General -- The Portuguese: The Land and Its People, by Marion Kaplan (Viking, 2006), is one of the best surveys of the country. The work covers Portuguese history all the way from the country's Moorish origins to its maritime empire and into the chaotic 20th century. It also gives travel information and discusses politics, the economy, literature, art, and architecture.
A towering achievement, Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture, is a compelling work by the Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago. Saramago traveled across his homeland to get a "new way" of feeling about Portugal's history and culture. From that personal quest, he created this monumental work.
History -- A Concise History of Portugal, by David Birmingham is far too short at 209 pages to capture the full sweep of Portuguese history, but it is nonetheless a very readable history for those who like at least a brief preview of a country's past before landing there.
Another version of the same subject is Portugal: A Companion History, by José H. Saraiva. It will give you a sweeping saga of the land you're about to visit.
Portugal's role abroad is best presented in Charles Ralph Boxer's Portuguese Seaborne Empire. Since its initial publication in 1969, this frequently reprinted book has been the best volume for explaining how an unimportant kingdom in western Europe managed to build an empire stretching from China to Brazil.
Fiction & Biography -- The epic poem of Portugal, Os Lusíadas, written in 1572 by the premier Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camóes, celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery. In 1987, Penguin rereleased this timeless classic. The best biography on Camóes himself remains Aubrey Bell's Luis de Camóes.
One of Portugal's most beloved writers, Eça de Queirós, wrote in the late 19th century. Several of his best-known narratives have been translated into English, notably The Maias, The Illustrious House of Ramires (New Directions Publishing, 1994), The Mandarin and Other Stories, The City and the Mountains, The Relic, The Sin of Father Amaro, and Dragon's Teeth. Queirós (1845-1900) was the most realistic Portuguese novelist of his time, and his works were much admired by Emile Zola in France. The Maias is the best known and the best of his works.
The great poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is second only to Camóes in the list of illustrious Portuguese writers. Some of his works have been translated into English. Pessoa is still beloved by the Portuguese, and for decades he appeared on the 100-escudo note before it went out of circulation in 2002.
The Return of the Caravels, by António Lobo Antunes, is an unusual novel set in 1974. It brings back Portugal's history as an imperial power by "collective memory," as Vasco da Gama, Cabral, and other explorers return to Lisbon, anchoring their small but significant vessels alongside the giant tankers of today.
José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, remains one of the best novelists of modern-day Portugal. His Baltasar and Blimunda is a magical account of a flying machine and the construction of Mafra Palace -- it's a delightful read.
The work New Portuguese Letters by the "Three Marias" (Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Fátima Velho da Costa), first published in Portugal in 1972, is available in English. The Portuguese government banned and confiscated all copies and arrested its authors on a charge of "outrage to public decency." They were acquitted 2 years later, and the case became a cause célèbre for feminist organizations around the world.
Wines -- The finest book on the most famous of Portuguese fortified wines, port, is Richard Mayson's Port and the Douro. This is a comprehensive, articulate, and intriguing work. You learn the history of port from the 4th century up through modern methods of bottling the wine today.
Arguably the oldest urban folk music in the world, fado remains the soul music of Portugal. From the 1940s until her death in 1999, Amália Rodrigues was the top diva fadista in Portugal. No one in the post-millennium has dethroned her.
A current sensation, Ana Laíns, takes a much more contemporary approach to fado than did Amália. Her first album, Sentidos, was released in 2006 and scored an international success. Her songs blend introspective themes with simple lullaby melodies remembered from her childhood.
The greatest guitar player in Portugal is Antonio Chainho. His voice plays "second fiddle" to his guitar, whose music he makes the focal point of his concerts and recordings.
After the release of his solo album, O Mesmo Fado, António Zambujo has been hailed as "best new fado singer" in the Lisbon press. As a fadistic, Zambujo is a lover of tradition -- that is, classical fado.
Another respected fadista is Cristina Branco, who preferred jazz, blues, or bossa nova until she discovered the "passion and emotion of fado." Her unique interpretation of fado is heard on her latest album, Murmúrios.
One of the most promising of today's young male fadistas is Durate; another new-generation fadistic is Joana Amendoeiraq, who is known for her sensuous and moving harmonies, which have gained her an international following.
Ever since she released her first album, Mafalda, in 1999, Mafalda Arnauth has become an important voice of fado, not only in Portugal but abroad as well.
Mariza was singing fado before she could read. Her first CD, Fado em Mim, offers six of the most classic fado songs and six original compositions. In all of them she "tugs at the heart and soul," in the words of one music critic.
Groups that are current favorites in the Portuguese music world include Ala Dos Namorados, known for their innovative repertoire that ranges from rhythms of Cape Verde to re-creations of medieval voices.
Music by all of the above singers can be purchased at Valentim de Carvalho (Rua do Carmo; tel. 21/324-15-70), the best music store in Lisbon.
The Portuguese film industry is barely drawing a breath, but occasionally a flick will come along of worldwide interest.
Before you go you might pick up a DVD of Fados, a 2007 documentary about the soul music of the Portuguese working class. The film comes at an opportune time as fado music is enjoying a renewed vogue in the nightclubs of Portugal, with the best and most prolific number of dives located in Lisbon.
The film, written and directed by Carlos Saura, traces the birth of fado in the slums of Lisbon in the 1820s. Originally, the music expressed the longing for the homelands of the immigrants who had settled into Lisbon from far-flung Portuguese colonies. Fado also sang of lost loves and unfulfilled hopes. The film pays particular homage to the late Amália Rodrigues, greatest of all fadistas.