Sintra: Anatomy of a Portuguese Palace

Now that we’ve been, I realize that we’ve been looking for Sintra and its fairytale Pena National Palace for some time.

Every day of our Jurassic Coast road trip back in June, we’d look at a map and plot our course. And every day, Cliff said, “Let’s visit a castle!”

I answered, “Well, we could. Like we did yesterday, and the day before. Do you really want to see another castle?”

His response: “Well, yeah. I mean those weren’t real castles”.

And that, is what’s called a bi-European descent communication problem (#bieuroproblems). To my WASP sensibilities, the crumbling stone walls of Glastonbury and Corfe Castle are the very definition of a castle. But to my Portuguese sweetheart, “castle” takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, it means “palace”, and in particular, Pena National Palace.


We reached the palace after a not short but definitely pleasant walk up from the absolutely lovely town of Sintra. The moment one of Pena’s yellow domed turrets poked above the tree line, I got it. I instantly understood where this fuss about a “real castle” came from.

After seeing Sintra’s palace, no other castle will do. Today I throw history and semantics to the wind. Because there is no castle like a Portuguese Castle.

Anatomy of a Portuguese Palace, Sintra Style

Sintra_National_Castle_leaf_tilesFig 1. Tiles | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

If Antoni Gaudi had been born a few decades earlier as a self-obsessed Portuguese royal and not a pious Spanish architect, this is the home he’d have built.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_5Fig 2. Golden tower | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

As it is, Pena National Castle is the brainchild of King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria II. A Romanticist landmark, the palace successfully dabbles in design from medieval to Islamic to mythological.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_2Fig 3. Badass newt mer-gargoyle | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The hilltop palace quickly became a popular retreat for the royals. Queen Anne, Portugal’s last monarch, is said to have bunker in Sintra on the eve of her exile.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_4Fig 3. Chevron print turrets | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

As Portugal’s monarchy lost its reign, so too did Pena lose its splendor. Over the years, the surfaces not covered in tile (apparently there are some) faded to grey. It wasn’t until the 90s when Sintra as a whole was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site that the palace was restored to its full technicolor glory.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_9Fig 4. Mosaic battlements | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Pena National Palace is said to be visible from Lisbon. But the city smog afforded no such sightings during our stay.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_3Fig 5. Arches with a view | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Materialistically fantastic as the castle is, the grounds are worth a visit in their own right. Pena Park—the 200 hectares stretching up from Sintra below to the castle above—are a gorgeously reforested tangle. In keeping with the castle’s eclectic and far off land style, Ferdinand and Maria had the forest sown with exotic flora from across the Portuguese empire. Luckily, modern restorations have included returning the landscape to a more natural, but still striking, state. 

IMG_5126Fig 6. Secret doorway | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The view out from Pena is none too shabby. Sintra even has some genuine medieval castles hidden in its midst.

Sintra_Pena_National_Palace_not reallyFig 7. 9th century zoning  | Castle of the Moors, Sintra, Portugal

But who needs thousand-year-old castles when you have two hundred year old tiles like this?

Sintra_Pena_National_Castle_knightsFig. 8 King Slayer tiles | Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal