Mafra Palace or Palácio Nacional de Mafra is certainly something to behold.
Visitors to Portugal flock to Sintra to enjoy the delights of Pena Palace but they probably don’t realise that a mere 28 kilometres north of Lisbon there’s a far less touristy option. Mafra National Palace is home to one of the world’s most stunning libraries and is a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.
To help you get the most out of your trip to Mafra Palace I’ll share some of the highlights of my visit alongside the stories behind this monumental Baroque and Neoclassical palace-monastery.
Related: If you’re really into gorgeous palaces then take a look at my The 18 Most Beautiful Palaces In Portugal.
Mafra Palace in a nutshell
In 1711, King João V vowed to build a convent if his wife gave him children. As soon as his first daughter was born, construction began. The first stone was laid in 1717 and the convent was completed in 1755.
At first only 13 monks were due to worship and live there but this quickly grew into hundreds.
Although the initial idea was just to build a monastery, this soon escalated into something grander. Building costs were excessive and were funded primarily through gold and diamonds mined in the Brazilian colonies.
It was the role of Portuguese soldiers to keep the peace amongst the workforce whilst the palace was being built.
It has an area of 38,000 m2, making this monument one of the largest in Europe.
The last king of Portugal, Manuel II, stayed at the palace on October 5, 1910 before he left by boat for England. The following year in 1911, the palace became a museum and in 2019 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Portuguese royals didn’t occupy the palace on a permanent basis due to the gloomy rooms(!) but they often used it as a place to stay whilst hunting in the nearby Tapada de Mafra park.
Already keen to visit? Check out these guided tour options with transport from Lisbon.
Mafra Palace architecture
The first view of the palace is impressive to say the least.
At the center is a white marbled church, symmetrically flanked by the royal palace. At each end of the façade stands a domed square tower which houses a total of 92 bells. The two carillons make this the largest historical collection in the world.
Mafra Palace is perhaps Portugal’s finest example of Baroque architecture, with its true beauty only being revealed once you enter the building.
A grandiose staircase leads to a lavish reception room where the Portuguese royals entertained their guests. On the second floor is the gallery of paintings, which includes works by such artists as Francisco de Zurbaran, José Malhoa and Pedro Nunes. Even the infirmary is a work of art.
Despite these treasures, the real star of the show is the library.
Mafra Palace library: More than a place of learning
Located at the end of the second floor is the Rococo library. This has to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, although my photography skills don’t do it justice.
Built by Manuel Caetano de Sousa, it’s home to 36,000 historic and priceless volumes all housed in wooden bookshelves along the sidewalls in two rows, separated by a balcony with a wooden railing. The manucripts range from the 14th century and many are very rare, including the incunabula and many once forbidden writings.
The library is also home to a colony of bats who help to protect the books from pests. Portuguese libraries are clearly fans of this book preservation method; the famous Joanine Library in Coimbra University also has these nocturnal allies.
The exquisite inlaid marbled flooring seems to stretch on and on. After all, the library is more than 80 meters long!
The palace infirmary
I was particularly enamoured by the monastery’s infirmary. This large room on the upper floor of the building is lined with walled cubicles containing individual beds. Each patient had their own screen curtain, allowing them some measure of privacy.
At the head of each bed is a tile depicting either Jesus or the Virgin Mary; at the foot, a similar tile depicts the Holy Family. In front of each altar are statues of the saints associated with the particular disease being treated.
In addition to the infirmary, there is a chapel here, too, whose altarpiece is a painting of the Virgin Mary. This painting is considered to be the work of Sebastiano Conca, an Italian painter active during the mid-18th century.
On Sunday mornings, the beds were pushed together to form a semicircle around the chapel, so that those recovering from illness could attend mass.
Before entering the infirmary you pass the Pharmacy with an array of medical instruments on display that are guaranteed to get the mind wondering.
The Basilica of Mafra Palace
The Basilica is located in the central part of the Mafra National Palace building, with bell towers on either side. Its construction began in 1730 and took almost 80 years to complete. It was built in the shape of a Latin cross, using a mixture of local stone, by the German designer Johnn Friedrich Ludwing.
If you’ve spent time in Italy you’ll notice a familiarity with the fine marble statues standing down the side aisles. This is the most significant collection of Italian Baroque sculpture outside Italy.
The Basilica is also home to 6 organs made out of partially-gilded Brazilian wood with the largest pipe reaching 6 metres in height. Due to neglect, restoration only took place in the last decade but the experience of hearing the organs together is wonderful. You can see and hear them in this video.
Tip: The carillon concerts at the Mafra National Palace take place every Sunday at 4 pm, they are free and audible from outside the Palace. Check here for details.
Imagine the bustle of Mafra Palace kitchen
Whenever I visit a palace or even a manor house, I like to try to imagine all of the hard labour that must have gone into its upkeep.
