Porto is a little city nestled on the Douro river in the Northwestern region of Portugal. It’s the second largest city in the country, although you wouldn’t guess that based upon an initial glance. Porto is the birthplace of Port wine, and home to many historic wineries. And just like a good glass of wine, the unassuming city of Porto creeps up on you, leaving you with a lingering warm and feels good-all-over buzz.
The magic of Porto is not in one single thing, but in the spirit of the city. There are no major monuments, but rather many small ones. There are no large buildings, no major highways, no chain hotels, and no hoards of crowds. In fact the lack of all of those things is what made it feel very special and intimate. It was bustling and lively, but tranquil and never hectic. Porto is also one of the oldest cities in Europe, and with age comes intricate history, sophistication, and depth of character that a city exudes.
Best of all, the culture of Porto was as vibrant as the art that decorates every wall in the city limits. There is street art, murals, and graffiti on every flat surface available. There are flags and streamers strung from the windows and draped across the narrow streets. There are eclectic statues and planters full of wildflowers erected in parks and green spaces throughout the city. Many of the churches and wall spaces were adorned with classic hand-painted blue and white tile, which is the signature of Portugal. Porto is bursting with color and the aesthetic looks like a festival in progress at all times, as if the people of this old city were perpetually celebrating life.
Our AirBnb was in one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city center. The ancient building was beautifully restored on the inside and our third-floor penthouse was complete with a rooftop deck that had a panoramic view of the city. The cobblestone street where our apartment was nestled was too narrow for cars, so we took our things and tracked up the steep incline to the flat. Along the way we passed under colorful tapestries and clothing hanging from windows, handmade garlands strung across the road from balcony to balcony. The walk to the apartment gave us insight to the culture of the neighborhood where we’d be staying – and it felt very authentic and vibrant.
We immediately set out to explore the city with no real destination. We first ended up at the top of a hill at a huge church with a sprawling terrace overlooking much of the city. We entered the Cathedral de Porto and I was instantly entranced. The churches in Portugal were much more laid back than any other European country I’ve been, with no strict dress codes and no restrictions on photographing the inside. I took a few photos of the altar before continuing on to the cloisters. Another thing we quickly observed about Portugal was that visitors were free to explore in peace. Some (not many) historical sites had modest admission fees, but beyond that, had very little structure. There were no barricades or guides for tourists. Instead, they seemed to rely on the guests to explore using their own discretion (which was very cool, but would never work in America.) In the cloisters, we walked through decommissioned sacristies and monasteries, with ancient art and relics lying right out in the open. We marveled for a minute, but were drawn to the interior courtyard, which was definitely the best part of the cathedral (and maybe the whole of Porto’s monuments.) Every wall was covered in the hand painted blue tiles that I loved. The craftsmanship was incredible and we sat within the castle walls for quite sometime enjoying the shade and taking in the tiled murals. I later learned that the cathedral was from 1300s, which made it even more impressive since it was so well preserved.
After we continued on back down the hill and into many more smaller churches and quaint cafes, we made it down to the river. The riverbank by day was home to a street market with local vendors and sangria kiosks. Behind the market was a long row of colorful restaurants with inviting outdoor seating and bountiful drinks. We found ourselves a spot at one and my taste buds were awakened by the first Aperol Spritz of the holiday (which is my favorite European drink.) We people watched for a while. On the ledges, local children swam in the river, which flowed quickly and appeared to be very clean. The riverfront tucked into a massive bridge, which was the true centerpiece of the cityscape. The multi-level bridge was both drivable and walkable, and although it was very high, the local teenagers wagered tips from onlooking tourists and plunged from the bridge into the water below like acrobats.
After a couple of drinks by the water and excellent people watching, we set out to find dinner. Although we usually research ahead of time to get an idea of the best places to eat, we did not anticipate how small and cozy the restaurants in Porto would be, and with only a few tables, many of the places we tried were booked solid for days without a reservation. We went off schedule, which was no issue because there was no shortage of chic gastropubs and tapas cafes. While meandering, we stumbled into a large park in the city center which was hosting a festival of some sort. The DJ playing in the garden was very good, and there were rows of food trucks, drink carts, craft vendors and lounge areas. It seemed like a perfect excuse to stay a while, so although I’m not sure what the festival was celebrating, we blended with the locals and followed suit.
