I spend a lot of time poring over Salt of Portugal, a blog about all things Portugal with a heavy focus on food and wine. This morning, I stumbled upon a beautiful, concise description of memorable, gritty Porto, coupled with an adorable and fitting ink sketch of the port city. Of course, nostalgia kicked in and I began to reminisce about my long weekend in Porto with my pastry-eating, sightseeing partner in crime, and decided that my next post would have to be about my suggestions for the city that seamlessly blends old and new, and throws in some port wine and world-class pastries for good measure. Enjoy my recommendations for elegant, cutting-edge Porto!
The Sights. There’s a lot of competition on the Iberian Peninsula for world-renowned sightseeing, with Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, and Granada, and Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, among other gems. What I love about Porto is that there is plenty to keep a history buff interested, but a traveler looking more for atmosphere than a laundry list of historical landmarks will appreciate Porto just as much. The classy São Bento Train Station is a perfect introduction to the city if you’re arriving by train—if you arrive by plane like I did, it’s worth a special trip to see the azulejo tiles that adorn the walls. If those blue-and-white beauties strike a chord, make sure you make time for a few leisurely strolls throughout the city to admire the various tiles that cover the side of buildings.
The Sé do Porto, the city’s cathedral, is a treat even for people that are tired of churches (and come on, it’s free to enter). Adjacent to the church is a jumble of street art and cafes welcoming your tired legs, all topped with a view below of the Douro River. Take time to stroll through the city’s other plazas and side streets, or to make the pilgrimage across the Dom Luis I Bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia just across the water from Porto. Hint: Vila Nova de Gaia is where most of the port wine “caves” are, if you needed motivation to cross to the other side (more on port wine later).
Harry Potter fans can add Porto to their list of witch-and-wizard pilgrimages; JK Rowling lived in Porto for a short time, and it’s easy to pick up on bits and pieces of her life there that she incorporated into the books. Most notably, high school students in Porto wear a snappy dress uniform to school that even includes capes! No Harry Potter-inspired itinerary of the city should omit Livraria Lello & Irmão, a regal bookstore where Rowling supposedly spent a great deal of time writing and soaking in the atmosphere—some say it may even be the inspiration for the wizarding world’s Flourish & Blott’s. Take one look at the grand, sweeping staircase and you’ll understand why she found it a perfect place to soak in inspiration.
Of course, there’s an endless list of sights to see in Porto, but I had to free up plenty of time for the food and drink, which leads us to…
The Food. Self-proclaimed foodies will revel in Porto’s emerging culinary scene—two clients at work traveled about a year ago and had a dinner reservation at a fancy up-and-coming eatery for every night of their stay. If your wallet is a little lighter, like mine perpetually seems to be, Porto won’t disappoint either. A Sandeira do Porto, not far from Praça da Liberdade, was a cute, cozy start to our culinary adventures. The inexpensive, vegetarian-friendly menu features sandwiches, soups, and a few tasty desserts and drinks, all served up by friendly faces (most of whom speak great English, if Portuguese isn’t one of your talents).
Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, as evidenced by its inclusion on my Top 5 Travel Bites post, is the place I go in my dreams for sweet treats and desserts baked to perfection. Sometimes I can’t even believe I got to go there in real life. Based on a tip from a friend in Madrid, Andrea and I battled the rain and chill to be welcomed into this warm, friendly bakery known for its dozens of variations of mini eclairs. Though we started out timid, with just a coffee and a mini éclair each, Andrea and I became more and more brazen each visit (and there were many, many visits). By the end, I had tasted more than a few Portuguese baked treats, including the classic bolas de Berlim, perfect, delicate donuts filled with pastry cream and dusted with powdered sugar. And as I mentioned in my Travel Bites post, our adorable waiter definitely didn’t detract from our cheerful reflections of the place.
The Libations. Porto, unsurprisingly, is the home of port wine, that divisive nectar that people seem to either hate or love. Nestled into the hills of Vila Nova de Gaia, you can find hidden little port wine cellars, most of which offer inexpensive tastings and tours of their grounds. Big names include Sandeman’s, Graham’s, Ferreira, and Croft, but a friend recommended Taylor’s Port Cellars as a perfect spot to take a tour, enjoy a tasting, and all for just 5€. I loved learning about the process of making port wine and why it tastes the way it does (it’s fortified with brandy before it’s finished fermenting, helping the grapes keep some of their sweetness)— the Taylor website has a great page here fully explaining the process, if your interest is piqued. Our only mistake was not reserving a spot on the tour ahead of time, but even though the English tour had already departed, we got two spots on the Spanish tour and got to learn about wine and practice our Spanish all in one afternoon! While you’re in Vila Nova de Gaia, take time to wander– maybe not as long as we did, because we got really lost—but there are some gorgeously neglected doorways and tiled walls in the winding streets on the other side of the Douro.
After you wander all day, you’ll need a place to catch some Zs…
The Digs. For upscale travelers, your best bet is the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas, where most clients from my job stay when visiting Porto. The Palacio das Cardosas is a member of the Virtuoso network of luxury hotels and it’s strategically located on the Praça da Liberdade, a perfect location from which to explore Porto. For travelers on a bit of a shoestring budget, I personally loved Tattva Design Hostel. Portuguese hostels are known for being head-and-shoulders above others in Europe, and Tattva is no exception; the lobby, common areas, and rooms are all super stylish and comfortable, and each bed has a curtain that you can draw across at night (a big deal to me, because my #1 complaint about hostels is that people can watch me sleep). To top it all off, the exterior of the hostel is decorated with Portuguese azulejo tiles that give it a quintessentially Portuguese feel. I still remember walking out onto my room’s balcony in the morning admiring the quiet street below.
Have you visited Porto? Did I leave anything out that you think needs to be included? Let me know in the comments!
Livraria Lello & Irmão, R. das Carmelitas 144, Porto 4050, +351.222.002.037, http://www.livrarialello.pt/en.
A. Sandeira do Porto, Rua dos Caldeireiros 85, Porto, +322.214.171.1241, http://www.asandeira.pt.
Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, Praça Guilherme Gomes Fernandes 47, 4050 Porto, +351.222.004.303, http://leitariadaquintadopaco.pt.
Taylor’s Port Cellars, Rua do Choupelo 250, 4400 Porto, +351.223.742.800, http://taylor.pt/en/visit-taylors/port-cellars/.
InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas, Praça da Liberdade 25, 4000 Porto, +351.220.035.600, http://www.ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/us/en/porto/prtha/hoteldetail.
Tattva Design Hostel Porto, R. do Cativo 26, 4000 Porto, +351.220.944.622, http://tattvadesignhostel.com.