An American in Portugal – One Night in Sintra

Almost three years ago, we packed up our entire lives and moved to Portugal. Literally six weeks before the entire world shut down, we put our kids in an international school and started moving forward on the dream of opening a retreat centre.

When the pandemic made it impossible to even leave the house, let alone visit potential properties, we, like the rest of the world, stayed put. It wasn’t even an option to travel within Portugal for most of that time. Every spa was closed and many hotels were shut down. Even finding a place on Airbnb was a challenge. 

But now, the ability to travel is finally becoming an option again. The undiscovered treasures of Portugal’s vast and varied landscapes await us. Although the sunny skies and relatively warm temperatures in the south make it tempting to never leave the Algarve, it’s high time to see what else this beautiful country has to offer.

My mom recently needed to get to Lisbon for a flight so it was a good time to head north. With a little over 24 hours and two children who were also eager for a change of scene, the four of us packed into the car and headed for one of Portugal’s most famed cities: Sintra.

For many years I’d been hearing about this lovely hillside enclave. Ever since 2017 when rumours flew that Madonna had purchased a hillside palace in Sintra (although it’s still not really clear to me if the rumours are true or false) it’s been on my bucket list. But Madonna aside, everyone I’ve ever met who has been to Sintra simply raves about its rich history, stunning nature, mystical microclimate and especially its beautiful architecture. Named a UNESCO world heritage site, the entire region is steeped in rich history and tightly linked to the Moors, the Masons and Portuguese royalty. 

I wanted to find out what all the fuss over Sintra is really about. At first, as you drive up into the hills from Lisbon, it seems like any other upscale Portuguese town with nightmarish parking. But once you start to walk through the narrow, winding streets, you discover that the main drag borders a truly jaw-dropping natural wonderland. Behind the historic homes lies the most beautiful flowers and trees of all kinds. Some of them are so tall and have such large trunks that they have undoubtedly stood for many, many centuries. It turns out that the whole town, dotted with impressive palaces and medieval Moorish castles, is basically one gigantic national park bordering the sea. 

Not only that, but the earliest archaeological vestiges of human occupation date back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Microlithic flint utensils and decorated ceramics found in the area date back to the 5th Millennium BC. 

Perhaps the most famous tourist destination is the Quinta da Regaleira Palace. We spent most of the day wandering through the lush gardens, defence towers, chapels, royal mansions, underground caves and – most gorgeously creepy of all – winding our way down into the bowels of the earth through an ancient well. If you only have one day in Sintra, this is the place to visit. 

Bonus tip: Sintra also borders some of the most beautiful coastline in Portugal and you’ll find a wealth of places to stay for great bargains (not in high season) just outside the city.

As you wind your way out of the mystical fog of Sintra, the landscape becomes slightly flatter but remains green and lush. Sparsely populated, this area has retained much of its authentic charm. Just a few minutes drive from the famous Cabo da Roca historical site lies a gorgeous spa and guesthouse. Perfect for a night away, the Quinta Vale da Roca in Azoia is stunningly beautiful. 

Designed and built by the two architects who live on the property and welcome guests personally, this boutique hotel is the perfect place to unwind after a long day of walking through palaces and exploring gardens.

Not only are the rooms uber modern and decorated with incredible taste, but they include a hearty breakfast and the use of a small gym and indoor spa. The jacuzzi is nestled into the ground behind one giant wall of glass overlooking the vineyards and sea. In the same enclave are a dry and wet sauna.

For my mom, me and the kids, this place was the absolute perfect refuge for a good night’s sleep and a relaxing steep in hot water with breathtaking views.

This small excursion, only slightly more than 24 hours, motivated me to see more of this beautiful country and inspired me to take every opportunity I have to head north. Really, it was far easier than I ever imagined. There’s a lot to be said for local tourism. Aside from being environmentally friendlier than going abroad, it’s also less expensive and easier. 

So what’s next on my local list? Off to the wild wonders beyond the Tagus River in the Alentejo.

Meredith Price Levitt is a freelance writer, an American expat who identifies as a hybrid. After 20 years in Tel Aviv, she moved to the Algarve in December of 2019. Just in time for a global pandemic. 

You can contact her at  


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