West of the capital, Agualva-Cacém is a municipality in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. In this residential suburb you’re around half an hour from the centre of Lisbon, but also close to Sintra. This town, in the shadow of a mountain range, was the favoured summer retreat of the Portuguese court.
If you’re keen on palaces you’ve lucked out, as both Sintra and Lisbon’s western hills are replete with historic estates for kings and aristocrats. You’ll need three days just to see the palaces around Sintra, but there’s also the superb Carcavelos Beach and the UNESCO ensemble of the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery at just 15 minutes.
Lets explore the best things to do in Agualva-Cacém:
1. Quinta da Regaleira
One thing you can’t leave Sintra without seeing is this magical estate.
The vastly wealthy turn-of-the-century businessman, Carvalho Monteiro let his imagination (and interest in Freemasonry) run wild here, fashioning a wonderland of mysterious symbols, tunnels and caves.
There’s so much that you could lose a day investigating every nook, grotto, gazebo and piece of whimsical decoration.
In the park is an “initiation well”, an eerie stone cavity with a galleried spiral stairway and the site of arcane rituals.
The palace blends Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline-revival architecture in the most ostentatious way,
2. Castelo dos Mouros
The name of this commanding fortress will tell you it was constructed by the Moors, in the 700s and 800s.
It came under Christian control in 1147 and was a crucial stronghold for the rest of the reconquista.
The castle is mostly a ruin, save for a long crenellated wall balanced along the cliff top, linking four towers.
But it’s all about the location, on this rocky spur on the northern edge of the Sintra Moutains.
The panoramas from the Royal Tower are spellbinding, and there are lots of archaeological traces to discover, like the Romanesque chapel and the vestiges of the cistern.
3. Palace of Queluz
Less than ten minutes by road from Agualva-Cacém is this exuberant rococo palace ordered by Dom Pedro of Braganza in the 1740s.
He would later marry his own niece, Queen Maria I, to become King Consort.
From then on the palace was the home of royalty until the royal family fled to Brazil after the French invasion of Portugal in 1807. Queluz now doubles as a decorative arts museum with room after room testifying to the affluence Portugal enjoyed in this era.
The Sala de Mangas demonstrates the richness of Portugal’s colonies, while there’s abundant gilded plasterwork in the Hall of Ambassadors and Ballroom.
The gardens are lovely and have a 100-metre-long canal lined with beautiful azulejos.
4. Sintra National Palace
Like Sintra’s castle this palace has a story that begins during the Moorish occupation.
After the reconquista it became the property of the Portuguese crown, and royalty lived here on and off the from the 12th century through to the 19th century.
None of that early architecture remains, as there were big reconstructions in the 15th and 16th centuries when the palace was given its current fusion of Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance styles.
The two conical white chimneys on the roof are symbols for Sintra, while there’s an unmistakable Mudéjar accent on the interior courtyards and geometrical tiles (made in Seville) at this wonderful palace.
5. Old Sintra
Below the National Palace and shielded by a crucible of tall wooded hills is Sintra’s historic core.
As Sintra is a tourist hotspot you’re better off driving down early and getting away before the coaches unload.
There’s a mini labyrinth of winding streets and stairways to investigate, and due to the incline you’ll need to stop to appreciate the scenery.
Also, because Sintra welcomed the Portuguese court in the summer there’s no lack of palatial architecture to photograph, at a town where the English poet Lord Byron was inspired to write “The Giaour” during his Grand Tour.
6. Belém Tower
A UNESCO-listed emblem for Portugal is only 15 minutes from Agualva-Cacém.
The Belém Tower was built on an island in the Tagus River at the start of the 16th century.
It had a key defensive role for the city, defending the approach to Lisbon’s harbour.
But its architecture is also sumptuous, and the tower epitomises the Manueline style that was in fashion in the early 1500s.
This style was borrowed from the Moorish period as you can see from the domes on the fort’s turrets.
There’s also a gorgeous Venetian loggia, looking out on the river, with intricately carved traceries.
The tower quickly became a fabled seamark for voyagers departing for and returning from long adventures.
7. Jerónimos Monastery
Within walking distance of the Belém Tower is this astounding monastery, part of the same World Heritage Site and also listed as one of Portugal’s “Seven Wonders”. Like its neighbour this monument is a reflection of the richness and confidence of the period, at a time when Vasco da Gama had just returned from India with incalculable riches.
This is manifested on the southern and western portals, which are loaded with Manueline and Renaissance ornamentation and sculpture.
