Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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All over Europe, main shopping streets are pedestrianized. Rather than dodging cars, holding your breath while buses go by, and yelling above the sound of rumbling trucks, you live in a world of pause-a-moment buskers, where jaywalking is impossible and the only thing you have to dodge are the tripwires of locals taking their dogs out for a stroll. Here’s just a moment on Porto’s Rua de Santa Catarina, as a local school choir is out raising money for a concert tour.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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I am really into “second cities” these days. For generations, several European Industrial Age powerhouses (Antwerp, Hamburg, Glasgow, Bilbao, and so on) were what we would call “rust belt,” as their elegant “first city” counterparts enjoyed the luster of the Information Age. But over the last decade or so, the rust has become an accessory, bohemian can be chic, and places where people once joked “the shirts are sold with the sleeves already rolled up” are in vogue and bursting with creative energy. The obvious example in Portugal is Porto, three hours north of Lisbon by train. Here are some photos from my fascinating time in Portugal’s second city.

Ribeira View with a Port Buzz Lens   Porto ages happily on the Douro River, along with the most of the world’s port wine. The harborfront, called the Ribeira, faces Porto’s sister city, Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river, where traditional boats that hauled the wine to the port lodges for aging and distribution decorate the scene. After visiting a couple of port lodges for a tour and tasting (as is the ritual for visitors to Vila Nova de Gaia), this view across the Douro of Porto's Ribeira looks even better.

Ribeira View with a Port Buzz Lens
Porto ages happily on the Douro River, along with the most of the world’s port wine. The harborfront, called the Ribeira, faces Porto’s sister city, Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river, where traditional boats that hauled the wine to the port lodges for aging and distribution decorate the scene. After visiting a couple of port lodges for a tour and tasting (as is the ritual for visitors to Vila Nova de Gaia), this view across the Douro of Porto’s Ribeira looks even better.

Porto Life Cobbled Together When exploring the back streets of Porto, depth, light, well-worn people, and once-dazzling facades ferment into a nice glass of port for the eyes.

Porto Life Cobbled Together
When exploring the back streets of Porto, depth, light, well-worn people, and once-dazzling facades ferment into a nice glass of port for the eyes.

A Room with a View My choice of hotels, restaurants, cafés, and bars in a city like Porto are places where the patina of the past comes with a little broken glass and rusty edges. Opening the window of my hotel room, I saw a view some would complain about. But this is why I come to Porto. Authenticity and heritage are the swizzle stick of my Porto experience.

A Room with a View
My choice of hotels, restaurants, cafés, and bars in a city like Porto are places where the patina of the past comes with a little broken glass and rusty edges. Opening the window of my hotel room, I saw a view some would complain about. But this is why I come to Porto. Authenticity and heritage are the swizzle stick of my Porto experience.

Something Fishy About His Smile Hardworking tour guides (like Ricardo Brochado) know how to make your stroll through their hometown memorable. Porto is a city with a steady sea breeze, a seagull soundtrack, and sardine smiles.

Something Fishy About His Smile
Hardworking tour guides (like Ricardo Brochado) know how to make your stroll through their hometown memorable. Porto is a city with a steady sea breeze, a seagull soundtrack, and sardine smiles.

Sausage Man in Porto Old Industrial Age markets (like Bolhão in Porto) are busy with activity under 19th-century glass-and-steel rooftops. You can be on a diet, but your camera will eat this up — sausage man and all — with gusto.

Sausage Man in Porto
Old Industrial Age markets (like Bolhão in Porto) are busy with activity under 19th-century glass-and-steel rooftops. You can be on a diet, but your camera will eat this up — sausage man and all — with gusto.

Porto Food Tour — For an Edible Education All over Europe, food tours are trendy. They cost between €50 and €100, go at an early lunch or early dinner time, last around three hours, come with over a mile of walking, and include four to eight stops. The style varies: Some are standing and sharing a plate of little bites, while others feature more sit-down dining experiences. All will fill you up, and should be considered a meal as well as a tour, wrapped up in one (making the splurge easier to justify). Here, André of Taste of Porto Food and Wine Tours brings on dessert.

Porto Food Tour — For an Edible Education
All over Europe, food tours are trendy. They cost between €50 and €100, go at an early lunch or early dinner time, last around three hours, come with over a mile of walking, and include four to eight stops. The style varies: Some are standing and sharing a plate of little bites, while others feature more sit-down dining experiences. All will fill you up, and should be considered a meal as well as a tour, wrapped up in one (making the splurge easier to justify). Here, André of Taste of Porto Food and Wine Tours brings on dessert.

