Halfway between Lisbon and Sintra, Queluz is a city in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. These western outskirts are mostly residential, but punctuating the new housing estates are royal and aristocratic palaces. There’s one right in Queluz, and several within a 15-minute radius. And that’s before we mention Sintra, which is a breeze by road or public transport.
Just south of Queluz is the point where the Tagus empties into the Atlantic. On the estuary side is Belém and its staggering UNESCO-listed wonders, while on the oceanfront are beaches like Carcavelos. This is surfing heaven in winter and one of Lisbon’s preferred places to de-stress in summer.
Lets explore the best things to do in Quelez:
1. Palace of Queluz
The undoubted must-do in Queluz is the royal palace, which was fashioned in the second half of the 18th century.
The man behind it was Dom Pedro of Braganza who would much later become King Consort when Maria, the niece he married, became queen in 1815. No expense was spared on the interior and exterior; outside you’ll be overwhelmed by the Baroque grandeur of the Robillon wing, named for its French architect.
The interiors have tile-clad galleries, halls with gilded plaster, a rich chapel with carved giltwood and the intimate private apartments.
The king’s bedroom and queen’s boudoir are both sensational, the first for its mirrored columns, and the latter for its marquetry flooring.
2. Palace of Queluz Gardens
The palace grounds need another paragraph as they are as sumptuous as any you’ll encounter in Portugal.
Fronting the “Ceremonial Façade” and Robillon’s ostentatious stairway there’s a French formal garden with boxwood hedges, fountains, vases and sculptures centred on the “Portico dos Cavalinhos” a Palladian garden temple.
Further away from the palace there’s also a grotto with a cascade.
But the most spectacular element has to be the Dutch-designed canal, which runs for more than 100 metres and has walls lined with tile panels portraying seascapes.
3. Museu da Pólvora Negra
Once you know where to find it you won’t miss this historical complex a couple of minutes from the Palace of Queluz.
In these mustard-coloured baroque buildings there was a gunpowder factory, in operation from the 16th century to the 20th century.
In 1994 the factory was acquired by the municipality and turned into a museum and cultural space for outdoor concerts in the courtyard in summer.
The exhibits delve into the composition and invention of gunpowder and how this material came to be manufactured here.
There’s a short film based on accounts by the last generation of workers at the mill.
4. Aquário Vasco da Gama
If the traffic is kind on the CREL (Lisbon’s ring road) you can get to this aquarium in a jiffy from Queluz.
It came about in the last years of the 19th century at the behest of King Carlos I, who had a passion for oceanography; the first exhibits were specimens the king himself had gathered aboard his yacht (you can still see these today). Now in an impressive historical setting there are 90 tanks containing some 300 species, while there are thousands more preserved specimens in the museum.
For kids though, all the excitement will be for the sea lions, turtles and brightly coloured tropical fish.
5. Belém Tower
The monument-heavy Belém neighbourhood is a few kilometres west of Lisbon, so you’ll have two UNESCO sites and Portuguese national treasures within a brief drive.
The first of these is a defensive tower on an island in the Tagus.
There’s a lot to learn about Portuguese identity at this one monument: Firstly because of its position at the entrance to the harbour it became a symbol for the Age of Discovery.
But its early-16th-century architecture also epitomises Manueline architecture, which fused late-Gothic, Plateresque and Renaissance design into one distinctive style.
See the sculpted domes on the bartizans, the Venetian loggia and the ribbed vaulting in the casemate.
6. Jerónimos Monastery
The architect who helped introduce the Manueline style was Diogo de Boitaca, and this 16th-century monastery is one of its high points and another cherished Portuguese monument.
Boitaca was given free rein and a lot of time to express himself and spent 14 years crafting elements like the columns and vaults inside the church and the astounding decoration in the cloister’s arches.
His successor, João de Castilho carved the sumptuous south portal, which is so rich with sculpture you’ll need to pause for a few minutes to see it all.
7. Museu de Marinha
This maritime museum is inside a wing of the monastery.
And it makes sense that a landmark funded by the expeditions during Age of Discovery should flaunt Portugal’s historical seafaring treasures.
The most absorbing exhibits here chart the period when figures like Prince Henry the Navigator spread Portuguese influence to new parts of the globe.
There are navigation instruments, figureheads, weapons, maritime charts and a whole fleet of historic models of ships.
The adjoining Pavilhão das Galeotas has a very ornate brigantine launched in 1780.
