One of the best things I’ve done to get an appreciation for mainland Portugal and a lot of its various regions was to buy the book, Rick Steves Portugal. I have the 2019 edition, but it was updated in 2021. In this post, I will discuss some of the things I learned about Portugal, how the book is laid out, and some of the recommended attractions.
Now the legal stuff – As an Amazon Associate, I may earn a commission from any purchases made through links on this post.
When I was researching where to live in Portugal, I relied a lot on this book. It allowed me to experience “sandy beaches, terraced vineyards, fanciful churches, vintage trolleys, and a chapel of bones,” all without leaving home.
As a lover of history, I loved the stories scattered throughout the book. Towards the end of the book, there is an entire section devoted to the history of Portugal. The stories helped me develop my love for Portugal, a country I had never been to.
This section is broken into the different eras of Portugal. It begins with Prehistory to Rome (2000 BC-AD 500), then moves through Muslims vs Christians and Nationhood (711-1400). Next is the Age of Discovery, Slavery, and Inquisition (1400-1600), the Slow Fade (1600-1900). Finally, read about Dictatorship and Democracy (1900-2000), and Portugal Today: Austerity and Challenge.
Conímbriga, a city of Roman ruins a few kilometers outside of Coimbra in central Portugal, dates from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. What’s left of the city is impressive. The remains are divided in two, partly because the residents had to tear down part of the city’s buildings to build a wall for defense against a barbarian attack.
In nearby Tomar, the Knights Templar build an impressive castle and church in the 1200s. The church was where knights would go to be blessed before fighting the Moors. Interestingly, the Knights Templar was Europe’s first banker. Rather than carry cash on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, people would deposit money with the Knights Templar. They would be issued a receipt and could withdraw money from other Knights Templar castles along the way.
Explore the Neighborhoods
Rick Steves does an admirable job of describing various neighborhoods in Lisbon and several other cities and towns. I can almost picture myself walking down the cobbled lanes of Lisbon to gape at the magnificent architecture and tiles, ducking into little shops along the way.
Of course, having actual photos, albeit in black and white, helps to put those visions into perspective.
Rick Steves Portugal covers a wide range of areas in the country. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for info about Braga, the third-largest city, or the Madeira or Azores islands, you won’t find any information here. Using his itinerary, you can visit all these regions in about two weeks. You would fly into Lisbon and depart from Porto. Here are the areas he covers in the book:
- Sintra (about 15 miles from Lisbon)
- The Algarve (southern Portugal) and several cities in the region
- Evora (in the Alentejo region)
- Nazaré and surrounding cities in the central region
- The Duoro Valley (in the northern region)
In Lisbon, the central area has the famed elevator, a 150-foot iron tower that connects the lower part of Lisbon (Baixa) with the upper part (Bairro Alto/Chiado), saving a long uphill excursion. The north district of Lisbon has the Gulbenkian Museum, the best of Lisbon’s 40 museums. It’s also not too far from Belém, the sending-off point for ships from the Age of Discovery and the birthplace of Portugal’s famous pastel de nata, a popular and delicious custard tart.
The many maps scattered throughout the book detail where the main attractions are and the routes of public transit. These maps also show various walking tours and highlight both the main attractions and some small, off-the-beaten-track stops. There’s even a fold-out map at the back of the book. This gives you an overview of mainland Portugal so you can plan your trip.
To best appreciate the towns he highlights, the book takes you on neighborhood walks, step by step. For instance, in Coimbra (pronounced KWEEM-bra), he maps out a self-guided walking tour of the old town beginning at the Santa Clara Bridge to the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) to Coimbra University at the top of the hill, with several stops along the way.
In Porto, a two-part self-guided walk links Porto’s top landmarks. The first part takes you on “a brief uphill-downhill loop through the city center, connecting the main square with some relatively untouristed back streets and the city’s main landmark (Clérigos Tower).” The second part begins at the top of the city and angles its way down to the waterfront zone.
This is a useful section of the book, located at the back just before the appendix. It gives tourist information, travel tips, all about money, sightseeing, sleeping, eating, staying connected, and transportation.
Credit cards are accepted at larger shops, but cash is preferred for smaller shops and for small purchases. The Multibanco cash machines (marked with a blue and white MB logo) are located throughout Portugal, usually attached to banks. There are other, “independent” ATMs too. Avoid these as they charge high fees, are less secure than the Multibanco machines, and try to trick you into “Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC).”
DCC is a scheme for merchants and ATM service providers (other than Multibanco) to earn high fees. As Rick Steves says, “If merchants offer to convert your purchase price into dollars…refuse this ‘service.’ You’ll pay extra for the expensive convenience of seeing your charge in dollars.
“If an ATM offers to ‘lock in’ or ‘guarantee’ your conversion rate, choose ‘proceed without conversion.’ Other prompts might state ‘You can be charged in dollars. Press YES for dollars or NO for euros.’ Always choose the local currency,” he states.
The book includes tips on tipping (5-10% at restaurants), avoiding pickpockets, accommodations, eating (the appetizers left at your table aren’t free, for instance), trains, buses, renting a car, and road rules (no right on red, as an example),
In the Appendix, there is a list of holidays and metric conversions. (Did you know that a decimal point is written as a comma and a comma is written as a decimal point? So a dollar and a half is $1,50 and a thousand is 1.000). There is a clothing sizes conversion and a packing checklist for a two-week stay. A list of handy Portuguese phrases with the English equivalent rounds out the book.
If you are looking for a more extensive list of Portuguese words and phrases, might I suggest Rick Steves Portuguese? It has 258 pages of key phrases used in everyday circumstances, complete with phonetic spelling so you can pronounce the words correctly. I will be ordering this book myself to help me as I learn the language before our move.
To sum up, I definitely recommend Rick Steves Portugal whether or not you plan to visit this fabulous country. If you do plan to visit, bring the book. You can get discounts (marked as RS% in the book) at certain establishments by showing the book. You also don’t want to miss the self-guided walking tours mapped out in this information-packed book. They will show you not only the main sights but also the off-the-beaten-path real Portugal.
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