Do you want to learn more about Portugal before visiting it? Or maybe you just want to feel the Portuguese vibe while doing something you enjoy the most – reading a book? Perhaps you’re here just because you’ve once visited the country and want to travel back there, if only through an author’s words?
Either way, we’ve looked through the online bibliophile communities, found the books people liked most, and compiled a list of titles to read about Portugal. If you’re worried you won’t find something you’ll like, you can put the worrying aside, as we’ve chosen quite different genres – non-fiction, historical fiction, classics, thriller, and even one with a bit of magical realism!
Are you ready to find your next great read? Choose one (or more!) from this list, and tell us which one it was. We want to share this journey with you!
1. Night Train to Lisbon
Author: Pascal Mercier
Raimund Gregorious, a Latin teacher at a Swiss college in Bern, sets on a life-changing journey after having saved a mysterious Portuguese woman from a suicide attempt. Although this event didn’t seem life-changing at that particular moment, Raimund would soon consider it otherwise.
That same day, he finds a book written by Amadeu de Prado entitled Um ourives das palavras, translated as A Goldsmith of Words. It focuses on how different life could be if one were to travel back in time and make different choices.
This book prompts Raimund to think of his own life, and he concludes that he’s not living it to the fullest. So he leaves everything behind and takes the night train to Lisbon, where he starts investigating the Prado family. His leads take Rimaund all over Lisbon, so you’ll definitely get a grasp of the city’s essence through the author’s descriptions.
Ultimately, Night Train to Lisbon is a philosophical book of friendship and love, loyalty and loneliness, rebelliousness and self-contemplation. However, we must warn you – Mercier’s style can get quite complicated at times, as he often withholds information from the readers, leaving cues to be discovered.
If you’ve read Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Shadow of the Wind, you’ll probably like Night Train to Lisbon as well, as they’re quite similar in style and themes. Once you finish the book, you can also watch the movie adaptation released in 2013.
2. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Author: José Saramago
One simply cannot discuss Portugal without at least mentioning José Saramago, one of the country’s most notorious writers. Well, if Saramago does pop up in a conversation, so must The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a significant title for any bibliophile looking to learn more about Portugal and the author himself.
The most curious thing is that Ricardo Reis, the title character, is, in fact, one of the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa, the other famous Portuguese writer.
After learning that Fernando Pessoa had died, Ricardo, a doctor, returns to Lisbon, where he decides to give up on his medical career. Instead, he spends time discovering the streets of Lisbon and reading the country’s newspapers.
Although the novel focuses on several themes, including immigration and romantic relationships, it focuses primarily on Reis’ conversations with the spirit of Fernando Pessoa, during which they ponder upon the difference between life and death.
In short, if you want to read a book that immerses you in the depths of Lisbon’s streets and, at the same time, catches your attention through its bizarre yet unique plot, don’t hesitate to give The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis a chance.
3. The Night in Lisbon
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Erich Maria Remarque takes us back to 1942 Lisbon and introduces us to a refugee trying to leave the tumultuous Europe for America, except that he has neither a ticket nor the money to purchase one.
However, he sees the light at the end of the tunnel when a stranger approaches him and offers salvation. That’s how the young refugee met Josef Schwarz, another refugee who offered his tickets and visa in exchange for the opportunity to tell him a story.
As such, Josef starts recalling his relationship with Helen, his wife, and shares the most intimate details of their journey. Ultimately, his story becomes one about the loss of identity, love, survival, cruelty, and destiny.
Shortly after its publication, The Night in Lisbon became a bestseller in Britain and America. It was regarded as one of the most thoughtful novels of the time. Therefore, we recommend you to add it to your to-be-read list if you want to travel back in time, return to 1942 in Lisbon, and listen to Josef Schwarz’s compelling story.
4. Requiem: A Hallucination
Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Antonio Tabucchi, although born in Italy, holds a great love for the country of Portugal, having been the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Lisbon for a long time. No wonder he’s written so much about the country! Requiem: A Hallucination is an ode to Portugal, its people, and its culture.
It begins with the narrator waiting for someone on a quay by the Tagus River. However, we find out that he got the hour wrong – the appointment was at midnight, not noon. So he must wait another 12 hours, during which he takes the readers on a long, intricate, and insightful journey.
He meets so many different people that we start wondering whether everything is real or the narrator somehow slipped from reality into the realm of fantasy and dreams (which the title suggests, of course). At one time, he even meets the ghost of Fernando Pessoa, whom he calls The Guest.
As such, Tabucchi doesn’t only focus on taking the readers on a trip of revealing the mysteries the narrator stumbles upon on the streets of Portugal but also invites us to ponder upon the delimitation between consciousness and unconsciousness, real and unreal.
5. Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See
Author: Fernando Pessoa
Although published a hundred years ago, Pessoa’s writings about Lisbon are still incredibly authentic today. Pessoa wrote the guidebook directly in English, as he aimed to address it to English-speaking visitors. The manuscript was discovered only after his death and published posthumously.
As you may already know, Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon. Although he spent nine years of his childhood in South Africa, he then returned to Lisbon and rarely left the city. As such, his account of Lisbon’s landmarks is priceless to anyone who plans to visit the country. If you’re traveling alone, take this book with you. It will be an excellent companion!
