I first visited Portugal, The Algarve to be precise over 40 years ago, which I know must be hard to believe, as I don’t look a day over 30 (joke).
I’d been wanting to visit Porto for a long weekend for quite a few years, but it always got pushed back for a number of reasons, last year it was actually booked, but then Covid had other plans.
It took a few stressful hours of figuring out the paperwork and which tests were needed and although it felt like a lot of extra work for just a 3 day trip, I hadn’t been off the UK in 22 months, so it was something I was happy to overlook.
With all the documents loaded onto my phone and also printed out, mum and I speeded through security in minutes and after a short delay, boarded our half full plane for a brisk 2 hour flight south. Due to our late evening arrival, we checked into our hotel and went straight to bed, ready to hit the sights early the next morning.
First things first, I had to try a Pastel de Nata and a short walk from our hotel was the semi vegan bakery Pastelaria Tupi. Still slightly sleepy and not quite believing we were abroad at last, we ordered coffee, the famous Portuguese pastry and planned the day ahead.
I hadn’t done as much research for this trip as previous city breaks, mainly because so many trips had been cancelled since the pandemic, and I didn’t quite believe we would actually make the trip. So, with a mini Porto guide to hand, we decided to let that do the organising, and followed their UNESCO walking tour for the first few hours.
First up, it was a short walk downhill (Porto is very hilly by the way, so be prepared with good walking shoes) to the ridiculously ornate Church of São Francisco. The gothic building hints of its splendour inside by the rose window and spiralling columns that great you as you enter, but nothing quite prepares you for the opulent, golden baroque interior. The alter is particularly impressive and you would be hard pressed to find a spot that hadn’t been covered in gold at all.
It took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust to the natural light as we exited the church and into the adjoining museum to see all the related religious art. We then descended the stairs into the catacombs, where monks and notable local families are buried, you can wander along rows of tombs decorated with skulls and an ossuary filled with thousands of bones, truly fascinating if a bit eerie.
The church is just by the River Douro, so we walked along the river’s edge, past market stalls full of local crafts made of cork, towards the huge arched Dom Luís I Bridge, spotting boats full of barrels of port along the way.
Once we reached the bridge, our map took us left back towards the city centre, up some high steps and bricked walls, every so often as we stopped to get our breath, we were afforded some stunning views of the terracotta red roofs and the river below.
After a few lost turns, we made it to one of the cities oldest and highest buildings, the Se do Porto, otherwise known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady. A Romanesque style of architecture, comprising the Cathedral itself with a porch, rose window, narrow central nave and large silver altarpiece. I particularly liked the 14th century cloister decorated with beautiful blue tiles and somehow ended up being the unofficial photographer for the many other tourists all wanting their photos with the blue backdrop.
After a stop for lunch, we stumbled upon a speciality coffee place called the Calma Coffee Room, housed in the 150 year old Porto Commercial Atheneum. The room itself was originally the tea room, and the only place in the building where women were allowed, its small, but packed full of history, tiled walls, chandeliers and a large window which opens out to the busy street below, perfect for some people watching over your double expresso with oat milk.
Next up it was a short walk to what looks like at first glance a very large church, but on closer inspection its actually 2 churches with a thin house in the middle. Carmo and Carmelitas Churches comprise of one church originally just for nuns, whilst the other was specifically just for the monks, the house in the middle was possibly there to uphold an old law that says 2 churches can’t share a wall, or maybe just to keep the men and women apart! You can buy a ticket to visit all 3 buildings and it’s well worth a look inside and don’t miss the beautiful blue tiles on the outside side wall as well.
We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the streets close by, scrutinising menu’s for a place to eat our dinner and ended up at Noshi. It was a lovely friendly place, with a fully plant based menu, we sat outside and watched the trams pass by our table, and when the rain hit hard, our waiter arranged a taxi for us back to our hotel, even letting us wait inside after closing until our driver arrived, if we had stayed longer in the city, we would have definitely returned.