Throughout our days in Porto we thoroughly indulged in the cuisine, enjoying a balance of local delicacies (cod filets, marinated olives and veggies, Iberian ham toasties, and pastries), while also mixing it up with some other European staples (leave it to me to find of the best authentic Italian restaurant with a chef from Napoli while in Portugal.) At first, I mistook the lack of attentiveness of the locals for disinterest, but my impression was wrong. While it was not uncommon to sit in a cafe for 15 minutes before a waiter would address you, I realized that this was more out of the laize fare mentality, and not lack of manners. Even hospitality workers left you alone until you made clear that you wanted to be waited on. In stark contrast to New York, it was actually quite pleasant not to feel rushed, ever.
While Porto is a relatively compact city, it was still big enough that traversing the entire thing on foot was a rigorous endeavor…especially since it was steep hills and steps nearly the entire way. It wasn’t until several days in when we realized how affordable and accessible Uber was, but its probably for the best that we were late to discover this because the amount of walking we did there (one day we logged more than 12 miles on the Fitbit) helped to offset the incredible amount of bread and cheese we consumed during our stay. On our long hikes through town we also popped in to many small churches or inviting cafes that we otherwise would never have found.
It was apparent that the place to be for sunset each evening was anywhere by the river, which came alive at night with live music and busy sidewalk dining. Although the entertainment was more lively on the historic side, we trekked across the bridge one evening to get the perspective of seeing the sun setting on the city from a bird’s eye view…and it was a great decision. Porto, being so colorful, shone it’s most spectacular hues as the sun sunk in the sky and the low lighting made the bright building facades appear almost to glow. After walking across the bridge just in time for “the magic hour,” we found a bench perched right on the ledge. There, we sipped sangria from plastic cups and snuggled up to watch the city change shades every few minutes until the sun had fully tucked away and the lights illuminated across the skyline. This experience was among my favorite of the trip because it was so relaxing, stunning, and almost stereotypically romantic.
After night had fallen, we walked along the boardwalk on the quieter side of the river. We stopped and soaked in the sweet sounds from violinists and accordion players who serenaded passersby. This side of the river was filled with massive fancier buildings, which were comprised of wineries and their accompanying tasting rooms, restaurants and inns. The ambiance on this portion of the city was even more tranquil and luxurious than her counterpart across the river. In the spirit of our surroundings, we found a table along the water and embarked on a long journey of every wine, cheese and bread offering imaginable.
After abundant consumption of charcuterie and wine, we rose from our table with a substantial buzz and decided to walk the long way home. I generally have a good sense of direction, so I decided to take the lead, insisting that I knew a shortcut. The “shortcut” ended up being a seemingly perpetual staircase with windy turns straight up the hill. As I began to get winded, I acknowledged about half way up that I had made a mistake…but it was too late to turn around. Our efforts were misguided, but were not for naught. When we finally got to the top of the incorrect path I had selected, we found ourselves on the terrace of the cathedral at the highest point (no where near our apartment.) We needed to catch our breath, so we found a seat on the ledge as cooler breeze blew in our direction and we looked out over the illuminated city spanning across the hill below. While I was sweaty and at a point of exhaustion, it certainly wasnt the worst place we’ve ever ended up lost.
After days of wandering around and reading up on history, we had seen most of the monuments we had set out to see… and even some we had not forecasted. We had climbed to the very top of the Clèrigos Tower (the highest point, formally a part of a monastery erected in the 1500s) which allowed us to view the city in her entirety and even the valley beyond it. The size or Porto was perfect. For me, it is rare to be able to get such a good feel for a city in a short period without feeling too worn out by the experience.
We spent our final day in Porto admiring all the best displays of tile work (my favorite being the train station) and leisurely strolling through the shopping district, stopping for pastries and espressos at frequent intervals. On our final evening in Porto, after an opulent meal, we went to a trendy outdoor park/bar, which was spread across a man made lawn in the middle of the ancient city. We found beanbags on the astroturf and slipped cocktails below strings of lights and the tower above. It was a very unique bar filled with locals which perfectly mirrored the vibes of the city – intimate, unique, warm and lavishly relaxing. I always like to end my stay in a new city in this way- in a place that embodies the city, to reflect on our time spent there before departing. It was a unequivocal opinion that we had really loved Porto. Just like the buzz from a new wine, it came on gently, lingered just long enough, and wore off easily. Porto was the perfect introduction to this surprisingly wonderful country, and it will quickly move to the top of my list of places to recommend to my friends and family for their next travel!