Palace of Mafra, Hidden Gem near Lisbon

When thinking about palace visits in Portugal, Sintra often comes to mind. However, did you know there’s another breathtaking palace often overlooked? The Mafra Palace, once home to Portugal’s royal family, boasts an immense size. The palace, a mere 28 kilometers from Lisbon, offers a grand alternative to Sintra’s well-trodden sights. Discover more about this extraordinary site in this blog post.

Mafra Palace

How To Get To Mafra In Portugal

Located near Lisbon, Mafra is in a region brimming with cultural and historical treasures, including magnificent palaces like the famous ones in Sintra. Mafra itself is a quieter destination, yet rich in history and boasts an impressive palace.

Consider a day trip from Lisbon to Mafra or even an overnight stay, though accommodation options are limited. For camper vans, a free official camper spot is available near the palace.

Mafra Palace

Why Mafra Palace Is Worth Visiting

The Mafra Palace, part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list, is one of Europe’s largest palaces, blending palace and monastery architecture. Close to Lisbon, this hidden gem has surprised many visitors. Its size alone is astounding, with a 220-meter façade and 38,000 m² area. The palace’s history and architectural splendor are equally impressive.

This unique site combines a palace, monastery, and church into one grand structure. Its library, covering half a wing of the building and housing over 36,000 historical books, is among the world’s most beautiful. Interestingly, bats live in the library to protect these books from insects.

Mafra Monastery

300 Years of History: From Royal Gift to UNESCO Heritage

Mafra Palace has a history of 300 years, dating back to the 18th century. King João V of Portugal, also known as the Portuguese Sun King, founded its construction. In 1708, he married Archduchess Mariana of Austria. However, by 1710, he did not have an heir, which caused him despair. Devoted to his beliefs, he made a vow to erect an impressive monastery if he were granted a child.

The birth of his first daughter, Infanta Barbara of Portugal, spurred a significant construction project. The initial stone was laid in 1717, and the construction persisted for several decades. Though partially occupied in 1730, the palace was not fully finished until 1755.

What started as a modest project for a monastery for a few monks became one of the most lavish palaces, thanks to the abundant riches from Brazil’s colonies, where gold and diamonds were plentiful. These riches made the Portuguese king extremely wealthy, and he spent lavishly throughout his life.

German architect Johann Friedrich Ludwig, also known as João Frederico Ludovice in Portugal, served as the chief architect. His design focused on a symmetrical axis, featuring an extravagant basilica as its centerpiece. Each day, a workforce of 15,000 to 45,000 individuals contributed to the construction of the monastery, church, palace, and library.

This complex became one of Portugal’s grandest palaces, covering nearly 40,000 m². The library and monastery were adorned with marble, exotic woods, and expensive artworks from France, Flanders, and Italy.

Throughout the centuries, the palace was occasionally inhabited by the Portuguese royal family. They sought refuge in Brazil during Napoleon’s invasion in 1807 and remained there for an extended period. Towards the conclusion of the monarchy, the palace primarily served as a hunting lodge. The final royal utilization occurred in 1910, when King Manuel II departed the palace after the republic was proclaimed. Visitors can still observe the chamber and bed where he spent his final night as king.

Today, Mafra Palace is recognized as a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mafra Palace

The Vast Complex of Monastery, Palace, and Basilica

The Palacio Nacional de Mafra is a lavish Baroque and Neoclassical monastery-palace complex, characterized by symmetry and grandeur. Its 220-meter-long façade encloses multiple palace and monastery wings, surrounding courtyards. At the ends of the façade, two square towers stand, hosting the royal apartments on their upper floor – one for the king and another for the queen.

At the center of the complex is a colossal basilica that is worth visiting, and can be accessed without a palace ticket. The Basilica of Mafra showcases an opulent interior adorned with regional pink and white marble. It spans 63 meters in length and reaches a height of 21.4 meters at the nave.

The dome, exquisitely embellished, is a must-see as well, measuring 13 meters in diameter and soaring 65 meters high. Within the church reside 6 organs and 2 carillons, constituting an extensive collection of 92 bells, one of the world’s largest.

The monastery was initially intended for Capuchin monks and later occupied by the Franciscans of the Arrábida Order. It housed cells for approximately 300 monks. A palace visit includes parts of the monastery, such as the infirmary and kitchen.

The royal palace itself comprises opulent apartments and state rooms, displaying the opulence and authority of the 18th-century Portuguese monarchy, acquired from the Brazilian colony. The royal chambers are located on the second floor, with the king and queen’s apartments on either side of the palace. The interiors are adorned with period artworks and furniture.

The exquisite ceiling paintings are described on the information boards. While all information boards are available in English and Portuguese, basic knowledge of Portuguese (royal) history enriches the visit. I often researched additional background online for a better grasp of the palace.

Mafra Palace

The Iconic Mafra Library

The Mafra Palace library is a masterpiece worth visiting. It is the world’s largest 18th-century library, measuring 1000 m².

This extravagant Rococo hall is breathtaking, with its 88-meter length, high ceilings, and marble floors in pink, gray, and white. Adorned with Rococo details, the library is a photogenic sight. Wooden bookcases line the walls, divided by a balcony with a wooden railing.

The collection itself is impressive, with over 36,000 valuable books from the 14th to the 19th century, including rare items like the first Latin translation of the Quran from 1543.

A unique feature of the library is its colony of bats, which protect the books from insects. These nocturnal creatures rest behind bookcases or in the palace gardens during the day and hunt insects in the library at night. The library is located on the second floor in the rear part of the Palacio Nacional de Mafra complex. Access is included with your ticket, but you can only view it from one of its ends.

Mafra Palace Basilica

Visiting The Mafra Palace

Mafra Palace, located just 28 kilometers from Lisbon, is commonly visited as a day trip from the capital. Day tours are available from Lisbon. Consider an overnight stay in Mafra to make your visit more easy, though accommodation options are limited. A free official camper spot is available near the palace for camper vans.

If driving, there is a large free parking lot next to the palace, which includes a designated area for campers.

The basilica can be accessed for free, but tickets are necessary for the palace, monastery, and library.

Information boards in the palace are provided in both Portuguese and English, which is not common in Portugal. While the boards are clear and informative, visitors with some knowledge of Portuguese history will better understand the context.

A visit to Mafra Palace should take at least two hours, but it is recommended to allocate more time to fully appreciate and explore the site.