The Vibrancy of Porto
Chances are good you’ve had a friend tell you how amazing Porto is and how you must visit. If that’s not the case, let me be that friend.
Porto is amazing and you must visit.
When we started planning this adventure, we had Lisbon on our list, but then our friend Esther said how much she loved Porto so we decided to add it. And boy am I glad we did. And I’m double glad that Esther has already seen so much of the world, so she’s in the perfect position to advise us.
We knew it was special when our plane landed and we stepped into the airport to a calmness one doesn’t normally associate with airports. After a very short walk, we made our way through the lack of crowds to the baggage area, where our suitcases were sitting patiently waiting for us.
Travel days are normally stress days, leaving us exhausted by the time we arrive to a new destination. This particular travel day included two continents, three countries, two airports and one screaming child the entire trip from Istanbul to Geneva, so it should have been extra stressful. Our very calm arrival to Porto gave us a small clue about how we would feel after 11 days in this lovely city.
A short Uber ride later and we were home in a beautiful welcoming flat, where we met Rita, who gave us the low-down. She also showed us the beautiful bowl of fresh fruit and bottle of port they had left for us. Yes please.
Since it was late in the day when we arrived, we wandered down the block to the grocery store, got what we needed and made an early night of it. The next day, we went out to explore and revel in the magical colors of this city, as well as the kindness of strangers — locals and tourists alike. Even the drivers were polite, waving people through rather than honking at them (something that seemed to be the norm in Istanbul and Rome).
a little bit of History
While we knew Portugal would be beautiful and was a great vacation spot, we didn’t know much about its history, so we were surprised to learn that Portugal is the oldest country in Europe, having the same borders since 1130. The second largest city in Portugal, Porto is also one of the oldest cities in Europe, dating back to 300 BC. The city and country’s history is fascinating, but I think that’s another article so I’m not going into all of it now.
To hold you over, here’s the scoop from IntroducingPorto.com: “Porto, previously Cale, was a little Celtic hamlet located on the mouth of the Duero river. When the Romans added a port, ‘Portus Cale,’ it not only gave its name to the Porto of today but the nation of Portugal.”
In 1996, Porto was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of how well it has maintained its historic flavor, with buildings still intact from the middle ages. In fact, Portugal has 17 World Heritage Sites, which you can read about here.
The city’s unique history can be seen everywhere, especially in its historical center. Even surrounded by all that history, there’s a thoroughly modern vibe though, which I think might come from its complete embrace of art and music.
On the history side, many of Porto’s buildings are decorated with tiles known as azulejos. “Introduced by the Moors in the 13th century, azulejos are small ceramic tiles in shades of blue and white. Once arranged, they form geometric motifs depicting scenes from life.”
There are azulejos everywhere in Porto (and I’m guessing the rest of Portugal). They decorate the exteriors of buildings, while the waterproof glaze also protected them from the elements. While blue is the dominant color, we saw just about every color in one form or another. We heard that the colors were once used as addresses — “I live in the yellow house on whatever street.”
The color wasn’t limited to the azulejos though, as there are also murals on just about every street, some official and some not so official (we’re guessing).
And once we realized how many musicians were out entertaining, we started listening and looking for them. We stocked up on euros so we could pay for the privilege of recording them, but mostly we joined the rest of the crowds in enjoying their talent. We went back several times to watch the young man singing Purple Rain, as well as plenty of other tunes we love.
I want everyone to wear purple to my funeral, where they can dance to Prince songs. I found just the guy to perform, and he’s young so it’s not morbid.
Getting around in Porto is easy. While you can get to just about anywhere on the Metro, trams or buses, we never ended up using them as Porto is an incredibly walkable city. They do have sight-seeing buses, but we opted for a tuk tuk instead.
The #1 Best Tuk Tuks
Tuk Tuks are ubiquitous in Porto and for good reason. These mechanical rickshaws are called tuk tuks because of the sound they make, and they’re the perfect size for navigating traffic and some of the very narrow streets around Porto.
