A rainbow coloured castle, cakes, liqueur and the beach- consider Sintra and Cascais for a colourful adventure.
The Portuguese Riviera is a short hop from Lisbon, and very easy to reach by train, and I’ve heard it’s called the King of Coasts. This grand title is partly due to the scenery, the affluence but also the wide range of European monarchs who sought refuge here during WW2 when Portugal remained neutral. Towns like Sintra are also riddled with castles straight out of a child’s fairytale, some of which have to be seen to be believed.
Pena Palace, Sintra
Sintra is epic. There are several hugely different castles of note to visit – the shining white National Palace, the Moorish ruins on the hilltop and the absolutely bonkers Pena Palace. Guess which one was my priority?
Pena Palace is so colourful, throwing together a mix of architectural styles and decor that it kinda looks like a four year had their hand in its design. It’s wonderfully unique. The palace, which perches dreamily on a hilltop, is the work of King Consort Ferdinand II who followed his own fantasies to create a flamboyant summer residence for the 19th century Portuguese royal family. Kids’ imaginations can run riot here, and adults can gape in awe at this vibrant architectural vision.
Public transport is available, with trains to Sintra and busy buses linking up the main tourist sites in the area, but as I was travelling alone with a four year old, I admit I took the easy way out, and opted for a private guided tour with Short Cuts Tourism. Our guide, André, collected us from our hotel, taking care of the journey, parking and tickets, leading myself and Mr Tot to the Pena Palace bus stop at the bottom of the hilltop (as very few vehicles can drive to the front door of the palace itself). I didn’t have to think or figure out anything. He filled us in on loads of history and, as he has a young child himself, was perfectly happy yapping with Mr Tot and accommodating him.
Inside Pena Palace
The interiors of Pena Palace are rich and sumptuous, and the detailed ceilings, woodwork and tiling reveal the skilled craftsmanship at work here. The exteriors are awash with symbolism, colour and a mixed bag of architectural styles from Neo Moorish and Romantic to Gothic and Germanic. It’s a bold and quirky representation of Portugal’s multicultural history and heritage.
Pena Palace is so unusual and unique that it’s a must if you’re in the area, and it can be achieved as a day trip from Lisbon.
Essential tips for Pena Palace include checking the weather forecast. You can leave a warm beachside resort and drive to a mist shrouded hilltop (as we did!). Bring warm clothes, clothes you’d wear in Scotland! A fleece and cropped trousers didn’t cut it, we were a bit cold and this hampered our experience. Secondly, Pena Palace and its buses get very busy, very quickly. Arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds.
The town of Sintra itself is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the centre is pedestrianised. André dropped us off, giving us 45 minutes downtime to ourselves, with a recommendation for the best bakery and coffee in town. In Portugal pastries are a local pride, and sampling the best is part of the experience – who would argue with that?! Mr Tot and I wandered through the small lanes, stopping for pastries at Piriquita (which is busy with locals as well as visitors), and I necked a shot of Ginja (cherry liqueur) in a dark chocolate cup, which is also a Portuguese tradition.
Visiting all the castles in Sintra, both inside and out, would take a couple of days, and another attraction in the area to consider is the Quinta da Regaleira, with its renowned gardens and breathtakingly strange Well of Initiation, which is on my list for next time I visit Sintra.
After André drove us to Cascais we had lunch at the marina, a smart/casual location popular with locals. We browsed the main square, taking in the extremely luxurious houses by the waterfront, and had a play on the beach. It’s a very chilled, elegant town. André again provided local knowledge, for example pointing out the building where the last King of Italy made his home, as well as pointing me in the direction of a chemist! He was helpful, flexible, informative and easy going. After Mr Tot enjoyed a lollipop by the sea, we were driven back to our hotel to rest up before dinner.
Admittedly there is so much to do in the Sintra and Cascais area, that we need to return to see more palaces, wells, atmospheric towns (such as Estoril where it’s said Ian Fleming was inspired to write Casino Royale). But this is a realistic and achievable day out from Martinhal Cascais hotel, involving child friendly history, heritage and time on the beach.
For more info click on Visit Cascais. To discover more about Short Cuts Tourim’s tours click here (prices are reasonable considering the level of personal service, and bespoke tours are also available, prices can vary due to this very nature.) Prices and opening times for Pena Palace are here.
We flew from Edinburgh to Lisbon, spending two nights at Martinhal Chiado in the city – read our Lisbon recommendations here. We then transferred for two nights in Martinhal Cascais, spending one day exploring Sintra and Cascais, before returning to Scotland.