8. Palácio do Marquês de Pombal
There’s another dose of courtly life at this luxurious estate designed for the Maquis of Pombal.
It was built in the second half of the 18th century in the Baroque and Rococo styles by the architect Carlos Mardel, who also had a hand in the Águas Livres Aqueduct.
There isn’t much furniture inside, but that doesn’t matter because of the exquisite azulejos that decorate almost every room as well as the splendid west and south facades outside.
In the gardens there’s a massive grotto, as well as the agricultural facilities that were part of the old estate, like the winery, fishery and olive mill.
Check the calendar in summer as the grounds are a venue for classical music and dance performances, as they were in the days of the Marquis.
9. Jardins da Quinta Real de Caxias
Near the water 15 minutes south of Queluz is a refined royal pleasure garden, now in a state of elegant decay.
The gardens are from the 1700s and arranged on a parterre surrounded by pavilions and enriched with statues by Machado de Castro, the vaunted 18th-century sculptor.
It’s a geometric formal garden, with boxwood hedges in all manner of fanciful shapes.
You can get a bird’s eye view of these arrangements on the high terraces that lead you to the main monument, a grotto with a cascade and capped with another exquisite pavilion.
10. Forte de São Bruno de Caxias
A whole network of maritime fortifications was built during the Portuguese Restoration War in the middle of the 17th century, from Cabo da Roca (mainland Portugal’s westernmost point) to the Belém Tower.
This was known as the Barra do Tejo fortification line, and Forte de São Bruno de Caxias was the largest of these structures.
Unlike the Belém Tower it was made to be functional rather than beautiful, but anyone curious about this period can spend time inspecting this star-shaped fort.
It’s free to enter, but even if you come outside opening hours you can still get up to the battery to watch the Tagus flow by.
11. Praia de Carcavelos
The Atlantic Coast stars in earnest almost directly south of Queluz, which is next to another coastal fort.
And being the first proper beach the Praia de Carcavelos attracts people in their droves, whether in winter or summer.
In the cooler months the waves are high, fast-moving and tube-like, which is just how surfers like it.
If you’ve ever felt like learning how to ride a wave this beach has a couple of schools to get you started, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of some of Portugal’s most famous surfers.
In summer the surf is calmer and Lisbon’s residents catch the commuter train to spend restful weekend days on the golden sands.
12. Dolce Vita Tejo
In neighbouring Amadora you’ll have the largest shopping mall in Portugal at your disposal.
Safe to say that it has almost every mainstream Portuguese or international fashion brand.
If you’re in a rush you can make a flying visit and get on with the rest of your holiday.
But you could also make a day of it, especially if you have little ones with you as the facilities for children are top notch.
In addition to more than 300 stores there’s a multiplex cinema and more than 30 restaurants.
You might also want to keep Dolce Vita Tejo in your plans for this child-oriented mini theme park.
It’s one of several branches around the world, and the concept is that kids (up to around 12) will get to try out real jobs.
So they can become a doctor, fire-fighter, journalist, chef among other professions and carry out tasks relating to these roles.
All the while they’ll be making money that they can use for leisure or to purchase things they want.
Needless to say there’s a strong educational thread that kids may not realise, as they learn what real-life jobs entail and how to manage their money, all in a light-hearted world.
From medieval times up to the 19th century, Portugal’s kings and queens spent their summers in Sintra, which is barely 15 minutes west of Queluz.
It’s only a little town in the shadow of towering hills, but many of these peaks are crowned with palaces and castles.
There are four wonderful estates awaiting you, as well as the Castelo dos Mouros built by the Moors in the early middle ages.
Sintra isn’t the kind of destination you can do in a day, but if you have to pick one palace make it the Quinta da Regaleira.
This World Heritage Site was developed by an eccentric businessman who furnished the grounds with tunnels and mysterious freemason monuments, like two vast “initiation wells” for rituals.
For a day in the capital it would be best to discard the car and either get the commuter train all the way in or change for the Metro’s Blue Line a couple of stops from Queluz at Reboleira.
After that you’ll have the entire city at your fingertips, especially the attractions in the west, like the Lisbon Zoo, Fronteira Palace, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon’s Stadiums and the Águas Livres Aqueduct.
But that’s just for starters in this one of a kind city.
Maybe you have a specific neighbourhood in mind like Alfama, which still has Moorish traces, or Bairro Alto for its nightlife and bohemian spirit.
Or you want to ride some of this hilly city’s funiculars, visit the iconic São Jorge Castle or wander the cultivated Baixa and Rossio quarters.