04/21/2014 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Checking In with Lisbon

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.

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.

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.

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 what 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.