Portugal hides in a tiny corner of the huge continent of Europe. It's the quiet little brother to loud, boisterous countries like England and Germany. But here's the rub: those countries and their oft-mentioned capitals are mega expensive. If you want to get the most bang for your travel buck, you will need to look further afield to smaller, lesser-known places like Portugal, and lesser-visited cities like Porto.
When we heard that a travel conference would be held in Porto, we couldn't resist attending because Portugal had intrigued us for ages. Porto, on the other hand, was so unknown to us that we had to search for it online.
Porto is the country’s second largest city and three-hour train ride from Lisbon. It lies at the mouth of the mighty Douro River in northern Portugal, as ready as ever to ship its namesake port to the rest of the world.
One of the conference sponsors was Visit Portugal, and they wisely began the event with a tour of the city. I am embarrassed to admit I had pictured it as a smaller clone of Lisbon, with trams and tiled houses, along with a slew of run-down port warehouses along a dirty river, but I was so wrong.
First of all, those (well-kept!) warehouses aren't in Porto; they lie across the pretty Douro River in the town of Gaia. Secondly, Porto's vibe is different than Lisbon's, even though it also has its share of narrow, historical streets, steep slopes and picturesque buildings.
When the two of us later explored the town on our own, we regretted not having planned a longer stay. Frankly, there's enough to do and see to keep anyone busy for quite a while.
1. The easy transportation.
Porto was named European Cultural Capital in 2001 and it has a thoroughly modern public transportation system. Skip the subway and bus and go take a tram. Much more fun. Or cross the river in a gondola; they have those, too.
2. The low prices.
Portugal is one of the cheapest vacation spots anywhere in Europe … and Porto is one of the cheapest places in Portugal.
3. The museums and galleries.
From a tram museum to world-class contemporary art, Porto has many museums and galleries.
4. The Douro River.
A cruise up the river is not to be missed, and you'll see Porto in a new way. We were fortunate to be invited on a cruise to a beautiful pousada upriver and watch night descend over Porto as its lights came on.
5. The delicious port.
Seriously, how can you go to Porto and not try the port? Or here's an even better idea: Visit a port wine cellar for a tasting. Many are free, so why not make a day of it!
6. The fabulous wines.
Because of its unique soil the Douro Valley is renowned worldwide for its wines. Look for an opportunity to take a tour and sample northern Portugal's exquisite wines. Be sure to try Vinho Verde (green wine); it's produced nowhere else in the world.
7. The good eats.
If you enjoy discovering new cuisines and eat pork, you might try Porto's specialty, the Francesinha sandwich … or instead, do what we did and wander the side streets until your nose pulls you into a small, local restaurant to try something new and unfamiliar.
We even succumbed to one of the tempting pastry shops we passed right after stuffing ourselves at lunch. It just smelled too good to pass up.
8. The wonderful buildings.
Who wouldn't be charmed by tiled homes and buildings? Heck, even Porto's railway station and churches are tiled. And there's a new shopping mall being built near that bookstore, there are plenty of cafés and more than enough shops to poke around in …
9. Lello Bookstore.
If you're a J.K. Rowling fan, this is the bookstore for you because they say it was an inspiration for her Harry Potter books. If you're not, it's just one of the prettiest, quaintest book shops you'll ever see. Ever. But don't just go in to look, they don't appreciate the gawkers and insist you don't take any photos. Buy a coffee or a book (they have both) and pity them as they endlessly repeat “no pictures, please.”
10. It's pedestrian friendly.
Porto is so walkable that you won't realize how far you've gone until you finally decide to head home. Its sidewalks are wide, traffic is easy, and there are plenty of parks and shopping areas just begging for a stroll. And then there are the narrow, tiled pedestrian walkways that practically call you to come and explore….
Our time in Porto was too short; there is so much more to see. Not to mention it's a wonderful jumping-off point for touring northern Portugal's unique wine region, which, by the way, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dan got some amazing photos of the city. and even more of photos of Portugal's wine region. Had it not been for a conference, we may never have discovered the beauty of the northern part of their country.