The rain continued into the next day, so after a snack in our hotel, we headed back down to the gothic Church of Sao Francisco, where the No 1 tram starts its journey along the bank of the River Duomo west to its final stop in Foz. This neighbourhood of Porto lies on the Atlantic Ocean, with beach cafes, bars, and a promenade with views of the rocky, sandy coastline, complete with lighthouse.
We went straight to The Bird for a tasty veggie lunch and it had pretty much stopped raining once we were replenished and ready to explore the front, so we headed down to the beach.
With the main tourist season over and of course Covid restrictions still in place, we had the beach almost to ourselves and it was wonderful to get lost in the views, the crashing of the waves against the rocks, boat spotting in the fog, dodging the high rising spray and of course keeping a close eye on the rising tide around our feet. I could have stayed longer, there is just something about a windy, wet coast line that is just invigorating and life affirming.
Foz do Douro lighthouse is located at the end of a breakwater as you walk back towards the tram stop. I was impressed by the waves crashing along the beach, but it was nothing compared to huge swell of water rocking and rolling around the red topped Felgueiras Lighthouse, which lies pretty much where the Douro River and Atlantic Ocean meet and if you look carefully you can see the colour changing as fresh river water pours out into the salty sea.
Last up was a walk back through the Jardim do Passeio Alegre a 19th century garden complete with palm trees, sculptures and fountains, and whilst we were there, also a little market selling local honeys and cheeses. Back on the tram into the centre of Porto, we headed to Amorino Santa Catarina for one of their famous flower ice creams, it was my first time to the ice cream chain, no actual dairy free ice cream was available, but there was a decent range of sorbets. and it looked so pretty, I still couldn’t resist.
Had a bit of a fail for dinner, all the places on my list were either close on Sundays, closed for private functions or fully booked. So we settled on a tapas bar close to our hotel, and I managed to just about make a full meal with the plant based dishes on offer, along with a couple of bottles of Super Bock of course!
Our final morning, and still a little hungry from the night before, we headed to Manna Porto for the most delicious breakfast and fresh coffee.
Then for a second time we walked past the Livraria Lello book shop, it’s next door to the ice cream parlour we had been too the day before and had a huge queue outside. Thinking it may be better at its opening time of 10.00am we walked past after our Manna breakfast, but the queue was even longer, so we decided to pass, always leave something to return to right?
One of the famous and striking features of Porto are the 6 bridges that span the Duomo, and its most popular is the double decker, iron arched Dom Luis bridge. You can drive or walk across the lower tier, and walk or catch the metro across the top tier. We walked across the top, for outstanding views across the river, full of pleasure cruises and the Rabelo‘s with their barrels of port setting off on their journeys.
Another advantage of taking the top tier across the river is you have less to climb to get to the Monastery of Serra do Pilar once you arrive on the other side. Unfortunately for us, it was closed on Mondays, but we still managed to walk around the exterior courtyard and got to enjoy more stunning views across the city.
They say what goes up, must come down, and as we wanted to stay on this side of the river and explore the area known as Cais de Gaia, you have two options, either walk back down to the riverside or you can catch the Cable Car. Mum wanted to save her legs, and I wasn’t complaining, so we slowly and smoothly floated above the city and the Port houses to arrive in the heart of Cais de Gaia full of bars, restaurants as well as the famous Port wine cellars. We wandered through little markets and down narrow streets dodging the hustle and bustle of the Port houses getting ready to export their sweet fortified wine across the globe.
We gradually made our way back along the Duomo, lined with heavily laden Rabelo’s and colourful riverside houses, it really feels like nowhere else, truly beautiful and unique.
We then took the lower tier of the bridge back across to the old town for a late lunch and final pastry, so we returned to Pastelaria Tupi for their vegan version of the traditional Francesinha sandwich and of course a Pastel de Nata.
We just had time for a walk to burn off our lunch before heading back to collect our bags and get a taxi to the airport, there was still a few things I would have love to have seen within the city, and future day trips I have my eye on. I definitely don’t aim to leave it another 40 years before my next trip. Portugal, you were wonderful.