Sintra National Palace, Portugal

The Sintra National Palace, also known as Vila Palace, is located in the parish of São Martinho, in the village of Sintra, Lisbon District, in Portugal.

It was one of the Royal Palaces and today is owned by the Portuguese State, which uses it for tourist and cultural purposes. Urban construction began in the 15th century, although an old building from the Muslim era was used.

It features features of medieval, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and romantic architecture. It is considered an example of organic architecture, a set of bodies apparently separated, but which are part of a whole articulated with each other, through courtyards, stairs, corridors and galleries.

It stands as a living testimony to some of the most successful moments in Portuguese history when the country opened up to new worlds, and its architecture and heritage became marked by the harmonious combination of Gothic, Mudejar and Renaissance elements.

The palace’s outward profile has become famous for its two monumental cone-shaped chimneys, while its interior walls are lined with Europe’s largest set of Mudejar tiles still in place today. It also contains one of the country’s most important heraldic rooms and has some significant collections of decorative arts.

It is the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal, being inhabited more or less continuously from at least the early 15th century to the late 19th century. It is a significant tourist attraction, and is part of the cultural landscape of Sintra, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

It dates back to a primitive palace that was donated by King John I of Portugal to the Count of Seia in 1383, returning to royal possession shortly thereafter.

Middle ages
It was one of two castles at what is now Sintra in the Moorish Al-Andalus era that began with the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the 8th century. The other, now known as the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors), located atop a high hill overlooking modern Sintra, is now a romantic ruin.

The castle now known as Sintra National Palace, located downhill from the Castelo dos Mouros, was the residence of the Islamic Moorish Taifa of Lisbon rulers of the region. The earliest mention in a source is by Arab geographer Al-Bacr. In the 12th century the village was conquered by King Afonso Henriques, who took the ‘Sintra Palace’ castle for his use. The blend of Gothic, Manueline, Moorish, and Mudéjar styles in the present palace is, however, mainly the result of building campaigns in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Nothing built during Moorish rule or during the reign of the first Portuguese kings survives. The earliest surviving part of the palace is the Royal Chapel, possibly built during the reign of King Dinis I in the early 14th century. The palace chapel has a tiled floor with tiles in the apse laid to resemble a carpet. The walls are painted in patterned squares tha look like tiles and depict the Holy Ghost descending in the form of a dove. The wooden ceiling is decorated in geometrically patterned Moorish latticework.

Early palace
Much of the palace dates from the times of King John I, who sponsored a major building campaign starting around 1415.

Most buildings around the central courtyard – called the Ala Joanina (John’s Wing) – date from this campaign, including the main building of the façade with the entrance arches and the mullioned windows in Manueline and Moorish styles (called ajimezes), the conical chimneys of the kitchen that dominate the skyline of the city, and many rooms including:

The Swan Room (Sala dos Cisnes) in Manueline style, named so because of the swans painted on the ceiling. The number of painted swans, the symbol of the house of the groom, Philip the Good of Burgundy, equals to the bride’s, Infanta Isabel, age – 30.
Magpie Room (Sala das Pegas); the magpies (pegas) painted on the ceiling and the frieze hold the emblem por bem (for honour) in their beaks. This relates to the story that the king John I was caught in the act of kissing a lady-in-waiting by his queen Philippa of Lancaster. To put a stop to all the gossip, he had the room decorated with as many magpies as there were women at the court (136).
Patios: the early wing of the palace features courtyards embellished with tiles and featuring Arabic style water pools.

John I’s son, King Duarte I, was very fond of the Palace and stayed long periods here. He left a written description of the Palace that is very valuable in understanding the development and use of the building, and confirms that much of the palace built by his father has not changed much since its construction. Another sign of the preference for this Palace is that Duarte’s successor King Afonso V was born (1432) and died (1481) in the Palace. Afonso V’s successor, King John II, was acclaimed King of Portugal here.

