Charming Porto deserves much more than a day but many travelers pass through without more time to spare. If that’s the case for you, it’s still possible to sample the best of food and drink in Porto without overwhelming yourself.
My partner and I rolled into Porto on an early train and plunged into the sounds and colors of Porto. We were tempted to start exploring right away. I felt a pang of dread — how could I possibly see all of Porto in just one day, let alone taste all its food?
But my tummy was also rumbling. We decided to follow our noses to breakfast instead. Sampling Portuguese flavors and fueling up with coffee turned out to be the perfect way to start the day. There are a variety of options ranging from local to contemporary but we enjoyed a fusion of the two: smoked bacalhau eggs benedict at Moustache, just a short stroll from São Bento train station.
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Thanks to the magic combination of food and coffee, I suddenly felt less anxious about squeezing everything in. A slow breakfast on an outdoor patio allowed us to soak in some of Porto’s sights and sounds. I left convinced that an easy and serendipitous day in Porto would be much more memorable than trying to tick off the city’s most popular attractions. With this new mindset, we followed the landscapes natural curves and let the roads lead us downhill towards the waterfront.
Down to the Douro
Porto was once a pre-roman settlement called Portus Cale, for which the country of Portugal was later named. Present-day Porto is a vibrant mosaic of buildings set on the gently-sloping banks of the Douro river, dotted with traces of its medieval and gothic past. Winding along the city’s main arteries naturally led us past several points of interest.
Igreja do Carmo’s white and blue-tiled facade greeted us at the start of our walk. Moments later, we reached Livraria Lello. This delightful Art Nouveau bookshop is famous for its curving wooden staircase and glass skylight. The shop itself goes back further than the 1906 building and is reputed as one of the best in the world. Even Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling frequented the library when she lived in Porto. Needless to say, the visitor queue shot out the door and down the street and we decided to leave this one for another time.
More meandering led us to the Church of São Francisco, the last gothic building in Porto, and Palácio da Bolsa. We admired the architecture from outside until curiosity drew us into the narrow winding streets of the Cais da Ribeira neighborhood. We traipsed through its scruffy yet quaint streets, past narrow staircases and tiled buildings that leaned on one another like gossiping ladies.
Cais da Ribeira
Porto’s riverside neighborhood may be touristy, but it’s tough to beat the location. Cais da Ribeira occupies the waterfront of the northern bank. It is a wonderful vantage point for taking in the pastel building and red tile roof skyline of the north bank, the iconic Luís I bridge arching over the Douro river towards the industrial port warehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia.
With a feel for Porto’s streets and a lay of the land, we felt the best way to get a taste of Porto was not food in this moment, but a port wine tasting. We started at the Port Wine Museum, housed in an old 18th-century warehouse on the north bank. Costing just a few euros, we got an introduction to Port wine production and export in the Douro Valley and Porto regions. Video presentations, antiques, and enticing views of the port warehouses across the river opened our eyes to the tradition of port winemaking. We learned that this rich, sweet, and fortified wine originated from the need to preserve wine on its long journey from the Douro Valley to Porto and beyond.
All Things Port
Eager for a taste, we crossed the double-deck Luís I bridge and found ourselves in Vila Nova de Gaia. This neighborhood is home to a collection of port warehouses representing some of the best names in the business including Kopke, Espaço Porto Cruz, Graham’s, Taylor’s, and Cálem. Each offers a combination of tours and tastings, typically scheduled throughout the mornings and afternoons.
Accepting that there are too many port houses to sample every label in a day, we poked our heads into Cálem. Its bold white sign had beckoned from across bridge. We arrived just in time for an English tour. It began with an interactive exhibit about the history of the label, terroir, and winemaking process. Then a guide led us through active cellars where barrels of port were aging in enormous barrels. As insightful as it was, the best part of the tour was the finale. We gathered at a communal table to sample tawny, ruby, and white port with new friends, affirming what we’d heard about port with all our senses.
Finding Local Flavors
We discovered first-hand that port is stronger than the average wine. By the time we stumbled out of Cálem, we were hungry for Portuguese food. We began the search for Porto’s best Francesinhas. The sandwich originates in Porto and means “Little Frenchie” in Portuguese. It is made with bread and cured ham, linguiça sausages, steak, or roast meat then topped with melted cheese and a thick hot tomato and beer sauce. This Portuguese take on a croque monsieur typically comes with French fries perfect for dipping in the excess sauce.
But our hunt stopped short when we came across Open Kitchen. The hole in the wall grocer-meets-eatery serves a hand-picked selection of local wines and food products. Unlike the tourist-filled Cálem, Open Kitchen caters to locals in search of artisanal Portuguese ingredients. The owner cracked a bottle of Douro Valley red wine as we tasted an array of traditional dishes: local cheeses, cold cuts, and a flaming linguiça sausage flavoured with garlic and paprika. Once again, our taste buds led us on a journey across the region.
With only a day in Porto, many worthy sights remain unseen. We did not visit the medieval battlements of Muraha Fernandina, a UNESCO world heritage site, or take a riverboat cruise to the Maria Pia Bridge built by Gustave Eiffel. We could not reach the Foz do Douro lighthouse or Jardins do Palácio de Cristal gardens. We were content to save those for another visit.
Climbing the Clérigos church tower before dinner had capped our day of exploration. The city glowed spectacularly in the soft light of magic hour. From high above, we were able to retrace our footsteps and muse on our many little discoveries. We may not have conquered everything in Porto, but we spent a beautiful day getting acquainted with the city and tasting its local flavors. We left Porto with our hearts and bellies full.
Are we missing any of your favorite Porto food and drink staples? Let us know on Twitter!