A Week Vacation in Portugal
I had a work event in Barcelona over a weekend, so we decided to tack on Portugal after that. We had about a week. I had been to Portugal once before – Evora and the Algarve – but never to Porto or Lisbon (other than the airport). So, we decided to spend most of our Portugal trip in and around Porto, and then spend a couple of days in Lisbon before flying home. You can see the full Portugal photo journal here.
Day 1 – Barcelona –> Porto via RyanAir
Day 2 – Day trip from Porto to Aveiro via train
Day 3 – Day trip from Porto to Douro Valley via train
Day 4 – Explore Porto
Day 5 – Porto –> Lisbon via train
Day 6 – Explore Lisbon
Day 7 – Fly home
We’d heard a lot of good things about Porto before going and we were not disappointed. The second we landed, our Uber driver gave us a warm welcome and went into tour guide mode, giving us a nice introduction to the city. Here’s what I learned on this trip – Porto v. Lisbon is like Boston v. New York. There’s definitely a friendly rivalry.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a cute Airbnb a little outside the busiest part of town (although, the Hop On/Hop Off tour bus did pass right by our window). In full disclosure, we booked this place the day before we went, so our options were somewhat limited. But, it was a nice place, and a good location for us. The one issue was that it didn’t have AC at all. This turned out to be pretty common in Portugal. So, if you’re going in summer, I’d recommend paying attention to whether your accommodations have AC. It’s probably fine most of the time, but it happened to be pretty hot while we were there.
Porto is an incredibly charming town. It is also a very hilly town, so bring some good walking shoes. We enjoyed wandering the streets and taking in all of the colorful houses.
The Clérigos Church has a view of the city and a great elevated park with shops below.
The São Bento train station is covered in the blue and white tiles you see throughout the city.
We stopped by Livraria Lello, which apparently served as inspiration for the library at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. You have to pay 6 Euros to get in; and for some reason, you have to go to the unrelated shop on the corner to buy your ticket. But, we decided to go ahead. If you buy something, they deduct the 6 Euros from the price. Most of the books are in Portuguese, of course. But I ended up finding something worth buying.
We made our way to the Ribeira neighborhood, which runs along the Douro River. The waterfront is a great place to stroll. You can walk down the Porto side to the Dom Luis bridge, then cross over to Vila Nova de Gaia. Stop by Cafe do Cais for a drink. It’s certainly a little touristy, given its location. And I will never understand the European obsession with playing light techno music everywhere. But it was a good place to rest and take in the view.
Port Tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia
You can’t go to Porto without tasting some port. The major port houses have wine cellars and tasting rooms in Vila Nova de Gaia (on the other side of the river). On our first day, we stopped into Cálem, which is right on the waterfront. By the time we got there late in the afternoon, the only tour left for the day was in French. We decided that was good enough, since I speak French. They give you a tour of the wine cellar and tell you how port is made. At the end, you do the tasting.
We headed back another day to try some other houses. The first stop was Ferreira, where we’d just missed a tour. We asked if we could just buy the tasting separately, as we’d already done a tour (how different can it be?). That suggestion was met with low-level contempt by the staff there. The proposition that it wasn’t important to learn about a particular house’s history and process was apparently somewhat offensive. Ok, lesson learned. But, it also struck me as an odd business practice. If someone wants to pay you the same amount of money for half of tour, why wouldn’t you want to take that?
Anyway, we attempted to plan ahead and called Graham’s, but were told there were no tours at all left. I saw that they had a separate wine bar, so at least we could taste some of their port. When we got there, it turned out there was a tour in Italian. Chris was feeling particularly invested in his namesake house and wanted to do the tour. So, we proceeded with our second tour in a foreign language. Our combined comprehension for this tour was much lower, but luckily we had the benefit of having already learned a bit about the process (which, for the record, was basically the same). We really liked the port here, too. Even after our official tasting, we went to the wine bar to try a couple more varieties and have some snacks (it’s a restaurant, as well). Our favorite was the 20-year tawny. It’s worth going here just for the view. But, you should also have the port.
Eating and Drinking
We couldn’t check into our Airbnb immediately the morning we arrived, so we stopped for breakfast at Zenith. Apparently, Brooklyn has come to Porto. They had avocado toast and cold brew. It wasn’t the most Portuguese thing to start with, but it was a good breakfast.
Having come to Portugal from Spain, we mistakenly assumed that we could walk into restaurants at 7 or 8 pm and have no problem getting a table. It turns out Portugal does not keep the same hours as Spain. So, at we first failed to get into Cantina 32, but were able to make a reservation for another night. Just look at the spread: octopus, calamari and giant shrimp. Delicious! They also have a signature cheesecake dessert served to look like a potted plant. We didn’t get it, but I was tempted.
Everyone you meet in Porto will tell you that you can’t miss the city’s famous Francesinha. It is gluttonous. Multiple layers of meat and bread, covered in cheese, and served with french fries. Save this meal for a time you’re REALLY hungry! And even so, I would say that one sandwich is more than enough for two people. We went to Cafe Santiago, which was recommended by our Airbnb host. I’m not an expert in Francesinhas, but it seemed good to me.
