Portugal’s second city stuck out as my favorite town in the country, eclipsing Lisbon, Braga, Coimbra, and even Evora for it’s authenticity and connection to the land and water. Sure, I loved those other spots too, but Porto just seemed to take everything I loved about the whole country and bring it together. With great wine, seafood, and of course Port, there’s so much I loved about the town.
Coming at the tail end of our two week trip across Portugal with our two-year-old twins, Porto pup a great cap on the whole experience. Like much of Portugal, the city is hilly and located on a river, meaning there are great views around the whole city and a great waterfront. Though I didn’t love pushing the stroller around the town, it was great to explore much of the town on foot. Unfortunately a day of rain kept us from fully enjoying the delights of the town in the sun, but we were able to make the best of it and enjoy a mix of touristy activities and living like locals.
We stayed in the wonderful Predicados do Douro Palace. Located near the gardens of the Crystal Palace and a fairly short walk downtown, it was perfect for exploring the city both on foot and by bus as there was a stop right in front. Our room was awesome with a grand turn of the century atmosphere, a nice table for eating together, and two rooms, perfect for keeping the boys separate from us while they fell asleep so we could enjoy some local wine. The breakfast selection was a huge benefit too as we were able to get filled up on fresh baked bread and cake plus Portuguese meat and cheese. I always love a solid European breakfast of delicious fresh and fluffy bread stuffed to the edges with meat and cheese. Sure beats some cereal. The boys also loved the yogurt and fresh fruit as well as the cool atmosphere in an interior courtyard where they enjoyed cleaning up the ancient brick wall, giving us time to eat somewhat peacefully. They also loved the old style European elevator which was slower than taking the stairs, but demonstrated the historical nature of the building.
Our first full day in Porto had rain for the entire day. While we were able to get around and see some nearby sights, we didn’t want to risk getting the boys sick, so we tried to stay inside. We decided to do something we would normally consider too touristy for us and take a Hop On, Hop Off Bus tour. It actually turned out to be a great way to see the city. Our initial loop took us out to the coast to Foz do Douro and the small fishing suburb of the city. While we couldn’t fully enjoy the open air second story of the bus, we got nice views and stayed dry inside while taking in the sights. The boys loved watching traffic go by and pointing out that we were on a bus every few minutes, to every single other rider of the bus.
We also circled around the Cheese Castle, my favorite architectural sight of the city just because of it’s name. Apparently it resembles a slice of cheese. It protected the entrance to the river, a critical trade route for shipping wine and port from town, Porto’s major industry for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. Now it provides a spot for tourists to visit, Portugal’s new major industry.
We switched over to the other bus route that took us past the city’s main historical sights. We hopped off at the Bolsa Palace and Park, a massive historical administrative building and found a spot for lunch at Parte o Prato, a seafood restaurant. While the boys and my wife enjoyed seafood – cod of course, Portugal’s most famous fish – I tried the other Porto staple, a Francisquinha, Portugal’s take on the French Croque Monseur sandwich. Taken to the extreme, it is essentially a toast stuffed with thick pork, smothered in a flavorful and slightly spicy gravy so thich it requires a spoon to eat. Paired with some local chilled white wine and a Port tonic as an apertif, it was a perfect introduction to the city’s cuisine.
Back on the bus, we headed to Porto’s main historic sights in the center around the Cathedral. The Cathedral itself stands mightily over the city, offering views of the medieval town and down to the waterfront and across the river to the Port warehouses. Coming up to the cathedral from town or the train station, it really feels like something from Game of Thrones dominating the town.
Speaking of the train station, it’s definitely worth peaking inside, even if not traveling by train. The Sao Benito train station features mosaic scenes of Portugal’s history in the blue tile style famous in Portugal. Other buildings and churches also feature this decor, but the station has one of the more massive collections on public display in the country.
With our bus tour, we also opted in to the combined tour with a boat cruise of the river and a tour of one of the historic port cellars. Figuring the cellar could be adequately enjoyed in the rain, we took the us over the river to Calem cellars. Much of the southern bank of the river is populated by the warehouses where port is aged in massive barrels after being produced in the nearby river valley’s vineyards, before being shipped off around the world. Started by British merchants as a way to market the wine as a fortified drink around the empire, these cellars continue to operate largely unchanged since.