We chose the Original Tuk Tuk Porto Experience, which boasted Italian-made Piaggio Ape Calessino tuk tuks. While I’m not savvy enough to know the difference there, I do know what a gift we got with our guide, a young woman named Inês who had moved to Porto from Lisbon four years prior. She was incredibly knowledgeable and patient in her willingness to answer all of our questions. And we had a lot of questions.
We told her how impressed we were with how kind everyone was and she told us that’s just the Porto way, and that if we asked for directions, many people would just take us there. I thought she was exaggerating, but after almost two weeks in that lovely city, I think she might be right.
As importantly as her knowledge and driving skills, Inês was able to park her tuk tuk in very small spots so we could get out and visit the interiors of these interesting places rather than just driving by.
She took us to landmarks like Porto Cathedral, Ribeira Square, the Clérigos Tower, the São Bento Train Station and some of the bridges, explaining their history (official and unofficial), along the way. She even took the extra time to teach us how to pronounce them correctly, which we very much appreciated (and continued to butcher).
We met Inês by the Porto Cathedral, the most important religious building in Porto, located at the highest spot in the city (we’ve seen religious structures at the top of a hill in every city we’ve visited in Europe).
Porto is broken up into districts, and the district around the Cathedral, Sé is the oldest in Porto. LocalPorto.com shares that the Cathedral was built by Bishop Hugh, a French nobleman who came to Porto even before Portugal’s independence, and ruled the city from 1113 to 1136.
It has since gone through many renovations and it reflects that mix of architectural styles. Entrance to the Cathedral is free and you can get there on the Metro, but it is a very popular destination, so lines are long. Plan accordingly.
We’ve toured a ton of churches on this adventure, so we didn’t stand in line to go inside, but we did enjoy the square in front of the cathedral, which is full of visitors and street musicians entertaining them.
São Bento Train Station
We did go inside Porto’s main train station, which was the Benedictine Convent of São Bento until 1906. It’s filled with 22,000 azulejos, all hand-painted by one artist, Jorge Colaço. It took him 11 years to create this masterpiece, which tells the story of Porto’s history from the 12th to 15th centuries.
Porto.pt shares: “The tiles depict some of the most relevant episodes of Portuguese history, namely King D. João I and D. Filipa de Lencastre, Egas Moniz and Infante D. Henrique in the conquest of Ceuta.”
I asked Inês about one woman in particular, who looked quite fed up with all of it. She told me that was the Mona Lisa of Porto, since her eyes follow you everywhere.
If you can, plan to spend some time there to truly appreciate the stories and the craftsmanship involved. We think it’s right up there with the Sistine Chapel, though these are painted on individual tiles and then installed.
Located in the historical center of Porto on the banks of the Douro River, Ribeira Square was once a thriving manufacturing and commerce area. Through the centuries, it has continued to adapt and is now full of amazing restaurants, shopping and art, including a very modern depiction of St. John the Baptist (pictured here). Inês told us about the Festa de São João, which takes place every June and involves the entire city. Originally a pagan celebration to commemorate the beginning of summer, the Catholic Church dedicated it to St. John in the 15th century.
It includes hot air balloons, fireworks, live entertainment, dancing, eating (including grilled sardines, peppers, entremeada, hot dogs, paprika and basil), drinking and hitting each other with plastic hammers. Since we’ll definitely be returning some day for festival time, we needed to learn more about the hammers.
Here’s what AtlanticBridge.com has to say: In the 60s, they were used by a group of students from the University of Porto in the traditional university party known as Queima das Fitas. The success was immediate, with the students hammering each other all day long. Soon the shopkeepers in Oporto were ordering hammers for the Festas de São João which took place a few weeks later. From then on the popularity was inevitable, despite the attempt to ban the use of the accessory in the 70s. If you go to the streets that night, be sure to take a small hammer and get ready to be hammered all night long!
