Please sign in to post.

Trip Report RS Portugal April 2023

C's evaluation of our just-completed RS Portugal tour using the "old" evaluation format:

Part 1

1) most impt factors in choosing tour - This was our eighth RS tour. We like RS b/c there's a lot of opportunity for interaction with locals, no pressure to buy extras, "buddies" are usually like-minded, responsible and considerate, and guides and drivers are great.

2) favorite "wow" moment
C - toss-up between cork farm and winery - we especially learned a lot about running a small business in Portugal
D - Fatima, b/c it’s amazing to see what a huge operation the modern pilgrimage business is

3) hotels/meals/experiences - any especially good/bad

Hotels - all good in their own way. Many did not have hot water for coffee/tea in the room and lighting was poor in most (C always brings a headlamp and we both bring decent flashlights). Many had a system for turning off lights with your hotel key card (which could not always be defeated by sticking an old credit card in the slot) which means that one partner cannot go to sleep and still have electricity on while the other is out of the room. All had kleenex in the room this year. The hotel in Obidos had a fiddly way of operating the door (from both the inside and out) that should have had video instructions! Lighting on the stairs of the hotel in Lisbon was poor enough to make them a bit treacherous for folks with even mild vision problems; the hotel offers complimentary passes to a handful of museums but the only one that we might have been interested in has been closed for remodeling for some time (and the staff did not mention that).

Food - OK to v. good, nothing to knock your socks off, although that may just be the nature of Portuguese cuisine b/c off-tour food from restaurants recommended by the food tour guide in Porto and native Portuguese on was better, but not amazingly better. Many buddies felt deprived of leafy green veggies. Our favorite on-tour group meals were at the Lisbon fado, the cork farm and the winery. OTOH, our guide kept us well-supplied with local treats and firewater - some of which, such as queijadas, were terrific. (BTW, the Pastéis de Belém (de nata) obtained by the guide were far superior to those obtained by the "best" from Manteigaria recommended by the RS book). And the tour included a highly-educational, excellent food and history tour of the Porto run by Taste Porto. Hotel breakfasts were generally your standard hotel-anywhere-in-the-world breakfasts, although the Lisbon hotel also had good sardines.

Experiences - D. liked Fatima for the reasons in (2) above. C. liked all of the opportunities (including an optional visit to a ceramics factory) to learn about running a small business in Portugal. Portugal is also famous for its ceramic tiles and C noted with envy that one of our buddies, sporting a really good camera, seemed to be in heaven capturing tiles and textures.

4) pace? any way to make use of your time more efficient?
Compared to our other RS tours, the pace was gentle - b/c bus distances are short, generally no more than 2-ish hours apart, which made for very civilized start times and well-timed bathroom breaks.

Posted by
229 posts

Part II

5) could front ofc have done anything better?
Front office did not know that the shuttle bus from the Lisbon airport has been nonoperational since the pandemic (we told them, resulting in their sending out last-minute emails to everyone). One of their back-up recommendations - taking the metro into town - could be dicey (or even not permissible) if you have big pieces of luggage - see this helpful YouTube vid and its companion vid on public transportation in Lisbon We took a 26-euro cab b/c we had no convenient on-the-fly way to change the US phone number associated with our Uber account to something that would work in Europe - altho some (but not all) folks on the forum report success using both Uber and Bolt to get around Portugal as well as creative ways to use Uber without a US sim. A lot of those creative ways did/would not work for us and it just wasn’t worth the effort for one Uber ride, but if you are going to do a lot of ride-sharing, search the forum to see what others think. Uber also has a way of booking a ride with only an internet connection. The YouTube vid says most Lisbon cabbies are honest, but a few spoil the others’ reputation, so at a minimum make sure the meter is on. The YouTube vid says you can buy a prepaid taxi voucher, but it will probably be more expensive than if you just hop in the cab of a probably-honest cabbie.

6) did our advertising mislead u in any way - no, tour scrapbooks were very helpful - altho C was pleasantly surprised that tour wasn't just endless trekking from one tiled building to another.