With the boys in tow, we knew we wouldn’t have a long time to spend inside. We honestly didn’t care much about the tour, having already toured countless wineries and brewries, understanding how the fermentation process works. So when we found that the next English language tour wasn’t for another three hours, and that it was required to take the tour before tasting any port, we decided to hop on the next available tour in French. Neither of us speak a word of French. The boys didn’t seem to mind as we dutifully tagged along the tour, trying to pretend we understood, laughing at the wrong times. After, we got to taste both red and white varieties of Calem’s port while the boys played with their cars. The best moment may have been right as we were leaving when someone else on the tour with us asked us a lengthy question, presumaly about the boys, to which we replied, “oh, we don’t speak French.” We walked out to some of the most confused faces I’ve ever seen.
While on the south side of the river, we stopped in at Restaurante Beiro Rio for a little more of the local drink, having a massive Port Tonic while the boys napped. Just underneath the cable car that runs up to an old monastery, we also watched the port boats slowly cruise up and down the river.
Having enough of the rain, we went back to the apartment to enjoy the nice setting and some dinner in with the boys. Next door we found Churrasqueria Palacio, a restaurant and take out counter serving every type of grilled meat known to man. Largely guessing from the menu and quick Google translation searches, I ordered what I thought was two entrees, a few sides, and a small appetizer for the while family. This made sense while paying as even with a nicely chilled bottle of Douro white wine, the total was under 30 euros. When I was told to stay back after picking up the first bag, packed to the brim with food, I was surprised. When I was still handed a third and fourth bag, I was amazed. We ended up with at least two pounds of steak, another four pork cutlets, a flank steak, an entire platter of beans, one of fries, and another of rice. Even stuffing ourselves full, it lasted us all three days.
The next day, with the sun finally out, we set out to explore the rest of the town. Our bus passes were still good, so we headed down to the waterfront again and took the Six Bridge River Cruise. A fairly short cruise up and down the river, it gave us a new view of the town rising up from the water above. The boys continued to point out every boat, bus, and train we passed and most enjoyed sitting outside on the deck and watching the river go by.
Back in town, we explored probably my favorite part of Porto, the Ribeira waterfront. Though fairly touristy, I loved the continuous blur of outside restaurant seating right along the water. For lunch, we sat in the main square at O Buraquinho. I felt the need for more octopus, a favorite I discovered all around Portugal and some local beer. We again got to eat in relative peace while the boys sat eating and watching the trains pass over the bridge over the river.
Another great meal we ate in the area was at Fish Fixe, sitting outside right under the bridge. While a busker played Despacito on the accordian and the boys again zoned out watching the trains, we enjoyed fresh fish. I had a cod steak as thick and large as any porterhouse I’ve ever had. Combined with fish fritters for the boys and fres caught salmon, it was some of the best seafood we’ve ever had, perhaps enhanced by the local white wine and proximity to the water. This was without a doubt my favorite meal in Porto.
The bridge we sat under, the Ponte Luis I bridge is a symbol of the city and worth taking a quick walk over. The upper level carries the local train while the lower one carries car and bus traffic. It’s a quick way to get over to the port cellars too.
Some of the other sights we caught on our way back to the apartment were the Clerigos Tower, a gothic style tower visible from much of the city, and the nearby bookstore. Inside at the top of a lengthy staircase is a nice view over the city. The bookstore, Livaria Lello has become a tourist destination of it’s own as the gothic grand style is said to have inspired Harry Potter. JK Rowling lived in Portugal while writing the book and is said to have been inspired by the bookstore. Now to even go in requires a ticket, so we made due with just peeking in. We also stopped in to the Mercado Ferreira Borges, a converted market building that now houses a large restaurant and some shops. Still full from our over-abundence of seafood, we quickly passed through.
We also explored the Crystal Palace gardens, right across the street from our apartment. The gardens house a variety of exotic plants and a flock of peacocks. There are also incredible views down over the city and of course down to the river from the edge. The concrete urbanism of the palace combined with the calls of peacocks which sound like dinosaurs gave the place a Jurrassic Park vibe.
I absolutely loved Porto and found it to be the perfect destination for a family trip. While it was great to explore in the sun, even a day of rain couldn’t get us down with plenty to see and do in town. Combining the history with modern cuisine and wine, Porto has a ton to explore for everyone. While it is most famous for the port, visitors can’t miss the great local wine and seafood too. A few days in Porto was a perfect way to wrap up our trip through Portugal.