I had been planning to visit Portugal with my boyfriend since the summer so when the time finally came over Christmas vacation we were more than excited. Our trip began in Portugal’s second largest city – Porto. Historically Porto was known for its significance as a shipping port (hence the name Porto) but today this colorful city has so much more to offer. From Romanesque to Art Nouveau to Gothic architecture, Port wine, incredible azulejos ceramic tiles, the Douro River, and hearty cuisine Porto has a little bit of everything. While the city isn’t huge, our two days were jam packed with activities, historical sites and (as usual) copious amounts of food!
We started our first day at the São Bento railway station, one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. The inside is covered with 20,000 breathtaking ceramic tiles depicting the history of Portugal. It’s located in the city center so from there it is easy to walk to some of the other main attractions.
Seeing the Livraria Lello book shop was next on our list. Yet another architectural jewel in Porto, it’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Despite the crowd and long line to get in the interior and intricate details really are stunning. I was definitely geeking out since this place is rumored to be an inspiration for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (later on I did some research and found out she lived in Porto for several years during the 90s teaching English). Can you fellow Harry Potter fans see any similarities between the book shop’s staircase and the one described in Hogwarts?!
Just a few minutes walking distance from Livraria Lello is the Clérigos Church and bell tower. It’s easy to spot considering its around 250 feet tall. I’m all about finding the best views and the Clérigos Tower is well-worth visiting. Once we made it up the steep, spiral staircase there was a decent panoramic view over the old town and the Douro River.
After all this walking our hunger was building and the smells wafting in from the bakeries and restaurants were becoming torturous. I wanted to try something both traditional and filling and O Afonso turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The Francesinha is one of Porto’s most unique/signature dishes. It’s a sandwich layered in ham, sausage and steak then covered in cheese and a spicy tomato beer sauce. In my mind it’s the kind of sandwich someone would invent after a night out drinking. It’s not something I could eat on a daily basis but it’s one of those things you just have to try while in Porto. I noticed a signed photo of Anthony Bourdain hanging on the wall above our table and our server told us he actually ate here while filming his “Parts Unknown” series!
We resisted the urge to immediately head back to our air bnb and nap off the Francesinhas in the pursuit of exploring more. Porto is insanely hilly and made up of narrow, cobbled streets. My thighs were already feeling the burn but it was nothing a little after lunch cocktails at Miradouro Ignez couldn’t help alleviate.
As darkness crept up we headed towards the Dom Luís I bridge to do some people watching. Sometimes the unplanned aspects of traveling turn out to be the most special. Wandering around the Ribeira district, talking to locals and finding a quiet spot to watch the sunset with my favorite person were some of my favorite moments.
I’ve never claimed to be much of a morning person, but somehow waking up to the sunlight streaming in our cozy studio and knowing there were several Portuguese pastries waiting to be eaten made getting out of bed significantly easier. On this day I discovered my love for the bite size pieces of heaven known as pastel de nata (the sacred Portuguese egg custard pastry dusted with cinnamon).
Our morning/afternoon continued at the Crystal Palace Gardens. Supposedly the most romantic spot in Porto, I imagine the gardens are even more beautiful during the spring and summer months. There were plenty of small side streets to wander through as we made our way back to the city center. The Sé Cathedral is located right in the heart of the historic UNESCO World Heritage Site of central Porto. It’s one of the city’s oldest monuments and has an unmistakably Romanesque influence. Surprisingly it wasn’t crowded so I was able to get a few pictures without a bunch of people standing around.
For lunch we stopped by the famous snack bar Conga. The restaurant was crowded and we had to wait in a line for a little before getting seated but I was determined to try to most famous “Bifanas” in town. Bifanas are thinly sliced pork sandwiches with a spicy sauce. A simple recipe but the secret sauce is what makes the sandwich so famous. For a couple sandwiches, tapas and beer our bill was under 20 euros. I couldn’t resist stopping at Nata Lisboa for some hot off the oven pastel de natas for dessert.
From there we scoped out a nice spot to watch the sunset. The downside of traveling during December is that the sun goes down early but we couldn’t complain because the weather was so beautiful. I think one of the things I loved most about Porto was the fact that it’s so underrated. Everyone talks about Lisbon being the most popular destination in Portugal but for me Porto offered a more authentic slice of Portuguese life. There’s less tourists, a more relaxed vibe, it’s budget friendly and you’re bound to run into something that catches your eye just by strolling along the magical streets.