7-10) rate ur guide/local guide/driver (for guides: accessible, fair, engaged; clear orientation at ea stop; leadership; speaking and teaching; knowledge of history and art; grasp of contemporary issues) RS guides and drivers are the best. Our guide was no exception. She was a Porto native with incredible knowledge and experience and perhaps the best-organized of the eight guides we’ve had the pleasure to meet (and that’s saying a lot, b/c all the RS guides are well-organized). She helped manage medical issues of two buddies, supplied us with surprise local treats and alcohol and did everything with grace, humor and impeccable timing. Our driver was also great, not only at steering the big bus along winding mountain roads, but by performing miraculous repositioning maneuvers (our guide joked that the driver called for a helicopter to pick the bus up and rotate it 180 degrees). Local guides were all excellent. We had no problems with language barriers, which has v. occasionally been a problem on tour. If possible, read the book before you go out with a guide, b/c getting info from them is rather like drinking from a fire hydrant.

Posted by
229 posts

Part III

11) more comments? would u recommend tour to others?

Health (from standpoint of two retired health care professionals (HCPs)), safety, weather
COVID - almost no one in Europe wears masks. None of our buddies (including two other HCP buddies) did either. Having caught COVID last year while traveling in England on our own - despite having taken every conceivable precaution - we were pretty nervous about the bus and group meals. We wore N95s any time we were indoors, in packed crowds or on the bus (that includes in restaurants when not eating) and were fairly fanatical about using hand sanitizer after contacting high-touch surfaces (especially before touching faces or eating). Restaurants for group meals were often not well-ventilated and there wasn’t always the opportunity to sit near the door - and of course, our group wasn’t always the only group in the restaurant. Our guide mentioned that RS as a company is still having to leave COVID-infected buddies behind. Our tour didn’t lose any buddies to COVID, but as with all the other RS tours we’ve been on, by the end of the tour, buddies had picked up respiratory illnesses (and once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before a good chunk of the bus is infected. In fact, we almost always get sick on the RS bus, but we didn’t this time, so the N95’s are staying on in future tours). There are three potentially high-COVID-risk times to be aware of: the two fado performances, which are in small rooms with singing (in which the audience is invited to participate). It’s possible that the fado venues test their performers and staff regularly, but we didn’t ask. We were the only group in the Lisbon fado, but not in the Coimbra fado. Interestingly, the other potentially high-risk activity is breakfast at the Porto hotel, b/c the hotel staff seats you, meaning you might not be seated next to buddies (who are at least partially-vaccinated and being relatively careful in public places), possibly in a not-well-ventilated section of the breakfast room. Like all other big tour companies, RS requires only the two-dose initial COVID vaccine series, which is not in keeping with what the CDC recommends for adequate COVID protection, especially for older folks or those with risk factors. To best protect yourself, you should visit the CDC website to see what CDC currently considers “up to date” COVID vaccination status.

One of our buddies had a flare-up of a medical condition that started a couple of days before the tour - not quite enough time for the buddy to nail down treatment and methods of communication with HCPs back home. We tried our best to help, but weren’t really successful tracking down information about the remedy supplied by the local pharmacy manufactured by a Portuguese (not international) drug company. Be sure you know how to get hold of your health-care delivery system at/on unusual hours/days and are packing enough medication to deal with medical conditions and common travel-related illnesses that could flare up, b/c foreign pharmacies and HCPs aren’t necessarily going to be easily available on tour.

We brought walking sticks, which weren’t really necessary. Of course C's was in the hotel the only time she really wanted it (descending steps on the city wall in Obidos. BTW, D and several buddies said that actually walking along certain sections of the wall in Obidos seemed pretty dicey from a safety standpoint - you are forewarned). That said, cobblestoned hills are very slippery when wet - our guide said it’s a nightmare leading tours up and down such hills and has resulted in her having gained experience navigating local emergency clinics.

We had very good luck with the weather - v. little rain and no ridiculously hot days, but Portugal, like Spain, England and France, is getting hotter in the summer and locals mentioned that at the time we went (late April) weather can be unsettled.

Posted by
229 posts

Part IV (more tips and would you recommend this tour)

We always bring binoculars that also do close focus on RS tours - in Portugal they're obviously helpful for cathedrals and close focus helps see over the shoulders of a small crowd and/or the fine details of pieces in the Gulbenkian.

