Why have I never been to Porto before? It has to be one of the great European cities – it’s home to Port, the food is fab, there’s tons to do and a river runs through it. Although the second largest city in Portugal, Porto feels like a small town – the perfect weekend break. Don’t be fooled by the lull of the placid Douro River as it meanders through town. Almost around the corner, lies the rough Atlantic Ocean that saw much activity in Porto’s early days when the Portuguese began conquering the unknown (to them) world.
Porto, these days, draws them in with its UNESCO protected historical center filled with cafes, museums, and views to die for. There are so many Best Bits that it was hard for me to choose just ten!
Home to the UK’s after-dinner beverage choice, bar none! Wearing my Best Sips hat, I just had to pick Port as the Number 1 Best Bit in Porto. Grab a cab and head over to Gaia, the other side of the Douro River, to tour Taylor’s Distillery and have a tasting. Don’t just hit one of them – visit Graham’s for lunch on their terrace and Espaço Porto Cruz for dinner for an amazing view of the Bishop’s Palace.
2. Lello & Brothers
It has to be on the list. Not to be missed – the famed Lello & Brothers bookstore, where JK Rowling might or might not have conceived Harry Potter! Let’s remember, Lello & Brothers was considered one of the world’s great bookstores 110 years before Dolores Jane Umbridge “Hem-Hemed.” Invariably a line forms outside the door that will have you muttering, “no way am I going to wait for that!” Just buy the €5 ticket and join the queue. You can deduct the €5 from any purchase. Our guide said that modern Portuguese authors in translation are the #1 choice for visitors to buy – 5000 books are sold a week! Truly a wonder of Art Nouveau design, the library swells and heaves with the weight of so many people. If you look closely, you realize the entire place is made out of concrete not wood, even the gargoyles, which may or may not have inspired a certain English author.
3. Cais de Ribeira
Stroll down the Cais de Ribeira – the charming riverside promenade full of restaurants and cafes. Pick one, order lunch, and whittle away the hours as lunch turns into cocktail time. I suggest the marvelous Fish Fixe. We had a tapas of their delicacies, sampling some of the best seafood this side of the ocean:
Salada de Polvo em molho verde (Octopus salad with parsley and olive oil)
Bolinhos de Bacalhau (fried Codfish balls mixed with smashed potato, and parsley)
Pataniscas de bacalhau – fried Codfish with flour (sort of tempura)
Mexilhões – stewed mussels in olive oil and garlic
Arroz de marisco – Seafood rice
4. Ponte Luís I
While dining on all the freshest of seafood at Fish Fixe, it’s hard not to miss the Ponte Luís I. Does it remind you of another European city’s masterpiece? You would not be wrong if you guessed the Eiffel Tower! Opened to 1886 to much fanfare, the Ponte was designed by a student of the famed Gustave and links Porto with Gaia, home to all the port distilleries.
5. Palácio da Bolsa
After gazing at the bridge with your tummy sated, head up to town and take a tour of the Palácio da Bolsa (the Stock Exchange). Several architects were on hand to create this Neoclassical homage to the art of moneymaking, but the one to remember is Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves e Sousa. Although almost all the rooms are spectacular, the so-called Arab Room is the one that draws them in and we have Gonçalves e Sousa to thank for it. Built between 1862 and 1880 in the Moorish Revival style, its description is “over-the-top”. Look closely and you will see that it is also made of concrete – the fashion around town, just like Lello & Brothers!
6. São Bento Railway Station
Rush, rush, rush. No one ever really pays attention to a train station, as you are just trying to get your train. There are a few that people visit on purpose– Grand Central in New York, Saint Pancras in London and São Bento Railway Station in Porto. The interior is covered in the painted blue and white tiles that were are so popular throughout all of Portugal. These depict themes of travel, landscapes and, battle scenes where, of course, Portugal kicked ass!
7. Casa da Música
It’s meant to look like a meteor that has plopped right down in the center of Porto. At least, that’s what Rem Koolhass was going for in his design for the new Casa da Música. Inside it’s a wonder of acoustics with tiger stripes, gold walls and rippling glass to make the music sound absolutely WOW. Opening in 2005, even 10 years down the line, it’s considered cutting edge.
8. Fundação de Serralves & Museu de Arte Contemporânea
Make sure you head here in the afternoon, the quiet, the walks, the art…all make for the perfect after lunch activity. Explore not just the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Álvaro Siza, but also the fabulously pink Art Deco Serralves Villas set within manicured gardens. Spend a few hours just wandering around and then head to town for a White Port & Tonic.
The Douro River
A great way to see a city with water is by getting on that water. We spent a morning with FeelDouro exploring the banks of the Douro. With the sun shining and a nibble of the homemade cake and sip of Clã Moscatel Douro – it was the best part of the day.
10. The Atlantic
We were picked up by Classico Porto‘s classic cars and driven past Foz, a sweet village right outside the city centre, to get to ocean. It’s only a short ten minutes, but it feels as if you are on the tip of the world. Opening the window of my Ford, I felt the memories of summers in the Vineyard smack me in the face. So different from the Med, the Atlantic is all salty, fishy, and oystery. Maybe Vasco da Gama felt the same way as he headed into waters unchartered.
What are your Best Bits of Portugal?? I am always keen to know more!
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