I lived in Portugal in the 1990s and still travel there regularly. I have a very vague recollection of having only once visited the country’s second largest city, Porto. So, when my wife’s family decided on a holiday in the North of Portugal, we used the opportunity to make a side trip to Porto over a long weekend.
Our visit began with an overnight in Pinhão, a small village approximately 75 miles east of Porto, for a Douro River cruise. It is possible to do the same excursion as part of an organized day trip by bus from Porto, but we did not relish the thought of spending most of the day on a shuttle bus as part of a tour group. It turned out to be much more pleasant to visit a few wineries in the vicinity of Pinhão on our own and book two spots on a manageable, two-hour cruise on the Douro River.
For the weekend stay in Porto, we booked a hotel on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Douro, which turned out to be an excellent location, slightly removed from the masses of tourists that had descended on the city. We were caught off guard by the sheer volume of visitors that seemed even more overwhelming due to the disruption caused by construction of a new underground rail extension in the city center. It seems these days that nowhere in Europe escapes the throngs of tourists!
The first order of business was to take in the views from several prime vantage points around the city, beginning with a ride on the suspended cable car (teleferico) to the base of the Serra do Pilar Monastery. This was followed by an equally impressive view while ambling across the upper deck of the Dom Luis I Bridge, an iconic metal arched bridge that links Vila Nova de Gaia to Porto. Once on the Porto side it is a short walk to the Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) for yet another terrific vantage point to view the Douro and the city. The cloister housed in the interior of the Porto Cathedral is delightfully adorned with typical Portuguese azulejos (blue and white glazed ceramic tiles).
We found the Church of São Francisco to be even more compelling. Located a few blocks from the waterfront (Ribeira do Porto), the interior of this 14th century Gothic Church is adorned with elaborate baroque alterpieces and its underground catacombs are the resting place of Franciscan monks and members of Porto’s wealthy families. You will find some nice restaurants and wine bars on the Ribeira – we began one evening at Wine Quay Bar with a couple of selections from the extensive list of wines by the glass, followed by an excellent dinner at Ode restaurant.
The gastronomy of Porto, for the most part, did not disappoint. Vinum restaurant and wine bar, located on a hill in Vila Nova de Gaia had excellent views of the city, but despite being highly touted on some travel sites (among them the usually dependable, Tripadvisor), it proved to be disappointing and poor value for money. Much more reliable local fare at more reasonable prices was discovered at Tapabento, adjacent to the São Bento train station, and Postigo do Carvão, an authentic Portuguese restaurant catering to locals on a back street near the Ribeira.
No trip to Porto is complete without an introduction to the city’s most famous export – port wine. On the waterfront of the Vila Nova de Gaia side are more than 50 port wine houses and tasting rooms, which makes choosing a few for sampling Porto’s most famous libation a bit daunting. My only memory of the previous visit to Porto so many years ago was of a very tedious tour of the Sandeman Port House, from which my takeaways were a) I do not need another tour of a port wine cellar and b) we would taste the offerings of a few other port wine houses. So we settled on Noval, Kopke and Cálem, all of which were very enjoyable for different reasons – the Kopke tasting came with chocolates and cookies and the Noval tasting offered a diverse range of options for a single tasting.