Travel writer Tom Belcourt-Weir writes about his time spent in Portugal’s second city, Porto.
When winter blues led to good old Skyscanner.com, Porto was the first city to pique our interest at £40 for a return flight. Living in Birmingham we had no trouble in seeing the potential of a country’s second city, learning that Porto is often wrongly overlooked by travellers in favour of the capital Lisbon.
Leaving behind an icy Manchester and arriving in Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport after a quick 2½ hour flight, the main benefit of Porto in February was immediately obvious; sunshine, blue skies and a balmy 19℃. While this was slightly above average weather for the month, it’s a reliable choice for a spot of late winter sun for Vitamin-D deprived Brits.
Hopping on the Metro, 25 minutes and €2 later I was checking into the hostel. For £12 per night, the Rivoli Cinema Hostel was one of the nicest hostels either of us had stayed in and has an unbeatable location near all the sights. As well as the weather, we all love to travel for the food and we wasted no time getting stuck into Porto’s delicacies. Having taken an earlier flight and scouted out the nearest bakery beforehand, my friend greeted me at the hostel with pastéis de nata, Portugal’s iconic puff pastry custard tarts (which any avid British Bake Off fans should be familiar with). Originally created by Catholic monks in the 18th century, they can be found for as little as 40 cents and are hard to resist every time you walk past a bakery – which was practically every street. After enjoying the pastéis on the hostel’s rooftop terrace we headed out for some sightseeing.
Pasteis de nata
Whether you are religious or not, Porto’s churches (Igrejas) represent an important part of the city’s culture and architecture. First up was Igreja dos Clerigos, with its white-panelled walls and 75 metre high bell tower which soars above the city. There was a very long queue, however, so we visited the Church of Carmelitas and Carmo, two separate churches built directly side by side and separated by a 1-metre wide house. Inside they feature ornate gold-gilded wood carvings and outside the Church of Carmo is an amazing example of detailed 18th century Baroque architecture. The great thing about this church is it offers another of Porto’s famous sights; the blue and white tiled walls known as ‘azujelo’. They were added to the exterior in 1912 and form a magnificent panel the full length of the wall.
We continued to wander around the ‘Ribeira’ district, which is picture-postcard Porto and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tall old pastel-coloured houses, which are the classic vernacular style in Porto, jumble together tightly along medieval cobblestone alleyways which zig-zag steeply down to the riverside. Locals chatted across balconies as they hung out their washing. The best viewpoint was Miradouro da Bataria da Vitoria; a small, nondescript square with a half-wall to sit on facing out over a sea of terracotta roofs.
The aesthetic of the city’s architecture and viewpoints is probably its simplest but biggest attraction.
We made our way down along the river promenade, passing tavernas and peeping into a carpenter’s workshop where three elderly men were making wooden boats. At the end of the promenade we arrived under the iconic Ponte de Dom Luís I, the almighty double-deckered bridge spanning the river. Climbing over 200 steps to reach the top deck, we passed through what was a surprisingly run-down area of housing within the Morro de Sé district. While the rustic housing and street art may give off an ‘authentic’ feel for a tourist, it represents the urban decay and degradation which occurred due to poor housing policy during the Salazar dictatorship in the 1970’s.
Steps up to the bridge
On the bridge, pedestrians wandered freely, dodging the odd passing tram and taking in the stunning views of the city beneath you. Way upstream in the distance you can make out the hills of the Douro Valley where the grapes are grown for the city’s most famous export; its eponymous port wine.
As the world’s first ever geographically-designated wine region, it wouldn’t be a trip to Porto without port wine (vinho do Porto). So we crossed the bridge to the south bank of the river where the city is dominated by no less than 14 port cellars. We headed to the supposedly prestigious Taylor’s, which had a self-guided tour that was relaxed, informative and not as stuffy as we expected. You get to walk around the cool cellars with huge wooden barrels, learning how a spirit similar to brandy is added to the wine which stops fermentation, leaving more sugar and alcohol. For years the wine has been transported downriver from the Douro Valley to the cellars in Porto where it is exported. The tour finished with what was obviously the main reason for going; a tasting of a red and a white. Safe to say neither of us is a wine expert, summed up by the fact that we didn’t even know of white port, but the 10-year aged Tawny was very enjoyable nonetheless. All in all pretty good value for €12.
