This is the first destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.
The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced was our first stop in Portugal. With a history dating back to the 3rd century BC, and having passed through the hands of the Celts, Romans, and Moors, with all having added something to the history of this lovely city. With a four night stay in Porto, it afforded me plenty of opportunity to explore the medieval center of town, the Douro river front, tour some of the Port wine cellars, and simply be a local for the Christmas holiday.
It was quite the voyage leading to our arrival in Porto, with a Transatlantic flight from my home base in Atlanta to Madrid, a layover in Madrid with a connecting flight to Lisbon, then a train from Lisbon to Porto, ending with a taxi to the apartment from the airport. The flight to Lisbon was delayed, causing us to miss our scheduled train to Porto, and required new tickets with all of the associated hassle. It was a great joy on arrival, if for no other reason – no more planes, trains, or taxis for a four nights.
I booked the Porto apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in an ideal location. It had wonderful views of the Douro River from its back windows, and more nice views of the square of the Palacio da Bolsa, and the Jardim do Enfante Dom Henrique from the front windows. It was cozy, with all of the accommodations needed for a four night stay, including a washing machine which is very important for us, as we travel light with only carry-on luggage. The Douro River walk, the historic and medieval parts of town, as well as dozens of restaurants and cafes were easily accessible within a few minutes walk from this wonderful location.
Below are some of the wonderful views we enjoyed from the apartment.
We took Porto at a very leisurely pace. It’s what it demanded. There was so much to see, and there was no hurry to get it done. There were several points of interest on our first day of exploration, starting with Vila Nova de Gaia, right along the Douro River. The Rabelo boats, used to transport the Port wine to the city were along the river, still used today as a continuation of the centuries long tradition. We enjoyed the views from the Telerifico de Gaia, the cable car leading to some wonderful vistas of the city. Yes, touristy, and still a wonderful experience. And we enjoyed a wonderful walk to the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.
On day two we visited the Palacio do Bolsa. Literally right across the street from our apartment. Then we toured the Taylor’s Port House where we had a wonderfully memorable meal, included in the food scene section, and new insights into the history of Port wine. My wife is not a wine fan, but she loved the Port, especially the ruby – the younger, the sweeter, which was right up her alley. Young, sweet, and fortified to 40 proof. It sneaks up on a person. We ended the day with a stroll through the center of town, enjoying the Christmas decor in the main square.
On our final full day in Porto, Christmas Day, we meandered through town finding those places we had not previously visited, including the Torre dos Clerigos. We had a wonderful long walk along the Douro River, and took in some picturesque scenery as the sunset – including the photo that is the feature for the home page on this site – the bridge at sunset, with the lights reflecting on the water. We had in fact walked for so long, that we couldn’t walk back to the apartment. We hailed an Uber on Christmas Day late, and amazingly the driver actually showed up. I had an interesting conversation with the driver, a young man who was supplementing his income, working towards a university degree. The entire fare was so inexpensive that I left the driver a significant tip in gratitude, and recognition that it was Christmas. He reluctantly accepted. The Portuguese are are wonderful, warm people.
The food was to die for good. While bacalhao, the salted cod dishes served in a variety of manner – with grilled being my favorite, and especially popular at Christmas, was the national dish – I believe octopus was also a Portuguese national dish. I have had octopus all over the Mediterranean, and Adriatic, but nothing of this caliber. It was so tender, melt in your mouth tender – while still maintaining the proper flavor and texture. Clearly one needs to be a fan of octopus, and I am. I was so curious as to how this miracle happened that I had to ask. It was explained to me in one of the restaurants we visited that the Portuguese cook octopus twice. Typically the first cooking is done through poaching, then the final step is grilling. They also use octopus in rice casseroles, which I’ve documented in the food scene. Portugal is an octopus lover’s heaven.
Adega Sao Nicolau
Dinner is served later in Portugal, typically 8:00PM. We had been on the road for twenty-six hours with planes, trains, and taxis. So we were hungry on arrival just after 5:00PM, and could not wait until regular local dinner hours. We wandered from the apartment and found this little place open – by little I mean a grand total of 4 tables indoors. We ordered grilled octopus, with boiled potatoes and an egg, and fried sardines with rice and beans on the side. We shared a slice of torte, and a glass of Aguardente – the grape brandy used to fortify Port wine. The Aguardente was ladled from a jar filled with drunken cherries. It was a wonderful first meal, and the Aguardente was a digestif reminiscent of Bulgarian Rakia, or Peruvian Pisco. The octopus was like nothing I’ve had anywhere else, very tender.
We arrived right at noon when they opened for lunch. This mom and pop restaurant is a local favorite for working guys, and it filled to capacity immediately after they opened. The working guys were fed immediately upon arrival – they were expected as part of daily ritual, and they were gone thirty minutes later. Workmen’s lunch. We ordered a rice casserole with octopus and shrimp for two, and fried octopus on the side. It was like a homemade meal. The octopus was melt in your mouth tender, like nothing I’ve had before. There was too much food for two hungry people. I don’t know that there’s a more local, immersive lunch experience.
We shared octopus in olive oil as our appetizer, followed by a cream of spinach soup. I tried the grilled bacalhao (salt cod) – one of the national dishes of Portugal, and very popular around Christmas. My wife ordered the fried hake with a cabbage side. We shared a rice casserole with our meal, and had a baked apple for dessert with a glass of Tawny Port. Incredible meal.
This was the restaurant we visited at the end of the Taylor’s Wine House tour and Port tasting. This lunch was included as part of the tour as a package. We had the cream of asparagus soup, and marinated sardines on toast for appetizers, we both had grilled sea bass on a bed of gnocchi for our main course, and orange spongecake for dessert with our last glass of Port.
This was the only place open on Christmas Eve for dinner, a cafe attached to the hotel. Most people seated were having drinks and snacks. We each ordered grilled sausage with egg, and frites, with melon and pineapple for dessert.
RIB Beef and Wine
This was a fancy Christmas luncheon menu. We had beef carpaccio, and parmentier soup with mushrooms for appetizers, two beef courses – veal, and entrecote, then carrot pudding with green apple sorbet for dessert. Upscale and tasty, but twice the price of the next most expensive meal we’d had in Porto.
This was Christmas dinner at a hotel restaurant. Hotels were the only places open on Christmas Day. We had a tomato salad and seafood soup for appetizers, grouper with mussels and clams, and suckling pig with homemade potato chips for our main courses. We shared a chocolate shell filled with mangoes all dipped in chocolate sauce. Very nice meal.
Reflections on Porto. Among the most immersive travel experiences I’ve ever had. The apartment location was ideal, if not perfect. The weather was very accommodating over Christmas. The food was both delightful and memorable – and remarkably affordable. The locals were both warm and friendly – although English was not pervasive everywhere a visitor might have gone. With very fond memories of lovely Porto, I find myself longing for an extended visit sometime in the future. I could live in Porto. Easily.