Portugal’s Heartland

After rummaging through the riches of Portugal's Golden Age in Lisbon's Belém district, we head north to eat barnacles in the salty old fishing village of Nazaré, ponder the local Romeo and Juliet in the fascinating abbey in Alcobaça, march with pilgrims to Fátima on the anniversary of a miracle, and sample the vibrant student life in the college town of Coimbra.

Travel Details

Monastery of Jerónimos

King Manuel's 16th-century, giant white-limestone church and monastery stretches for 300 impressive yards along the waterfront of Lisbon's Belém neighborhood. The monastery has remarkable cloisters, and a church holding explorer Vasco da Gama's tomb. The church is free to enter, but the accompanying cloister has an entry fee. There's often a long line to visit the cloister, but you can cut through it to get immediately to the church entrance.

Maritime Museum (Lisbon)

If you're interested in Portugal's historic ships and navigational tools, this museum, which fills the west wing of the Monastery of Jerónimos, is worth a look. It's refreshingly uncrowded, and sailors love it.

Casa Pastéis de Belém (Lisbon)

This café is the birthplace of the wonderful custard tart that's called pastel de nata throughout Portugal, but here is dubbed pastel de Belém. You can explore this sprawling temple to Portugal's beloved custard tart like a museum, with a peek at the bakery in the rear. Since 1837, residents have been coming to this café to get their tarts fresh. Sit down and enjoy one with a café com leite; sprinkle on as much cinnamon and powdered sugar as you like.

Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria (Alcobaça)

Portugal's biggest church, and a cultural center of 13th-century Portugal, is also home to the tombs of King Pedro I and his beloved, murdered wife, Dona Inês de Castro. With finely preserved old dormitories and dining halls, it's the easiest place in Portugal to really envision the life monastic.

Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima

The towering Neoclassical basilica has a 200-foot spire with a golden crown and crystal cross-shaped beacon on top. Inside, a huge painting depicting the vision is flanked by chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross and the tombs of the children who saw the vision. Two of the three died in the flu epidemic that swept the world shortly after the visions; Lucia — the only one with whom Mary actually conversed — passed away at the age of 97 in 2005.) The basilica is busy with many Masses throughout each day.

Café Santa Cruz (Coimbra)

This elegant Old World cafe has great coffee, simple toasted sandwiches, Wi-Fi, and outdoor tables offering great people-watching over Praça 8 de Maio. Their signature pastry cruzios (named for the church's friars) is a new confection inspired by nun-baked sweets.

Old Cathedral (Coimbra)

Highlights here include some of Portugal's oldest tiles, one of its best Renaissance altars, and its oldest Gothic cloister (open daily).

King João's Library (Coimbra)

In this elegant building, one of Europe's best surviving Baroque libraries displays thousands on thousands of books in 18th-century splendor. The books, each dating from before 1755, are in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Imagine being a student in Coimbra centuries ago, when this temple of learning stored the world's knowledge like a vast filing cabinet (and consider how readily accessible the world of information is to our age). The resident bats — who live in the building, but not the library itself — eat insects, providing a chemical-free way of protecting the books, and alert the guard to changing weather with their "eee-eee" cry. Timed-entry tickets allow visitors into this 300-year-old temple of thought (reservations aren't possible — if you anticipate crowds, arrive by 10:00 to avoid a long wait).

Restaurante O Trovador (Coimbra)

This is your best place in town for dinner with fado (during performances, guests must order food — not just drinks). Reservations are essential to eat with the music, which is performed nearly nightly in summer — ask for a seat with a music view.


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner. This time we return for a quick look at Lisbon before heading north for small-town Portuguese adventures.

We'll remember Lisbon's glory days, eat barnacles with a fisherwoman, learn the story of Portugal's Romeo and Juliet, dance on the beach, march with pilgrims on the anniversary of a miracle, and sample student life at the Oxford of Portugal.

Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with its neighbor, Spain. Our travels take us through central Portugal. From Lisbon, we travel north to Nazaré, Alcobaça, Fátima, and Coimbra.

Like no other European capital, Lisbon has an old-time charm — it feels like San Francisco, but older and grittier…less expensive.

The city is a complex mix: Immigrants from its former empire, the boost of a recent world's fair, a vibrant young democracy — after a long period of fascism — and money from the European Union all give Lisbon bounce. But grand old Lisbon was built with the riches of New World discoveries.

This monument honors an entire culture of discovery: Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorers, great writers, poets, missionaries, and the queen.

