Sintra, Cascais, Estoril: the untamed Atlantic coast

Marie-Laure Hardy

The story

You can see its extravagant, vibrant yellow and blood red domes from miles around. Perched atop a hillside bedecked with sumptuous, dense vegetation, the National Palace of Pena is the heart and soul of Sintra. Like something out of a fairy tale, this extravagant castle was the high watermark of Portugal’s 19th-century aristocratic splendour. You wander through its ivy-clad arcades and up its spiral staircases wide-eyed and open-mouthed, cast back to childhood dreams by the magic of this improbable place. This architectural gem is far from the only sight worth seeing in Sintra, a small town filled with echoes of its sumptuous royal past.

Set amid rolling hills, Sintra was the preferred retreat of Lisbon’s aristocrats when temperatures soared in the city. Follow in their footsteps up to the remarkable Castle of the Moors, before sampling some bacalhau com natas, a local speciality made with Atlantic cod. From the heights of Sintra, move on down to the Atlantic coast for some refreshing sea air, and savour the spectacle of Portugal’s rugged cliffs and infinite sandy beaches. At Praia do Guincho, tuck into freshly-grilled king prawns as the waves beat against the verdant shore. Out at sea, surfers from all over the world pit themselves against the might of the Atlantic Ocean.

Cascais is a traditional fishing village, its white walls adorned with splashes of bougainvillea and the delicious aroma of grilled sardines floating on the sea breeze. In the seafront cafés, nobody can resist a glass of ice cold vinho verde with a view of the seemingly endless beach. A little further along the bay of Cascais, Estoril well deserves its nickname as the “town where spring comes twice,” with its palm-lined streets and parks full of exotic greenery. The town was once a firm favourite of Portugal’s royal family and aristocracy. The country’s nobles had grand summer houses built here in order to enjoy the restorative benefits of Estoril’s famous thermal waters. This aristocratic past is still a constant presence, in the form of the magnificent coloured palaces which line the coast. But of course, Estoril is also home to the casino frequented by James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Rumour had it that the casino was a hotbed of spies from all over Europe during the Second World War, making the most of Portugal’s neutral status. This is the perfect spot to trade secrets over a glass of vintage Macallan. When the sun goes down, a welcome breeze blows in from the ocean and gently caresses the silent sands and secret gardens so cherished by the people of Lisbon.

When to go?

Portugal enjoys mild temperatures all year round, although the Atlantic Coast gets its fair share of rain in autumn and winter. The best time to visit is between April and June, to cast off the winter blues with a refreshing dose of sunshine. A little warm-up for summer, before the crowds hit in July and August. In May, Sintra hosts an international festival which attracts some of the world’s finest classical musicians and dancers.

How to get there?

Lisbon is the nearest airport, and also the best-connected transport hub in southern Portugal. The capital is just a 30 minute drive from Sintra, Cascais and Estoril. For travellers arriving from France, an original experience is to take the ferry to the Spanish port of Bilbao then drive west to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, passing through some of Europe’s most beautiful landscapes along the way.

Experiences

The Grand Tour

Explore the region around Sintra with a guide who is passionate about history, from epic tales to intimate, local stories. Outside of the standard opening hours, wander through castles, palaces, convents and gardens without the usual crowds of visitors. Eat like an aristocrat in a private dining room in the Sintra Palace, and round off the day with a display by the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, proudly perpetuating the nation’s fine tradition of equestrianism.

Follow in the footsteps of a local adventurer

João is passionate about the great outdoors, a land-bound navigator constantly hunting out new beauty spots and hidden secrets in his native region. Join him for an expedition between Sintra and Cascais, cutting through ancient forests to reach the pristine beaches that host Portugal’s finest surf spots. There’s also the option of a night-time adventure to explore Sintra and Cascais in the dark, camp fire and glass of port included.

A gastronomic excursion

Early in the morning, dip into the explosion of colours that is Cascais market, with a top local chef as your guide. Our expert will help you navigate through these beautifully-tiled alleys, introducing you to his most trusted suppliers of fresh fish, vegetables and other local produce. He’ll then accompany you back to your kitchen, for a masterclass in the art of Portuguese cuisine starring some of the finest recipes from his thirty years as a professional chef.

Our address book

Restaurante Piscina Azenhas do Mar

Where the land meets the sea

Clinging to the very face of the cliff, the immense bay windows of this restaurant give diners an unbroken view of the ocean panorama. Try fresh lobster doused in caipirinha, accompanied by the soothing sound of the waves breaking into the natural saltwater pool at the foot of the cliff.

Azenhas do Mar, 2705-104 Colares-Sintra

Cimas english bar

Scandinavian chic

The Nordic architecture of this restaurant, previously managed by a Scottish spy, makes for a marked contrast with the surrounding palm trees. Try the gambas and spinach bake and the juicy monkfish, if you can take your eyes off the ocean for long enough to order.

Avenida Marginal, 2765 Cascais

Conceito Food Store

An unexpected treat

As you make your way through this nondescript suburb you may start wondering if you’ve got the right address. Don’t worry, this is the place. Chef Daniel Estriga soon banishes any apprehension with his surprise tasting menu, crafted with the finest produce available from local farmers and markets.

R.Pequena L1, Bicesse, 2645 Cascais

Bar Fonte da Pipa

Behind the fountain

This bar is minuscule but unmissable, nestled amid the abundant greenery of the Sintra national park and flanked by the sumptuous Pipa fountain with its magnificent azulejos. The bar is lined with a mouth-watering array of tapas, which you can tuck into as you try to count the myriad decorative details of the extraordinary fountain.

Rua Fonte Pipa, 11, Sintra

The Tasting Room

Something different

An unusual wine bar where you can taste some of Portugal’s best wines while marvelling at the ceiling, which features a bewildering array of overlapping wooden wine cases. Delicious tapas selections are made to measure, with pride of place going to the fantastic Pata Negra Bellota.

Rua Frederico Arouca, Cascais 2750-355

Bar Trem Velho

All aboard the Orient Express

Between the station and the sea, take your seat and sip on a cocktail or a fine whisky. The green leather chairs of this converted train carriage look like something straight out of a western. Beyond the red curtains, the endless blue sea.

Alameda Duquesa de Palmela No. 256, Cascais 2750-335

Adega Regional de Colares

Precious vineyards

The gigantic barrels which line the walls of these historic cellars contain some of Portugal’s most prestigious wines. With a professional winemaker as your guide, explore different vintages before sitting down with 240 fellow guests to a banquet dinner amid the barrels, by the light of the crystal chandeliers.

Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, n°32, 2705-351 Colares

Cabo da Roca

Romantic rocks

A cliff face 150 metres tall, a lighthouse, a 10km walk, a rugged, windswept coastline… Cabo da Roca is enough to make anybody dizzy. “The place where the land ends and the sea begins,” as Portuguese poet Luis Camoes put it, in a famous poem now set into the rock facing the ocean.

Estrada do Cabo da Roca s/n, 2705-001 Colares

Boca do Inferno

Lucifer’s lair

Literally translated as the “mouth of hell,” this dizzying rock formation is a fascinating spot just a few minutes outside Cascais. The ocean spills chaotically into this natural cauldron, formed by the waves over countless millennia, creating a thunderous noise and a spectacle worthy of the end times.

Avenue Rei Humberto II de Itália 642, 2750 Cascais