There comes a defining juncture in every traveler’s life when they’re faced with the monumental choice of whether to move on or to stay; and often rounding out this already difficult situation is the additional pressure of travelling on borrowed time.
I knew my stint in Portugal was finite. 12 days to be precise.
As one set of wheels left Heathrow’s runway to succumb to the clouds, the others started churning ‘round my head with perceived visions of Coimbra, Evora, Porto and the Algarve. By the time my flight casually descended over the waters of the Tagus, a rough itinerary had taken seed with Lisbon as its root.
I spent the next few days immersing myself in the cultural fluencies that are the defining backbone of Lisboa and reveled in the outdoor culture, danced til the emergence of dawn, and left my comfort zone as I lunched – both standing and alone – on bifanas.
I was content for a while until the lesser-discussed plight of the solo traveler set in. Even freedom has its balance as all decisions whittle down to one individual – and one alone. The should I stay or should I go paradox invariably produces a ripple effect on any future experiences one may or may not have. It’s the bane of every indecisive traveler’s existence, especially those whose fear of missing out has them torn between leaving for new ventures or staying grounded for old endeavors experienced in a variety of light.
I had one night left in my hostel but another 8 days in the country. Do I extend my stay in Lisbon? If I choose to go, which direction? Do I follow new friends south to sun on the many beaches? Or do I continue my solo journey and board a northbound train?
Perched in an alcove along the fortified walls of the Castelo de Jorge with map in hand, I traced the various routes with my fingertips as a subconscious pattern formed where all tracks led to Porto.
Three hours north of Lisbon and nestled at the base of the Douro Valley, this historical port town is a city of contrasts as Roman ruins loiter beneath medieval streets; bell towers kiss the heavens as the river rushes to meet the eternal depths of the Atlantic Ocean; slender alleys twist round terraced buildings to merge with sprawling plazas; and the Portuguese port wine tradition remains steeped in English culture.
While transient travelers asserted one only needs a mere 3 days in Porto, I found myself in opposition as I stood willingly enraptured by its alluring magnetism – an attraction with an underlying strength that lures you into booking “just one more night”.
Which I did. 5 days in a row. Effectively dumping the rest of my travel plans into the Douro River as I spent the last of my Portuguese days aimlessly drifting about Porto.
Much like its famous port wine, Porto has an air of aged refinement in its cultural variances that are best sampled slowly and deliberately, leaving you with a lingering sentimental buzz unmatched by any experience in other vintage European cities.
Get Lost in the Narrow Streets and Steep Hills
Porto is a walking city.
Ok, ok there may be the slight risk of death-by-stairs. Or maimed-by-car-coming-around-the-corner. Or the less dramatic twisted-ankle-curtesy-of-all-that-cobblestone.
Ok, so maybe it’s just me and I’m a complete masochist (an issue I’ll take up with my therapist at a later date) but there is nothing more pleasurable than losing yourself in the twisting alleys and passageways of this city.
Sure every corner may hide yet another staircase, hills may magically sprout up at every bend, and your shins may take on human characteristics as they scream and curse at you for the unintended torture inflicted upon them.
But whether it’s finding yourself completely alone amongst the conflicting beauty of dilapidated neighborhoods, stumbling upon hidden food stalls and authentic Portuguese restaurants, resting on the steps alongside stray cats while watching local women sell candy to passerby school children, or appreciating relative silence accompanied only by laundry lines ruffling in the river winds – these nuances are something even Porto’s efficient public transportation system can’t show you.
Stroll the Length of the Ribeira
Outside the twists and turns of the city’s interior streets lies the flat waterfront area of the Ribeira. Situated along the Douro River, this designated UNESCO World Heritage site is prettily piled with timeworn buildings whose edifices are splashed with lustrously bright colors not unlike those found in a box of crayons.
A hub for commercial activity since the Middle Ages, the main plaza of the Ribeira District remains a popular gathering spot with scores of umbrellaed tables encircling its flowing fountain. Bustling restaurants and cafes line the area; however, meandering further down the river allows for the same waterside views while offering a respite from the overwhelming throng of tourists.