Pedro dos Frangos
After we tried to go to Cantina 32, we wandered around trying to find somewhere good. We found a number of other places we wanted to try were also fully booked. We were both getting a little grumpy at this point. So, we ended up going to a simple rotisserie chicken place, Pedro dos Frangos. It was certainly not fancy or hip, but (a) it was really good chicken and fries, (b) it was incredibly cheap and (c) they had AC upstairs. All of that combined to make me very happy.
Espaco Porto Cruz
Along the river on the Vila Nova de Gaia side, we stumbled across Espaco Porto Cruz. They have a roof deck bar with great views of the city. It’s a great place for a sunset cocktail.
I knew we planned to go inland to the Douro Valley one day, so I thought it made sense to go the opposite direction to the Portugal coast for our other day trip. Aveiro seemed like a good option, largely because you can get there easily by train. Aveiro is also referred to as the Venice of Portugal, which seemed intriguing. Arriving there, I could see why. There are a couple of canals in town. I don’t know how authentic the gondolas are to the region, but they certainly look nice.
Just like in Porto, I couldn’t get enough of the buildings.
We didn’t spend the night, but you could definitely fill a full day in Aveiro. Apparently the blue and yellow house on the right in the picture below can be rented. Next time!
I’d also read about these great striped beach houses there, and I was pretty obsessed with seeing them myself. This involved an extra taxi ride from town to the beach, but it was well worth it. Plus, we got to have a drink on the beach.
We knew we wanted to go to wine country for a day. I had a vague sense that taking a boat ride up the river was also an option, so I searched around. On Trip Advisor, I came across Anima Durius Douro River Cruises, which offered a combination wine tasting tour and sailboat ride. Chris has been particularly obsessed with boating recently, so this sounded perfect. And the reviews for Paolo were glowing. I was worried it might be booked, as I was only planning a couple of weeks in advance. But, luckily we were going to be around Porto a few days, so had some flexibility. And lucky, we were. This was, by far, the highlight of our trip. Paolo, and the day he put together, exceeded all of our expectations. We chose the full day Wine and Sail option, starting and ending in Pinhao. We did this as a day trip, so got up early and took the train from Porto to Pinhao.
Vineyard and Winery
We met Paolo near the Pinhao train station, then drove to his family’s vineyard. It was beautiful. He showed us how the wine was made. And then his 13-year-old daughter joined us for lunch. The cook made us the same meal that the vineyard workers eat. It was an amazing multi-course meal. We also shared a few bottles of wine. We ate in their family home, which is a wonderful, renovated farm house. It felt like being at a friend’s house. Paolo told us how he used to be a mechanical engineer, but lost his job during the recession in 2007. So, he turned his love for boats, along with his family’s vineyard, into a business. If you have the chance, I highly recommend doing a full day and going to the vineyard for lunch. It was such a unique experience. And they had cute dogs.
After lunch, we headed back down to the river. The sailboat was having some mechanical issues, so we ended up taking his motor boat. But, it was still great. Paolo broke out some brandy, just because. He was telling me how his next charter canceled last minute. I mentioned that he’d have better luck if he made deposits mandatory. But, he said he’s “tranquil” and likes to go with the flow. It all works out. And it’s good to get some cash in person (wink wink). I also told him he could charge more for this full day, private adventure. But, he seemed content doing business his own way. Jump on this if you get a chance, though. He may wise up soon.
We took the train from Porto to Lisbon, which was very easy. We booked another Airbnb at the last minute. It was right on the Calcado do Combro, which was central and convenient. Like Porto, Lisbon is very hilly. You’re going to get a workout whether you want one or not.
We took Tram 28, which is a public trolley that makes its way around some of the popular areas of Lisbon. It’s always nice to find an inexpensive activity. We did have to wait for quite a while to get on at the first stop, and the train was packed the whole time. But, luckily we got a window seat. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort as a sightseeing activity if you get on mid-route and have to stand. But, from the window seat – it was cool. The tram winds through extremely narrow streets, so you have to be careful about hanging out the side.
Chris made me stop at some churches. They were fine. This was the best because it wasn’t overly ornate.
More colorful, tiled buildings. I couldn’t get enough.
The day we arrived, we headed down the hill to the Time Out Market. It’s a massive food court, which can be a little overwhelming. But, there were some great restaurants with outposts there. It was a good stop for lunch.
For dinner, we went to A Cevicheria. We had to wait a little while, but that was fine. The food was delicious, and there’s a massive octopus hanging from the ceiling.
On the last night, we were in the mood for meat. We wanted to check out Atalho Real, but couldn’t get a reservation. So, we headed to Sala de Corte. They didn’t take reservations, so we went right as they opened at 6pm. We were the first people there, and it was slightly awkward since we seemed to have interrupted the staff meal. But, it filled up quickly. I went with the beef fillet sandwich (prego). I’d seen this sandwich when looking at both Atalho real and Sala de Corte and I was on a mission to get it. It was served on bolo de caco bread, which is basically a Portuguese version of the English muffin. It didn’t disappoint – so good. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. It was a good way to wrap up a great trip.
Obrigada, Portual! We had a great time.