A trip through Portugal is littered with reminders of how these people made this country a European power. We're in the Lisbon suburb of Belém, famous for its monuments, museums, and this monastery [the Monastery of Jerónimos] — where sailors worshipped before sailing into the unknown.

A wing of the monastery — now Portugal's naval museum [the Maritime Museum] — shows how this little country built a mighty empire in the late 15th century, then reaped a rich harvest.

Local guide Angela da Silva explained how her country pulled this off.

Rick: Did Vasco da Gama use this boat here?
Angela: Not this one. These are very nice, but this one is something special. This is a "caravel," and it was the Portuguese secret weapon to travel. We could sail into the wind, and it was perfect for long voyages. Vasco da Gama used one of these to reach India.
Rick: Cool.
Angela: So this is the sphere, and it represents the world. Tradition says that the band divided the world into half for the Portuguese, half for the Spanish.

Angela: These are navigation instruments. And we Portuguese became experts at navigating by the stars. Why is that important? Because like this we could sail away from the coast.

The great explorers brought in the money and Portugal's royalty spent it. This starburst of Brazilian gold and jewels was an 18th-century gift from king to church.

And the Portuguese good life wasn't limited to kings and queens. This popular bakery is famous for its custard cakes — Pastéis de Belém. You'll find these all over Portugal — but they originated right here.

Behind the lazy café scene, a sweets sweatshop cranks out 10,000 tasty delights a day. They tried mechanizing the process, but it just wasn't the same. Why are these so special? It's a secret — carefully kept since 1837. Only three workers and the boss know the complete recipe.

Rick: OK! Uh, this?
Waiter: Cinnamon?
Rick: Sim.
Waiter: Sugar?
Rick: Sim. OK. Thank you.

Remember the basic economic equation: Throughout the Middle Ages, Italy dominated European trade with the East. Then, within 10 years of Vasco da Gama's voyage around Africa to India, Italy's trade plummeted, and Portugal's skyrocketed.

From that point on, Europe's economic superpowers faced the Atlantic. But the Lisbon we see today was built from scratch after an earthquake leveled the city in 1755. It took the near-dictatorial leadership of the Marquês de Pombal to rebuild the city, and he did it in a grand and modern style.

The Avenue of Liberty provides Lisbon with a proud Champs Elysées–type spine. A series of fine squares decorated with regal monuments lead through one of Europe's first grid-plan city centers to the harborfront.

Plenty of character and color is packed into this checkerboard street plan

And tiny hole-in-the-wall bars serve just one drink: ginjinha. This favorite Lisbon drink is a sweet liqueur made from the sour-cherry-like ginja berry, sugar, and schnapps. The only choices are with or without berries; that's "com" or "sem" fruta.

Manolo: When something is good, and you don't have words, is to say "better," you say "This is greatest than ginjinha; this is better than ginjinha."
Rick: In Portuguese?
Manolo: In Portuguese, "Isto sabe que nem ginjas."

There's plenty more to see in Lisbon, but it's time for the countryside.

All over Europe, new bridges, tunnels, and freeways like this are making travel easier than ever. We're heading north for Nazaré, Fátima, and Coimbra…now all within just two hours of Lisbon.

Our first stop: the fishing town of Nazaré. It's off-season and, as I stress in my guidebooks, with no crowds, we can drop into town without a reservation.

In Nazaré, locals renting spare rooms clamor for your business. Women camp out at the bus station and on the road into town — waving signs advertising rooms for rent in five languages — hoping to snare arriving tourists.

Sra. Amada: Hallo! Chambres?
Rick: Sim. Uh, quartos!
Sra. Amada: Sim.
Rick: Quanto custa?
Sra. Amada: Para leitos separadas com banho privada, cinco mil.
Rick: Sim banho.
Sra. Amada: Sim banho privada…quatro mil.
Rick: Quatro mil para dois?
Sra. Amada: Sim. Com duche.
Rick: Is it good? Can I look?
Sra. Amada: Sim. Siga-me!

In Portugal, rooms rented in private homes — that's quartos — offer the best budget beds. And getting lost is just not an option. Senhora Amada rents several fine rooms.

Your room is likely to be large, homey, and furnished old-time elegant — generally better than a hotel room for half the cost.

Rick: I'll take it. Thanks very much. Obrigada!

The bathroom is just down the hall…and the beach is just down the street.

While quite touristy in the summer, Nazaré offers a surprisingly good look at old Portugal. Somehow the traditions survive and the locals merrily go about their black-shawl ways. Wander the back lanes for an intimate look at Portuguese family-in-the-street life.

