Portugal, it’s been too long. Years ago I stayed in Lisbon for a single night, en-route to spend a few days in the Algarve. The Algarve, as impressive as the coastline was, didn’t do enough for me to tempt me back, yet Lisbon left me longing for more. Sure, if I’m honest with myself, I could admit that the main catalyst for my return to Portugal was to eat an unhealthy amount of natas, but it sure helped that I scored a pair of cheap flights to Portugal’s northern city and I knew there was a good chance of sun for my winter trip.
Still, Porto was somewhere that draws a good crowd, though it remains (rather unfairly, as I’d discover) eclipsed by the strong popularity of Lisbon. I won’t sit here and compare the two cities, but I loved Porto’s authentic-vibe; the fact that it was a little rough around the edges made the city all the more appealing. Porto was also ridiculously gorgeous, but it sure as hell makes you work for the views though; I challenge you to find a section of flat ground in this city! I was rightly warned to bring a trusty pair of sturdy shoes for the trip.
So what can you find to do in Porto, and why is Porto the perfect winter city break?
I made a glorious mistake in failing to realise that we landed in Porto in the morning rather than later on in the day, which left us with a full day of exploring ahead of us. With a late check-in scheduled at our apartment, we booked ourselves onto a free walking tour with Porto Walkers which was the best way to find out more about this curious little city.
It might have been the contrast of coming from a frosty London, but straight away I warmed to the sunny colourful facades, bright orange roofs and of course, the Azulejo-adorned walls of the old town. Everything about Porto was friendly, safe and super welcoming!
Crossing over the Douro River,
the Dom Luis I Bridge and the Old Town
The walking tour took us through the town and out towards the river to show us the most famous sight in Porto; the Dom Luis I Bridge. Designed by Seyrig, business partner of Gustav Eiffel (yes, you might have heard of him!), the construction was the longest metal bridge in the world when it was completed in 1886. Eiffel then went on to work on the project that he gave his name to, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which shares a similar aesthetic. Now, the bridge has two levels – the lower carries traffic, and the trams and pedestrians take the top deck, and this is where we found some of the best views in Porto!
We also dipped into the winding streets of the old town. Historically these parts of Porto close to the river was thought to be a more undesirable district due to increased risk of flooding, but nowadays it’s a haven of Airbnb’s and younger residents are said to be moving back, as tourists and locals start to appreciate it’s undeniable charm. Our tour guide also promised us some of Porto’s best chocolate cake, which can be found halfway down, so we all hoped it was worth traversing the age old stone stairways and risking a twisted ankle for. Our tour group included a couple from Switzerland and a couple from Belgium, so our tour guide knew he had a tough crowd to win over when it came to make bold claims about the ‘best chocolate cake’, but we knew we were on to something special when the sweet and powerful aroma of melting chocolate wafted up the alleyway.
The chocolate cake creator was a lady called Teresa who doesn’t ordinarily open up her kitchen to passing trade but has an agreement with the Porto Walkers tours to share her desserts, and we can be forever grateful that she does. Was it incredible? YES. Did it receive the Swiss and Belgian stamp of approval? Of course. Is it okay that I still dream about that rich gooey slice of chocolate heaven?
The tour took us through one of my favourite buildings in the city – the train station, Porto São Bento. Known for it’s elaborate azulejo (decorated tiles) depicting stories from Porto, our guide also explained how the site itself has a complex history, and a potentially a resident ghost haunting the tracks!
Before the train station was built, a convent stood on the site. It was decided that the city wanted the location to develop a station to help the city. As you can imagine, the nuns that lived there weren’t too pleased to hear that their home was planned to be destroyed and refused to leave, so to help with their plans a law was passed to stop new nuns joining the convent; just wait until they die out and seize the site, I guess! Well, as it happens the last nun standing was a stubborn soul and didn’t pass away until around 58 years later and it was only then that the city could start work on the train station. So yeah, guess whose spirit is said to float about the platforms?
It wasn’t just the train station that was the only stunning part of the city; up each hill and around every corner was another fine example of Porto’s gorgeous architecture, from each church or palace, to each shop or apartment, every street was crammed with colour and ornate detail, which ensured that sightseeing was a never ending quest.
Some little quirks we discovered were the presence of red phone boxes! Known for being native to England, it was a little reminder of the strong Portuguese-British links.
And a little something for Harry Potter fans visiting Porto; make sure you head over to Livraria Lello bookshop, which is said to have been the inspiration for Hogwarts library. As I understand, its a tenuious link, but entirely possible as JK Rowling lived and worked in Porto in the 90s! Regardless, it’s a stunning location, with a gorgeous sweeping forked staircase. Though be warned that the bookstore is a super popular destination, and the atmosphere will be less ‘hush’ and more hurried; dodging out the way for dozens of selfie-takers.