6. Baltasar and Blimunda
Author: José Saramago
Set in the early 18th century Lisbon, Baltasar and Blimunda invites the readers to unravel the intricacies of the relationship between Baltasar and Bilmuda.
This love story is built around the construction of the Convent of Mafra, which still stands as one of the country’s most famous landmarks, having even become a finalist in the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
The two main themes are wrapped in a realistic yet fantastical narrative filled with jokes and critical observations coming from the narrator.
If you’re up for this journey, remember that Saramago is a master of long, complex sentences, so prepare yourself for a rather complicated reading but nonetheless highly rewarding!
7. Pereira Maintains
Author: Antonio Tabucchi
Written by Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains tells the story of Dr. Pereira, a newspaper editor living in Lisbon. His wife died a few years ago, and he spends most of his time in solitude, writing about art and literature and disconnecting himself from the European political tensions.
One day, he meets a young man (Francesco Monteiro Rossi) looking for a place to work and hires him as an assistant. He finds out that Francesco uses the money to recruit Portuguese to fight for the anti-fascist forces in Spain. The assistant writes political pieces that Pereira cannot publish due to the dictatorial regime of Antonio Salazar. Still, he sees in Francesco the son he never had and helps him out anyway until the Portuguese police knock on his door.
The novel is filled with a myriad of literature and political references, so if you’re a fan of this genre, we’re sure Antonio Tabucchi’s writing will amaze you on the spot. You’ll undoubtedly lose yourself in the atmosphere of the 1930s in Lisbon.
8. The Return
Author: Dulce Maria Cardoso
The Return encourages readers to travel back to 1975 to Luanda, after the collapse of the Salazar dictatorship, envisioning thousands of people preparing to return to Portugal to break free of the chaos of the Angolan War.
The story revolves around Rui, a fifteen-year-old boy born in Luanda. After long deliberations, his family decides to return to Portugal, but unfortunately, not all manage to. Rui’s father is taken by the rebels right before leaving for the airport. The family is forced to board the airplane without him, and Rui remains devastated, not knowing what happened to his father.
When the family arrives in Lisbon, they’re housed in a five-star hotel, where they mourn everything they had to leave behind – their house, friends, and favorite everythings. As the story unfolds, we learn of both the physical and emotional difficulties returnees face, with a primary focus on Rui’s growth. We learn about his struggles of growing up in a country he only heard stories of, after having left behind everything he could call home.
In short, The Return focuses on a highly important piece of Portuguese history that anyone interested in the subject should learn about. The fact that it’s told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old makes it even more truthful and authentic.
9. The Crime of Father Amaro
Author: Eça de Queirós
Like Saramago and Pessoa, Eça de Queirós has left its mark on Portuguese literature, having produced some of the country’s most notorious novels.
The Crime of Father Amaro is a satire of clerical corruption wrapped in Eça de Queirós’s masterful critique that touches everything that leaves space for criticism.
Through the author’s skillful writing, we meet a young priest called Amaro, who was forced to set on a priesthood journey and take the vow of chastity. Behind the surface, Amaro is obsessed with women, so he falls in love with Amélia, who is, at this time, engaged.
Amaro, however, contributes to the breaking-off of the engagement, drives her fiance out of town, and begins a sexual relationship with the woman of his dreams. We’ll let you discover what happens next in this romantic drama/social commentary/satirical novel!
10. The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
The Book of Disquiet seems rather like a stream of thoughts than a plotful novel. It’s a collection of aphoristic paragraphs belonging to Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms. It was never finished and even has blank spaces that should have been filled later, which only adds to its mysterious yet melancholic allure.
Although it’s not an easy read and doesn’t describe much of Lisbon because the paragraphs focus primarily on Soares’ inner world, The Book of Disquiet can become an excellent companion during your journey around Portugal. As you probably already know, Pessoa lived in Lisbon for much of his adult life, and the city is imbued with his art if you know where to look.
11. Two Nights in Lisbon
Author: Chris Pavone
If a thriller novel is a genre you prefer instead of classics or travel guides, you should definitely give Two Nights in Lisbon a chance.
Pavone shares the story of Ariel Pryce. It takes place in Lisbon, as she and her husband traveled to Portugal for a work trip. Ariel wakes up alone in her hotel room and realizes her husband isn’t there.
Where has he gone and why hasn’t he left a note? She starts investigating, trying to find him, and contacts the police and the US Embassy. The CIA becomes involved along the way as well.
As we unravel the story, we learn about Ariel’s past, question everything we (and Ariel, too!) know about her husband, and wonder whether there’s anything Ariel should be afraid of.
In short, Two Nights in Lisbon has enough plot twists to keep you awake at night! Put it in your hand baggage and enjoy your flight to Lisbon – hours will feel like minutes with this book!
12. Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture
Author: José Saramago
Published in 1981, this non-fiction book by Jose Saramago takes readers throughout Portugal – from north to south, from east to west.
When Saramago wrote this travelogue, Portugal wasn’t such a popular tourist destination, allowing the author to bring its beauty to life in a truly authentic way. He delves into the country’s ancient myths and people, describing fortresses on cliffs, churches, and other landmarks that bring value to the territory.
On the other hand, we must mention that Saramago focuses a lot on Portugal’s churches – unsurprisingly, though, since the country is filled with churches that are part of its identity. So, if you’re not interested in the subject, you may want to consider other titles we’ve added to the list.