, approximately 25km (15 miles), within the hills outside of Lisbon is filled with ancient castles and beautiful summer palaces that will take you through Portugal’s history from Ottoman rule in the 8th century to the end of the Portuguese monarchy in the early 1900’s.
The Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)
Built during the eighth and ninth centuries, spanning across mountain ridges is one Portugal’s oldest preserved fortresses. You can’t help but think of the Great Wall of China when you see her large granite walls that snake along the hilltops to defend her from approaching enemies by land and by sea.
Designed by the Moors under Islamic rule, this castle and fortress was built with a strategic position for defending the territory and access routes to Lisbon. The Moors lived here until 1147, when Sintra was taken over by the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques.
While little remains of the Islamic Quarter and Castle outside the walls, the views from the top of the Atlantic and the surrounding area including the nearby Pena Palace makes the climb to the top worth the visit.
The National Palace of Sintra (Palácio Nacional de Sintra)
The Palace of Sintra, is also referred to as Town Palace because of her location within the center of the town of Sintra.
First constructed around the 10th or 11th century under Moorish rule, Sintra was reconstructed many times as she was passed along from monarch to monarch and housed almost all of Portugal’s royalty throughout her history. The cooler climate in the summer, abundance of wildlife and remote area for protection from plague and unrest in Lisbon made her a preferred location for the monarchs who spent quite a bit of time here.
With all the royal influence, the palace reflects many different styles and trends from various periods. She is best identified by her two cone-shaped chimneys that sit above the royal kitchen. Although no longer used as residence, today is a historical museum with many stories to tell of Portugal’s long history.
Pena National Palace (Palacio Nacional Da Pena)
Considered the most beautiful of all the palaces within Portugal, the Pena National Palace is the most popular site for a visit.
Built in 1836 and designed by King Manuel I as a Monastery formerly named the Royal Monastery of Our Lady of Pena it was later redesigned by Ferdinand II as a summer residence for the royal family.
The palace was designed in the Romanticism style with various colors. The interior of the palace has many shades of green to match the trees that surround the grounds she sits on. Pena Palace is the closest you will get to a “fairytale” castle in Portugal with her beauty and palatial magnificence.
The views from where she sits high above the city, the beautiful grounds and park surrounding her and the opulent interior make this a must see when visiting Sintra.
Queluz National Palace (Palácio Nacional de Queluz)
Queluz Palace is an 18th-century Royal palace within the Sintra municipality on the Portuguese Riviera. Built in 1746 she was primarily used as a showpiece for nobility’s parties and banquets.
Designed in the Rococo style, as a summer home, the exquisite beauty and design were built upon in more neoclassic designs when she later housed three generations of Portuguese Royals as the main royal palace until their exile in the early 1900’s.
A highlight of the palace is its surrounding gardens designed for the many court organized parties and events with waterfalls and statues as background for the entertainment that took place during royal occupancy.
Regaleira House (Quinta da Regaleira)
Quinta da Regaleira is a 20th century country house and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located on the outskirts of the town of Sintra. It was purchased in 1904, just prior to the exile of the Portuguese monarchy to Brazil.
The main house which sits within the almost 10 acres of land, is five stories and features a decorative Gothic design with turrets and gargoyles. The enchanting gardens were designed to pay homage to the former Portuguese existence of the Knights of Templar with hidden tunnels, secret passages and symbolism in the designs from the order.
Only a 36 minute drive or 1 hour train ride from Lisbon, a visit to Sintra is recommended for exploring the history and romance of the Portuguese monarchy.
While a day trip will give you the highlights of the region, if you want to see all of the above castles and palaces, at least two days are recommended or three or four if you also want to fully immerse in the area and enjoy the nearby wine region of Colares.