In September 2021 I revisited Portugal, except this time I ventured to Northern Portugal to Porto and the Douro Valley. I can say that I like this part of Portugal more than Lisbon and its surrounding areas. They say Porto is the culinary capital of Portugal and I can certainly see why. It is also the gateway to the Douro Valley and Douro River, which is home to Port Wine. Further, despite its hilly nature, Porto is more compact than Lisbon.
Porto is easily accessed by international flights from all major European gateways as well as domestic flights from Lisbon. Seasonally there are nonstop flights from the U.S. From the airport there are buses, metro and of course taxi/private transfers. The city center is about a 20-30 minute drive from the airport and by bus/metro is around the same travel time. The boutique hotel I booked included a one-way transfer, which I used and booked for my transfer from the airport to the hotel, which was a good call given I missed my first connecting flight to Porto from Amsterdam and ended up arriving late. Once in the city, it is very walkable, albeit very hilly but there are lots of stairs as well. I walked my entire time. If you arent inclined to walk everywhere, there is a tram system and subway system and in some areas there are funiculars to go up and down the hill/ cliffs.
I opted to stay at the 1872 River House, a small boutique with 8 rooms in historic Riberia district of Porto. I booked a River view room overlooking the Douro River and out on to Gaia, where most of the famous Port wine cellars are. Stays include a welcome pour of port, a la carte Breakfast, if book direct, a one-way transfer, and a free self-serve beer tap for all guests to use. It is a nice, quaint boutique hotel. Albeit awkward entrance right next to a bustling McDonald’s. Plenty of accommodation options in Porto from luxury properties, international chains, boutiques and AirBnBs.
Even though I stayed 2 nights, I really had one full 24 hour day to explore and enjoy Porto. I arrived late my first night and departed early my last morning to head into the Douro Valley.
Following a simple breakfast of fresh juice, coffee and Pasteis de Nata (had to save room for my upcoming food tour), I headed uphill to Clerigos Tower and Church, for a paid entry to the tallest viewpoint in Porto.
Culinary Backstreets Porto Walking Food Tour
Afterwards it was time to meet my guide from Culinary Backstreets Porto for the Beyond the Barrel: From Decadent to Down-home in the Heart of Porto walking food tour. It was a fantastic tour, and once again Culinary Backstreets did not disappoint. Not only did we eat a lot of fantastic foods, both touristy but nonetheless famous and truely Porto, but also some off the beaten path local haunts. And there was lots of history and culture thrown in as we walked various neighborhoods, many of which most tourists wont ever walk through.
First stop was Leitaria da Quinta do Paco, a dairy shop selling Portuguese style eclair filled with fresh whipped cream. Very fluffy, not rich and mildly sweet, quite tasty. This shop was the first place in Porto/ Northern Portgual to introduce whipped cream to the Portuguese diet.
Liberty Plaza in central Porto. Statue of one of the Kings of Portugal beloved by the people of Porto.
Amazing McDonald’s, converted from midcentury Fascist building under the Portuguese dictator Salazar
Sao Bento Station, famous for the amazing Portuguese Azulejo tilework depicting scenes of Portuguese history as well as Douro Valley/ Porto wine making and harvest
Casa Louro: Traditional working class canteen/ This area was originally created to house textile workers
House cured sausage, light green wine, fried sardines and rye bread
Church Santo Ildefonso, famous for the tilework as well
Gazela, visited by Anthony Bourdain, famous for their “hot dog” Cahorrinho: split sausage, cheese on bread served with a drizzle of Portuguese spiced sauce. Honestly so good. Salty sausage with a bit of kick from the hot sauce gravy, and creamy texture from the cheese; served with Portuguese Super Bock beer
Casa Guedes, for another famous Porto Sandwich
Slow cooked and marinated pork
Caldo Verde Soup, a staple in Porto region, made with shredded kale/cabbage and served with sausage
Roast Pork Sandwich with very rich Portuguese cheese, Oveja, Pernil/Cerdo con Queso do Oveja
The working class neighborhood, settled by Northern Portuguese migrants who came to Porto for work and opportunity
Neta 3 – Padaria e Confeitaria: sweet/dessert shop selling pastries from a nunnery where the recipe is historic. Many of Portuguese sweets originate from nunneries and the recipes are secret. Egg custard/ egg yolk tarts. very good not as sweet as what you find in Lisbon
Casa Arcozelo, family run cheese/ cured meats and Port shop.
Creamy but not overly rich sheep milk cheese
Evening in Porto
After the tour, I continued walking and exploring Porto on my own.
I walked across the steel arch Luis Bridge and River Douro to Gaia. The duel level bridge is for pedestrians and metro atop and pedestrians and cars below. I went mainly for the famous view across the river to Porto. Had I had more time and was not visiting Douro Valley, I would have visited the many Port house cellars in Gaia.
After some walking it was time for some Pastis de Nata at Porto’s most famous shop: Manteigaria, which while good, was not as good as Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon.
I then had time and decided to be a tourist and line up for Livraria Lello, I lined up for 1.5 hours to enter this bookstore. It is famous not only for its stunning interior, but J.K. Rowling spent time here and it is said to have inspired her for many Harry Potter elements, including Dumbledore’s office. If you are a book lover or interior/architecture person, it is worth lining up for. They also have many specially illustrated/ bound editions of classics and children’s books sold exclusively here.
Down the street is Igreja do Carmo Church, its actually 2 churches separated by a narrow little house, as the Vatican back in the day didnt allow for 2 churches to be side by side. Famous for the blue tile murals on the walls.
Afterward I headed back to the hotel for a short break and a nice refreshing pour of beer.
Then it was time for a short walk up the hill for sunset drinks at Rooftop Flores, which is a quasi-hidden gem of a place. Had a nice pour of vintage Taylor’s port.
Then, back down the hill I went to the riverfront where the restaurants were bustling and packed. I did not have any reservations but Adega Sao Nicolau was able to accommodate me as a solo diner in the early evening.
Douro Red Wine
Porto regional specialty, Pork Trip with beans/lentils and sausage. The story goes that all the good bits of meat had to be saved and given to explorers and army as they expanded the empire and traded goods, what was left was things like Tripe, and so the people used what they had to create this hearty stew to stay fed
Port to end the night!
The next morning I woke up early for a 7:30AM train to Douro Valley. I took a 10 minute taxi from the hotel to the Campanha Train Station, where the trains to Douro Valley depart from.
Porto, despite my short time, left a great impression on my. The food is delicious, affordable and full of history. Despite it being hilly, it is a walkable city, the architecture if stunning and a mix of a variety of styles reflecting the history and melting pot of Portuguese history and exploration. I really do recommend the Culinary Backstreets tour, it is a perfect way to eat and drink your way through town with a good dose of culture and history, and exploration of areas most tourists skip. It is the gateway to the stunning Douro Valley and its wine country/ port Quintas so it is a great base to explore the Northern parts of Portugal. I shall be back!