During the middle of our Barcelona trip we jetted off to Portugal for a change of scenery. Wanting to experience something different from another cosmopolitan city, I chose to visit Porto, after having heard classmates gush over it when we studied abroad in Europe three years ago. Not knowing much but excited to see what Portugal had to offer, we hopped on a small plane and arrived in the most scenic, beautiful town.
The taxi driver dropped us off at Largo do Professor Abel Salazar, a small square next to the University of Porto. With the help of friendly neighbors we checked into our apartment (a complete upgrade from our Barcelona hostel) and starting exploring the city on foot. We fell in love right away.
Windy little alleyways and colorful houses welcomed us as we walked up and down cobblestone roads. The site of laundry hanging off balconies of Pombaline style buildings, next to ornate cathedrals covered in geometric blue tiles was like taking a step back in time. The juxtaposition of old town charm with modern urban development fascinated me as we wandered from the newer Trindade district and monumental Praça da Liberdade to the romantic ancient Ribeira district by the banks of the Douro River. The lightrail metro was underground and convenient, as was the underground parking garages that directed vehicle traffic away from pedestrian thoroughfare. Everywhere you went there are plazas where people hang out in the evenings and enjoy a relaxing, slow-paced dinner in the company of delightful street musicians and performers.
Over the next three days we wandered around the town and stopped at every pastry shop and store that caught our eyes. The people, the food, and the sights were so lovely and underrated in every way. The salespeople (and everyone we encountered) were extremely nice and helped us correct our grammar and accent when I try to order off the menu in Portuguese. As a tourist I felt so welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed my visit without having to deal with tourist traps or large crowds.
During our time there the weather was mild and full of sunshine. We walked everywhere to take in the sites and these were some of the spots I loved:
Sé do Porto, the Romanesque Porto Cathedral with picture-perfect Gothic cloisters
Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, a park great for a morning stroll to see views of the river from the top of a hill, as well as peacocks!
São Bento Station, the beautiful train station with large azulejo paintings that show Portuguese history on the interior
Clérigos Church and Tower, for tower views
Chapel of Souls, a church completely covered in azulejos
Rua de Santa Catarina, for shopping!
Ribeira Square and the river walk, for the most romantic #waterandaview
Luís I Bridge, a record-breaking railway bridge with two decks that connect Cais da Ribeira to Vila Nova da Gaia
Vila Nova de Gaia, the south bank of the river with all the port wine
Livaria Lello, the famous bookstore. See more below!
Even though the city has its roots in medieval history, you can’t help but enjoy a bit contemporary history that adds an element of magic into every corner and turn. J. K. Rowling was teaching English in Porto when she started writing the first Harry Potter in the early 90s. Elements inspired by Porto are weaved into her books and we couldn’t help but notice the urban myths as we explored the town.
We spotted Unversity of Porto students for the first time at the the Ribeira plaza, where a band of them were performing hits like La Bamba. They wore black suits and large black cloaks. Later we saw some more students hanging around outside McDonald’s in the same traditional outfits. Definitely inspiration for the Hogwarts uniforms.
Livaria Lello, a stunning bookstore that is, from what I can tell, Porto’s most popular attraction, bares an uncanny resemblance to the bookshop where Harry Potter buys his books. Its magnificent twisting grand staircase also inspired Rowling’s depictions of Hogwarts. We got our tickets the evening before and stood in line to enter before it opened. Although crowded, we loved browsing the bookstore, taking pictures on the red staircase, and even exploring a mini Harry Potter room in the back. Tickets are 5 euros but can be applied to the price of a book. Shirley picked up the newest Harry Potter book and Gia happily made off with Portuguese cookbooks.
Lastly, legend has it J. K. Rowling wrote her first draft of the Sorcerer’s Stone at Majestic Cafe, the most beautiful cafe I’ve ever stepped into. This cafe used to the meeting point of the city’s elite, and you can feel the spirit of the stories that live in its walls. But most importantly, you can taste the best French toast ever.
Food & Vinho
I’m not usually a foodie traveler, but when it comes to desserts I will go out of my way to satisfy my sweet tooth. I also don’t have sparkling beautiful photos but daaaang did Porto have some of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever tasted in my life. Thinking about those natas (custard egg tarts), ovo moles (egg yolk treats), croissants, éclairs, gelato, almond tarts still make my mouth water, and the fact that they’re all pretty budget-friendly is just the cherry on top!
Real food wise, we also enjoyed an abundance of seafood. Porto is known for the francesinha sandwich (a fancy enchilada sort of thing), bacalhau (codfish) dishes, leitão (suckling pig), and port wine! In some restaurants, we did notice Portuguese food to be really salty, probably passed down from a tradition of having to salt to preserve cod and sardines. But the variety of exotic seafood was still amazing.
On our second day, we went across the river for port wine. The nearby protected region of Douro Valley produces grapes that are used to create port, a fortified wine made popular by English merchants back in the 1700s. We took a tour and did a tasting at Ferreira Cellars, which got us all shades of red. Luckily, we found ourselves lots more pastries to indulge in.
Favorite food spots
Majestic Cafe, a famous spot with ornate interiors. We enjoyed the French toast a lot.
Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, for amazing eclairs.
Padaria Ribeiro, for all around great pastries and bread.
Amorino, a chain but still really good gelato.
Mercado do Bolhão, a big market with super nice vendors that sold us lots of souvenirs to bring back home (canned codfish and sardines, nuts, port wine).
The supermarket at El Corte Inglés de Gaia, where we bought fresh deli meats. The department store upstairs was meh.
McDonald’s, to see the beautiful interior decor and a quick and easy bite.
Zenith, for American-Portuguese fusion brunch.
Eloios Cafe & Snack, for leitão aka suckling pig.
Tapabento S.Bento, if you want to treat yourself to a nice meal. Make reservations though!
Escondidinho do Barredo, hands down the most authentic cozy off the beaten path restaurant with adorable Portuguese grandmas and amazing food (octopus, gizzard, sardines, pig ear, liver, intestines, and so much more!) A must go!
On our last morning we climbed up to the top of the Clérigos Tower and took in the city from above. Porto, you were so charmingly beautiful and utterly amazing. This visit was like living in paradise, full of gorgeous views, gracious people, and killer food. Thank you for being unforgettable, and I can’t wait to come back.
Go see this amazing city for yourself, before the Instagrammers bring over the crowds.
Read about the second leg of this trip: Barcelona, Spain!