Nazaré's women are famous for wearing skirts with seven petticoats. In the old days, they'd sit on the beach waiting for their fishermen to sail home. To keep warm during a cold sea wind but remain modest, they'd wear several petticoats in order to fold layers over their head, back, and legs.

Folk groups play proudly for visitors. This one, the town's oldest, has been kickin' up Nazaré sand since 1934.

I got hooked on Nazaré back when boats like these littered the beach. Now the fishing boats are moored comfortably in the modern harbor, and in the summertime, sunbathers pack the beach. We're here in April — almost no tourists, lots of local color.

Squadrons of sun-dried and salted fish are crucified on nets and left under the midday sun. Locals claim they're delightful…but I'd rather eat barnacles.

Rick: Ah!
Merchant: Percebes.
Rick: Percebes!
Merchant: Percebes!
Rick: Bom?
Merchant: Bom!

Percebes are local raw barnacles, sold on the street like munchies.

Rick: OK! Barnacles, I'd never thought I'd eat a barnacle.
Merchant: Muito bom! Muito fresca!

Merchants are happy to demonstrate how to eat them. They figure if they can get you to eat one, you'll buy a kilo.

Rick: You go…
Merchant: Sim, abrir!
Rick: Break, break…ah!

They're served with the beer in local bars, like corn nuts.

Rick: Heeeeyyy! That's good! Got it, percebes! Give me five! Heeyyy!

Nazaré's funicular was built in 1889 — the same year as the Eiffel Tower — designed by a disciple of Eiffel. It leads to another town, Sitio, high above Nazaré. Sitio feels different. Its people are farmers, not fishing folk. They've got less sand, but more view.

It's dinnertime, and we've followed the locals to Restaurant O Buzio. Tempting appetizers are put on the table. Be warned: You'll pay for each and every nibble.

Rick: Here we go! Ah! I got my buzio!

If you don't want them, just say so. These were too tasty to miss.

Vinho verde — literally "green wine" — is a Portuguese specialty. Refreshing and a bit like champagne without the bubbles, it's a new wine — picked, made, and drunk within a year.

A few miles from Nazaré, Portugal's National Museum of Wine takes you from grape juice to vino.

Formerly the local cooperative winery, its 20 huge half-buried tanks are now part of the museum.

Imagine, 60,000 gallons of grape juice…busily fermenting…on its way to wine.

Guide: All these barrels are made of French and Portuguese oak. And they are made for sweet wine and brandy.
Rick: Wow. That's a lot of brandy.

The museum shows off Portuguese wine culture in a series of rooms that used to be fermenting vats.

The wine museum is at the edge of Alcobaça, a town more famous for its abbey. Built after the Christians chased out the Moors, it became one of the most powerful abbeys around, and a cultural center of 13th-century Portugal.

For 600 years the abbey [of the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria] was filled with hard work, prayer, and lots of meditative silence.

The 18th-century kitchen's giant tiled ovens could roast six oxen simultaneously. The industrious monks rerouted part of a river to get running water. And there were plenty of fine hard surfaces for slicing and dicing.

The brothers would wash at this fountain before proceeding into the dining hall.

Imagine this hall filled with hundreds of monks eating in silence as one monk stood here on the "Readers' Pulpit" reading from the Bible.

Monastic life ended here in 1834. That's when the king decided the powerful church was an obstacle to his vision of a modern Portugal, and disbanded all monasteries.

The abbey's Gothic church — perhaps the finest in Portugal — offers a clean and bright break from the heavier Iberian norm. The long narrow nave leads to the finely carved 14th-century tombs of Portugal's most romantic and tragic couple, King Pedro I and Dona Inês de Castro.

Pedro, heir to the Portuguese throne, was in love with the Spanish aristocrat Inês. Concerned about Spanish influence, Pedro's father forbade their marriage. They married secretly. The angry king had Inês murdered.

When heartbroken Pedro became king, he executed her murderers. It's said he had the corpse of his bride exhumed, cloaked in a purple robe, and crowned. Then he made the entire royal court kiss the hand of his dead queen.

Like religious alarm clocks, the attending angels seem poised to wake the couple on Judgment Day. For over 600 years Pedro and Inês have rested here…feet-to-feet, so that when the trumpets blow, they'll rise and be together again.

A few miles away is Fátima, one of Europe's most important pilgrimage sights. The basilica, facing a vast square, marks the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared several times.

