For Julie’s 40th Birthday we wanted a getaway to remember. We decided on Portugal because it touted a little of everything we love—charming cities, breathtaking beaches, copious wine, and far fewer backpacking college kids and bus tours than the rest of Europe.
Porto is everything you want out of a European city and nothing you don’t. Its charming narrow streets are perfect for getting lost, its musicians bring every sun-drenched city square to life, and its instagram-worthy azueleja tiles cover both beautiful and blighted buildings alike.
Contributing to our early love affair with Porto was, after checking in to our boutique hotel made for a writer, Porto A.S. 1829, home to an old stationary outpost, we serendipitously ran into two of our friends from Chicago at an outdoor café. Michael’s family is from Portugal so we used our afternoon with them to get to know Porto like locals.
What to see in Porto:
Ponte de Dom Luis Bridge: A dramatic bridge welcomes pedestrians and trains on one level and cars beneath. It offers great views of the city and you’ll often find kids vying for tips to jump in the swift-moving river below.
Port Tasting in the Ribeira: Walk over the Ponte de Dom Luis Bridge on the top level and take the graffiti along the way. Once on the other side, get your fill of white, rose, and tawny Port wines all with 19-12% alcohol, so don’t be afraid to split the tastings. For a bird’s eye view and to save some steps, take the tram back to base of the bridge after you’re done.
Sao Bento Train Station: Centrally located in Porto was a train station to make all other European train stations try harder. Covered in blue and white hand painted azueleja tiles, it was quintessentially Porto and a must-see.
Livraria Lello: The book store itself was a bit of a tourist trip, but its romantic red stair case that served as inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s staircase in Harry Potter is worth seeing.
Igreja de Sto Idelfonso: The colorful blue tiled outside of this church is a refreshing departure from the other “seen one, seen them all” churches of Europe. It doesn’t cost anything to step inside, but the outside is the reason to make it a stop on your walking tour. To take in another blue beauty, continue on to the Capella das Almas.
What to eat in Porto:
Francesinha: Part of the reason we love to travel is discovering local fare you can’t find anywhere else. If you’re in Porto, that is a big, gooey sandwich called the Francesinha. It’s a typical hangover breakfast with sausage and beef and then smothered in a cheese/tomato sauce. It’s definitely a fork and knife affair and the best ones are at local cafes/snack bars.
Sardines: Portugal is known for its seafood and lightly fried sardines are a great lunch, often served with potatoes and peppers. They are much larger than sardines you find in the States (about 6-8 inches) and they come with both head and tail, so either chomp through the bones or be ready to de-bone it yourself.
Puro 4050: Although Porto isn’t overwrought with tourists in September, it’s burgeoning foodie scene makes reservations critical. One of our best meals in all of Portugal was at Puro 4050 for Italian-style tapas in the Sao Domingos Square near our hotel. The small plates and pasta were perfectly cooked and entire dinner with a great bottle of red wine from the Alentejo region was only 55 Euros.
Cantinho do Avillez: Our friends Jonathan and Michael recommended this restaurant and not only were we blown away, but we set off on a gastronomic stalking tour of the chef, Jose Avillez. If you try one thing at this restaurant, make it the tuna tatitki appetizer. It’s decadent butter sauce is now on my last supper list without a doubt. For entrees, Julie had traditional cod with exploding olives that was superb, and I had scallop/mushroom risotto. To end, we had indulgent hazelnut dessert that impressed even this dessert-avoiding blogger.
Stepping out of our taxi for the first time in Porto reminded me of my first trip to Europe back in 1997. We were instantly transported to a time and place where the meals lasted longer, the late September sun seemed warmer, and life moved at a pace and with a smile that can only mean one thing. You’re back in Europe again.
Tip on Tipping: Tipping is not mandatory in Portugal. If you have superior service, 10% is an appropriate amount for a meal. Many taxi drivers will be pleasantly taken aback if you round up your ride to include an extra Euro or two.