We (and everyone else) did laundry in Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. Washing machines (at least the ones in our tour cities) dispense their own soap and softener. We saw one complaint on Google that said laundry did not get clean b/c the machine malfunctioned and didn’t dispense soap, so be sure you watch for suds. I don’t know what you can do if you have sensitivities to laundry products (maybe ask the front office to find out from the local guides). Our guide said that hotels no longer do laundry b/c of pandemic-related labor shortages.

Your “vacation from your vacation” is in Obidos.

The Lisbon puppetry museum (Museu da Marioneta) is not mentioned in the RS book, but is worth going to - in addition to an amazing collection of puppets and masks from around the world, it has clips and puppets used by Portuguese stop-action animators and clips of old puppet performances. It’s very reasonably priced, a good place to get out of the heat if that’s necessary and it made us want to know more about Portuguese stop-motion animators.

The RS book describes the Taylor Port House in Porto as "worth the climb up the hill for those with discriminating tastes." Actually, if you take the bus, the closest stop is uphill from the winery, so you end up walking downhill both going to the port house and back to Porto. If you are at all interested in wine (not just port), it is definitely worth checking out. While we're reasonably familiar with how non-fortified wines are made, we couldn't quite wrap our heads around the different types of port until we completed their excellent tour. We sprung for an extra tasting flight (very reasonably-priced compared to Napa Valley wineries) which also turned out to be very educational.

As long as you have the stamina to walk up and down LOTS of hills and stairs, we would actually recommend Portugal as the first RS tour to take in a country where English is not the first language. We didn’t know much about Portuguese history or culture (which made the tour interesting), the pace was gentle, and not much English is required b/c kids start learning English in elementary school, so (especially on tour) you can easily get by knowing “where’s the restroom,” “how much,” “please,” “thank you,” numbers from 0-10, “the bill, please,” “excuse me” (there are two different forms, one for, “excuse me, can I get some help,” and one for “excuse me, I want to pass,” and “good morning/afternoon/evening.” Public transportation is easy to use (and the guide gives you transit passes that cover your on-tour needs). That said, Portuguese pronunciation is really tricky (C got dizzy watching a YouTube vid explaining it), so ask guides and locals to write things down if you want to look them up/find them later.

Three navigating tips

  • Save the location of your hotel on Google Maps (our Evora hotel had a sister hotel with almost exactly the same name - we were headed to the wrong hotel but lucked out when we ran into our guide as we walked)
  • Google Maps was great at helping get around on public transportation, but it estimates pedestrian walking time as if you're walking on flat ground - figure you need extra time and water to walk hills in tour cities
  • Learn how to ask "where are we/where is --- on this map" (ask your guide) - after "where's the restroom," that's possibly the most trip-saving question to know ;)
Posted by
10098 posts

You mention tour members missing leafy green vegetables. We missed those and vegetables in general and were told the Portuguese get their vegetables through their delicious soups.

Posted by
364 posts

David and C.,
I will be on the Best of Portugal tour beginning May 22 and am hugely appreciative of all the detail you provided. Thank you for taking so much time to compose your trip report. Especially helpful to me were your comments about:
-Riskiness of walking on the walls in Obidos
-Shuttle bus not operating from Lisbon Airport. I have originally planned to ride the Metro until I receive RS' info about the bus. Now I'm back to planning to ride the Metro.

I have a separate question I'll ask you via a private message.

Posted by
229 posts

The Gulbenkian museum was nice. We went there twice, once the day before the tour started and when the group went to the museum with guided tour. Overall, very good museum, covering art and culture from Egypt, Greek and Roman, through Byzantium, Ottoman, to French period furniture and classical paintings. Some Chinese ceramics. Lots of carpets and French furniture. Think of the New York Met museum, at 1/10 to 1/50th the size. Price of admission was reasonable. When I went on my own, day before tour started, took me about 2-3 hours to cover the entire museum. Overall, what you can buy if money is no object.

