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Travel: Castles, cliffs and the world’s biggest scone in Portugal

© Shutterstock / Balate DorinThe National Palace of Pena, Sintra
The National Palace of Pena, Sintra

Confession time…While I’d previously visited Lisbon several times and had seen a few other very pretty parts of Portugal, Sintra was one place I’d never encountered. Hadn’t even heard of it!

Thankfully, now I know all about Sintra and its amazing appeal. And, what’s more, I can happily 100% recommend this charming, history-soaked town as a truly must-visit destination.

The famous poet Lord Byron – who spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire and later spent many years ensconced in Sintra – described it as “glorious”.

I can’t disagree with his Lordship. It’s little wonder that in 1995 Unesco declared it a world heritage site, thanks to the combination of its aesthetic appeal and incredible history spanning thousands of years.

When it comes to palaces, castles, gardens and panoramic vistas, Sintra ticks these boxes – and then some. As well as the legendary poet, Moorish princes, Portuguese royals and the eccentric super-rich have all favoured this beautiful corner of the country. Their legacies live on for us to explore.

Located less than 30 minutes by car from Lisbon Airport and just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and mainland Europe’s most westerly point, Cabo De Roca, Sintra is small enough to explore on foot (beware, there are some steep inclines) but big enough to keep us well occupied.

From their lofty perches overlooking Sintra the 10th Century Moorish Castle and neighbouring Pena Palace are must-see locations.

The Initiation Well (Pic: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone)

We walked to the palace and gardens from Sintra centre – with frequent stops to savour the views.

The colourful Pena Palace complex began life as a chapel, later becoming a monastery before being turned into a summer retreat for Portuguese royals from the mid-1800s onwards.

Red and yellow painted facades create an almost fairytale castle appearance from afar. But, once inside, the historically significant artefacts and architectural splendours reveal why it’s one of Portugal’s most visited monuments.

Neighbouring Moorish Castle complex is floodlit at night, creating an almost magical picture when viewed from the centre of Sintra.

Be sure also to visit the Quinta de Regaleira estate, created by a Brazilian-born billionaire in the late-1800s.

His mantra for lavishing money on creating a palace and gardens was “spend, spend, spend”, entrusting Italian architect Luigi Manini to reflect his interests and ideologies.

The Initiation Well with its 27-metre spiral staircase is almost folly-like. A labyrinth of caves and extensive tunnels link chunks of the garden to lakes and fountains while the buildings’ elaborate stone carvings are magnificent.

We took the historic tram from Sintra to the pretty little beach resort of Praia de Marcas before embarking on a steep coastal path towards Cabo Da Roca. For the views alone, it’s worth the hike – or take one of the tour buses.

Back in central Sintra and the Town Palace merits a visit. This was used for almost eight centuries as a hunting retreat. It commands centre stage in the town, just metres away from a whole host of cool restaurants, cafes and shops.

Sintra’s pretty, pastel-coloured streets (Pic: Shutterstock / Travel Faery)

Be sure to check out the pretty little bar Cantinho do Lord Byron for a pre-dinner drink or cuppa.

We stayed in the beautiful Palacio de Sintra Boutique House hotel and were impressed both by the size of the bedroom and the mouth-watering daily breakfasts served up in a beautifully decorated dining room. The staff couldn’t do enough to help make our stay enjoyable.

Scone Spy would be raving about what we dubbed the world’s biggest scone, served up in the town’s popular Café Saudade.

As big as a dinner plate the mega-scone was tastily infused with apples and berries and, size-wise, easily enough for two or more to share!

This was my first post-lockdown international trip. If I could return tomorrow, I would in a heartbeat! Same again Sintra, please…


For any sweet-toothed readers out there, pastel de natas (custard tarts) are a must! Strike it lucky and they’ll be fresh out the oven, still warm, enhancing that wonderful, sweet taste.

As someone with a lactose intolerance, I even found two Vegan Nata bakeries in Lisbon who delivered a safe and extremely tasty version.