We arrived in Porto one early April morning in our winter coats, to discover that it was a searing 30C degrees. Porto is one of the most pleasurable cities ever to wander. It is hilly, make no mistake, but the streets in the centre are narrow, cobbled and virtually car free. Lined with small, independent artisan shops, bars and restaurants they are a joy to walk. You are up and down constantly, with the hill top Cathedral and San Bento Station as high points to look out for above the rooftops.
There is a draw down to the river banks which are bustling with activity and flanked on both sides by brightly coloured tall town houses with bars and restaurants. The iconic double decker Ponte Luis I bridge is quick to cross and we enjoyed a fabulous meal in Vila Nova da Gaia (south bank) looking back across to the the main city. On the southern bank we ate at the popular taberna, Taberninha do Manel, packed with locals where we sampled the petiscos (tapas style dishes) of Porto specialties such as crab cakes, clams and octopus salad. We also sampled the Porto speciality version of a croque monsieur, the Franchesina: a toasted / fried cheese, ham, sausage and steak sandwich topped with a fried egg in a tomato sauce (you seriously won’t need another meal that day!) as we watched the boats cruise by. We wandered on, shopping in the riverside market stalls and then jumped on an hour long river cruise which took us under the six distinctive bridges which span the river from just inland from Porto to the coast. It was a joy to see Porto from the water and a photographers paradise.
Porto is where port was exported from and the historic port lodges are set back from the south bank of the river in Vila Nova Da Gaia – rising up the hill side and visible with their iconic advertising signs. A visit to one of them is obligatory and we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours on the Taylor’s tour. It was fascinating and informative and ended with a port tasting where we sampled white port, tawny port and reserve port. We had been port fans before but by the end we were totally hooked and also became great fans of ‘port-tonic’, the local version of gin and tonic – this is the evening aperitif mixing white port with tonic water.
Porto is teaming with religious buildings to visit. We saw the cathedral, the Se do Porto, in its impressive hilltop site and the stupendously decorated Sao Francisco whose drab exterior hides its magnificent interior treasures. We climbed the Clerigos Tower near our hotel and admired the aerial view of the city it gave, down the Douro Valley and back out to sea, and inside we admired the many evocative paintings of the city in its museum. We spent time wandering the area around our hotel and near the university. There we found the bookshop, Livraria Lello, with its fantastical staircase which is famed to have inspired JK Rowling to write the Harry Potter books. The Sao Bento station is also home to amazing Azulejos (tiles) on the exterior and main ticket hall. Porto is also great for shopping – as well as food goodies to take home (Cheese and port), we brought back local tiles to use as coasters, deliciously scented soaps from Cluas Porto in Rus des Flores and some lovely pottery bowls.
We took the 1940s Public Tram out to the beach at Foz do Douro on our last day and wandered along the coastline before stopping for one of the most atmospheric lunches ever. Our restaurants was overlooking the sea and by the side of the historic tram line. We ate fried baby squid, courgettes, doughnuts of soft cheese and walnuts, and octopus stew, sitting overlooking the sea, with a vintage tram chuntering slowly past, a matter of feet away.
Our hotel was the beautifully elegant and historic Infante Sagres set back from the river in the Baixa district. Built as the original 5* property in Porto it had hosted Queen Elizabeth on occasions and had a great rooftop terrace, with pool, and shady interior courtyard. The location was unbeatable, on the edge of the old city, close enough to the river but also easy walk from the main market and station.
While Northern Portugal has lots of hearty stews, fish and seafood was generally the order of the day We ate so much cod over those days – plentiful and fresh it was cooked in all manner of ways. For instance with a traditional cabbage and potatoes dish at the famous, Cantinho do Avillez, where we ate the first night. One night we ate at Ostras et Coisas seafood restaurant where we literally feasted on oysters, prawns and remarkable Barnacles – a truly memorable meal. We ate in the main food market, Mercado do Bolhao – choosing tins of sardines from a stall (which also sold baccala by the kilo) to open and eat with bread and an array of local cheeses in the market space.
It was altogether the most perfect city break. Easy tourism full of surprises, sights, clement weather and the best food and drink – spending locally on, mainly, independent suppliers. I am planning to return and to combine it with a stay further up the river Douro to stay at a vineyard estate to discover where the port journey begins.