Portugal’s Aristocratic Getaways

Several scenic remnants of Portugal's royal and Moorish past lie within easy reach of Lisbon.

By Rick Steves
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Everything about Pena Palace is fantastical, starting with its ersatz moat and drawbridge. (photo: Rich Earl)
Óbidos, Portugal
Pretty little Óbidos is a fun ramble for all ages. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

It's a funny thing about aristocracies. They always seem to get the best vacation properties: the French kings and queens had Versailles near Paris, the Habsburgs retreated to Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace, and the British monarchs still have too many castles to count.

Less well known are Portugal's imperial retreats. But within an hour or so from Lisbon are some fun side trips into the country's royal and Moorish past. You'll find fantasy castles set amid exotic tropical plants, a craggy hilltop dusted with Moorish ruins, and a queen's tiny medieval walled town.

Just 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, the plush and lush town of Sintra is a perfect day-trip destination (frequent trains get you there in 40 minutes). For centuries, Portugal's aristocracy considered Sintra the perfect summer escape because of its proximity to Lisbon — and its higher and cooler elevation.

Those with money and a desire to be close to royalty soon followed, building a thicket of grand residences amid luxuriant hillside gardens. Lord Byron called this bundle of royal fancies and aristocratic dreams a "glorious Eden."

Portugal's National Palace sits right in central Sintra. This oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal housed kings and queens for 500 years, and today's republican government still uses it for official receptions. It's a lavish showpiece, with rooms wallpapered with the colorful glazed tiles called azulejos. The ceilings alone are gorgeous and richly detailed with cavorting mermaids, rambunctious magpies (a royal rebuke against gossips), and proud coats-of-arms.

Sintra's other main sights — a once-upon-a-time Moorish castle and the idiosyncratic Pena Palace — are a long, uphill walk from the center. It's easiest to ride up on the shuttle bus that loops them together, and then stroll down through the palace's luxurious garden.

Visitors approach the thousand-year-old ruins of the Moorish castle along a forest path that's alive with the winds of the past. Once you break out of the woodland to climb the top of the surviving ramparts, you'll see why the Moors picked this spot for defensive purposes. Today its panoramic Atlantic views and cooling breezes are made to order for a picnic.

On a neighboring hilltop sits the Versailles of Portugal — the magical Pena Palace, more colorful than a box of Legos. In the mid-19th century, the flamboyant Prince Ferdinand built this fantasy, mixing architectural styles into a crazy Neo-fortified casserole of Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish minarets, and Disney playfulness. The palace's elegantly cluttered rooms are just as they were in 1910, when the king fled during a popular revolt.

Just beyond Sintra, the rugged and picturesque Cabo da Roca is a pleasant side trip to your side trip. It's perched high on a headland at the westernmost tip of Portugal — and Europe. There's little more here than a little shop, a café, and an endless ocean vista. Here's your the chance to be the last person in Europe to see the sun set. A tiny tourist office sells a "proof of being here" certificate (take a picture instead).

If you turn north from Lisbon, you can't miss postcard-perfect Óbidos (buses leave Lisbon hourly for the 1.25-hour ride). This little jewel of a town sits atop a hill, its 14th-century wall corralling a bouquet of narrow lanes and flower-bedecked whitewashed houses. It's said that a young Portuguese queen became so enamored with the village that her new husband, King Dinis, gave it to her as a wedding gift.

Now protected by the government from development, Óbidos is perfect for photographers — and romantics. Stepping through the main gate, you'll feel a bit like Dorothy entering a medieval Oz. Though there's a castle here (it's now a pricey hotel), the main sight is the town itself. Wander the geranium-scented streets, climb the town walls, and sample some ginjinha (cherry liqueur) in a chocolate cup (it's sold in several shops along the main street). Then leave the ticky-tacky tourist shops behind to explore the cobbled side streets.

A 10-minute drive or taxi ride from Óbidos is Caldas da Rainha, famous for its therapeutic springs. Queen Leonor reputedly popularized this spot in the mid-15th century, when she stopped in for a soak in a smelly sulfurous pool. For centuries, the "Queen's Baths" attracted royalty looking for rheumatism cures and anyone else wanting to make the scene. A venerable hospital now sits on the source of those curative waters. The charming old center is more workaday than Óbidos, but Caldas da Rainha provides a good glimpse of everyday Portugal, with the charm punched up just a notch.

Portugal's kings and queens operated less opulently than other European royalty (they were perhaps too busy driving away the Moors and the Spanish). But these bonus sights closely associated with them offer a pleasant variety of scene and pace.