Medieval palace
Bedroom-Prison of King Afonso VI. This room in the medieval section of the Palace, with its original tiled floor, was the prison of Alfonso VI until his death in 1683.

16th century
Arab Room (Sala dos Árabes) is a tiled room with a Moorish style fountain in the center.
Kitchens. The pair of extraordinary kitchens are large rooms each with a wall of ovens and cooking stoves above which, in place of a ceiling, rise an enormous pair of conical chimneys that taper as they reach skyward.
The Coat of Arms Room, in Manueline style, the most magnificently decorated room in the palace, features the heraldic symbols of the Portuguese noble families, and is the most artistically significant heraldic room in Europe.

The other major building campaign that defined the structure and decoration of the palace was sponsored by King Manuel I between 1497 and 1530, using the wealth engendered by the exploratory expeditions in this Age of Discoveries. The reign of this King saw the development of a transitional Gothic-Renaissance art style, named Manueline, as well as a kind of revival of Islamic artistic influence (Mudéjar) reflected in the choice of polychromed ceramic tiles (azulejos) as a preferred decorative art form.

King Manuel ordered the construction of the so-called Ala Manuelina (Manuel’s Wing), to the right of the main façade, decorated with typical manueline windows. He also built the Coats-of-Arms Room (Sala dos Brasões) (1515–1518), with a magnificent wooden coffered domed ceiling decorated with 72 coats-of-arms of the King and the main Portuguese noble families. The coat-of-arms of the Távora family was however removed after their conspiracy against king Joseph I.

King Manuel also redecorated most rooms with polychromed tiles specially made for him in Seville. These multicoloured tile panels bear Islamic motifs and lend an Arab feeling to many of the rooms inside.

Modern times
In the following centuries the palace continued to be inhabited by Kings from time to time, gaining new decoration in the form of paintings, tile panels and furniture. A sad story associated with the palace is that of the mentally unstable King Afonso VI, who was deposed by his brother Pedro II and forced to live without leaving the residence from 1676 until his death in 1683.

The ensemble suffered damage after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake but was restored in the “old fashion”, according to contemporary accounts. The biggest loss to the great earthquake was the tower over the Arab Room, which collapsed. At the end of the 18th century, Queen Maria I redecorated and redivided the rooms of the Ala Manuelina.

During the 19th century, Sintra became again a favourite spot for the Kings and the Palace of Sintra was frequently inhabited. Queen Amélia, in particular, was very fond of the palace and made several drawings of it. With the foundation of the Republic, in 1910, it became a national monument. In the 1940s, it was restored by architect Raul Lino, who tried to return it to its former splendour by adding old furniture from other palaces and restoring the tile panels. It has been an important historical tourist attraction ever since.

Of complex plant, it is organized in “V” and has a staggered volume, consisting mainly of cobblestones, being the coverage made by multiple roofs differentiated to four waters.

Characteristic feature of this palace, quickly identified by tourists, is the pair of tall 33 meter high conical chimneys. The main elevation is organized in three bodies, the central one being higher and retreated in relation to the extremes. There is one on the ground floor arcade with four broken arches, surmounted by five windows maineladas and emoludramento limestone. The other fronts of the building have a complex articulation of protruding and reentrant bodies, highlighting the cubic volume of the Room of Arms.

The inner compartments are reflected in cores arranged around courtyards. These include the Archer’s Room, the Moura (or Arab’s) Room, the Pegas Room, the Swan Room and the Coat of Arms Room – featuring the representation of the weapons of 72 Portuguese noble families and eight children that Manuel I had when it was built between 1516 and 1520 – the room of the siren and Hearing room.

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The Swan Room inherits the name from the fact that the ceiling is completely decorated with 27 paintings of these animals. The reason begins in a legend that suggested that the Duke of Burgundy had offered a pair of swans to Infanta D. Isabel. Now the swan was the emblem of Henry IV of England, the brother of Filipa de Lencastre, uncle of the Infanta. And it was also a symbol of eternal fidelity common to the novels of the time, where knights sailed across the rivers on a swan-drawn barge to save the ladies.

