If Porto were the first, or only, stop on our 2019 travel itinerary, it would have been a different experience.
Many guidebooks recommend a couple of days there, three at the most. But after walking 550 miles on the Camino de Santiago and being a nomad in France and Spain during September and October of 2019, J’Nell and I booked one full week in Porto (November 4-11). We were looking forward to slowing down and enjoying some amorphous wandering within the confines of the city.
Compact and easy to navigate, Porto is bursting with restaurants, shops, bars, wineries, churches, cultural spots, charming streets, hills, and vistas. If you are strategic and ambitious, I’m sure you could cover what we did in less than half the time. But without a ticking clock, it was so nice we didn’t have to.
We got rained on more than we would have liked, and the city might be more enjoyable with temperatures in the 70s/80s instead of the 50s/60s we got. But for me, I’d rather travel anywhere in Europe during the late fall or early winter and sacrifice better weather for less crowds. And of course, you can never let the elements get in the way of a good time.
For our accommodations, we booked an Airbnb on Rua Catarina just past the shopping district. On a return trip I would stay closer to the river, but we really enjoyed the modern one-bedroom apartment we rented (that had a washer/dryer), and it was easy to reach anywhere in the city from there. It was also stumbling distance to what would end up being two of my favorite bars (I’ll cover that in my next post).
We would spend almost the whole month of November in Portugal, and while every place we went was phenomenal, J’Nell and I both agreed Porto was our favorite. Adding to the fun was our great friend Jeremy, who we met on the Camino, joined us for most of our week. It felt like, as Robert Earl Keen sings, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends”….
Here are some of my favorite memories (not ranked in any particular order).
1. The Ribeira Side of the Douro River:
While I love the ocean, I’m a sucker for places that accentuate both sides of a river location. I grew up just outside of Boston and lived in the city for a number of years. I experienced first-hand what the symbiotic relationship between Boston, the Charles, and Cambridge can do to your soul, and I am keen to appreciate something similar when I travel. In Europe there are lots to choose from, such as London, Paris, Rome, and Budapest just to name a few.
Porto is right up there with any of those places.
On our second day J’Nell and I got to stroll along the river, and it might have been the nicest weather we had the whole week. I remember my first glimpse of the Douro. There were boats cruising up and down the river, the sun sparkling on it and the clouds reflecting on the surface, the port wineries on the other side, and a bustling scene ahead. I was captivated.
The wrought-iron Dom Luis I Bridge, looking like a cousin to the Eiffel Tower, stretched upward more than a hundred feet at the end of the promenade. Cafes and shops were packed into every nook and cranny, and houses rose above those businesses along the hill. There were musicians singing and strumming guitars, and lots of people reveling in this fun atmosphere.
After taking some photos, we sat down at Café do Cais and basked riverside in the sun with a glass of Vinho Verde, an effervescent white wine that is magical. In my last post I talked about how sick I was the day before when we took the bus to Porto, so in that moment I felt incredibly lucky to there instead of ill in bed. My goal that afternoon had been to just make it to the river, but now there, I was going to savor it and keep on exploring.
2. The Vila Nova de Gaia Side of the River and Port Wine Tasting:
We would make several trips to the Gaia side, some just J’Nell and I and a couple times with Jeremy. Spending time there might be my top experience in Porto.
The first winery we visited, Burmester, is just to the left once you cross the bridge. Dating back to 1750, you can feel the history the moment you step inside the darkened room with the old stone walls, wood beamed ceiling, and gigantic wine barrels on display. We each tasted three different Ports (all outstanding), and then left to watch the purple glow of dusk with the lights from both sides of the river twinkling on the water.
With Jeremey a couple days later, we would also taste at Quevedo as well as Porto Cruz. Quevedo is small, family-run, and tucked away from the river in a cool, nondescript building; a free glass of port comes with the price of the cable car/gondola ride that we purchased, and it was very good. Porto Cruz is a large operation with several floors to the winery, and we tasted three different delightful offerings and also took in the panorama views from their roof deck.