It’s all very well to stand in awe of beautifully furnished bedrooms or delicately carved furniture while forgetting how hard life must have been for those whose duty it was to serve others.
One room which always seems to bring this home to me is the kitchen. Mafra’s kitchen has the usual pots, pans and other utensils and you get a good idea of how challenging it must have been to so many people.
The Throne Room
The Throne Room is where official audiences with the king took place and where royal guests were received from 1794.
The room is decorated with frescoes representing the “Royal Virtues” and the ornate coffered ceiling represents autumn in the Portuguese countryside.
There’s not much in the room itself, save for an 18th century Lignum Vitae carved armchair, covered in red velvet, and several gilded wall tables. The room is illuminated by the sunbeams coming through the windows of the adjoining chapel.
North and South Towers
The two towers were where the monarch and his queen lived, alongside royal attendants and servants with the king in the north tower and queen in the south.
The towers are connected by the 232 metre-long Front Gallery. The queen would know when the king was on his way thanks to the trumpet that heralded his ensuing arrival and gave her a little time to prepare!
What makes the queen’s bedroom special is that it is where the last reigning King of Portugal, Manuel II, slept just hours before he left the country on October 5, 1910, after the monarchy was overthrown.
The 9 rooms along the gallery are thematic, including one dedicated to the Age of Discovery.
Gaiety in the Music Room or Yellow Room
The Music Room is the largest room in the palace, occupying nearly half the ground floor. It is the only state room in the palace that’s accessible to the public.
The room is named for the grand piano built by Joseph Kirkman, a British cabinet maker, in 1857. The instrument was shipped over and installed here in 1861, and it still stands today.
In addition to the piano, the room contains several pieces of furniture which, as you can see, helps to give the room its alternative name.
Royal games room
Right next to the music room lies a selection of ways to while away the hours. The Games Room has early examples of billiards and some not-quite-so-straightforward other table games.
Walk in the relaxing Cerco Garden
The Cerco garden was a fenced in area given over to the monks where they could grow vegetables, herbs for medicinal purposes and to serve the religious community. You’ll find a lovely orchard and gardens and perhaps the occassional feathered friend – there were several magnificent birds in the gardens when we visited.
King João V ordered the planting of wild trees found in the Empire and the garden includes a large central lake.
Hunting as a royal pastime
The palace was not lived in permanently by the royal family (with the exception of one year, 1807) but it did become a popular place for royals to stay for a few days if they fancied a spot of hunting. The adjacent hunting park (Tapada de Mafra), which was created in 1747 as a private hunting ground for the monarch, made it an ideal location for such pursuits.
One room associated with the hunt is the Sala dos Troféus or Trophy Room. The array of macabre spoils from these hunts decorate the walls while yet more antlers and pelts were turned into seating, chandeleirs and rugs. Not a pretty sight!
Tapada Nacional de Mafra Park
The Tapada National Park covers 819 hectares of land and includes the walls built by King João III of Portugal around his hunting grounds. Nowadays, it’s a popular place for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
There are several ways to explore the park. You can walk along 4 marked and signposted trails, rent a mountain bike or travel by electric vehicle on an Eco Tour.
If you want to find out more about what bees get up to or discover birds of prey, the short workshops are ideal. There’s even a tree climbing circuit for the more adventurous.
Details, including prices, can be found on the Tapada Nacional de Mafra website.
Mafra Palace is 28 km from Lisbon and about a 30-minute drive.
Alternatively, you can catch a bus from Lisboa – Campo Grande terminal to Mafra which takes just over an hour.
The train is cheap but convoluted; it takes a couple of hours and entails using different urbano and regional trains.
Guided tours that include Mafra Palace
Maximise your time and learn more about the history of this and other amazing places on a guided tour from Lisbon. Check out these options:
Choose 3 palaces to visit on this Mafra and Sintra private tour. This is ideal if you want to see something a little different from the usual Sintra palaces.
Alternatively, spend a whole day discovering royal architecture on this private tour that covers Queluz, Mafra, and Lisbon. You can also customize the itinerary to suit your preferences.
Combine a visit to Mafra Palace with exploring the historical Portuguese village of Óbidos on this private tour from Lisbon, where it’s just you and your local guide.
You can book your Mafra National Palace admission ticket in advance here.
The Palace is open every day except for Tuesdays from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm (last entry 4:45 pm).
If you classify yourself as a researcher, historian or scholar you can book an appointment to have access to Mafra Library. It’s possible on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9:30am to 1:30pm and from 2:00pm to 4:00pm. Phone 261 817 550 for details.
The Basilica opens every day except Tuesday and you can attend mass Tuesday to Saturday at 6pm and Sunday at 11.30am.
Admission to Mafra Palace costs €6.