Portugal, Train Tickets and The Palace at Sintra

Lisbon Urban Wall ART

Everyone I know that has been to Lisbon said that we should take time out and visit nearby Sintra.  I watched the celebrity chef Rick Stein on TV and he said visit Sintra but what I forgot to take into account of course is that Rick Stein has a backroom staff of researchers and can always be guaranteed a place at the front of the queue and later a table at a top restaurant.

After breakfast in our temporary studio home we made our way to the railway station and set about purchasing some tickets.  In Lisbon this is not an easy process let me tell you.  It is probably the most inefficient ticket purchasing process that I have ever encountered.  There is no ticket office, just a row of automatic self-service metal monsters.  Half of them are out of order and there is a rugby scrum around those that work and the single overworked assistant who is there to try and help.

Lisbon Street Scene

Everyone needs a personal travel card so you have to buy that first and then every passenger has to individually purchase their own ticket.  I cannot buy a ticket for both of us and a family of, say five, cannot make a single purchase.  Every travel ticket has to be bought individually so if customers are paying by credit card this is probably the most frustrating travel experience on the entire planet.  I could probably solve a Rubik Cube puzzle in the time it takes to acquire a train ticket in Lisbon.

Eventually I made it to the ticket machine and after going through the tedious ticketing options proposed to pay with a €20 note but the machine won’t give change for anything over €10 so I have to dig around in the bottom of my pockets and in the inner recesses of my rucksack for some loose change and by the time that I have done that the transaction has been timed out and cancelled.  I could sense frustration and fury in the line of people behind me, I know how they feel, I felt exactly the same way just a few hours earlier when I joined the queue.

Buying a simple railway ticket in Lisbon is like the eternal labour of Sisypus.

Tickets eventually purchased we boarded the train and set out with five million other people to Sintra.  When we arrived the train doors opened and all five million passengers spilled out onto the platform like a people tsunami. I hadn’t expected this and the next challenge was to get past the ticket touts and taxi drivers waiting outside the railway station like fishing trawlers with gaping nets.

Sintra Taxi Guide

I had no idea that Sintra was going to be this busy, the queue for the bus to the National Palace was five miles long, it was cloudy, dull and cold and eventually I gave in and allowed us to be talked into a tour taxi ride to the top.  It was only €10 so I didn’t stress out about that for too long.

As we climbed through a pine forest to the top of the mountain the cloud cleared and ahead of us was the fairy tale pastel painted Royal castle all pink and yellow and glowing brightly in the sunshine.

The Tourist Information guide describes it like this … “The town of Sintra is Europe’s greatest example of the whimsical and colourful Romanticism style of architecture. This elaborate 19th century design style was inspired by the love of art and the mysticism of ancient cultures, to create decorative and flamboyant buildings, of which the Pena Palace is the finest example.”  It attracts over two and a half million visitors a year (a genuine statistic by the way) so we should have been prepared for crowds and queues.

We bought our tickets which at €21 seemed a bit expensive to me and then we walked up ten thousand steps to the entrance and joined another queue.  It took five years to shuffle our way to the visitor entrance moving slowly forwards as though our shoe laces were tied together and then we spent an hour or so cramped like sardines in a tin as we made painfully slow progress through a succession of rather boring palace rooms.  King somebody or other slept here, Prince so-and-so sat on this chair etc.  Personally I was just so glad to get out the other end, find a terrace bar and order a cold beer.

National Palace of Sintra Lisbon

We walked back now to Sintra, about two miles or so somehow missing the entrance to the Moorish castle on the way down, I think Kim probably spotted it but distracted me at exactly the right moment to prevent a suggestion that we pay a visit.

In the town we found somewhere for a small salad lunch and then bypassed the overpriced and tacky tourist shops and made our way back to the railway station via the Gothic style National Palace.  I confess that I found Sintra to be rather disappointing, a tourist honey trap and an unnecessary diversion to our visit to Lisbon.  I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend anyone to go there.  Go to nearby Belém instead, it is a lot more interesting and much less touristy.  I wasn’t that impressed with Sintra as you can no doubt tell.

It was hot again in Lisbon and after we climbed the hill from the railway station to the part of the city where our studio was located we were glad to stop in a shady park for a late afternoon cold  drink in a nearby park.  Later we dined at the restaurant that we had spotted the day before and we were glad about that because the food was absolutely excellent.

One day left in Lisbon.

Sintra01

42 responses to “Portugal, Train Tickets and The Palace at Sintra

  1. Sounds like a nightmare! There’s nothing worse than wasting your holiday time on inefficient set ups like that.

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  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Andrew…a place I shall knock off my list…

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  3. Disappointing travel adventures like this tend to make the best stories, though!

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    • Perhaps I exaggerated a little but I would honestly not return there, much better I think to find the out of way places. In a few days time we came a cross a four mile long 16th century aqueduct near the city of Tomar and there was no one else there to share it with!