Chapel of Souls
The Chapel of Souls is one of the most photographed buildings in Porto, and you can add our cameras to that list. It’s partly because of its location (right in the middle of the shopping district) and its gorgeous azulejos by Еduаrdо Lеitе, depicting various religious stories.
TripsPoint.com shares some theories on how it got its name: “It is knоwn fоr bеing Сhареl оf Sоuls fоr twо еquаlly рrоbаblе rеаsоns: first оf аll, it соnсеаls in its аltаrs thе imаgе оf Оur Lаdy оf Sоuls (Nоssа Sеnhоrа dаs Аlmаs), ехistеnt sinсе thе оriginаl соnstruсtiоn (thе 18th сеntury). Sесоndly, bесаusе оf thе Вrоthеrhооd оf Sоuls аnd Сhаgаs whо bесаmе раrt оf Сареlа dаs Аlmаs аnd gоt it dосumеntеd оn thе fасаdе оf thе сhареl.”
Bridges of Porto
There are six bridges crossing the Douro River. The most famous is the Ponte Dom Luiz I, though according to its sign, it’s just the Ponte Luis I — no Dom.
One of our guides told us that’s because King (Dom) Luis couldn’t be bothered to show up for the christening and so they left the “dom” off out of spite. I haven’t been able to verify that anywhere officially, but I like the idea of it. The Ponte Luiz was designed by Teófilo Seyrig, who was a partner of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), and when it was completed in 1886, it had the longest span of any metal bridge in the world. Originally built for traffic, the top level is now used by the Metro, while the bottom level is for cars. Pedestrians can cross in both places, and in fact Clay ran across both the top and bottom levels.
The others, from east to west, are the Ponte do Freixo (1995), the Ponte de São João Bridge (1991), the Ponte de Dona Maria Pia (designed by Eiffel and completed in 1877), the Ponte do Infante (2003, which Clay also crossed) and the Ponte da Arrábida (1963).
Vila Nova de Gaia
Inês brought us to the city of Gaia (across the Douro River), known for its beautiful beaches, riverfront restaurants and hotels. While there, we saw many wineries (we went back later to partake in some of those), the World of Can (a sardine shop that looks like a candy store) and some fun restaurants.
While Porto is known for its canned sardines, Inês told us that the Portuguese prefer to eat them fresh and grilled. Clay ate plenty of these delicacies in our time in Portugal and is a big fan.
We also found out that port is only made in Gaia (not Porto) because of its ideal climate for growing, manufacturing and aging this delicious beverage. Since Portugal wine was popular in other countries, they had to figure out a way to preserve it on its long journeys. They added a distilled spirit, usually brandy, during the fermentation process, which is where its sweetness comes from. I’ve always thought of port as a delicious red wine, but it also comes in white and tawny, and tawny might be my new favorite. Who am I kidding, I love them all. Most tours are free, but you’ll pay for tastings, usually around 12€.
Under the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines, only wines from Portugal are allowed to be labeled “port.”
The most beautiful bookstore in the world
Inês stopped to show us the Livraria Lello (AKA the most beautiful bookstore in the world), but we didn’t go in as the line was very long. She let us know that while a regular visit has a 5€ cover charge, we could book online and pay 15€ to skip the line. Since that 15€ could be applied to books, we jumped at that option.
We went back a few days later to ascertain that yes, it is the most beautiful bookstore in the world, at least out of all the bookstores we’ve seen. J.K. Rowling spent time in it while she was writing Harry Potter, and the inspiration is obvious once you walk in and see the library stairs at Hogwarts (though these didn’t move). It’s also Instagram-famous and everyone in Porto was evidently there to get their snaps. We pushed through the crowds, took some pictures, bought our books and got out as quickly as we could. This is something you need to see while in Porto, but don’t expect a relaxing visit to a bookstore. On the other hand, I was quite delighted to see people lining up to pay a cover charge just to walk through the front door.
