The best guide to Mafra and Central Portugal
Mafra is a pretty little Portuguese town that contains one of Europe’s largest and most extravagant palaces, the Palacio de Mafra. This vast complex includes a huge monastery, an ornate basilica and a library that contains over 36,000 ancient books and its own colony of bats!
Mafra is only 30km to the north west of Lisbon and the town makes for an enjoyable day trip from the capital. This guide will provide an introduction to Mafra and includes details of the sights, traveling information and advice for visiting Mafra as a day trip.
The 90 meter long library in the palace
The beautiful interior of the Basilica
The palace is the main (and only) tourist attraction of Mafra, and the huge building completely dwarfs the rest of the town. The front façade of the palace extends for over 250 meters while the two bell towers, containing 92 bells, stands high above the town at 68 meters.
The place was constructed between 1717 and 1755 and was used as both a convent and royal residence. Inside there are over 1,200 rooms connected by over 150 flights of stairs, but only a small portion of the rooms are open to the public.
The hunting room in the Mafra palace
The sections which can be visited include the convent’s infirmary, the royal rooms and the stunning library. All of the rooms open for visitors have been lovingly restored and are filled with original furniture, art works and historical objects. The palace is a wonderful building and an excellent tourist attraction.
The 40 year construction of the palace had an average of 15,000 workers, and reached a maximum of 25,000. To keep everyone in order, 1/10th of the Portuguese army (8,000 men) were based on the construction site.
All the beds in the infirmary face the alter so the friars could go to mass while in bed
The initial project was for a convent large enough to house 13 Capuchin friars, but due to the influx of gold from Brazil, the building was vastly expanded, so that the final convent had sufficient space for 330 friars. The original design of the convent had no state rooms, but it was changed into a palace so that it could become a hunting retreat for the king. It is 220 meters between the King’s tower and the queens tower and the room directly in the middle allowed the royal couple to observe church services without having to leave their royal quarters.
There is a colony of bats which live in the library and protect the ancient books from insect damage. These small bats are let out at night and can eat twice their weight in insects. This natural form of pest control has been in place for over 300 years.
The Queen's tower of the palace
Have you considered a small group tour?
Organised tours in Portugal tend to be of a high standard, with knowledge guides and enthusiastic staff, and are a great way to meet fellow travellers. A selection of the best tours covering Mafra found by GetYourGuide.com include:
The entrance fee to the Palacio de Mafra costs €6.00 and is free for children under 12. The palace is open from 9:00-18:00 (last entrance at 17:00), Wednesdays to Mondays. Do not plan a visit to Mafra on Tuesdays, as the palace is shut for the whole day. A typical visit to the palace lasts 1h30 and does involve a lot of walking. In each of the rooms there are descriptions in Portuguese and English, and a leaflet guide can be purchased for €1.00.
Mafra palace was constructed by King John V (1689 –1750) in thanks for having a health heir, María Bárbara (later queen of Spain). The king was married to Queen Mary Anne and had had three years of with no healthy children, so he vowed to construct a great monastery on the site of the ancient Mafra monastery if he was provided an heir. The religious token must have worked as they went on to have a further 6 children. The palace was funded by the immense wealth that followed from the 18th century Portuguese colonies but it’s construction still almost bankrupted the state.
The king’s bedroom in Mafra palace
The main attraction of Mafra is the outstanding palace but there are few other sights to extend a visit to Mafra. The Jardim do Cerco surrounds the palace and were the royal grounds which backed onto the hunting grounds but it is no more than a nicely maintained park. Mafra’s town centre is pretty, with a relaxed ambience and a good selection of restaurants and cafes, ideal for a long lunch.
Mafra has a pleasant, relaxed town centre
Those visitors wishing to extend the day trip to Mafra could catch the bus to the charming beach town of Ericeira. There are direct buses from Mafra to Ericeira and there are also direct buses from Ericeira back to Lisbon.
Sintra is the best day trip from Lisbon and should be visited before Mafra. Obidos is a scenic walled town, but it is much smaller than Sintra. Both Obidos and Sintra get unbearably crowded with tourists during the summer months, while Mafra is much quieter.
Our recommended order for day trips from Lisbon are; Sintra, Cascais, Obidos, Mafra and Evora. If you have a rental car include Sesimbra and the Serra da Arribida. For a guide to the day trips from Lisbon please click here.
Lisbon is connected to Mafra by an inexpensive and regular bus service, which departs from the Campo Grande bus station. The Campo Grande bus station is on the Green and Yellow metro lines, and the bus for Mafra departs from bus stop 4 or 5, which are close to the entrance of the Metro. For a full guide please click here.
The Mafrense bus in Campo Grande bus station (Lisbon)
The bus service which passes through Mafra is the Lisbon to Ericeira route and the journey takes 40 minutes. A return ticket costs €7.10 and tickets are purchased from the driver when boarding the bus. The service is operated by the Mafrense bus company and the latest timetable can be found on their website:
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