Spring has begun to fade into summer which means it’s time for the annual Europe trip! May is one of my favorite months to visit the continent and with my husband Dave working in Germany last month, I couldn’t resist tagging along and planning a few weeks of travel after his business trip wrapped up.
Last year, you may remember that we tackled a road trip through Ireland and a few new spots in Italy – Procida, Ischia, San Marino, the Amalfi Coast and the Italian Riviera. This year, the destination is Portugal!
I’d been to Portugal once, on Round the World #3, but I’d barely scratched the surface of this diverse country by devoting my time solely to Lisbon (there is so much more to see!). This time, I was determined to spread my Portuguese wings and venture north, south and offshore by visiting Porto, the Algarve region and the Azores during our 10-day journey.
We were also on a tighter budget than usual (due to our recent purchase of a boat in Seattle), so for this trip I would need to maximize my travel rewards points to keep our costs down. Spoiler alert: I was even more successful than I’d hoped in that endeavor, more on that in this post!
The Beauty of Porto
We began our adventure in Portugal’s second city, Porto. Famed around the world for its port wines, the laid-back city of Porto holds a distinct edge in charm over big sister Lisbon.
With a colorfully-tiled old town, golden rooftops and a relaxed atmosphere, Porto is definitely a city worth exploring on any trip to Portugal.
The old town and city center are compact and easily walkable but be ready for stairs – Porto definitely has a lot of hills. (Tip: To save a walk up the hill after a stroll along the waterfront, take the cable car at the base of the Dom Luís I Bridge. Rides are just €2.50 and the panoramic views are worth that alone.)
Where to Stay in Porto
In Porto, a hotel in the heart of town is best for maximizing your time – especially when that time is short (we had just 2 days).
If money is no object, opt for the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas. Located in a renovated 18th century palace, this hotel is in the center of the historic district, just 650 feet from the iconic Clérigos Tower. It’s also a 2-minute walk from the beautiful São Bento metro station (renowned for its incredible blue-and-white tiled interior).
For a great mid-priced option, try the Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel. Its location, just a few minutes walk from the Intercontinental, means it also has easy access to the historic center and nearby metro station. The rooms are spacious and some even include a classic bath tub.
For those on a budget, Porto also has a lot of apartment options, which is what we chose. We selected the Oporto Stories Apartments and it was a fantastic choice.
We splurged a little on the top floor terrace apartment, but it was well worth it. The views of the red-tiled rooftops of Porto from the apartment’s incredibly large terrace were nothing short of spectacular.
The apartment itself was modern, spacious and had a full kitchen (for more pics, check out the photo link below). The location on the shop-lined street of Via Catarina, just 2 blocks from the Bolhão metro station, was ideal for exploring the city on foot.
We were able to take the metro straight from the airport to the Bolhão Station in about 30 minutes (purchase a “4 zones” ticket at the machine). From there, the walk to the apartment was just 5 minutes.
Once we had settled into the apartment and enjoyed a few moments on the panoramic terrace, it was time to get out and explore! Our host was kind enough to get us started with a map of Porto and a few sightseeing suggestions.
First stop…Dom Luís I Bridge
Pretty much any photo of Porto includes the distinctive span that bridges the gap over the Douro River and dominates the city’s skyline. In 1879, Gustave Eiffel first presented a design for a single deck bridge over the Douro but the project was later awarded to one of his disciples, Theophile Seyrig, who proposed a double-deck, arched design.
Completed in 1886, the Dom Luís I Bridge connects the historic center of Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia (home to the port wine cellars). For more than a century, the bridge carried road traffic on both levels. Today, the upper level is restricted to pedestrian traffic and tram cars, while the lower level is for cars. (Pedestrians can cross on either level and the views are uniquely spectacular from both).
For another terrific view of the city, climb the 240 steps up the narrow stairways of the Clérigos Tower.
When in “Rome” – a little Port wine tasting
When you find yourself in the region where port wine was created, it would be rude not to indulge. So that’s exactly where we started our tour of the city.
After crossing the top level of the architectural wonder that is the Dom Luís I Bridge and marveling at the sweeping views of the city and Douro River below, we arrived on the Gaia side of the bridge, where most of the port wine cellars are located. Gaia also has gorgeous views back to old town Porto.
Our apartment host had recommended three port houses and, of those, we chose to visit A.A. Calem.
After purchasing tickets for €12 (2 samples) and €15 (3 samples), we were escorted into their interactive port museum where they had fun things like a sniffing wall which allows visitors to guess the various scents found in port wine (everything from chocolate to apricot).
Next, we took a brief tour to learn how port is made and finally we were escorted to the tasting room to sample several varieties for ourselves. I had purchased the 2-sample ticket and Dave the 3-sample ticket which worked out perfectly because the samples were all different so we were actually able to try five different ports.
Honestly, I didn’t think I liked port but, as it turns out, I just wasn’t drinking the right kind. There were quite a few that I really enjoyed.
