Your love letter from Portugal
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For me, Porto is the ultimate weekend city. In two days you see and taste it all – from the stunning tile-covered churches to port wine tasting to the city’s famous hearty sandwich. The architecture is different, the tiles are different, the city is cooler, but the people are a little warmer.
If you have time – and I suggest you make time – hire a car and drive out to the Douro Valley. About two hours east of Porto you’ll hit vineyards that defy gravity, sitting on steep hand-carved terraces that melt into the river. This is where port wine is grown before being shipped down the river to mature in the humid seaside climate.
Study a population map of Portugal, and you’ll see that the small cities in the north actually make up a huge portion of the country. Skipping over the wild north would mean missing a bit part of the Portuguese identity.
Keep exploring and you’ll uncover a raw and authentic side of Portugal. Up here the food is better, they say, perhaps thanks to the cooler, greener climate. Small cities like Braga, Viana do Castelo, Guimarães, Chaves and Bragança are all worth a day, at least.
Plus, the wilderness of Portugal’s only national park, Peneda-Gerês National Park, is up here right on the northern border with Spain.
Sunset tip… Like Lisbon, Porto has a number of hills and park terraces overlooking the river. My preference for sunset is down by Ribeira. Here you can watch the sunset, admire the river and chill in the old town while people-watching tourists and locals.
It’s hard to go wrong in Porto city centre, and on the half dozen times I’ve visited I try to stay in different downtown areas. Porto is easy to walk around, so you can’t really go wrong but I love to stay in Bolhão and around Rua Catarina because it’s near the market, which is a great morning activity. First-timers might love central and riverfront Ribeira, while I prefer creative Bomfim or Cedofeita, a cool area with lots of brunch cafes and boutique stores. Slightly further out, I’ve stayed in Marques a couple of times and it’s easy to take the metro in or walk an extra 10 minutes and there’s more of a neighbourhood vibe. I’m not a huge fan of Batalha, I just find the area doesn’t have enough of a vibe in the evening.
While I’ve usually booked a private apartment in town, I loved my stay at The Passenger Hostel. It’s set right in the famous São Bento train station with both shared and private rooms. Other good budget stays are Lost Inn Hostel and Selina, which are all new-age hostels.
People (read: northerners) say the food in the north of Portugal is best. Up in the top end the traditional dishes seem to be heartier and heavy on meat, that’s for sure. I really believe Porto is a food wonderland with so many amazing restaurants to try, from very traditional tascas to cutting edge restaurants. Try a northern-style bifana at Conga, pork sandwich at Casa Guedes and francesinha at Cervejaria Brasão. Yes, those are all pork sandwiches. Find out what else to eat and where with my extensive Porto food guide.
I also have a guide covering where to eat in Guimarães.
Porto is a smaller city so if you stay in the city centre you can easily walk everywhere. Alternatively, there is a metro and tram with a similar system to Lisbon.
To explore outside of Porto, there are city train lines that will shoot you to Braga or Guimarães in no time. There is also two regional train lines: one follows the Douro Valley to the east, and the other goes north, passing by Barcelos and Viana do Castelo towards Valença.
If you want to explore nature or small towns, renting a car is the best way to go.
Everything you need to know about Porto and the great northern part of Portugal
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