I fully admit that this epic fail is partially, if not completely my fault. First, we were traveling in August. Can you say the height of summer? Foolish l know, but l was on a high. We were at the tail end of a 31 day trip that had seen us in Madrid, Rome, Stockholm, then Bologna, back to Rome, and finally Lagos in Portugal. Everything had gone pretty smoothly, even with the summer crowds. Sintra however was a total disaster from the start.
Had l not been such a stubborn ass, we could have avoided this tale of woe. I had read up on Sintra and was really anxious to visit this supposedly charming place. Mention Sintra to anyone and you will get nothing but glowing accolades. I saw travel websites and bloggers throwing around words like charming, fantastic, picturesque, majestic and my favorite “Sintra exudes a romantic aura that left a deep impression on the soul of writers since the 18th and 19th centuries.”. Is it any wonder that l had big dreams for this place?
****Make sure to check out the comment section and read Prot’s advice on things to do in and around Sintra, especially for nature lovers. As a former resident, he has a lot of places for you to discover apart from the usual suspects****
Rare Epic Travel Fail : How it all went down
The guide books say it’s best to arrive early in Sintra. As in 8AM! What??? I’m on vacation, and certainly not going to get up at 6 or earlier for anything. We set out at 10AM which l still considered early. The AirBnB that we stayed at was centrally located in Baixa, the old center. It took us only 10 minutes to walk to the Rossio Station.
Looking back, we should have turned back. The sea of people waiting to get tickets to Sintra was insane. All the windows were open and the lines like 40 deep, no kidding! Almost as long for the self ticketing machines, which had helpers too. We decided to divide and conquer, he waited at one of the windows line and me at one of the machines line. He got to the counter first after about half hour. It was madness. We had about 15 minutes before the next train departed once we got our tickets. By the time the train left, there was not a seat available and people were sitting on the floor.
It was a 40 minute ride to Sintra. Once we got to the little quaint station at the other end, we had to get in line to scan our tickets to exit, just like we do here in Spain. Imagine a train with at least 9 cars if not more filled to the brim and there were 3 scanners from which to exit. Yep! It was a long time before we got out. Next was the line for the bus. The streets are super narrow so the bus only does a loop one way and stops at the three main tourist sites.
Each bus seats 48 people it said. The line was very long and the sun was unforgiving. The bus also wouldn’t leave unless there were at least 200 people on it or so it seemed. So, you’re thinking it’s a 20 minute loop, it won’t be so bad standing crushed like sardines. Over 45 minutes in line, we finally get shoved into a bus and the journey took just under 75 minutes. Why??? Sintra becomes a parking lot, at least in the summer. I am 100% sure that the residents don’t care for tourist dollars and just want their town back. Insane! One of those taxi things died on the hill and it took forever before others helped push it to the side, even though l wished they had just let it fly down the hill as the driver was a jerk.
We get to the first stop and l’m hoping people get out so l can stop sweating like a pig and have enough space to fan myself. No such luck. All it took was for the other riders to see the super long line of people wanting to get on the bus to decide they wouldn’t get off. He waited and waited till 2 people finally got off, and of course 2 people were squeezed in from the line. Same for the second site.
The whole way up, all I’m thinking is “l don’t find this place romantic at all, l don’t even find it charming”. It reminded me of driving through the Hollywood Hills, complete with hidden houses behind big gates, only with better views in LaLaLand. We finally arrived at the palace and most people got off. My feet were tired from standing for so long. I wondered why people were standing in line when the machines had shorter lines.We split up again and l went to the machines.
My wait this time was shorter so l called him over. It became clear why the line was shorter when l tried to pay for the tickets. Something was wrong and they could only accept Portuguese cards. No sign..Nothing!!! Zip!!! At this point Federico wanted to leave, but again l said no, not me. After coming all that way, l was determined to see the damn place. So we went back to one of the 3 lines.
Believe it or not, after waiting in line for what seemed forever but was actually 20 minutes and we only had 4 more people ahead of us, l was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. That happiness was short-lived, because the line didn’t move for at least ten more minutes when finally a guy from the next window comes out and tells our line that the ticket guy won’t be back for an hour, so we had to go to the back of the other 2 lines (which at this time was even longer since another bus had come through!).
Is Sintra worth visiting?
That was the final straw and l said “screw this!”. Federico let out a big Hallelujah!! and we went back to the bus, leaving the people arguing with the poor guy. The bus of course was full and we had to stand all the way back down too :-(. You can see this two ways. One, we were at the home stretch..one more long line, and we could have gotten in. At that point though, l had soured on Sintra completely. It was almost $20 per person to get in (ticket plus a fee to take you up the hill on a trolley instead of walking) I was just over it and felt why the heck should l hand over any money to them? To us, Sintra was not worth visiting, at least not in summer season.
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The other way to look at it was Federico’s way. We had just seen one of the most beautiful palaces ever in Stockholm. We have seen the palaces in Seville, Cordoba, Istanbul, Versailles and some more that l can’t even remember. What exactly could be even more special about this one? The answer was nothing, and to tell the truth, l thought the palace was like Disney Land’s “It’s a small world” castle, just more colorful, plus a chunk of it was closed for remodelling.
So, put it another way, l was not impressed with Sintra as much as l wanted to be. It might be completely different in winter time when there are not a lot of tourists, but l don’t think so. At least for me. Climb up to the Gibralfaro in Malaga and you see some of the most stunning views, so we’ve had similar enough that we don’t feel a need to go back.
So, is a visit to Sintra worth it you ask? Probably not for a seasoned traveler. If you’re a novice and have time on your hands, then it’s worth it, especially when it’s not summer time. Adding up the fees for all three sites, l calculated roughly $49 a person. Kind of steep in my opinion. That might be why you never see interior pictures of these sights except for stock photos, just Wikipedia images like the ones here :-). That was what got me made enough to write about my pet peeves. We were too squished for space to reach for the camera and snap pictures while at a standstill. Really, it was that packed. I can laugh now, but it sure wasn’t funny then!
We salvaged the day by going to a pretty good Chinese restaurant right across from the station and dining on yummy food. We then took the train back to our beloved Lisbon and went wine tasting with friends. I so wished we had just stayed in Lisbon for the day as we loved the city. It was a lost travel day but those things happen, at least it wasn’t as sucky as the Cordoba incident. There you have it, our rare epic travel fail to see Sintra the way it should be seen. I feel that Sintra is one of the worst tourist traps in Portugal.
Have you ever had such a disastrous day that totally sucked the life out of you? Were you able to salvage the day?