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Each time I visit Lisbon, one of my projects is to review the many fado opportunities so those with my Rick Steves Portugal guidebook get the best late-night memory. Fado is traditional folk music that reflects Portugal’s bittersweet relationship with the sea. You can go to a fancy show in a fancy upscale restaurant for lots of money. But I like the free shows, deep in the characteristic and rough-edged neighborhoods. Here (at Restaurante A Baiuca in the Alfama, listed in my guidebook) the woman who owns the place is joined by her cooks, while the headwaiter sings at the door (along with a neighbor in the middle of the restaurant who dropped by tonight for the open mic). And they even invite the tourists to sing along “in English”…la, la, la, la, la.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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When traveling in Europe, we seek out the living traditions. And many of them survive only as clichés for tourists watching tacky stage shows. But Portugal’s fado (traditional, mournful folk tunes) can still be enjoyed in rustic, authentic settings like this characteristic little eatery (Restaurante A Baiuca, recommended in my guidebook), deep in Lisbon’s Alfama. I filmed in this joint years ago, capturing a magic moment for our TV show–and it’s been in my guidebook ever since. I was anxious to return, afraid that the magic would be gone. Thankfully, it survives. This is “fado vadio”–open mic where any amateur (like the man here) is welcome to share a song. Eating dinner here, with a line of neighbors hanging outside the restaurant door waiting their turn to sing, makes a delightful memory. The cost? Just buy dinner–about $20 with lots of wine.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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I’ll be researching, filming new TV shows, and enjoying our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour in the next two months. Each day of my research time I’ll be paling around with a local guide. This is my luxury as every minute spent with an expert and translator and friend at my side is filled with learning and insights I wouldn’t enjoy otherwise. Anyone can hire local guides to brighten their travels. In Portugal it costs about €100 ($130) to have your own private guide for four hours. Here, my guide Alex is taking me on a little scavenger hunt through Lisbon’s castle town (built back when nobles needed a safe place within the castle walls). She’s showing me new things I never noticed even after 20 years of visits to Lisbon.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Lisbon feels to me like Europe’s San Francisco with rattling trolleys, a famous suspension bridge, a heritage dominated by a horrific earthquake (1755), and lots of fog. I’m kicking off my two months of spring research here–and I’ve hit the ground running to be sure everything in my Rick Steves Portugal guidebook is up-to-date for the 2015 edition.

Rua Augusta: The triumphal arch that serves as a gateway to the city is now open for visitors, affording a grand view down the main drag, Rua Augusta.  As can be seen from the top of the arch, the center of town was rebuilt in a strict grid plan after the earthquake/tsunami/fire of 1755 left Lisbon a smoldering pile of rubble.

Rua Augusta: The triumphal arch that serves as a gateway to the city is now open for visitors, affording a grand view down the main drag, Rua Augusta. As can be seen from the top of the arch, the center of town was rebuilt in a strict grid plan after the earthquake/tsunami/fire of 1755 left Lisbon a smoldering pile of rubble.

Lisboners Like Their Sidewalks Slippery and Artistic: Lisbon’s characteristic limestone and basalt mosaics (calçada) decorating its sidewalks are an icon of the city. But they are slippery and expensive to maintain. With the tough economy, the city government is talking about replacing them with modern pavement. Lisboners are saying no way.

Lisboners Like Their Sidewalks Slippery and Artistic: Lisbon’s characteristic limestone and basalt mosaics (calçada) decorating its sidewalks are an icon of the city. But they are slippery and expensive to maintain. With the tough economy, the city government is talking about replacing them with modern pavement. Lisboners are saying no way.

Quiosque Cafés Bring Life to Lisbon Miradors: Kiosks ("quiosques" in Portuguese) are the rage in Lisbon, giving squares and miradors (viewpoints) an outdoor café ambience. Judging by the crowds enjoying the spring sunshine, the economy is showing signs of happiness.

Quiosque Cafés Bring Life to Lisbon Miradors: Kiosks (“quiosques” in Portuguese) are the rage in Lisbon, giving squares and miradors (viewpoints) an outdoor café ambience. Judging by the crowds enjoying the spring sunshine, the economy is showing signs of happiness.

Fish Dinner...Cheap, Fresh, Tasty, and Memorable: Characteristic hole-in-the-wall diners hustle for business and offer both fresh fish and great prices. I always look for a small, handwritten menu in the local language only posted on a low-rent street filled with locals; that's my key to a good value. My longtime favorite in this crusty corner of town went out of business, so this eatery will take its place in the new edition. Prices in Portugal are amazing--hearty meals for €9 and they’re big enough to split...and that’s in the capital city. It gets cheaper in the smaller towns.

Fish Dinner…Cheap, Fresh, Tasty, and Memorable: Characteristic hole-in-the-wall diners hustle for business and offer both fresh fish and great prices. I always look for a small, handwritten menu in the local language only posted on a low-rent street filled with locals; that’s my key to a good value. My longtime favorite in this crusty corner of town went out of business, so this eatery will take its place in the new edition. Prices in Portugal are amazing–hearty meals for €9 and they’re big enough to split…and that’s in the capital city. It gets cheaper in the smaller towns.