From there, we strolled back across the bridge (this time on the lower level) to get a closer look at the traditional Porto buildings lining the river.
The building facades in Porto are a sight unto themselves, each one adorned with glazed, ceramic tiles called azulejos.
These vibrant tiles date back to the Moors of the 13th century but came into their own in the 16th century after Portugal’s King Manuel I brought the idea of tiling buildings back from Seville.
The delicately painted azulejo tiles were originally used to cover up large, blank walls during the Gothic period. Over time, Portuguese artisans used them on floors, ceilings, and both inside and outside of homes, churches, shops, etc.
Initially found in only blue and white patterns, the designs ultimately expanded to include a variety of brilliant colors and patterns incorporating reds, yellows, greens and more. The building facades are so beautiful throughout Porto that it’s often hard to watch where you’re walking on the winding cobbled streets as you gaze skyward at each one in awe.
After winding our way (carefully) through the tile-covered storefronts, we headed to our next destination, Porto’s most famous bookshop.
Often regarded as the world’s most beautiful bookshop, Livraria Lello is definitely one of the world’s most visited. I confess we added this stop to our itinerary for the reason most visitors do – its Harry Potter folklore. Dave is an unabashed Potterhead and, whenever we travel, all possible Potter-related activities are always on the table.
JK Rowling called Porto home for two years and wrote the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone during her residence. Rumor has it the book’s famous Diagon Alley bookshop “Flourish & Blotts” is based on Livaria Lello.
And you can certainly feel the influence as you walk up the shop’s pretzel-like twisting mahogany staircase surrounded by books stacked from floor to ceiling.
You’ll need a ticket to enter which can be purchased at the shop on the corner of the same street (€5.50 which will be deducted from the purchase price of any book). We didn’t buy any books but we loved walking up and down the staircase and soaking in the atmosphere of this lovely shop.
After a full day walking the hills of Porto, we headed back to the apartment to put that fabulous terrace to good use. We stopped at a market along the way and picked up antipasto and a bottle of port and enjoyed both on our terrace while watching a fiery sunset over the rooftops of Porto.
Porto, Day 2
Having tackled a substantial amount of Porto on our first day, Day 2 was mostly devoted to walking the lovely streets and appreciating the architecture and warmth of the city.
We started first with a walk to Porto Cathedral. Completed in the 16th century, this Roman Catholic church is one of the city’s oldest monuments.
From there, since we were close to the upper level of the bridge, we couldn’t resist another trip across the top to enjoy the views.
Located just a few steps from our apartment on Via Catarina, the Café Majestic is one of Porto’s oldest cafes and had a line outside just about every time we walked by.
Opened in 1921, this lavish coffee shop charms visitors with varnished woods, velvety benches, crystal chandeliers and marble floors. The interior recalls the essence of the Belle Époque period and is one of Porto’s most popular architectural landmarks and a magnet for artists and writers.
Stop by for a coffee and you might just find some inspiration of your own!
What to eat in Porto
Porto has an abundance of dining options and you’ll certainly never want for a good meal here. Seafood restaurants line the riverside and quiet cafés can be found around every corner.
But you can’t leave town without trying the local specialty known as the “francesinha” so at lunch time we headed straight for a riverfront café to give it a try.
This meat-stuffed sandwich is part croque monsieur, part Italian hoagie. Filled with ham, steak and sausage, the sandwich is covered with melted cheese and then topped with a warm tomato sauce and usually a fried egg (recipes vary around town).
It’s more than a handful – in fact, you’ll definitely need a knife and fork for this one. Find them on the menu at pretty much any café or restaurant in town.
(I thought they were pretty delicious but Dave’s opinion was slightly less enthusiastic. Regardless, it’s worth a try while you’re in town!)
After a late (and rather large!) lunch, we slowly wandered our way back toward the apartment, checking out a few more quaint streets and squares along the way.
Then it was back to the serenity of the terrace for sunset and port…I think I could get used to this!
A few things for the next visit…
With our two full days of exploring Porto coming to a close, we were sad to leave this magical city on the river.
I do wish we’d had time to get outside of the city to the seafront area of Foz do Douro. Known for its gardens, bike rides and romantic sunset strolls, it’s definitely on the list for our next visit.
I would also have loved to do a wine tour out to the Douro River Valley, where port wine is produced. This is despite the fact that our guide at A.A. Calem described the weather conditions in the valley as “9 months of winter and 3 months of hell.” (Apparently, those are ideal conditions for port wine grapes.)
But alas, I suppose it’s always nice to leave something for the next visit. That way you just have to come back, right?
Porto truly is traditional Portugal at it’s best, without the crowds and traffic of Libson. It was the perfect place to begin our Portuguese journey and I hope we’ll someday get to return to tackle those sights that we missed and sip a little more port from a terrace.
Next stop, the Azores!