The Church of Santa Maria is astonishing too, with ethereal vaulting and tombs for Vasco da Gama and the great poet Luís de Camões who chronicled the Age of Discovery.
8. Museu de Marinha
In the north and west wings of the monastery is a navy museum, recounting Portugal’s extensive and compelling maritime history.
The attraction’s origins go back to the 19th-century reign of Luís I, who took an interest in navigation and Portugal’s seafaring legacy.
So in this nostalgic setting you can peruse some 6,000 artefacts, with special attention on the Age of Discovery.
There are uniforms, charts from various eras, navigation instruments and countless scale models of ships going back to the 1400s.
In the Galeotas Pavilion, you can see royal vessels, like a brigantine built in 1780 and last sailed with Queen Elizabeth visited Lisbon on 1957.
9. Praia de Carcavelos
Traffic-permitting, you shouldn’t need more than 15 minutes to get down to this enticing beach on the Lisbon-Cascais shore.
Praia de Carcavelos is open to the Atlantic so gets very consistent surf (you might catch an event if you visit for a walk in winter). And let’s just say that the ocean temperatures will be invigorating, even in the middle of summer! But the reason it’s the preferred beach in the Lisbon area is its size; you’ve got 1.5 kilometres of golden sand, and should find room on this wide beach, even in July and August.
10. Pena Palace
Another of Portugal’s most treasured landmarks is within a brief drive, around 20 minutes to the west.
You could call the Palácio da Pena Portugal’s version of Neuschwanstein, even though it was built 30 years before.
The palace is on one of the highest peaks in the Serra de Sintra, and was designed to stand out, to the point where you can even see it from Lisbon on a clear day.
In the “Eclecticist” fashion of the mid-19th century there’s a host of historical styles jumbled together, including Moorish, Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance.
The outcome is a fairytale mass of domes, turrets and merlons.
It’s just as exuberant inside, particularly the Salão Nobre and its stucco, chandeliers and stained glass dating from the 1300s to the 1800s.
If your thirst for theatrical architecture is still strong, there’s another mid-19th-century palace to wow you a little way west of Sintra’s main landmarks.
This one was built for an Englishman, Sir Thomas Cook, and has Sintra’s trademark melange of Moorish and Gothic Revival design.
The interior has a wonderful stairway with intricate stucco work, and a sensational circular music room linked by a corridor that could be out of Lord of the Rings.
The grounds are in that typical Romanticist style and are planted with imported bamboo, ferns and cedars.
You have to spend as long as you can possibly in this incomparable city.
Transport can be tricky, and instead of trying to drive or getting the commuter train one option might be to take a cab to Reboleira station.
This is the western terminus of the Metro’s Blue Line, which will get you into the centre in no time at all.
From there it’s up to you; you can make straight for the big sights like the São Jorge Castle and the monumental Praça do Comércio.
Or let your curiosity steer you through the gorgeous old Alfama and Bairro Alto neighbourhoods.
13. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
The last three entries on the list are on the Lisbon Metro’s Blue Line or the Sintra commuter train line and can be reached in minutes.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum was founded according to the wishes of the namesake businessman.
He made a fortune exploiting oil in the Middle East and invested in an amazing art collection.
There’s ancient art here, from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and Armenia, as well as an assortment of European painting and sculpture that almost defies belief.
Just some of the artists featured here are Rodin, Rembrandt, Rubens, Monet, Turner, Degas and Camille Corot.
14. Lisbon Zoo
In the western outskirts of the city, Lisbon’s zoo was inaugurated in 1882 and many of the animals came from the royal family’s private menageries.
Today it’s an up-to-date attraction with an emphasis on conservation.
There are 332 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, including crowd-pleasers like African elephants, zebras, giraffes and tigers.
The reptile enclosures have recently been updated, and there’s a bridge a couple of metres above pools with alligators.
The zoo is equipped with a cable car for 20-minute panoramic trips above the park and there’s a free-flight aviary where birds from all seven continents are allowed to fly in semi-freedom.
15. S.L. Benfica
The new Estádio da Luz was finished in time for Euro 2004 and can seat 65,000. It’s S.L. Benfica’s home ground, and that name alone will conjure thoughts of Eusébio, and Béla Guttmann dominant teams of the 1960s.
Benfica remain the most successful side in Portuguese domestic football, but haven’t won a European title since Guttman walked away in 1962 and supposedly cursed the club! You can get acquainted with the history on the stadium tour, or get tickets for a match between August and May.
In a quirky ceremony before every game the bald eagle Águia Vitória circles the ground and lands on the club crest.