Taylor’s port wine cellar
The first day was wrapped up with dinner at Arroz de Forno, which serves traditional Porto cuisine such as the Bacalhau cod supper, as well as catering well for vegetarians, all for decent prices. For a cheap dessert on the way back to the hostel, more pastéis de nata were in order. The city lights up spectacularly on both sides of the river at night, which provides a great sight to take in before hitting the hay.
The next morning we decided to take a day trip to Foz do Douro, Porto’s nearest beach town just 20 minutes downstream from the city centre. You can take the air-conditioned 500 bus, but we opted for the old and rickety charm of tram 1 which trundled along the riverside. After hopping off, we made our way through some lush botanical gardens before getting to the palm tree-lined beachfront. Despite the warm weather, the Atlantic waters were still bitterly cold, but not too cold for a quick paddle. A classic red and white lighthouse sits on the end of a long pier and makes for a great spot to watch huge waves crash up against its walls. A supermarket lunch was followed by coffee on the seafront (plain espresso, as is traditional in Porto, a city which increasingly came across as refreshingly unfussy and unpretentious).
Foz do Douro lighthouse
After the return trams and buses failed to turn up, which we can only put down to it being a Sunday in a very religious country, we caught an Uber back to the city and hopped out in Miragaia when we spotted the Armazem Vintage Bazaar & Bar. A converted factory, it contains an amazing array of old artefacts and would highly recommend – from Portuguese magazines, maps, books and memorabilia, to bicycles, carpentry, lampshades and sports equipment.
Armazem Vintage Bazaar
Leaving Miragaia we walked through the Jewish Quarter and stumbled across a small park, Passeio Das Virtudes, which turned out to be my personal highlight of the day. The park was buzzing, packed with students and twenty-somethings chatting in the golden sun as it set across yet another panoramic view of the Douro. Quizzing some locals, we found out this was the regular Sunday spot to come and have a picnic, drink the local Super Bock beer and take in the sunset before the week ahead.
Passeio Das Virtudes
That evening we decided to cook at the hostel; the resulting search for an open supermarket on a Sunday night was good fun. Next it was out to the bars and we found a great place called Bonaparte Baixa. It was a cosy but lively bar with a relaxed vibe and quirky interior; a random selection of props lined the walls and lamps made from bottles dimly lit each table. After sampling their selection of port, we unsuccessfully tried to find another open bar nearby (Sundays) and ended up back at Bonaparte to wind up day 2.
The final morning we walked North to the more residential Cedofeita district, passing quaint little book stores and visiting the most beautiful church of the trip; Igreja da Lapa, which isn’t often mentioned in tour guides and is well worth the walk outside of the main city. We made our way towards the Bolhão Market, stopping off at the Confeitaria do Bolhão directly opposite; built in 1892 it’s worth a visit for its green tiles and wall-to-wall mirrors. The market itself was brilliant to walk around. The fruit, veg meat and cheeses are from local farmers, and you’ll also find arts, crafts, fabrics and woodwork too. Despite the inevitable souvenir stands, you still feel like you are immersed in the ‘real’ Porto.
A final stroll on the Dom Luis bridge is a nice chance to take in the views a final time and visually connect the dots between all of the places you’ve been. With just enough time for one more pastéis de nata, we collected our bags and caught the 4pm flight home. Without having known much about Porto, the overriding sense from the trip was an old city of history, rustic charm and cracking views, with all you would expect in a modernised country like Portugal. The size meant it had more than enough to see but was very walkable, ideal for a long weekend – especially in the low season with fewer other tourists. Obrigado Porto!
Handy tip: Megabus run a service practically made for pesky 6am flights from Manchester, direct from Birmingham to the airport, arriving at 4:30am.
N.B.: Although not a perfect solution, the author purchased carbon offsets to match the emissions from the flights. You can too at carbonfootprint.com/carbonoffset.