Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher. – Evelyn Waugh
We are back after our re-entry back to the States. We’ll have a number of updates and a few recaps of the year but look out for a few posts on Portugal where we spent September. Here is our take on Porto.
We spent most of September in Portugal. It is a great month to visit as the weather is perfect. And although it tends to be a busy tourist time, it is not too hard to find plenty of spots away from the hot spots. Porto, for example, has a number of neighborhoods with hotels that are only a kilometer or so from the city center but provide a bit more of a local experience. We spent the better part of the week over two different visits in Porto (an easy 3 hour train ride from Lisboa) and enjoyed the city. There is a lot of history, port wine production and waterfront to keep things interesting. The small streets with their colorful buildings, tiled mosaics and street art make exploring the back alleys a lot of fun. And the city is also extremely photogenic providing endless vantage points with unique views of the water, its six bridges and the historical monuments and buildings.
Portugal’s cities are known for its tile work and Porto does not disappoint here. Tiles are used everywhere and are very popular on the sides of homes and buildings.
Of course, one can not visit the city without tasting some of the port wine that is produced there. Most of the grapes are grown in the Duoro Valley, and one can take a boat ride up the river to visit the vineyards as a day trip from Porto (our schedule did not allow us to make the trip this time). Grapes are barged down to the city to a number of port lodges that blend, bottle and age the wine.
Like many wineries, many of the port lodges (wine making facilities) are quite spectacular and designed to host visitors, Some include hotels and restaurants. Here is a good list of some of the top ones. We visited Graham’s Port lodge for some tasting and a tour of their facilities. Graham’s is one of the oldest lodges in Porto and blends some very good port; and was a favorite of Sir Winston Churchill.
Port wine is a perfect way to start or finish a good meal. Production is quite different than most wines as it blended using up to 135 different grape varieties and then fortified with alcohol. Out of the three types of port – ruby, tawny, and vintage – vintage tends to be the best and will age quite well. Port is available around the world, but it is worth grabbing a bottle during your visit here as the selection and pricing is quite good if you avoid the tourist shops. (Tip: once open, store your bottle in the fridge. Ruby will last for 6 weeks and the others up to 4 months).
The Livraria Lello bookstore is a worthwhile stop while in Porto. It is said to have been a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling during her writing of the Harry Potter stories. She lived in Portugal for some time and was said to visit this book shop often. Its architecture as well as many of its student customers, donned in their school uniforms complete with capes, are familiar images to readers of those stories. (Note: the shop can get busy and due to its size it often requires waiting in a line outside).
Navigating the city center is easy on foot, but streets can be hilly. It is definitely worth getting out of the center for a look around. Directly across the river is the neighborhood of Vila Nova de Gaia, where there are a number of restaurants and port lodges and its location provides some great shots of Porto city. Further afield, west along the river and north on the ocean provide some interesting perspectives of the city that are much less touristy. You can take a tram out to the lighthouse to check out the beach or rent a bike and head along the boardwalk and chat with the local fishermen found up and down the coast. We put on our running shoes and ran out to the coast along the river a number of times, and it was a great way to experience local life.
There are plenty of good eats in Porto, and we enjoyed a number of dishes. Our favorites included the vinho verde – a young, bubbly green wine perfect for the hot days; bacalhau – salt cod that is prepared in many different ways including some tasty stews (the fish mostly comes from Canada and Norway nowadays, but the Portuguese now how to prepare it); and tripas a moda do Porto which is a bit like the Portuguese version of cassoulet. Get out of the city center and off of Trip Advisor for eating in Porto. Take a walk down side streets or head west a bit and look for a crowded local taverna for a bite. (We found Uber the most efficient way to move about in the city).
We would not recommend eating at McDonald’s here or back in the States but their location in Porto needs to be visited. Zoning laws in the city require that the outside facade of original structures must be left as intended, and details inside historical buildings must be retained. During a tough time during the city’s history, McDonald’s was able to purchase an old art decco building (there are a lot in the city) that was a very popular night club in the past. The resulting restaurant is one of the most opulent McDonald’s you will ever visit anywhere in the world.
The hype on Portugal in the travel industry right now is extreme and you can most appreciate it’s impact in the two large cities- Porto and Lisboa. Development is booming. Historical renovations, public transport projects, boardwalks and waterfront land development projects are everywhere in the two cities. It will be quite interesting to visit in 3-5 years when a lot of these projects will be complete.