Basta to Bankers Around the World: Locals are saying "basta" (enough) to financial austerity. The discussion these days in Portugal is how the finances of this society are rigged to keep the 99 percent down. Locals sing a sad song I’ve heard before: The banks, politicians, and economic elites are working together; the working blokes get the shaft; and the rich just get richer.

Basta to Bankers Around the World: Locals are saying “basta” (enough) to financial austerity. The discussion these days in Portugal is how the finances of this society are rigged to keep the 99 percent down. Locals sing a sad song I’ve heard before: The banks, politicians, and economic elites are working together; the working blokes get the shaft; and the rich just get richer.

Demonstrating with Smiles: In post-crisis Portugal (like Spain, Greece, and other countries with struggling economies) you’ll find workers and retirees complain by marching. In Portugal, the people are so sweet that demonstrations feel like festivals. I don’t know exactly was getting the brunt of their dissatisfaction, but it gave me warm and fuzzy feelings all over.

Demonstrating with Smiles: In post-crisis Portugal (like Spain, Greece, and other countries with struggling economies) you’ll find workers and retirees complain by marching. In Portugal, the people are so sweet that demonstrations feel like festivals. I don’t know exactly was getting the brunt of their dissatisfaction, but it gave me warm and fuzzy feelings all over.

The Dictator’s School Books: Portugal has come a long way in the last generation. They overthrew their authoritarian government in the early 1970s--four years after the death of long-term dictator António Salazar. It’s amazing to think that within living memory Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar were all buddies in Europe’s club of Fascist dictators. Today, you can buy textbooks reprinted from a time when schools were propaganda tools of the government.

The Dictator’s School Books: Portugal has come a long way in the last generation. They overthrew their authoritarian government in the early 1970s–four years after the death of long-term dictator António Salazar. It’s amazing to think that within living memory Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar were all buddies in Europe’s club of Fascist dictators. Today, you can buy textbooks reprinted from a time when schools were propaganda tools of the government.

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rick-steves-travel-talksIf you missed the webcast of our March 22nd Travel Festival, no problem! We’ve just added those classes to our array of free, online travel talks. Our newest batch includes my lectures on Spain, Portugal, Germany & Austria, Switzerland, England & Wales, Scotland, and Packing Light, plus Cameron Hewitt’s info-packed talks on the Czech Republic, Poland & Hungary and on Croatia & Slovenia–plus three on European Cruising.

I’ve always believed that a class-lecture setting is a hugely effective way to learn about travel. And that’s why I’m so excited about filming and producing classes on each country in Europe, and making them available to view for free on my new state-of-the-art website. It’s like the “Rick Steves University of Smart European Travel”–with no tests and no tuition. (Have a good trip and you get an “A” and all the credit!) Now anyone planning or even just dreaming of a trip can enjoy all that knowledge for free–anytime, anywhere.

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Over the past few days I’ve been sharing video snippets of why Europe never gets old for me and what I’m excited about seeing this spring. To enjoy the countless options we have each year in our travels, we’re offering our Blog friends this crazy blow-out deal: my All 90 Shows DVD box set for just $20.

rick-steves-90-show-dvd-setThis is worth five times that price (originally $99.99), but we have a few hundred left in our inventory now that the newer All 100 Shows box set is available. So we thought we’d celebrate the many dimensions Europe has to offer with this exciting library of TV shows. Imagine having these 14 discs–90 half-hour episodes covering Europe from top to bottom, plus lots of extras–on your bookshelf. Each show highlights the very best plan to experience that city or region. It makes for a great series: to exercise by, for teachers to share with students, to remember all your favorite trips, to give to a traveling friend or loved one, or just for your own resource to help get your travel dreaming in focus. You and your Blog friends can each buy up to five sets for only $20 through this link only (not via my website) until 10 a.m. PDT, Tuesday, April 15th, or while supplies last. Regular shipping fees apply.

By the way, there are a lot of you, so if the shopping cart is slow, just check back.

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When touring France, it’s important to get a balance between Paris and the countryside. Awesome, dominating, endlessly romantic, and thrilling as Paris may be, you can’t just go to Paris and say you’ve seen France. In my mind, Burgundy is “profound France” and offers a delightful rural balance to the urban energy of Paris. But in the end, Paris always charms. This clip shows why I’m excited to be returning and why, on our Best of Europe tour, Paris is the finale.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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“From palm trees to snowballs”–perhaps the most thrilling juxtaposition of sights you can enjoy in a day of touring in Europe–is our nickname for driving from the Italian Riviera (Cinque Terre) to the heart of the Swiss Alps–the Berner Oberland. To have the most wonderful mix of cow culture and alpine thrills, we have long stayed in my favorite little alpine village…tiny Gimmelwald, a humble peasant hamlet where nearly everyone has the same last name.  Check out this video clip taken high upon “scalps of the Alps,” and you’ll see why I get excited just thinking about my upcoming trip to Switzerland.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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