C chiming in on D's comments. We surmise that one reason for the small size of the Gulbenkian collection is that Gulbenkian wanted to collect only "perfect" items - so no artifacts with cracks or tears, etc. So although what's there feels like a mile wide and an inch deep, there are some truly exquisite pieces in the collection. I forgot to say (will fix the report) that one should always bring binoculars or a monocular on RS trips. Even better, pack binoculars that can do close as well as far away focus - you use the far away focus for admiring cathedral details and close focus for looking at details of jewelry (or just getting a look at a museum piece when you're at the back of the crowd).

Posted by
5928 posts

David & C: Thank you for this great report. I do miss the old evaluation form. I get so frustrated trying to evaluate 5 hotels and 6 local guides in the limited number of characters allowed.

But I digress.

We're going on this tour in September, so I do appreciate your observations. We are planning to arrive in Lisbon 3 days early, and then stay on an extra 3 days in Porto. Is there anything you can think of you wish you had had more time to enjoy in those two cities?

Thanks again. I admire your ability to be succinct. As people who have read my trip reports know, I do tend to ramble on!

Posted by
229 posts

C to @Jane - I think it depends on what you're interested in. As with other RS tours, often there's just enough time to get an intro to the sites. For D, that was enough (although he went on his own to the Gulbenkian). I like to sketch and for some unknown reason I didn't have as much time to sketch on this tour as I have had on others - I think I was troubleshooting other problems instead. If you are a photographer, you will never have enough time! I recommend doing a Google image/TripAdvisor search of places the book mentions and see if there are any that strike your fancy.

In Lisbon consider

  • the tile museum is a must. We combined it with a trip to the 25th of April bridge (we're interested in engineering), but that meant not enough time as I would have liked to see and sketch in the tile museum. I think you can book a tile-making class, but that has to be done (I'm not sure how far) in advance. P.S. I would only recommend the bridge to folks interested in engineering - and be aware that it is a long way from the nearest bus stop.
  • have a look at pix of the amazing Jeronimos monastery - I thought we spent enough time there, but if you think you might want to see more on your own, arrive early (as in at least 15 min before it opens, even with a pre-purchased ticket)
  • miradouros (scenic lookouts)
  • doing a touristy trolley ride to the top of a hilly section (but the guide gives you a transit pass and the tour includes a bus ride up the hill on one of the small city buses, so we did the touristy trolley ride as a lark during our on-tour free afternoon). We saw on YouTube (and heard from the guide) that it's kinda crazy to wait for an hour for the elevador (elevator) just to get to the top of something you have the stamina to walk to.
  • admire (tons of) graffiti
  • if food is your thing, book your own food tour - you can't fit one in on tour
  • if plants are your thing, our guide mentioned parks and botanical gardens as possibilities. I would have gone to one she recommended that was near our hotel, run by the university, if it hadn't been raining.
  • puppet museum as above
  • per buddy reports, the Maritime museum and codfish museum (literally, whatever floats your boat)

in Porto (at this point, you can ask your guide)

  • we're interested in wine - if you are, you can check out the big-name port houses
  • if food is your thing, ask the Porto Tastes guide for suggestions (P.S. if you're buying canned sardines to take home, our guide said buy them at a local supermarket - they should have "everything" at non-touristy prices).
  • the tour Douro river cruise gives you a relatively quick trip up and down the river in Porto itself - and the pre-recorded narration can sometimes be tricky to follow. You will be doing the cruise after having been upstream in Douro valley and will therefore know if a more leisurely cruise to include part of the river outside of Porto is something you'd be interested in - if so, ask the guide.

One other caveat - which I will add to my review - Lisbon and Porto are hilly - and since we live at a similar latitude, we can say are likely to be beastly hot during the summer (which is starting earlier and ending later every year. In N. CA and Italy, September heat is often brutal). We quickly discovered that Google Maps estimates pedestrian travel time as if you're walking on flat ground, so allow plenty of extra time and water to get to where you're going. Google Maps was very helpful in figuring out how to use public transportation in both Lisbon and Porto.

Posted by
229 posts

C: and also @Jane

I have been on a tour evaluation "strike" ever since RS changed the evaluation format.
I fill out just enough of the evaluation to tell them things I really want them to know (usually health and safety issues - but I made an exception this year to also tell them how great our guide was) and then I give them the link to my forum post. It won't bring back the old evaluation format, but it makes me feel better and it's more helpful to potential buddies.