On May 13, 1917, three young shepherds reported being visited by the Virgin Mary, who said "peace is needed." World War I raged on, and she appeared again on the 13th day of each of the next five months — each time calling for peace.

Ever since, on the 13th of every month, pilgrims gather here. In 1930 the Vatican recognized Fátima as a bona fide miracle.

An hour north of Fátima is Coimbra — Portugal's leading city for 200 years. Only as Portugal's maritime fortunes rose was landlocked Coimbra surpassed by the port of Lisbon.

Today Coimbra is Portugal's third-largest city and home to the country's oldest and most prestigious university. Coimbra is a mini-Lisbon: everything good about urban Portugal without the intensity of a big city.

It was established by the Romans at a strategic bridge over the Mondego River. This square, Largo da Portagem, is a great place to begin your Coimbra visit. Drop by the tourist office, then pick up a pastry.

Coimbra is a delight on foot. You'll find yourself doing laps along the pedestrian-only main drag. It's perfectly straight — Roman designed.

It's fun to read history into modern street plans. There's the straight Roman road, the ancient race track, and the circular street plan outlines the wall used by Romans, Moors, and Christians to protect Coimbra.

Historically the rich could afford to live within the protective city walls, in the high town, and the poor lived outside. Even today, the lower town is a rougher, more colorful section.

The pedestrian drag ends at another people-friendly square — Porta Santa Cruz [actually Praça 8 de Maio]. And the fine old Café Santa Cruz awaits with a reward for anyone completing the hike.

The café was built as part of the church. But, like the abbey at Alcobaça, it was abandoned after the dissolution of the monasteries. In the 1920s it was the haunt of Portuguese intellectuals. The women's room used to be a confessional.

Guide: Hello, are you Rick Stevens?
Rick: Yes.
Guide: Sandra Pereira from the tourist office of Coimbra.
Rick: Oh, nice to meet you.

I've arranged with the tourist office to meet a local guide. Throughout Europe, the tourist offices have lists of guides available for hire. Sometimes, hiring a private guide is time and money well spent.

This gate leads into Coimbra's old town. Its name, Arco de Almedina, means "gate to the medina" — a reminder of Moorish times. Part of the old town wall, it's a double gate with a 90-degree kink in the middle for easier defense.

Guide: And look at the holes.
Rick: Oh, yeah!

Notice the two square boiling oil holes in the ceiling — to turn attacking Moors into fritters.

Coimbra's old cathedral stands like a fortress in the historic center.

After a little travel in Spain and Portugal you can almost predict the same old story: Christians push out the Moors, tear down their mosque, and build a church. In fact some of these stones were actually part of the mosque that stood here until 1064.

The facade even feels Arabic. Notice the crenellations along the roof of the fortress-like church. The Moors, while retreating, were still a threat.

Seven hundred years ago, Coimbra's university taught the medieval basics: law, medicine, grammar, and logic. With Portugal's seafaring orientation, astronomy and geometry were added.

Today these students are celebrating the completion of another year of studies.

The university's Baroque library displays 30,000 books. University researchers can still actually check out these centuries-old volumes. At the "high altar" stands its founder, the "divine monarch" John V. The reading tables, inlaid with exotic woods — ebony from Sri Lanka and rosewood from Brazil — are ornamented with copper and silver inkwells. The gold leaf is South American and the motifs are Chinese. Everything reminds the visitor that Portugal's wealth was immense, and imported.

The heavy teak door is kept shut to keep out the humidity.

Rick: Obrigada.

Guide: Do you see the funny windows over there?
Rick: Oh ― yeah.

This perch, behind the chapel, offers a fine orientation view of Coimbra. Those noisily painted blue and gold windows mark a "república" — a Coimbra frat house.

Traditionally, Coimbra students — usually from the same distant town — lived together in groups of about a dozen in communal houses called "repúblicas." Today they function as tiny fraternities — some are highly cultured, others are more rowdy. This place is Republica Baco…literally the house of Bacchus.

What's so good about this place? Students brag that in one year you gain the experience of a lifetime.

I've had my share of student meals. Tonight we're dining out.

Restaurante O Trovador serves fine Portuguese cuisine with fado performances most nights. It's the place for an old-town splurge. The waiter insisted I try the goat cooked in red wine. Good advice.

In Lisbon's famous fado, the women sing to men. Here in Coimbra, men sing to women. The songs are of love — usually sad, unanswered love. For 200 years these musicians have been just one more soulful thread in the tapestry of Portuguese life.

Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our look at Portugal. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'. Adeus.