After a visit to the most beautiful bookstore in the world, we thought it would be appropriate to have lunch in the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world. We were greeted by a giant bronze eagle before walking in to see stained glass, crystal chandeliers and friezes and then ordering from the automated kiosk. I got a McRoyal Cheese (they have the metric system in Europe so Quarter Pounders are not a thing) and Clay got a Maestro Burger, and we both added fries and a Coke Zero (also no Diet Coke). While we’re not making it a habit, it was nice to get a quick taste of home.
The McDonald’s is located in a space that used to house Cafe Imperial, a coffee shop from the 1930s. When McDonald’s took over the space in 1995, they kept the art deco and friezes. There are also lines there, but they don’t charge a cover to get in and they’re incredibly efficient, with orders being served up as fast as any other McDonald’s.
Bonus — we ate outside, next to a woman just standing there with her pet falcon.
Jose’s Photo Tour
Our friend Jocelyn, an avid traveler, has been giving us behind-the-scenes photo tips for a couple of months, so when she saw we were headed to Porto, she introduced us to Jose.
He takes you around Porto, showing you hidden photo spots as well as new ways to look at the more common landmarks. But he also helps you see things in a different way to improve your photography skills, while taking pictures of you along the way.
We had already been there a week when we met up with him and so we were kind of surprised at how many new spots he showed us. I wasn’t thrilled about getting my photo taken after living out of suitcases for months, but I had forgotten how nice it is when a professional photographer is doing the shooting. Clay had to run out early to grab a haircut from a local barber recommended by Inês, so most of the photos are of me, though the hero photo on this article is one Jose took. I haven’t figured out how to share the others yet, but we’ll be sure to credit Jose when we do. The picture to the right is one I made him let me take of him.
We loved our time with Jose and we have a standing date to go 80s dancing with him and his wife Maria, the next time we’re in Porto.
Exploring Porto Through Food
On our first full day in Porto, we took a cooking class, where we learned how to make Pasteis de Nata, one of Portugal’s national dishes. Clay and I sometimes like to explore places and experiences without knowing anything about them. We also like taking cooking classes as a way to learn about a culture. So when I signed us up for this class, neither one of us knew what pasteis de nata were. Yes, seriously.
We learned a traditional recipe by Joana, who had been making it with her grandmothers since she was a child. The class was in her home where we joined a dozen others from different parts of the world, who she put in teams so we could divide up the “work” of making this delicacy.
Working together, we learned how to make puff pastry from scratch (words I never thought I would write in connection to me), the secrets to the custard, and then how to serve them (with cinnamon and powdered sugar). The best part was eating them hot out of the oven. And the second best part was her telling us they were a snack, not a dessert and so we could eat them anytime we wanted. We took that as gospel, and had many pasteis de nata in Porto (and plan to have even more in Lisbon).
That included the #1 Best Pastel de Nata, which we learned about from João.
#1 Best Food Tour
In our quest to explore cities through food, we usually sign up for food tours as well, and João, whose family has lived in Porto since at least the 17th century, was a terrific guide for that exploration. Our small nine-person group met João in the city center, where he shared what to expect and expressed his love of Portuguese culture (and Porto).
We stopped at six spots during our time together; each better than the last. At the first restaurant, we enjoyed coffee, toast (think fluffy, sourdough-ish bread) and Portuguese croissants, which are brioche shaped into a croissant and more bread-like than their French cousins.
The next stop was at a beautiful courtyard cafe for wine or cold mint tea (for those who didn’t drink), and cheese with quince marmalade (known locally as Romeo and Juliet).
João explained that locals only use grocery stores for dried goods and that we should buy everything else from local vendors in small shops. Many of those vendors are located in the Mercado do Bolhão, so he took us there to taste more wine, salt cod, sardines and cold cuts – all delicious. Clay and I went back later that day to stock up for the rest of our stay in Porto.
