Lisbon Coast – Portuguese Riviera: Cabo da Roca, Sintra, Queluz …

Lisbon Coast

Dusk at Cabo da Roca.

The countryside around Lisbon, blessed year-round with a temperate climate and easy accessibility, is a compact region of mostly upscale resorts, peaceful rural retreats, and romantic palaces. Immediately to the west of the city is the “Portuguese Riviera”, which stretches about 30 miles (50km) to Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s most westerly point (map of Lisbon coast – popup image). Inland are the picturesque towns of Sintra with its romantic palaces and manor houses, and Queluz with the most splendid palace in the land. Altogether, this is an area that no visitor to Lisbon should miss.

As monarchies across Europe lost their power and were overthrown in the first half of the 20th century, exiled royalty and nobility were welcomed by the less-than-democratic Portuguese government of the time. They settled and built new residences on the friendly shores of the Tagus Estuary, most notably at Estoril, only a few miles west of Belém. It became known as the “playground of kings”, probably because of its fine beach, the availability of inexpensive domestic help, and Europe’s largest casino. Today, several excellent golf courses and the Formula One Portuguese Grand Prix near Estoril are additional drawing cards. Farther west the once sleepy fishing village of Cascais and the golden beach of Cabo da Roca gradually became easily accessible summer vacation spots, first for the moneyed classes, and eventually for everyone. Today Estoril, Cascais and their surroundings are major resort areas and “bedroom communities”, connected to downtown Lisbon by a speedy electric commuter train and a new autoroute to the international airport.

A street in picturesque Sintra.

Cascais is still an active fishing port, where men and their boats line the beach, and the day’s catch can be bought fresh at the market. There are hotels and apartments in all price ranges, the atmosphere is picturesque and relaxed, and the shopping is good. Cascais is not a centre of historical significance or cultural activity; for those things you need to head a short distance inland.

On an elevated plateau about six miles (10 km) east of Cabo da Roca is the town of Sintra, where Lord Byron once resided, and which he called “glorious Eden” and “the prettiest village in Europe”. It abounds in historical interest and charm: there are streets and shops with a Dickensian appearance, romantic palaces, deluxe hotels, fountains, and tours by horse-drawn carriage. Golfers can enjoy half a dozen fine courses nearby. The former Seteais palace is now one of the most elegant hotels in Portugal. In addition to some former residences of lesser nobility, Sintra boasts an architecturally-rich Royal Palace built six centuries ago over a former Moorish one, and added to many times over the years. Its rooms bear descriptive names such as Armorial Chamber, Arab Room, Swans’ Room and Sirens’ Room, and it is surrounded by a beautiful park filled with exotic vegetation. It is open for visitors daily except Wednesday.

National Palace, Queluz.

Sintra’s most controversial landmark, the Pena Palace has a privileged setting but is, to say the least, “unusual”. It was built by the Queen’s Bavarian consort as a royal summer residence in the mid 19th century around an existing convent on top of a small mountain. It’s a hodge-podge of styles, colours and (to my mind) kitsch, designed by the favorite architect of the Bavarian monarch sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”. It served briefly as the final refuge for Portugal’s royal family before they were deposed and went into exile in 1910.

Not far away on the mountain-top, the wind whistles mournfully through the ruins of what was long ago a huge Moorish fortress. Built in the 8th century, it was captured and destroyed in 1147, but partially restored in 1860. The view is wonderful, and it is said that on a clear day you can see as far as the Monchique hills in the Algarve.

Half-way between Sintra and Lisbon is the little town of Queluz, with its baroque National Palace that took most of the 1700s to build and furnish. It is now used by distinguished guests of the Portuguese government, such as visiting monarchs (e.g. Queen Elizabeth) and presidents. Queluz is often called a miniature version of Louis XIV’s Versailles, because it too has extensive formal gardens, a “river” for boating, fountains, statues, and opulent furnishings. No expense was spared, but it’s much less grandiose than Versailles, and the interior is not nearly so overwhelming to behold.

Preparing for another day in Cascais.

Each room in the National Palace is a masterpiece of regal taste, with carved and gilded wood, crystal chandeliers, and all the trappings you’d expect in a royal palace. There are paintings on the walls, and also on the ceiling of the Throne Room and elsewhere. It is open for guided tours, but unfortunately photography is not allowed. I can tell you for sure, though, that you’re not likely ever to see a more impressive interior. Nearby, the former quarters of the palace guards have been converted into a deluxe pousada for those of us who can afford luxury surroundings but don’t quite qualify for the palace.

If you are headed for a Portuguese vacation, not only should you spend a few days in Lisbon, but you owe it to yourself to take at least two more to visit these wonderful locations on the Lisbon Coast.

If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.

Filed under: 170