The picturesque resort town of Sintra, 18 miles (29km) north-west of Lisbon, lies at the heart of one of Portugal's most appealing holiday regions, abounding with natural beauty, historical and cultural attractions and plenty of leisure opportunities. Sintra itself, characterised by lush greenery, bright splashes of flowers and elaborate 'wedding cake' palaces, was described as a 'glorious Eden' by classic poet Lord Byron.
No wonder it was once chosen by royalty and nobility as the place to build their summer holiday retreats and, in more modern times, has been accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sintra is actually an amalgamation of three villages, sprawling down a steep granite hillside, so the layout is a little confusing for visitors on holiday. The huge Palacio Nacional, with its tall, conical chimneys serves as a landmark in the centre of Sintra, and makes a good starting point for walking tours of the key attractions of this fascinating fairy-tale town, captured by Christian Crusaders from the Moors in 1147.
A fun way to see the town and surrounds is aboard the historic 100-year-old Sintra Tram, which connects Estefanea to Praia das Macas. It is open for rides for the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a couple of Euros.
Shopping in Sintra becomes a tour of traditional Portuguese folk art and crafts. Do not expect a frenetic spending spree in glitzy modern malls. Sintra's shops are tucked away in narrow cobblestone streets, waiting to be ferreted out by those who appreciate fine holiday souvenirs, like hand-painted ceramics, lace, beaten copper and bronze, embroidered linen and jewellery. Goods come from all over the country, including the Azores. Prices can be steep, but most merchants are open to a little bargaining. Best place to shop is the Praca da Republica and Sao Pedro Square. Those who are seeking modern designer clothing and houseware will have to travel out of town to the huge Cascais Shopping Centre, the area's largest shopping mall.
The best Sintra restaurants tend to keep their offerings local, often with international overtones. Some delicious specialities of the region to look out for are Negrais suckling pig, Merces pork, roast kid, bass and shellfish of all sorts. Then there are the pastries, particularly Sintra queijadas, which are like mini-cheesecakes, made to an age-old recipe. Cream cakes and local jams complete the temptations, all of which should be accompanied by some excellent Portuguese wines.
Sintra is certainly not a party town, but as one appreciative visitor remarked: 'When there are so many marvels to enjoy during the day, who needs nightlife?' Evenings tend to be spent sedately, wining and dining. There are, of course, several bars in the town, some of which occasionally offer live music and can work up quite a buzz. The liveliest bars and cafes are on the Rua das Padarias, Rua Fonte da Pipa and Rua da Ferraria. Late night owls should enjoy the Adega das Caves bodega, which is open until the wee hours on the Praca da Republica, drawing an international crowd.
Most tourists are drawn to Sintra for sightseeing, and there are plenty of historic buildings and museums to fill a busy holiday itinerary including the Sintra Modern Art Museum, Toy Museum and Archaeological Museum. Sintra also offers all that is necessary for a seaside holiday, its golden sands, clear Atlantic waters and magnificent coastline ensuring it is a real fun-in-the-sun pleasure spot. Best beaches are Sao Juliao, Magoito, Macas, Grande and Adraga. There are opportunities for a host of water sports, with surfing and fishing being the most popular. The clifftops provide perfect platforms for paragliders. Golfers are also drawn to Sintra to the Estoril-Sol Golf Club, which lies at the foot of the Sintra mountain range. Although only a 9-hole course it is sought after for its beautiful forested setting.
Sintra has little to offer the young clubbing and party set, being more of a sightseeing or beach holiday destination. Its close proximity to Lisbon means that it is often crowded at weekends in summer.