Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Porto: Portugal's Gem

I've discovered the best-kept secret to traveling: do it in January!  The hostels are empty, the sidewalks walkable and restaurants eager for patrons.  And the must-see tourist spots much, much less crowded than in the summertime.  

Such has been my experience, anyway, in Porto, this little slice of paradise in Northern Portugal.  

Through happy serendipity, my sister and I both found ourselves in Porto these past few days.  I visited the city last August and have since then wanted to return.  

A City by the River....and the Sea

Porto is located on the Douro River, with six bridges connecting it to the neighboring town of Gaia.  And it's only a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean.  The city offers hop-on hop-off bus tours in addition to river cruises.  My sister and I rode the bus, which took us out to the ocean and back along the Douro River.  Although the beach is rocky, the city has a walkway along the beautiful ocean strip and the river, making it a wonderful spot to walk or jog.

Porto is Portugal's second-largest city, behind Lisbon.  With a population just over 200,000, it's large enough to offer a wide selection of restaurants and theaters, and has a great bus system and metro for getting around the city

Getting our sweet-tooth and caffeine fix

Porto's a wonderful destination for pastries; bakeries showcasing assortments of sweet treats dot every street corner.  --Lovely to look at as well as to eat!  Over the past few days we've had meringues, cake, and cookies as well as waffles and hazelnut toast with Nutella.  For a girl coming off of four months in Hong Kong it was a carb-lover's paradise.  Yum! 

As well as coffee: espresso solo, cafe con leche, cappuccino, americano.  We've had them all and still managed to fall asleep at night. 

We managed find a brief lull in other patrons using the staircase.  

Hitting the Tourist Hotspots

We visited the beautiful Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore), located just a few minutes from the Wine Hostel.  Frequently named one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, its interior features a winding red staircase and ornate wood decoration.  It sells books in both English and Portuguese. 

Entering the bookstore costs five euros, which is refundable with a store purchase.  We're happy to have seen the Lello in January; even during this slower time of year it was quite crowded. 

J.K. Rowling, who started writing her Harry Potter series at the Cafe Majestic on Rua de Santa Catarina, used to frequent this bookstore, and uses the setting as inspiration in her books. 

Just before my sister left we climbed the Clerigos Tower.  This tower is part of a baroque church completed in the 1760s.  At 76 meters, it's the highest point in Porto, providing a beautiful 360-degree view of the city.  It was a clear day and we could see all the way out to the ocean. 

The tower costs five euros to climb.  The winding staircase became narrow towards the top, causing frequent traffic jams.  This was another time when we were happy to be touring in January, as I could imagine the climb would be much slower in the summertime. 

Eating like a local

At Cafe Santiago on Rua Catarina, we tried Porto's famous Francesihna sandwich, which we quite enjoyed.  Meaning “Little French Woman” and originating around the 1950s, this local sandwich consists of thick bread, ham, Portuguese sausage, and steak, topped with cheese, sometimes an egg, and special sauce. Each restaurant has developed its own sauce recipe, our waitress explained. 

Note: share the Francesihna with a friend unless you're up for a hearty meal! 

At a hidden spot recommended to us by hostel staff, we dined on delicious tapas, including cod-cakesautéed mushrooms and clams with rice.  It was nice to eat some seafood as this is real local fare.

Most locals speak some English, so you can get around not knowing any Portuguese.  It's helpful to know how to say “thank you” in Portuguese, however: say 'obrigado' if you're a gentlemen, and it's 'obrigada' for the ladies. 

4 Euro for breakfast?! Do I have that right?

You might be wondering: how much is all of this going to cost? 

Answer: not a whole lot. 

Portugal is a very affordable city. We got manicures at a salon on Rua de Santa Catarina for seven euros.  A pasty with coffee generally costs two to three euros, and the two of us could eat dinner for under 20 euros combined

Also a great city for shopping, Porto features clothing stores along Rua de Santa Catarina, outdoor markets and many stores selling exclusively handmade souveniors. 

Traveling to nearby Portugal and Spain 

Whether by plane, train, or bus, it's easy and affordable to travel from Porto to neighboring cities. My sister took a bus to the Spanish Coast for seven euros, and I am planning to visit Fatima by bus for twelve.  You can fly to Porto on Ryan Air for as little as 25 euros from many European cities.  The train from Lisbon takes about two hours and costs about the same. 

The best spot in Europe?

Between the stunning views, the gastronomy, architecture, affordability, and artisan vibe, I'm not at all surprised that Porto has been named Europe's Best Destination.  I visited five countries and numerous cities last year and consider it my finest discovery! 

Have you been to Europe?  Where was your favorite place to stay?  

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