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  4. How well I remember those ticket machines at the station – chuckling now, I was not at the time. My husband is not the most patient of chaps and I thought he might explode. Our experience mirrored yours exactly!! I didn’t love Sintra either, we enjoyed walking around the outside of the palace, I agree the town is a tourist trap and in hindsight am glad it was part of a day trip where we did other things and had limited time there.

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    • It was exactly the same in Porto and I know what you mean about exploding. We started joining two separate queues to double our chances of getting to the machine in some sort of reasonable time. Thankfully in the smaller places where we bought tickets, Tomar, Coimbra and Ovar they had proper ticket offices without long lines and it was a lot less explosive!

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  5. Just fell foul of that in Porto. Thought I had bought tickets for both of us on one ticket but in fact had bought a return for me so had to pay again. Luckily only €4, but it was on the return leg with the inspector on the way out saying nothing and turning a blind eye. Guimaraes and particularly the duke’s palace was well worth it. I am sure JKR must have been there to imagine the dining room as being the template for Hogwarts! Wilbur.

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  6. Wow, sounds frustrating. The picture of the castle was amazing.

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  7. The castle looks wonderful but not sure it would be worth the hassle. Hubby would have been quite annoyed.

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  8. Some places just get loved to death. Seems to be happening to our National Parks here, not with the long queues, but certainly not the sort of serenity one might hope for during a visit to some natural wonder.

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  9. We’ve not yet made it to Sintra – first time didn’t have enough time, second occasion I spotted a warning about the crowds and a recommendation that the best option was to stay so you could hit the castles before the day trippers arrived so that is my plan for our third visit – whenever that may be!

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  10. I love the brightly painted buildings all over the Mediterranean

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    • What about Australia, do you paint houses in bright colours over there? In the UK we tend to be rather conservative but some coastal towns and villages are beginning to look a bit brighter these days!

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  11. Very limited Wifi at the minute Andrew but glad to have spotted this. I’ll be in Lisbon briefly next week and was thinking of getting a Lisboa card to help with transit, etc. Couldn’t you pay on the train? Becky is right- best option is an overnight. Long time since we were there and not hideously busy but we walked for miles and miles and all of it uphill in heat. 🙂 🙂

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  12. Terribly disappointing and so different than our experience. I will say we were off the train early morning. I do recall the train ticket system being most confusing. At any rate we had no line ups at the palaces, meandered about and oh yes we got off the train with at least 10 other people. Perhaps it’s just too well known now?

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  13. But I thought that we British love to queue, Andrew? Doesn’t sound like a great day out, and what an awful system when it comes to travelling by rail. I can imagine how those people behind you in the ticket machine queue felt. Rather like me when I’m behind somebody counting out copper coins for their groceries at the supermarket and not packing their goods until after they’ve finished. Grr!

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  14. Appreciate your helpful comments.

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  15. Next time check with us, we actually helped Rick Stein organize his visit!

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  16. Hi Andrew I came over from Anita & Richard’s blog and I’ve been reading about your Portuguese adventures. I’m Portuguese,living in Australia and we were actually in Portugal during the month of September. I have previously given up visiting the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon because of the queues, but this time it actually went quickly, so I visited it!
    Sorry you didn’t enjoy Sintra and the palaces, I took some Australians co-workers there and they loved it. No big queues though…
    As for the train tickets, you can actually buy a “travel pass” at one of the stations and top up with whatever amount you might need and then just tag on and tag off at the machines when you use the train.
    Enjoy your trip to Malta.

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    • Hi and thanks for stopping by. Sintra was okay, I did enjoy my visit really but it was just rather busy and I prefer a bit of space without the queues and the jostling. I much preferred Tomar which was our next stop.
      I’ll remember that train ticket tip for next time I go to Portugal.
      Malta was good but it was very busy as well, I guess we can blame low cost airlines for that!

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  17. Thanks for the tip, Andrew. I have to say, buying a train ticket in Russia has to be worse.

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  18. Pingback: A Glaze of Tourists, or is it a plague? – It caught my eye in Portugal

  19. We visited Sintra in May 2012, but we stayed in Cascais for a few days and took a bus from there which was very easy to do. The town was packed though and hot and humid so we took another bus up to the castle which we rather liked, although your photos suggest that it might have had a lick of paint since then. It is still quite a climb up from the entrance, which people may not realise. In Lisbon itself I bought some kind of travel card which allowed me to use the metro and the elevators, but I was staying out near the zoo and didn’t have an issue with queuing. There is a garden in Sintra that I’d like to visit, but maybe as others have said, best to stay overnight and hit these places early.

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  20. I was also underwhelmed by my visit to Sintra…

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  21. Pingback: Travels in Portugal, Preparation and Arrival | Have Bag, Will Travel

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