The Sala das Pegas was where D. Sebastião heard Luíz Vaz de Camões reading “Os Lusíadas”. This is where the legend Almeida Garrett tells in “The Romanceiro”, a work from 1843. “It is said that D. João I was caught catching a kiss on the cheek or forehead to the most beautiful maiden of the Court of Sintra of its name Dona Mécia. And was caught by D. Filipa de Lencastre, English queen and addicted to the moral order. The king, upon being caught, will have said: “It was a kiss for good. She is very beautiful and I wanted to give her a kiss, nothing more than that. ” The queen accepted the king’s apology, but behind the door were other maidens and went to speak ill of the king’s kiss. “The king, when he learned, did not like it. And to punish them he had 136 handles painted on the ceiling of this room, presumably the number of Court maidens in Sintra at the time. The handles have a reputation for making noise. And as they made a noise to say bad, he pokes a sentence saying: ‘For good’. But, as he was being accused of unfaithfulness, in the handle corresponding to the queen he placed a rose – a symbol of the house of Lencastre – and the phrase: ‘To whom I am faithful and clinging, to my wife and no other.’

The chapel, of rectangular plan and unique nave, has walls covered with ornamental painting and wooden ceiling. In the kitchen, otogonal starts are visible from the monumental chimneys. Some compartments of the so-called Manueline wing boast limestone openings and fireplaces, characterized by embossed decoration.

It is one of the oldest rooms in the Palace, the only one whose window has an iron railing. The rare Mudejar ceramic floor probably dates back to the 15th century.


Opened over the historic center, it was once a space or inner courtyard enclosed by the village and closed, in a medieval way, by buildings around its perimeter (which included the retirement of the nobles, servants and servants of the Palace). In 1912 the still existing buildings were demolished and the access gate, dating from 1789, was replaced below the source of the Palace, in what is today the entrance to the surrounding forest.

Swan Room
Built during the reign of King John I, it is the largest apparatus space of the Palace, where the most relevant events took place. It was a historic setting for celebrations and receptions, and even today official banquets are held here, such as those held on the occasion of visits by foreign heads of state. It was called “Great Room” in the period of John I and “Center of Infants” from D. Manuel.

Central Courtyard and Bath Cave
King John I organized his quarters around the Central Courtyard, with various functions, partly referred to in the Measuring Houses of Cintra manuscript, which King D. Duarte, his son, left. Its intimate situation, tile flooring and the sound of running water still seem to evoke the Arab architectural tradition. The impressive perspective on the gigantic double chimneys of the kitchen stands out, as well as the torsal column (in the center of the courtyard) and the rare fresco painting, in geometric pattern of illusionist effect (trompe-l’oeil), from D period. Manuel I.

The adjacent Grotto of Baths features tiled and stucco decoration from the second half of the 18th century. The rococo decorative program of stuccoes includes the Creation of the World (center panel), the Four Seasons (corners) and mythological themes. The blue and white tiled wall panels depict fountains, gardens and gallant scenes and conceal an ingenious system of cross-jerking. The water, flowing from two lines of tiny holes that surround the whole space, refreshed the atmosphere on hotter days and surprised the ladies in a “gallant game” so much like the time.

Magpies Room
Already known as the “Chamber of the Magpies” by King D. Duarte, in the 15th century, this room received the notables of the kingdom and foreign ambassadors. Noteworthy are the tile decoration and the composition of the ceiling. The south-facing window opens over the Sierra, topped by the Moorish Castle, and over the Audience Courtyard, with its Renaissance porch. In it, according to tradition, D. Sebastião heard the reading of Luís de Camões Os Lusíadas, the great Portuguese epic poem that narrates the discovery of the maritime path to India by Vasco da Gama (1498).