Posted by
554 posts

Thank you for the very informative and well-structured report. I especially appreciated the health information.

Posted by
143 posts

An interesting report. Just one question about this: "Many had a system for turning off lights with your hotel key card (which could not always be defeated by sticking an old credit card in the slot) which means that one partner cannot go to sleep and still have electricity on while the other is out of the room." I've found the key card to turn on the electricity in hotel room is increasingly commonplace not just in Europe, but elsewhere including here in the U.S. The solution for two people in the room, is that they each have a key card, so each guest can come and go as they wish. Did these hotels not offer that?

Posted by
229 posts

All of the hotels issued a single card (as opposed to the two you usually get in the US when you're a couple). For our purposes and short stays it was OK to leave the doors slightly ajar in the two hotels whose systems couldn't be worked around (one RFID and one needing an odd-shaped unusually stiff piece of plastic). But my guess is that we could have gotten a 2nd card if we'd asked.

Posted by
342 posts

I’m sorry you didn’t really enjoy the food. I made a point of researching for restaurants for our free nights because I knew that after 9 1/2 tours, group meals are rarely the best. (Note: the first group meal in Lisbon was horrid even by group standards but the group lunch at the Cork farm was very nice.) I found that Portugal is renown for its food and wine. We had wonderful food in Sintra pre tour, an incredible meal at a small backstreet restaurant in Evora and more incredible meals in Caiscai after being booted off tour for Covid.

Posted by
2108 posts

I was also on a recent Portugal tour, but not on either of the 2 mentioned so far.

I was often disappointed in the food, and that is not my experience on many other RS tours. The first group dinner at the restaurant by the Lisbon train station wasn't horrid, but it wasn't at all interesting and could have been anywhere. Thin slices of grilled meat, french fries, and an attempt at key lime pie.

The suckling pig restaurant in Coimbra stood out, too. I still wonder if it is usually dry, boney, and hard to chew. Served with potato chips!

There were good meals at the 2 farm places, and some places I went on non-group meals, but in general, food in Portugal was not a highlight.

I did a food tour in Lisbon before the RS tour, and the guide said in Portugal, spices have historically been a commodity, and not something to use. I'm inclined to believe her.

Posted by
229 posts

It's not that we didn't enjoy the food. I'm currently searching for recipes for several thing we tried . We know how hard it is to get great food on tour - there's a budget and I think when cooking for a big group of Americans, restaurants tend to be unadventurous. The approach to finding off-tour meals that's served us well is when possible, to find a foodie expat who writes a food blog (no luck there for Portugal, unfortunately) followed by looking at reviews of natives on TripAdvisor in the country we're in or getting recommendations from a food tour if we can book one. Even if the food doesn't take your breath away, at least you find out what natives like. If I had to rate the food on our eight RS tours, I'd say the memorable on-tour meals were in Ireland, Greece and Spain. Ironically, the only truly consistently bad on-tour food we've had was in France (that's another story).

@Liz - we had pretty good suckling pig in Coimbra (not as good as in Spain), but at least moist - reminded us of Peking duck, only pig. The problem was that the restaurant served very small portions and our table had to agitate for more.

And speaking of food, I didn't much care for the food court at Time Out Market - I picked it for our first night in Lisbon b/c it was within walking distance of the hotel and there were sights I wanted to see between the hotel and the food court - so I thought the walk would be nice (Rick had sent out a newsletter recommending it just before we left - but as I often don't agree with his food recommendations, that could have been a red flag.) I didn't realize that the market would be closed at dinnertime, leaving only fast food choices (think pizza and take-out Chinese). We managed to get a reasonable meal, but it was hard to find amongst all the touristy fast food choices and the place was v. crowded with no super-well-ventilated place to eat.

Posted by
36 posts

A couple of suggestions for a few days before the tour commences...

Just for something a little different we took a sunset cruise on the river with a company named "Nosso Tejo" in a traditional Portuguese boat.

It was a great experience, and allowed us to see sights of Lisbon from a different perspective. It took about 2 hrs with enough commentary to be interesting, and wine to sip if you wish.

Also, we took a train down to Cascais, a lovely seaside resort. Lots to see, great food and easy trip.

Enjoy what ever you experience.