On a different day, J’Nell and I would do a full tour of the cellars and a special reserve tasting at Cockburns, which was established in 1815 (for those with juvenile humor, it’s actually pronounced with the “ck” silent). While walking through those dark, cavernous rooms we got to see a group of traditional folk singers and dancers in costume (it was for a private event), and also learned how the coopers make and fix the wine barrels (the average age of them are around 60 years, and there are ones over a hundred!). The vintage wine we sampled was exceptional, and it was paired with different delicious cheeses.
Afterward we would make our way to Graham’s, one of the most famous wineries in Porto, that has been in business since 1820. It had begun to rain while we were meandering through the narrow roads up on the hill, and we weren’t even sure if it would be open. It was just after 5 pm when we arrived wet and a little cold, and thankfully the good people at Graham’s welcomed us in for an excellent tasting. J’Nell and I would leave just as a dream-like fog rolled in, and with the lights twinkling on the river, we made our way back to the Porto side.
3. Duoro River Cruise:
After J’Nell, Jeremey, and I had a port day-drinking adventure in in Vila Nova de Gaia, we almost jumped on one of the boats that will take you up and down the river. To our chagrin we learned they don’t serve any booze on board, so we decided to nix it for another time (no need to waste a perfectly good buzz). We met up with Jeremy on the Porto side the next morning, and the sun shined brightly during our lovely cruise on the Douro.
4. The Gondola Ride (called a cable car in Porto) to the Luis Bridge:
We read it was overpriced and a short trip … and I’m not going to argue with either of those complaints. But I will say that I enjoyed the hell out of it and I would definitely do it again. And if you needed another reason, it also comes with a free glass of port for crying-out-loud.
5. Crossing or Looking at the Ponte Dom Luis I on Either Side of the Duoro:
Designed by Théophile Seyrig, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, and completed in 1886, the iron arched bridge is an architectural masterpiece. We crossed under it several times to go Port tasting on the Gaia side, but the only time we walked over the top was after the gondola/cable car ride. It’s a visual stunner, and wonderful from any vantage point in Porto.
6. Sao Bento Train Station:
The 1916 train station was the first cultural attraction we visited in Porto. Actually, the first place we toured there was the temporary Bolhão Market. Both J’Nell and I love big city markets such as the Tsukij in Tokyo, the Central Market in Budapest, and the Mercato Centrale in Florence. And I’m sure once the 1914 building of the Bolhão is restored to its original grandeur, it will be amazing. But for now the temporary one is housed in the basement of a modern shopping mall, and while worth a visit, was not a highlight of the trip.
Sao Bento, however, was as good as advertised.
The day before we had gotten our first look at Porto’s iconic blue and white azulejo tiles on the façade of the Capela (chapel) das Almas while walking to our Airbnb. There, the show is on the outside and the inside is just your average church. The train station was the opposite, boasting a classical façade and an interior brimming with azulejos that are epic pieces of art telling grand stories.
It’s also a full functioning place of transit, and I have to wonder if it will remain so or if in the future will be turned into an art museum like the Orsay in Paris. Even though it was early November,and not the high tourist season of summer, I was a bit surprised there were so many people there taking photos. I think we must have just hit it that first day at a bad time, because we went again later in the week and it was much quieter.
But regardless of the amount of people in the space, Sao Bento is a must visit in Porto.
7. The Look & Feel of the City
While I’ve touched on it above, I’ll close out this post with more notes on why Porto is just so enchanting.
It’s the dichotomy between the stately buildings on the Paris-like Avenue dos Aladios, and the delightfully rundown ones on the Rua da Fabrica. It’s the azulejo tiles projecting a portal to the past, and not just on the churches and sites like Sao Bento, but on homes and businesses such as the yellow façade of A Peroia do Bolhao and so many others scattered about. Then there’s the sidewalks, with their black and white tiles and intricate mosaic designs making you feel as if you’re strolling on artwork. It’s the river, the hills, the modern murals, the historic trams, and of course the people, who are extremely welcoming and friendly. And it’s much more …
Stay Tuned for Part Two ….