Sample delicious mid-afternoon petiscos at one of the quayside tables outside Bacalhau or watch the boats drift by while sipping a crisp and cool Minho Rosé at Vinhas D’Alho. Along the way, you may even glimpse a local model-maker crafting wooden ships in his workshop.
Cross the Top of the Ponte Luiz I
Back in its glory days, the Ponte Luiz I was the longest bridge of its type in the world. Though no longer claiming that title, it still stands as an iconic landmark of Porto and is known for bearing a resemblance to the structural integrity of the Eiffel Tower – which is really no surprise as an old partner of Gustave Eiffel was the master engineer behind the ambitious project.
Traversing the Douro River via the upper pedestrian causeway of the Ponte Luiz I delivers breathtaking (only some of which may be triggered by vertigo) panoramic views of the orange tiled rooftops on the building-stacked hills of Porto and the cross-river town of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Sample Port Wine at the Less Travelled Lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia
Port wine is perhaps the best known export to hail from Porto but is peculiarly enough, drenched in English culture – for it was the English who are credited with its booming trade success. Britain turned to Portuguese lands for wine production during the 1600’s when French wars led to a boycott on the importation of wines from France. Thus Port was born and the influence of the English can still be seen in the monikers of producers such as Cockburn, Dow, and Craft.
While the vineyards are further north in the Douro Valley, all Port is transported down to the area of Vila Nova de Gaia where it’s then stirred, aged, and stored. Over 60 tasting rooms pile these hills and are available to visitors wishing to sample and learn about the different variations of this sweet dessert wine.
As most people transcend from the Ponte Luiz I bridge, they make a beeline for the downhill path leading toward the Port lodges adorning the riverbank – most of which are rammed with tourists and aren’t necessarily the top producers of Port wine.
However, wandering the desolate roads up into the hills (yes – more hills) to lodges such as Taylor’s or Graham’s is worth the effort as both are among the most reputable Port wine producers and offer unparalleled experiences. Upon arriving at Taylor’s, I paid 5 Euro for a tour of the cellars (which also included 3 samples of Port wine) and ended up on an unintentional private tour as a circumstance of proper timing.
I then journeyed over to Graham’s on the heels of my tour guide’s recommendation and found I was only one of 4 on this particular cellar tour. It also included a tasting afterward where I sat along the railing that looked out over Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, and the river in-between while listening to the story about how a bottled port from 1952 was released with the Royal Palace’s seal of approval to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
Be Charmed by the Facades of the Smaller Cathedrals
While most will tell you a visit to the Se do Porto, Church of S. Nicolau or the Clerigos Church is a must, I prefer the smaller cathedrals hidden amidst the less-congested streets on the outskirts of the city center.
As you aimlessly mosey around Porto, you’ll find them mingled in amongst covered markets, townhomes, cafes, banks, and businesses. You don’t even have to know their history to find them compellingly charming.
Peruse Books at the World’s Most Endearing Bookstore
Livraria Lello was one of those places I didn’t know that I already knew about. You know – the one that’s been repinned on Pinterest more times than those prom posters lining your high school hallway.
As I stepped inside and recognized the red staircase cushioned between the worn wooden casing from the photographs I’d seen floating around the internet, I came to the belated conclusion that Oh, I guess this is in Porto then.
Based on the troves of tourists wearing holes in the steps as they marched up and down with their colossal cameras hanging about their necks – I assumed they were less ignorant than me and did in fact know this was in Porto and specifically added it to their ‘must see’ list rather than relying on happenstance to just stumble upon it.
Surely it can’t stay this crowded forever, I thought as I cracked open my book and settled into an uninhabited nook beneath the first floor shelves (an area much less crowded than the stained-glass windowed second floor). Leaving this world for an hour did the trick as I finally surfaced from the ongoing saga in King’s Landing to find the bookstore devoid of the sightseers that appeared to arrive in waves.
Despite the maddening crowds, it’s still the world’s most endearing bookstore and well worth a visit, though it’s undoubtedly best appreciated at an unhurried pace with a good book in hand.
Cruise up the River to the Douro Valley
Tour companies boasting 45 minute river rides can be found dotted all along the Ribeira and while they’re pretty in their own right, they’re only teasers for the real thing. Instead, take a cruise all the way up into the Douro Valley where lush, green vineyards are nurtured along either side of the glistening water.
