Every year, I go on a Rick Steves tour — and I get a lot of work done. (If ever you find yourself updating a guidebook, as I do for three months every year, consider taking a tour to make your job easier.)
Rather than driving between destinations, on a tour I can just park myself in the back of the bus and write or relax. (Our tour groups only take up about half of the seats on our big buses — so there’s always plenty of room.) I’ve got an expert tour guide at my side whenever needed. And, thanks to the free time we build into every itinerary, I’m with 25 travelers who are using my guidebooks — and are happy to share with me all of the foibles, frustrations, and favorite finds that they experience along the way. Each morning, I make the rounds and enjoy “free time” reports from our gang: where they ate, what they did, and what the pitfalls were. And as I experience the must-see attractions with them, I can gauge how best to cover those sights for the independent travelers who use my guidebooks.
This year, I took our Heart of Portugal in 12 Days tour — and I had a blast. As always, our “no grumps” policy made for a fun and happy group, and our knowledgeable guide, Fatima, made sure that we experienced maximum travel thrills. And all along the way, I had the chance to talk to travelers about some of the ups and downs of exploring on their own — all of which will find its way into the upcoming tenth edition of my Rick Steves Portugal guidebook.
Here are a few of the nuggets that I picked up:
Lisbon’s Mouraria District
In Lisbon, the big news for me was the realization that my beloved Alfama quarter is no longer so rewarding to visit. Lisbon’s Visigothic birthplace and once-salty sailors’ quarter, tumbling from the castle down to the harbor, is salty no more — except with the sweat of cruise groups hiking now-lifeless lanes. The new colorful district to explore is the Mouraria, on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Reconquista — “Mouraria” means “Moorish quarter” — and to this day, it’s a gritty and colorful district of immigrants. Until recently, a tourist may not have been comfortable exploring here. But today, with the rising tide of affluence, this vibrant district — the birthplace of fado, Lisbon’s bluesy folk music — is starting the path to gentrification.
Not-So-Free Tours in Lisbon
The tour scene in Lisbon is changing — as in other touristy European cities — with the dominance of “free” tours. These dishonestly named tours are actually tip-based: At the end, you’re still expected to pay (in the form of tips, rather than a fee). And, while the guides can be solid, in many cases they have simply memorized a script — so they’re more entertainers than historians. These tours are not bad in themselves. Just remember you have the option to pay up front to join a tour led by a licensed and well-trained guide who’s a true expert in their city. “Free” tours are a fine example of the axiom, “You get what you pay for.”
(In a way, these “free” tours feel in keeping with the general dumbing down of our world lately — a reflection of people’s shorter attention spans, and the success of options that are cheap in every sense.)
Disorganized Crowds at the Jerónimos Monastery
Lately, I’ve been tuning into where my travelers’ pinch points are when it comes to crowds and lines. More and more people are traveling, and popular destinations can accommodate them by simply building more hotels. But throughout Europe, many of the marquee attractions that draw tourists have fixed capacities: The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Alhambra in Granada. Many of these “must-see sights” are physically at capacity. They simply cannot fit the massive crowds of people that hope to see them every day.
While Portugal has almost no such sights, you will have to deal with crowds at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Belém neighborhood. This photo shows the commotion as cruise and tour groups converge on the tiny entrance, creating a chaos you’ll find there all day long, nearly every day in peak season. While other such sights in Europe offer ways to secure tickets in advance, this sight is not that organized. Put on your shoulder pads and prepare to spend some time in line.
Pickpockets and Scammers
Lisbon and Porto — Portugal’s two big cities — are easygoing and friendly. But, like other touristic boom towns, they do have their pickpockets and scammers. Be on guard. And be wary when someone approaches you with a request to sign a petition to “help the children.” If you participate, the only children you’re likely to help are the ones picking your pocket as you’re distracted, reaching for the pen.