What to visit in Sintra: Quinta da Regaleira

From the stunning Rossio train station, Lisbon, get on the train and get off at the last stop. The landscape flowing past the window becomes greener and greener, and the air cooler. You arrive in Sintra, a Portuguese gem immersed in lush countryside. The atmosphere changes immediately: magic is all around you and you think of being out of time, just like in a fairy tale. Sintra is a small, elegant and precious town that rests on a hill. It’s always included in any itinerary for a visit to Lisbon for a few days. It’s popular for its Manueline (late gothic) style palaces, gardens, luxurious mansions, the Castelo dos Mouros and the coloured Palacio da Pena; but Sintra has more.

Not as well publicised as the two attractions just mentioned, unfortunately, the Quinta da Regaleira, a 10-min walk from the train station, must be visited if you want to visit something surreal. The entrance fee is 6€ (I went there in July 2014) and you can also buy audio guides or a book for a guided tour.

The main palace was planned at the beginning of the 1900s, by the Italian architect Luigi Manini, for Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro’s. He wanted to create a place that reflected his own interests and ideologies, remembering the glorious Portuguese past through the Manueline style, strongly connected to the voyages of discovery. Take time to explore the 4-hectare garden: smell the exotic flowers, lose yourself in the dark labyrinths, see yourself reflected in the small artificial lakes, and have a rest on the benches rich in sculpture. Above all, focus on the details of this particular architectural style, as you will continually find various, unique and bizarre figures: animals, flowers, knots and much more.

What makes this place so special are the gothic, esoteric, mythological and Masonic references. As for the classical divinities, visit Patamar dos Deuses; and Leda’s Cave, which is dedicated to the mythological Greek character who was seduced by Zeus, disguised as a swan.

The Initiation Well is a 9-floor slippery spiral staircase covered with moss, which represents Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Descend the stairs, towards the dark, for around 30 meters; until you arrive at the last floor decorated by the wind rose over a Templar cross. The smell of humidity is strong and the floor is often covered with water. The purpose of this well was supposed to be for Masonic initiation rites, which is suggested by the strong symbolism of the 9-floor spiral and other elements. 

From this well, tunnels lead to Entrada dos Guardiães (Guardians’ Entrance); to Lago da Cascata (The Waterfall Lake); and to Poço Imperfeito (Unfinished Well), another well, given this name because it is “unfinished”. Bats used to live here once, but the every-day presence of tourists forced them to look for other shelters. I recommend using a torch: some places aren’t lit and it’s hard to orientate yourself.

Caves, waterfalls, labyrinths, wells, towers, a majestic palace and exotic gardens. You will never forget the fantasy and the eccentricity of Quinta da Regaleira. I’m sure that you will be very satisfied with your visit and you will have the impression of having visited an imaginary place, made more magical by being surrounded by the silence of the park of Sintra which flaunts its hectares of every shade of green.

Nowadays Quinta da Regaleira is owned by the Municipality and is the headquarter of Cultursintra, a foundation that focuses on the promotion and preservation of the artistic, natural, historical and architectural heritage of the city; which is proud to be a Unesco World Heritage Site.

sintra quinta da regaleira