- Porto’s Culinary Scene:
J’Nell and I ate very well while walking across Spain, though not all Pilgrim Meals (the 3 course menus in every town along the Camino de Santiago) were equal. Unless we were in one of big cities where we took rest days (Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, and Santiago), we didn’t have many options. However, back then, the lack of choice was actually an enjoyable part of the experience, and you were grateful for whatever you received.
In Portugal we were no longer pilgrims, and therefore we had the time and inclination to hunt for the best places to eat. And we found plenty of those everywhere we traveled, especially in Porto. Here are some of our favorites:
- Manteigaria Pasteis de Nata: This is where we first tasted the magical Portuguese breakfast treat. Walking inside, the sweet flaky pastry and coffee aromas instantly bring a smile to your face. Then you see the little pieces of goodness coming right out of the oven and you want them immediately. They are baked egg custards with powdered sugar and cinnamon (that you add yourself), and they will change your life.
- As Melhores Sandiera: We’d been in Porto almost a full day, but this was the first proper meal since I had been too sick to eat. J’Nell found this nook of a place with outstanding sandwiches during her research while I slept and recovered the evening before.
- Casa Portugesa do Pastel de Bacalhau. In the shadow of Clerigos Tower (described below), it’s a chain but a nice place to have a glass of port and sample the national dish of fried, salted cod.
- Caso do Galo: On the Gaia (port winery) side of town, we enjoyed an sumptuous cheese plate and port tasting in this amiable riverfront cafe.
- Majestic Café: The façade and interior are both Art Nouveau gems, making you think you’ve stepped into Belle Epoque Paris or Vienna. Because of its history (it opened in 1921) and cultural importance, it’s a stop most visitors make and it can be very busy. However, we went twice later in evening, and enjoyed a more relaxed experience of port and dessert.
- Bop: Hip and modern, this cozy joint features great food (the meatball sandwich and chili were excellent) and the bar is lined with hundreds of vinyl records (that you can listen to by request via headphones).
- Vila Nova de Gaia Mercado Municipal: An indoor market full of different food stalls and also has a beer bar right in the middle of it. A perfect spot to visit before or after port tastings.
- Café Santiago: Our first (and only) taste of the legendary Porto Francesinha sandwich. Jeremy was on a mission to go to this restaurant that has been open since 1959 (which he read was the best), but in the end he wasn’t a fan. J’Nell didn’t want to order what Rick Steves described as a “gut bomb” in his book. It’s made with thinly sliced deli meat, sausage, steak, and is dripping with melted cheese and covered with a special sauce. It was a monster of a sandwich and I really enjoyed it.
- Nicolau: We had a tasty brunch in a venue similar to what you might find in San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston. It was also in a hip neighborhood full of antique stores and curio shops and bookstores and lots of fun places to pop inside and check out what they are selling.
- I Loft: A swanky place that has excellent Mexican food and professional service. They have a cool cocktail scene as well, as evidenced by J’Nell’s copper pineapple beverage below.
- Douro Velho: We ate a delicious lunch with Jeremy at this old school restaurant (stone walls, wood beamed ceiling) on the Gaia side of the river, and then Nells and I had dinner there on our last night in Porto. The first visit we were beckoned inside by the older doorman/maître d. Normally I’m weary of people trying to coax you into a restaurant, but this guy was sincere and charming, and the food (I had the soup of the day and steak both times) and service were splendid.
2. Strolling the Rua de Santa Catarina:
J’Nell and I stayed at an Airbnb on this major shopping thoroughfare, and with all our walking during the week, we spent hours going up and down the Rua de Santa Catarina. The sidewalks are the cool black and white tile with various patterns, the architecture is always interesting, and a good stretch of it is closed to cars. There are also two phenomenal bars at the end of that street that I describe below.
3. The Porto Cathedral and Walk Down to the River
We’d got a good look at the fortress-like 12th Century cathedral from the river cruise, and knew we’d have to make a trip there. Jeremy, J’Nell, and I would not be disappointed by touring the grounds with its magnificent architecture and sweeping vistas. We were also treated to a ceremony featuring hundreds of motorcycle policemen that was presided over by the Bishop of Porto. We had no idea what was going on, but an intriguing spectacle.
While we didn’t go into the cathedral or the Bishop’s Palace next door (the two big attractions), when a rainstorm rushed in on us we ducked inside an 18th Century chapel that turned out to be Porto’s Camino de Santiago welcome center. For us former pilgrims that was a serendipitous surprise, and as we did throughout our hike across Spain, I got a stamp (in my journal). When the skies cleared we descended the ancient stone passageway, and savored the history and the views of the bridge and the happenings across the river.
4. Lemmo & Irmao Bookstore:
This exquisite bookstore has become a mecca for Harry Potter fans because allegedly J.K. Rowling, who worked in Porto for some time, was inspired by it. I have never read a Harry Potter book, and I don’t think J’Nell or Jeremy has either. However, the reasons for wanting to visit were simple- I love bookstores, especially ones that are imbued with history and are enchanting places.
Opened in 1906, it’s lacy and fanciful exterior is an advertisement to come inside. But as compelling it is to look at from the street, the interior is even better. All the books, the polished wood, and that winding staircase leading up to more books and a stunning stained-glass ceiling. Wow!
We had seen the lines to get in throughout the week, and as much as I love bookstores, I wasn’t sure I could brave the queue. But on the night we went, about 45 minutes before closing time, we strolled in without a wait and it wasn’t too crowded. In fact, we were one of the last ones out the door, and got some pictures sans crowd.
