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Storybook Sintra is deluged with tourists

After a visit in 1809, young Lord Byron called the Portuguese city of Sintra “glorious Eden.” The English poet never could resist a pretty face or a romantic vista, and Sintra, which served as a coastal retreat for Portugal’s rulers, has plenty of the latter. Highlights include the mountaintop Pena Palace, a fairy-tale castle with a hodgepodge of architectural styles painted in rainbow shades, and, crowning a nearby hill, the intriguing ruins of a medieval Moorish castle, which offers spectacular views all the way to the coast. Sintra is a charming cobblestoned place with shops and cafes, as well as another royal residence, the 15th century National Palace, filled with ornate rooms and traditional Portuguese tiles.

Pena Palace in Sintra displays a variety of styles and colors. (Mike Corder/Associated Press)

To see this town and the palaces that overlook it, however, you will face enormous crowds and logistical challenges. Sintra hosted 3.2 million tourists in 2017; visiting during peak season (May to September) or any weekend guarantees long lines. And although it is only 15 miles northwest of the heart of Lisbon, the journey requires a 40-minute train ride. To visit Pena Palace and the Moorish castle, you’ll then have to take a crowded shuttle bus to the top of the mountain and wait in a long line to buy tickets. (It’s better, of course, to buy entrance tickets online.) Travel books warn visitors to leave Lisbon by 8:30 a.m. to beat the crowds. Never drive; the roads are narrow and often one-way.

In Evora, a peaceful ‘living museum’

The Evora cathedral is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. (Alamy Stock Photo)

A better choice is enchanting Evora, a city in the Alentejo region that, like Sintra, boasts a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Travelers to Lisbon sometimes think Evora is too far, not realizing that a 90 minute train ride inland will take them to one of the prettiest places in Portugal, with whitewashed buildings tucked inside the medieval walls of a walkable town. Evora, which is called a “living museum,” offers layers of history, religious art and a foodie experience and receives about one-eighth the number of annual tourists that Sintra does.

The Romans lived here, then the Moors, and then, for a while, Portugal’s kings (only part of the royal palace remains). A Roman temple relic can be found in the center of town; its 14 Corinthian columns are dramatically lit at night. Moorish influence is seen in the wrought-iron balconies, and narrow, meandering streets. An impressive 16th-century aqueduct cuts through the city, with buildings carefully inserted into some of its arches. Visitors can spend hours wandering cobblestones lanes lined with whitewashed homes edged with mustard yellow, said to ward off evil spirits.

The Gothic Evora cathedral is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. Inside is the Museum of Sacred Art; look for an entrancing ivory statue of the virgin and child that opens to reveal tiny scenes from the life of Christ. The 16th century Church of St. Francis is best known for its Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos), designed by monks to remind Evora’s residents of the transience of life.

A visit to Evora offers another bonus not found in Sintra — the opportunity to try a different regional cuisine. Hearty, bread-based Alentejo food emphasizes cheese, cilantro, salt cod and lots of garlic.

Bruno is a writer based in the District. Find her at

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