There’s also no way I’m writing this post without mentioning Pastel de nata, which are thankfully as easy to get in Porto as they were in Lisbon and the Algarve. We got them at local bakeries and independent cafes, but my favourite chain-brand for these moreish Portuguese tarts was Fábrica da Nata, on Rua de Santa Catarina, Portos main shopping street.
Porto’s Riverside: Cais de Ribeira
It doesn’t take much to keep me happy; glass of port in hand, petiscos peppering the table, the winter sun encouraging the freckles out from hibernation and one of the most romantic views in Porto! In February, we were just about in light-jacket and t-shirt weather and the city’s Ribeira district was the perfect place to enjoy some of the best views in the city, underneath the Dom Luis I Bridge and dine al-fresco at some of the river-side bars, cafes and restaurants.
In any other European city, these amazing views would come with a price and I was fully expecting to have to dig deep and pay a premium, however, as our walking tour guide explained, ‘tourist’ prices haven’t hit the city just yet, and although tourism is very much welcomed here in Porto (the relatively new low-cost airline routes have seen tourist numbers rocket and the city is reaping the benefits of this), It’s still very much a city for the locals and that is actually wonderfully refreshing.
We made sure we had dinner one night by the river, to sample the classic Porto dish; a Francesinha. Almost exclusively from this area of Portugal, Porto’s signature dish is not for anyone seeking a ‘light bite’. In short, the Francesinha is all my favourite foods, mashed together in one meal, in an over-size portion; ham, sausage and steak, sandwiched between bread, draped in cheese, topped with a fried egg, drizzled in spicy tomato-beer sauce and served with a heavy-handed side of French fries. As dishes go, the Francesinha is almost the anti-Instagram meal; there’s nothing pretty about this carb-mountain of beige, but, taste-wise, I couldn’t fault it and it defeated me! It’s history is a little interesting; it’s name translates as ‘French woman’, or ‘Frenchie’, and based loosely around a kind of croque monsieur. There are a few slightly differing versions told of how and why it was created, but it was a Portuguese emigrant who lived in France developed this mildly spicy, mighty sandwich, as a tribute to the French women but also so the Portuguese women would try it, get hot, drink more and shed clothes… (!)
Most of the restaurants down by the river-side will offer this dish as part of their menu, but if you only try one, make sure you head up hill to Café Santiago, which is said to cook up one of the best Francesinha’s in Porto.
From the Cais de Ribeira you can also take a boat trip down the Douro River, or if you’re like us, skip the boat tours and just whittle the hours away as you thumb your way through a port wine menu as the sun goes down.
Cross over & Visit a Port Wine Cellar
If we want to get super technical about it, the next thing that i’m going to recommend is actually located across the bridge in Vila Nova de Gaia, rather than Porto, but considering that the port wine cellars can be reached by a ten minute stroll across the river and that no-one cares about technicalities when you’re on your fifth glass of port that day, we’ll let this slide.
Port is born in the Douro Valley and shipped down river to mature in the cellars. Gaia’s river front is dominated by the various Port companies, who own their own Port Cellars, (you can’t miss the gigantic Hollywood style lettering littering the Gaia side of the valley) so we were quite overwhelmed with choice. When we asked our hotel to recommend one, they insisted that we should visit Caves Ferreira which is the only one that remained in Portuguese ownership. Unfortunately, unbeknown to them, that particular cellar was closed for refurbishment works so we booked on an English tour at Porto Calem, one of the first cellars you reach when you come off the bridge. As far as I can grasp, most of the Port Cellars will offer similar tours in various languages, where you’ll be shown around the cellars with a guide, and finish off with a port tasting; winner!
Our guide explained about the different types of port; Ruby, Tawny, White and Rose, what typical flavours we should expect from each of these, and what it means by vintage, late bottled vintage, single or blend. Then after showing us around the cellars and pointing out the various barrels where the port was busy aging we were taken upstairs to a stylish bar area for our port tasters! My favourite? The tawny ports; spicy with cinnamon tones!
So, I always judge a place on if I would ever return, and Porto certainty cemented itself firmly within that category. It’s gorgeous and authentic, super affordable and for me, where food is definitely a way to my heart, Porto ‘got’ me. I’d me more than content with another week of port sipping and nata munching my way around this fantastic city. So, it’ll be a ‘see you later’ Porto, I’ll be back!
Have you ever been to Porto, or elsewhere in Portugal? Anywhere you’d recommend for a winter city break?