Recently I took a trip to Portugal. After traveling around the cold and gray northern parts of Europe most of the winter, I started daydreaming about warmer places where I could thaw out and get some sun. Many of my friends who had been there before said it was a really nice country, so after a quick look on Skyscanner I found a cheap flight from Paris to the northern Portuguese city of Porto. As I got on the plane, I realized I really didn’t know anything about the city other than that it’s the place where port wine is produced and stored. With this I didn’t have a lot of other expectations, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would fall in love with Porto (and Portugal)!
My visit was fairly brief–only three days–and I regret not staying a few extra. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Portugal, I found it rather small with a lot of charm and a very relaxing atmosphere. Being situated on a river near the coast, the city is surrounded by water and so there is that hint of fragrance from the sea in the air. The smell of fresh cooking from somewhere within the colorful homes lining the steep, tiny streets was also everywhere. The sound of seagulls, church bells ringing in the distance, and cars driving over cobblestone roads were constantly filling your ears. Everywhere you look, there is something beautiful or interesting around the corner. I was constantly wide-eyed the whole time I was there, letting my senses take everything in.
The people of Porto were also so warm and friendly. Being so far away from the rest of Europe, I thought it would be a little difficult with the language barrier, but I was surprised to find that a lot of people actually speak really decent English! Especially younger people, some of which had perfect American or British accents, making it really easy to communicate with some of the locals. The pace of life for people in this city is also very relaxed and easy going. Unlike me, who is a notoriously fast walker, no one is in a rush to get anywhere. People take their time.
Despite being a small city, there is a fair amount to do and see here. Getting around to most places can be done by foot, although they do have a good tram and bus system to get you to places farther out from the historic city center. Here are some of the things I liked most about Porto:
One of my rules of thumb to determining how nice a city is by the amount of parks it has. I like my cities green, with lots of places you can “get away” from the urban jungle and escape to a small patch of nature. Porto has just that, with some beautifully landscaped parks. One of the best ones I thought was Jardins do Palacio de Christal, which was decorated with lots of local and exotic flora. The views of the river and city are pretty outstanding from there as well! The gardens at the Contemporary Arts Museum (Fundação De Serralves) has an entry fee (included with the price of the museum), but is also very nice place to walk through.
The most thing that Porto is known for is it’s famous port wine. Port is a very sweet, fortified wine that comes in quite a few varieties, and is a must try when in Porto. Just across the river from Porto city center is the city of Gaia, home of several different wine cellars and producers. You can make a whole day going from cellar to cellar and trying all the different wines. Taylor’s offers a very nice tour of their cellars for just €5 and you can learn about the whole wine making process. It also includes 3 different wine tastings, which you can enjoy out on their terrace that overlooks the city (seen above). I went to a few different cellars, but Taylor’s was the best one I thought. Another producer, Graham’s, is also a nice spot for wine tasting and they also have an outdoor deck with nice views of the city and river. If you have the time, you can even take a tour to the beautiful Duoro Valley region, to the east from Porto where you can see where all the grapes are grown and harvested.
Aside from wine, the food in Porto (and Portugal in general) is splendid and very cheap. You can try Francesinha, a typical Porto dish which is sort of like a meat sandwich covered with cheese, an egg, and sauce, at any cafeteria. A good spot for cheap eats in the city center is a little café called Badalhoca. Most dishes (about €2-€3) are served like tapas and consist of meat or seafood. It’s best to come with friends and order a few dishes to share. Afterwards you can get something sweet and head over to Santinis for some really good ice cream!
If it’s a Monday evening, you can head down to the old district of Rebeira on the riverfront. It’s where all the young people go to socialize and have cheap drinks and baldes (buckets) for only a few euros. Seeing the city from the river at night is also really beautiful!
Kind of an offbeat thing to see, but something really worth going to is the Lello & Irmao bookstore located near the city center. It has to be the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen–also known as the Harry Potter library (you’ll find out why when you see it). It’s a small shop, but the décor and atmosphere is amazing with a beautifully carved staircase connecting the first and second floors. There is a small English section for non-Portuguese readers, and your €3 entry ticket can go toward getting a discount if you buy a book!
Not only is Porto a river town, but is also blessed with several beaches that face west, making it a perfect place to watch the sun set over the ocean. There is a really nice coastal walk you can do all along the beach area on the north side of the river that makes its way down the coast and along the river back into Porto, with a fortress you can see along the way. Getting to the beach can be done by bus or even better, by trolley car, and only costs a couple euros. Farther north of Porto I heard there are also some good surf spots as well.
Many buildings are decorated with colorful ceramic facades, which is really unique to Portugal. Even the sidewalks are pretty, made out of small black and white stone tiles in a mosaic-like fashion. Closer to the city center you can get lost wandering around the steep and narrow streets, past old churches and little shops. Unlike Lisbon, which suffered heavy damage from a massive earthquake a while back and had to be rebuilt, Porto’s buildings are mostly original and well-preserved. This gives the city a very old and rustic feel, which adds so much to its charming atmosphere. It’s a very pretty and well-designed city.
Situated on steep cliffs and hills next to the river, Porto is a very picturesque city (how many times have I said this already?) There are so many places in the city you can find with sweeping vistas, especially from the famous bridge in the middle of the city, Ponte de San Luis.
It may have been all the wine I drank or maybe just the relaxed vibes as I made my way through the city, but I can say Porto is one of those special places that I’ve really fallen in love with and can see myself coming back here again. If I was Portuguese I would definitely live here!