Disembark in one of the nearby towns of Peso de Regua or Pinhao to tour one of the quintas nestled in the hilltops. The makers of Graham’s port wine in Pinhao opened up their vineyard doors at Quinta do Bomfim for the first time to visitors this past May and I was fortunate enough to be there the same day the Prime Minister held a luncheon for its official inauguration.
Graham’s 6 Grapes Reserve pairs perfectly with the melt-in-your-mouth 6 Grapes dark chocolate bar and is a not-to-be-missed combination come tasting time. Should you wish to stay overnight, beautiful accommodation can be found directly next door at The Vintage House where the sight of the setting sun is best savored from the solitude of your river-facing private balcony.
For more on the Douro Valley check out this article I wrote for Coastal Lifestyle Magazine: The Port Wine Tradition of Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Take the Train Back Down to Porto
Portugal’s best kept secret is its exquisite train depots tucked away in the quaint towns of the Douro Valley.
Often ornamented with distinctive blue and white tiled mosaics depicting scenes of the port wine harvesting tradition, these stations should be designated sites in and of themselves.
The three hour train ride from Pinhao back to Porto is considered to be one of the most scenic railways in the world. It winds its way through the valley as it hugs the curve of the river until reaching its final destination at Sao Bento Station – another gem in Porto.
Eat a Francesinha
Porto may have conceived the best hangover food ever devised – the francesinha.
This messy lump of salty goodness is a meat trifecta of ham, sausage, and steak framed between two slices of bread and smothered beneath broiled cheese topped with a beer-based sauce. The sauce recipe remains a secret and marginally differs from bistro to bistro as no one truly knows which is the original. The above hails from Café Santiago and tastes like a heart attack on a plate.
A bit of a murky history surrounds the name as rumors pertaining to its christening tend to exaggerate from local to local. The common gist of it is it loosely translates to “French girl” and has less to do with the fact that it was inspired by France’s delectable croque monsieur and more to do with the datum that its creator was a philanderer who preferred French mini-skirt fashion over the more conservative leanings of Portuguese dress.
Discover Nature at Portugal’s Only National Park
If you were to arbitrarily ask a group of strangers to rank Portugal on a scale of 1 to 10 in the ‘outdoor adventure sports’ category, they’d probably just stare inquisitively and say “Does Portugal even have outdoor activities outside of beach soccer?”
Can’t really say I blame them. Portugal isn’t exactly known in the guidebook as a “Top 10 World Hiking Destination”.
In fact, there’s only 1 National Park in the entire country and after lingering in Porto practicing the little know sports of overeating and overdrinking (and was carrying an extra 10 pounds to prove my skill level), I thought it best to use something other than the hills and stairs as my natural gym equipment.
Peneda-Geres National Park is not the most easily accessible place if you find yourself sans car but fortunately there are a few companies who offer Porto as a base for day tours to the park that include activities such as hiking, visiting traditional villages, wild swimming, driving along old Roman roads, and even megalithic monument spotting.
Since I occasionally like to pretend that I’m a badass experienced outdoorsmen (fact – I’m not), I thought I’d skip the hiking part and go straight to canyoning. I arranged the trip through Oporto Adventure Tours who partnered me up with another group led by Toboga who safely got me through an adventure packed day of rock scrambling, rugged zip-lining, lagoon swimming, abseiling, and cliff jumping.
I only screamed for help once, inhaled water into my lungs twice, bruised my leg in 6 spots, and slipped off more rocks than I have fingers and toes to count upon.
It was the most fun I’ve had. Ever.
I loved it so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if Toboga complained that I gave them too much praise with my overly abundant Facebook and Instagram posts (just wait – I have an entire dedicated blog story forthcoming).
So while extending my stay in Porto meant I would miss out on exploring the University of Coimbra, the beaches of the Algarve, and the sanctuaries of Braga – the lingering effects of Porto will stay with me for a long time, making every minute I spent there well worth it.
Plus, any excuse to go back to Portugal right?
Have you ever found it hard to leave a city while traveling? Let me know in the comments below!
For more posts on Portugal check out the country’s designated destination page.
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