After the mercado, we stopped at João’s favorite pastel de nata shop. While we’d had plenty of pastel de nata by that point (including what we’d made ourselves), these snacks were the best we’d tried. Then we headed to a nearby sandwich shop for the best bifana in Porto. Bifana is a pork sandwich dipped in sauce from slow-cooking it (think beef dip, but better). João went out of his way to accommodate Clay by offering non-alcoholic drink suggestions at each stop. (He’s now a huge fan of Super Bock Free).
Our final stop was to taste white port at João’s pick for the best wine store in the city center. I enjoyed the wine and we left with a bottle of tawny port, cashews, walnuts and quince marmalade so we could make Romeo and Juliet at home.
João is someone else we’ll look up when we return and we highly recommend his tour.
Speaking of Food
I’m not exaggerating to say that while in Porto, I did not eat one thing, nor have one glass of wine, that wasn’t delicious. And there’s not another city we’ve visited that I can say that about. We also had excellent service every place we went, though there were some standouts.
We discovered 100 Culpa on our first morning in Porto and ended up going back several times, as much for the delicious food as the lovely atmosphere and the kindness of the owner, Marcos. He was the first person to say, “Yes, of course” when we asked him if it would be okay for us to come back and work there. He then told us which tables were most suitable, since they had easy access to power. While all of that was enough for us to love him, 100 Culpa also has a delightful assortment of pancake dishes, each more delicious than the last.
We found Supernova after the best massage in the world (see below). The atmosphere let us know we would love it even if the food wasn’t great. But then the food was great too, so double bonus.
The Best Massage in the World
As you might imagine, traveling and working on laptops at unergonomically-friendly dining room tables and couches can be hard on the shoulders. And running miles and miles in different cities has left a mark on Clay’s knees (not literally).
We’ve had a few massages on this trip and our muscles let us know it was time for another. I found Sabai Thai Spa on Yelp, which had many people saying in the reviews that they’d had the best massage of their lives (are you noticing a theme?). Since two hours was only 15€ more than 50 minutes, I signed us up for that option. I’m not exaggerating to say I received the best massage of my life that afternoon.
With Thai massage, the technician actually climbs onto your back, using her elbows and knees to get into the tough spots. And I had many tough spots. After nearly two hours of being prodded every which way, our techs had us sit up, while they sat on the table behind us to stretch us in positions I didn’t know my body could make. By the time we left, my shoulders were screaming at me (in a good way) and Clay’s knees weren’t sure which way was up.
Right next door, we found Supernova, allowing us to have a pretty much perfect Sunday.
Our Last Full Day in Porto
We’re trying accept that we can’t see everything in every place, so while we’d heard about the Crystal Palace Gardens throughout our visit, we didn’t think we were going to have time to visit them. But then we had a couple of hours open up on our last day and we figured we’d better. Because peacocks. I’m so glad we did and we’re recommending this place as a must-see in a city full of must-sees.
This might be the most beautiful garden I’ve ever experienced, and we go to a lot of gardens. It’s named for a palace that was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace. While it kept the name, the Palace is no longer there, having been replaced by the Pavilhão Rosa Mota in the 1950s. Now known as Super Bock Arena, it’s home to concerts, fairs and sporting events throughout the year.
There’s a stage in the middle with statues at each corner symbolizing the different seasons. You can see the Douro River, the Atlantic Ocean and much of the city of Porto from different vantage points. And it’s full of beautiful birds, from peacocks to chickens and ducks and many others I couldn’t identify.
It’s a delightful place that warranted more than the hour we gave it. I wish we’d gone earlier in the week so we could have experienced it more than once
If you go, be sure to check your directions carefully as several enterprising businesses are also named Crystal Garden and it would be very easy to wind up in an espresso bar rather than the peacock sanctuary you’re looking for.
Did I Over-Promise?
I’ve been taught my entire career to under-promise and over-deliver, and I feel like I may have broken that rule here. But then I go back through my pictures and memories and I feel like I may not have promised enough. If you’ve visited, or are planning a visit, let us know your thoughts in the comments. Did I over-promise?
If you’re planning a visit to Portugal consider using our Portugal scavenger hunt!