Having lived here briefly and traveled many times over. I can be anywhere in Portugal and still be delightfully fascinated. This country has regions with its own distinct landscape, gastronomy and taste of architecture. Portugal is a small country but that never hindered the big bold ambition to divide half the world for them and they have succeeded at that time. The land conquest was long over and presently replaced by a tourism conquest and they are succeeding again.
The north of the country’s largest city is Porto and let’s begin here. The city of Porto brims with old-century charm and modern coolness. Walking in the old town felt like walking back in time. The centuries to decades of change can be clearly seen in its buildings. The climate provides a Mediterranean diet, the world renowned Port wine and a gastronomy that had been proven for over a millennia that will satisfy every palate. Voted recently as the Best European Destination, it isn’t hard to understand why. You’ve got the Douro River on one side, the Atlantic coast a few kilometres away, a global city built on slopes with a historical core listed as a World Heritage Site and with locals who can speak English, French, Italian, German and Spanish as a bonus (this is helpful to non-Portuguese speaking tourists).
How to get here:
European budget airlines, TAP and Portugalia fly to and fro Porto. If coming from abroad, multiple airlines or stop overs is always the case. The city metro and taxis are present in the airport arrivals. There are also long distance buses that can be taken from Spain to Porto. Cruise ships have also arrived in Porto.
Where to go and what to see:
The first point would be the historical core of Baixa then downhill to Ribeira and the Douro River. At present, Ribeira and the Douro accommodates mainly to tourists with its new hotels, alfresco cafes and restaurants. Souvenir stalls have sprung everywhere embracing the Porto and Portuguese traditions.
Chill out by this area and have some vinho verde ( a young wine produce in the Northern region of the country) or an espresso. Marvel at the dominating view of Dom Luís I Bridge which had been designed by Gustave Eiffel who designed the famous Eiffel tower in Paris.
Across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, are the inviting Port wine cellars. Do the port wine tasting here. There are so many cellars to choose from and each with their own different character but equally delivering top quality wines and one cellar had claimed it is “famous for pleasure”. Follow your wine taste and senses! Sit out in the sun and take some time to soak in the view of Ribeira from the opposite side if the river. Going back, you might fancy seeing everything from the top or through the bridge.
The rabelo boats will catch your eye. Tied to their jetties, they were once used to transport the oak barrels of wine. Now they serve the purpose of displaying its old glory and carrying tourist to and fro the river for an informative cruise in different languages.
Porto’s down town or commonly known as Baixa is the epicentre of culture, arts, music, academe, commerce, night life, food and colours. Quaint buildings covered in azulejos are a curious sight. Some old colourful buildings had been renovated and its spaces were refurbished with a modern look. The contrasting of old and new and putting them together is what this city is all about.
More walking tour…
Start your journey on foot in Avenida dos Aliados. Go northeast to find fresh Portuguese produce in Mercado do Bolhão and shop along the entire pedestrian lane of Rua de Santa Caterina. Make sure you try some egg tarts and coffee in one of the many cafes along or in the elegant Majestic café. Then come down again and head east and up Rua Clerigos where more things of interest awaits like the Torre dos Clerigos, Praca de Lisboa, Livraria Lello & Irmaos, Universidade do Porto and its surrounds. I guarantee you will stop and shop along the way. Baixa have areas of steep streets with cobbled granites so ladies consider that before wearing heels.
Beach breaks in Matosinhos attract locals and tourists alike to surf. Surf schools are dotted along the beach. Families enjoy walks and picnics in Parque da Cidade. Take a break on one of the sunny cafes along the beach area of Foz. With some ambient music and the ocean view in Foz, it’s not hard to be disarmed. I suggest waiting for the Atlantic sunset on one of the cafes on the beach. The coral skies bring some romantic warmth to the chilly breeze.
If you are driving, start in Casa da Musica and drive down Avenida da Boavista. Casa da Musica (House of Music) is both a venue for indoor and outdoor musical performances. Its geometric structure is a stark contrast to its surroundings. This is also where people meet up and the “skate park” of the city. The Serralves is your museum dose and is along Avenida da Boavista. At the end of this avenue, turn left to Foz and continue your way back to Ribeira. At night, the lights from the bridges and surrounds are stunning.
Dá-me o verão! Give me summer!
In summer, countless concerts and stage performances happen in city squares anywhere. Festival months run from June through to September when the nights can be quite warm if you’re lucky with the heat wave and you can drink a cold beer wearing summer clothes. The city’s night life starts at midnight and goes on til late the next day so I suggest you prepare for this. It revolves around the areas of Galeria de Paris, Cândido dos Reis and Conde de Vizela. You can buy drinks from kiosks outside the bars like a delicious caiprinha ( a Brazilian cocktail). There are so many cool bars and clubs dotted around Baixa to suit your mood. Yes, you can drink outdoors.
Portuguese cooking is about bringing out the flavour of the fish or meat with the use of their staple ingredients. This country has top quality produce for less. They use liberal amounts olive oil, garlic, onion, bay leaf, vinho, presunto or a regional chouriço to the rice, stew or whatever it is and they cook up something very tasty. Looking back into their prominent spice trade centuries ago, they have brought in so many flavours from their exploration that this had been incorporated in the Portuguese cooking. No wonder the Portuguese gastronomy make such a food experience.
Most famously, the francesinha, Bacalhau à Brás and tripe stew are typical dishes of Porto. Tripe is the edible offal of the stomach of the butchered animal. In the 1400s, the people send the best parts of the animal to the Portuguese troops in Africa leaving the offals behind thus they needed to be creative and make a dish out of the unwanted leftovers. Doesn’t sound so appealing but the dish is otherwise!
If you want to try fast food in Portugal, head to a café and grab a chouriço and cheese bread (from regional ingredients) or to a tasca (Portuguese version of a pub)and grab some bifana (breaded pork fillet in a bun) with penalty (a small glass of house red wine). Just about every food on offer in a café or in a tasca is top notch for a few pennies plus you get to mingle with the locals. The Portuguese love their pastries and most of them are egg-based. You can’t miss those little pleasures. There’s a pasteleria in every turn. You can’t go home without having the best doces de ovos (egg sweets) and pastel de nata or famously known to the rest of the world as the “Portuguese egg tart”.
It’s effortless when choosing wine in Porto as you have the best wines on offer. Vinho verde goes well with fish and seafood. Try the Douro Valley reds with cheese and meat dishes. And of course, Port wine for an aperitif and to conclude. There are the white, ruby, tawny and rosé Port wines to choose from.
Where to stay…
This city offers a wide range of things to see and do, eat and sleep for a backpacker to a business class traveller. Accommodations range from hostels, B&Bs, hotels to luxury hotels. This is the no-brainer part of planning a trip to Porto.
Strike up some questions to locals and you’ll find some valuable answers. Like if you want to try some secret but great local eats.
The Portuguese like to say “O melhor do mundo” (The best in the world) for something they love, is passionate about and loyal to. May it be food, a place or an event. Take note when they mention the phrase and that thing could be worth a try.