D. Sebastião Room
D. Sebastião will have used this dependence as a sleeping chamber during his stays in Sintra. In the 15th century, in D. Duarte’s description of the Palace, this space is referred to as the Golden Chamber. This designation probably stems from a previous golden decoration of the ceiling or walls. The 16th-century wall décor features embossed tiled walls, topped with trimmed tiles with fleur-de-lis shaped mammoths. The frame of one of the windows has tiles with the armillary sphere, emblem of D. Manuel I.

Mermaids Room
According to D. Duarte’s description, it was here that in D. João I’s reign was the royal wardrobe, where garments, jewelry and personal effects were kept. The rectangular white marble door, which gives access to a spiral staircase connecting directly to the Arab Room, was later added.

Coat of Arms Room
This room, in the western wing of the Palace and oriented by the cardinal points, was erected over the Columns Room, in the area formerly called “Mecca”. The Manueline portal of the entrance also bears the marks of the masons who made it, in the first quarter of the 16th century. It represents the highest exponent of Manueline intervention in the Palace and the most important European heraldic hall. From the windows of this room you can see the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

Afonso VI’s fourth prison
King Afonso VI remained imprisoned and guarded here for nine years by order of his brother (D. Pedro II), following his removal for failure to reign. He would eventually die in this room in 1683.

Chinese Room or Pagoda
It is located in one of the oldest areas of the Palace, where the royal chambers prior to the works of King John I will be located. It is marked by the presence of a remarkable piece: a monumentalQing Dynasty Pagoda, built in China in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Palatine Chapel
Christian religious space from the period of King D. Dinis (early 14th century) with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, represented in the frescoes of the walls by the motive of doves carrying an olive branch in their beak. Both the ceramic floor and the wooden ceiling are among the oldest examples of Mudejar work in Portugal.

Arab Room
Probably D. João I’s bedroom. Through a spiral staircase, this room communicated with the king’s “wardrobe” (Mermaid Room). The current decoration, from the Manueline period, integrates tiles of various techniques, highlighting the geometric composition of three-dimensional effect. The sculptural ensemble of the central fountain, in gilded bronze, accentuates the exoticism of space.

Water supply
In the Palace there is the Mãe d’Água, a small reservoir where water is rarely lacking and which, despite its small size, still manages to feed the monument rooms, all the gardens and fountains that beautify it. The Palace is supplied by mines and springs located in the Serra de Sintra, mainly within the Pena Park. From there, the water flows through galleries, climbs small aqueducts, digs tunnels in the rock – always driven by gravity – and enters lead pipes until it reaches the reservoir.

It is a complex and intricate system, a work of engineering innovative at the time, but also intriguing. It is still possible to understand exactly where water comes from. And how far does it go. The lead pipes water runs through have a problem: This pipe is very fragile and is quickly crushed by tree roots. And so over the years, the pipes have been replaced by stoneware shackles. More efficient plastic pipes are now used, but they are installed inside the original pipes to reduce the cost of rehabilitation and not compromise system integrity.

The proposed selection is part of the Google Art Project, an online initiative designed to promote the best of museum collections around the world.

28 pieces representing the collection of the Sintra National Palace and 36 of the Queluz National Palace are available for viewing and consultation, including some of the works proposed as Goods of National Interest (the highest national classification for movable cultural goods): the Tapestry with the Portuguese Royal Weapons, Christoph Schissler’s Celestial Globe and the Chinese Pagoda. The photographs, made available with very high definition, allow the user a high level of visual approximation of the works, identifying details down to the level of their texture.

The capture of some of the images was achieved in partnership with Parques de Sintra with the EPI-Escola Profissional de Imagem, whose support was fundamental, given the size and requirement of the work.

The National Palace of Sintra is now managed by the public company Parques de Sintra – Monte da Lua, S.A. (PSML), established in 2000 following the recognition by UNESCO, in 1995, of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra as a World Heritage Site.

PSML manages the State properties in the area (the Parks, Gardens and Palaces of Pena and Monserrate, the Chalet of the Countess of Edla, the National Palace of Sintra, the Moorish Castle, the Capuchos Convent) and the National Palace of Queluz, half way between Lisbon and Sintra.