December 12, 2021 – January 9, 2022 (Winter)
“If you like Lisbon, you’ll love Porto.” We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been recommended a touristic destination and preferred the less popular alternative. Warsaw over Kraków, Vilnius over Riga, Zagreb over Split. If there’s a city comparison to be made, we usually fall on the side of the opposition.
So we always felt a bit apprehensive about visiting Porto. Lisbon was a delight way back at the beginning of our travels, how much better could Portugal’s smaller, chiller, more picturesque and wine-soaked second city really be?
Turns out, incredibly so. Porto hits that “sizable enough to be interesting, small enough to be livable” sweet spot. Was it overtouristed? God yes. But for once, we actually felt like the attention was deserved.
We took full advantage. After a year of living like locals in one of the most overtouristed cities on the planet, we reveled in the chance to indulge in some tourism of our own.
Livraria Lello bookstore✨ was near the top of our list as one of the most photogenic in Europe. The ceilings and spiraling stairs✨ are admittedly gorgeous, but the queue to enter the (still overcrowded) store made it very clear this was no hidden gem. We didn’t fault them for attempting crowd control though. The ticket price was recoupable with the purchase of an (overpriced) item, but we considered it a fair trade for the experience.
Likewise O Mundo Fantástico das Sardinhas Portuguesas is the very definition of a tourist trap. A big carnival-themed sardine shop with fantastical collector’s tins? Who is this for? At least it’s free to pop your head in.
The city of Porto itself is by far the star attraction. Beautiful buildings cascading over each other, crisscrossed with narrow lanes and impossibly steep stairs✨, it really feels like nowhere else.
Perhaps the best way to replenish all those lost climbing calories is a classic diner grease bomb. The local specialty is Francesinha, a meaty sandwich soaked in tomato-and-beer sauce and served on a bed of fries. Everyone has a favorite, but we were happy just to check the box at Casa de Pasta O Golfino.
Pasteis de Nata were by far the food item we were most looking forward to reuniting with, and the ones served at Manteigaria are at least as perfect as the famous Belem. And at Manteigaria we never had to contend with lines down the block.
Of all the things Porto is famous for, naturally the most famous is the eponymous Port wine. Cozy shops everywhere were filled to the brim with sweet and decadent offerings. Each one was unique and enchanting, from the hanging wine-gardens of Mercearia Vieira Da Silva to the sprawling selection of Garrafeira Universo Carmim to the hole-in-the-wall charm of Garrafeira do Carmo. Touriga, Vinhos de Portugal offered a fantastic tasting flight and were only too happy to answer our questions.
Of course, wine shops are just the start. The real prize was touring the producers themselves. Port warehouses crowd the neighborhood of Vila Nova de Gaia all the way up to the southern banks of the Douro. We booked a group tour but were the only ones to show, so ended up with a private guide to to Churchill’s, Vasques De Carvalho (the coziest Port house we visited), and Quinta do Noval (who also were branching out into very tasty non-Port wines).
The tumbling buildings look far more imposing and cliff-like from down by the river. It is possible to walk for miles – well-kept boardwalks and trails stretch all the way to where the ocean meets the sea.
Porto isn’t just wine though; it has a large craft beer scene as well. Catraio, by far our favorite bar, had an amazing selection and a surprisingly large garden out back. A Fábrica da Picaria had fewer taps but a fabulous pub quiz that let us finally start socializing again after the worst Covid restrictions had passed. Letraria had some of the most reliably good offerings, with every beer being named for a letter.
In Croatia, Covid had not been taken seriously enough. But in Portugal, it was still treated with grave concern. Testing was required for any socialization. But the government also made it easy, with free testing stations set up in every major plaza.
We tested up to attend a warm and welcoming Christmas party as the very events-focused LOOK.Sharp Cafe Porto. Festive lights coupled with strong anti-Covid measures combined to make us feel safer and more comfortable than we had in ages. It was like the (Christmas) light at the end of a very long tunnel.
We’d hoped staying through the Advent season would mean markets, but that was one area where Portugal doesn’t hold a candle to Croatia. There was one small craft market, but nothing like the festive food and wine offered in Zagreb. However, the shops were booming and decorated trees big and small✨ left no doubt as to the joyfulness of the season.
After a year staring at the same few sights in a town as small as Mokošica, Porto’s grand architecture was a welcome change. We found new sights and delights around every corner.
The Church of Saint Francis in particular shows off the once-grand reach and riches of the Portuguese empire.
Portugal’s past as a colonizer is not much discussed. Like Budapest the city of Porto is littered with monuments to a rich and powerful past. The Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique may not ring any bells of recognition, but its namesake is better known in English as Prince Henry the Navigator.
Like the Portuguese explorers of old, we frequently found ourselves drawn westward to the sea. Only our voyages were usually on foot, along the river, and gazing up at buildings decked out in bright tiles and wrought-iron balconies rather than stars.
The Douro was the lifeblood of the Port industry, shuttling grapes to bottlers at the strategic city by the sea. Today that all happens by truck, which leaves the river free for tour boats and jet skis. Bridges and boardwalks offered plenty of viewpoints to admire it all from above and below.
Porto has ere been a working-class city. Long after the Age of Exploration and the period of Port popularity had passed, it is undergoing a new boom in prosperity driven by tourism. But the benefits are not shared equally, and many resent their new fame – and rising prices.
We walked clear to the mouth of the Douro many times. A pair of lighthouses watch over the entrance. Fishermen put their lines out off the breakwater and wait for a bite.
After all our travels, it can be strange to remember that our lives are far from normal. Danielle started her computer one morning and immediately recognized the location – and exact photo – from our own visit to Torres del Paine.
Even in January there were quite a few tourists. Miradouro da Serra do Pilar overlooking the now-car-free Ponte Luís I was possibly the best view, and everyone knew it.
It was incredibly refreshing to find a city where the hype seems to be completely earned. We don’t always agree with the general wisdom of which places are good for a vacation or for digital nomads, but in this case Porto outdid every expectation. We can’t wait to return.