5. Sao Francisco Church:
After seeing all the captivating and ancient cathedrals along the Camino de Santiago, Jeremy, J’Nell and I were in agreement that we had become a bit desensitized to the wonder of them. It’s similar to visiting too many museums in a short amount of time, and it becomes overwhelming to your senses. I love churches and museums, but you can experience burnout.
While we enjoyed the facades of all the Porto cathedrals, we only went into maybe three or four of them. Sao Francisco would be the jewel of them all. It has a crypt and a nice museum, but the lavishly carved Baroque interior that sparkles with gold is the main reason to visit. You can gawk and examine the gilt for hours … however you cannot take any photos.
6, Clerigos Church & Tower:
I dig a good tower climb, be it Bunker Hill in Boston, the Duomo in Florence, or taking the stairs in the Eiffel Tower. With all of the best ones you can feel the history and culture with every step up the (usually) narrow passageway to the observation deck. They’re also great ways to get in some exercise after too much food and drink.
At nearly 250 feet high and perched on a hill with 360 degree views of the city, Clerigos is a landmark Baroque beauty. Construction of the church began in the early 18th Century, but the tower was not completed until 1763. Designed by Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, it definitely gives off a Tuscan vibe right in the heart of Porto.
On our first day of exploring, J’Nell and I snapped several pictures of the tower from different angles, and just delighted in the grandeur of the architecture. We would keep doing that throughout the trip. We would finally go to the top just before leaving town.
Jeremy, J’Nell, and I were in the midst of a fun bar crawl (which I’ll go into more detail about below) when we found ourselves climbing up a steep hill towards Clerigos Tower. Since our legs were conditioned from the tons of hills on the Camino de Santiago, the ascent didn’t bother us even after several cocktails. The tower was thankfully open when we got there, and kept walking the 200 steps to the top.
7. The Drinking Scene:
The three of us loved seeking out the many bars, wineries, cocktail lounges, cafes, and dives in Porto. Since the city is easy to navigate on foot, it’s fun to just wander its charming streets and pop into any place that looks inviting. Here are some of our favorites:
- Bar Santa Cachaca: This tiny, funky joint near the end of Rua Catarina on the outskirts of town ended up being my favorite bar in all of Portugal. The gregarious owner is from Brazil, and nearly every inch of space is covered in bric-a-brac that makes you think it’s a tiki bar mashed up with somebody’s basement or garage hangout from the 1970s. He also mixes up the best Caipirinha I’ve ever had.
- Bar of Soap: Located directly below our Airbnb, it’s a working laundromat that has a speakeasy in the back. Early on in our stay we lost power in the apartment, and we waited there for the caretakers to arrive and restore it. There were lots of expats (mostly from England), and they were all playing a board game called Secret Hitler. J’Nell and I had a lot of fun hanging out with the group and the nice bartender/ co-owner.
- Bonaparte: A British-style pub with hardwood floors that is dark, comfortable, and has just enough lantern light to inspect all its curiosities (such as dolls’ heads, puppets, old bottles, photos, a typewriter) decorating nearly the entirety of the place. A good bar to grab a bite as well.
- All the Port Wineries: I covered them in Part One, and I can’t wait to go back to Porto and visit more.
- Café do Cais: Located in the historic Ribeira neighborhood that is filled with terrific cafes. Sipping wine while looking at the sun dappled river, hearing the street performers, and smelling the food coming from the kitchen was unforgettable. We only had drinks the first time, but we would go back for a gourmet cheese and meat plate with Jeremy (and of course more wine).
- Wines of Portugal: While the Douro Valley and Porto are both renowned for its iconic port, the country produces outstanding wines of all styles and varietals from many different regions. Located on the Rua das Flores, which is traffic free and full of shops and restaurants, this bar is self-service and allows you to taste wine from throughout Portugal. You prepay for a card upon entering, and then you tap it over the wine dispenser sensors for a delicious pour of your choosing.
- The Royal Cocktail Club: The most expensive drinks we’d had since Paris, but they were top notch cocktails, the service was first class, and I enjoyed the posh vibe.
- Nortada: A no-frills modern brewpub with tasty beers and rocking, live music.
- Mini Bar: This restaurant is from local celebrity chef Jose Avillez, which upon walking inside and seeing red curtains, mirrors, and young staff bustling about, seemed too chic for the likes of us backpackers. But as all of Porto had been, we were graciously welcomed. The cocktails were innovative and flawless, and even though we weren’t dining, they gave us a delicious amuse bouche dessert that had a whimsical presentation. I honestly can’t remember the flavors, but I know we all enjoyed it and walked away impressed by the whole experience.
- The Red Kiosk Bar: I’m sure it has a name, but I haven’t been able to find it. But the location (that I deciphered from my photos) is the corner of Rua da Conceicao and Largo de Mompilher. There were a ton of people, most in their 20s, buzzing about this neighborhood and it was a fun scene. The little red and fanciful kiosk looked like it would sell tickets or could be a newsstand, but instead there’s a bartender inside slinging drinks. It was a frigid evening, but our cocktails warmed us and we were all digging our surroundings.
- Tintoreria/Conceicao 35 – A shabby-chic local’s place that we randomly stumbled into at the end of our bar crawl. We were certainly not their customary demographic, but my Manhattan was perfect and, per usual, everyone was congenial. The young people of Porto were just getting started in their partying, but this would be our nightcap.
Stayed tuned for the next post …. A Detour to Coimbra.