porto, portugal

We spent our first weekend out of Spain in Porto (or, as the Spaniards say, Oporto), Portugal.  We were eager to try out Ryanair and explore a new country and it came down to choosing between Tangier and Porto when we had picked the weekend we wanted to go, and Tangier was only about $20 cheaper.  So, Porto won out because I felt more comfortable telling our parents we were going to Portugal than Morocco.  I know.  True story.  Many people we know here have been to Morocco and have had great experiences, so it is on our list, but I think that Porto was a good choice for our first trip.

Our initial experience with Ryanair was a bit rocky (I think maybe at some point, once we've flown with them multiple times - and we'll have our fair share over our three-week Christmas break! - I'll do a post just on flying with Ryanair) but what matters is that we arrived in Porto safely within an hour, ready to explore.

We dropped off our bag at our Airbnb and had lunch next door at Bugo Art Burgers at the recommendation of our host.  They had a seven euro lunch special - I had the Italy and Danny had something Mexican themed with guacamole (it's not on the regular menu - it was their special of the day).  Everything was very good, and it was probably my favorite meal we've had abroad so far.

We walked around the corner, and through the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, which led us near the Douro River.  We followed the path along the river to the most famous sight of Porto, the Ponte Luís I, which is a double-decker metal arch bridge.  When it was opened in 1886, it was longest of its type, and remains a bridge open to pedestrians, cars, and the light rail.

At 3:30pm we took a free walking tour with Porto Walkers of downtown Porto, which we really enjoyed.  My mom actually found out about the walking tours and told us about them, and we decided to check them out, and we were so glad we did!  It was a great way to get oriented to the city, and we wished that we had enough time to do the morning walking tour as well (they offer two different tours every day, each 2.5 hours long).

The walking tour finished at a bakery that served what our guide has found to be the best pastéis de nata in Porto.  They were 60 cents a piece, and absolutely delicious.  Danny fell hard for the pastéis de nata, and it was hard to blame him.  They're egg tart pastries that were created by Catholic monks in Lisbon in the 17th century.  Convents and monasteries used egg whites for starching clothing, so they began used the leftover yolks to make pastries and cakes, and delicious treats like natas came about.

For dinner, we tried the most famous dish in Porto...the Francesinha.  Before I tell you what it is, here's a picture.  And my face as soon as it came out.  Oh, and we got the vegetarian version.

The Francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto that is made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça (basically sausage), steak, more sausage, and covered in melted cheese, and a thick hot tomato and beer sauce and typically served with French fries.  Ours was slightly different from that, being that it had no meat, and was made with goat cheese, and no fries, but it was still very intense.  It is rumored that each Francesinha contains between 1,200 - 2,000 calories, depending on the sandwich.  We found our vegetarian Francesinhas at Casa de Horta, which serves such delights on Friday evenings.  It was pretty...okay...in my opinion.  Pretty heavy, if you can imagine.  Danny helped me finish mine.

On Saturday morning, we decided to rent bikes and ride to the Atlantic Ocean!  We had a bit of trouble, though, and had to return the first bikes we rented because I, well, I couldn't ride mine - embarrassing but true.  I don't know exactly what it was, but I was a hazard to others and to myself and since the shop didn't have any other suitable bikes, we found another shop.  An hour after we started, I was ready to go on a bike that fit me well, and we were on our way.  We rode along the Douro for a ways until we reached the Atlantic, and it was just the best.

We rode till the river met the sea (about 5km), and then along the ocean until we found somewhere to stop for lunch (about 5km more).  We each ordered what we thought were vegetarian personal pan pizzas, but turned out to be a bit larger than anticipated.  No problem when you have a bike and a bungee cord!  (When we were ringing our bells to get through some of the crowds on the way back into the center of town, I'm pretty sure that some people thought Danny was delivering a pizza, and were a lot more motivated to get out of his way than usual!)

As we rode back, the sun was setting, and it was just lovely.  We took a ferry (it feels like a very generous term to use, only people and bikes can make the 3-5 minute journey on the small boat) across the river to ride back on the other side of the Douro before returning our bikes around 7:30pm.

But just as we crossed the Ponte Luís I to return our bikes, someone said, "Hey guys!"  It was Sam!  The guy that we met on the train back into Madrid from Avila!  In Porto!  We knew he was getting into Porto late morning on Saturday, but because we had gotten the bikes, we weren't going to try to meet up until we got back.  Neither of us would be able to contact the other without WiFi, so it was going to be a bit complicated to arrange something in a new city, but we were going to do our best, but this was even better than we could have imagined.  We didn't have to even try!  Sam went with us to return our bikes, and then we all went together to have dinner at a place that was recommended to us by our walking tour guide and by the people running the bike shop, DaTerra.  None of the people who recommended it were vegetarian, but they all said they loved it, so that convinced Sam.  DaTerra is a vegetarian buffet, and we ate all we could for 9.90 euros (per person).  It was our most expensive meal in Porto, but it was amazing, and I think we're all still dreaming about those pears.  We all (okay, mostly Sam) were on the verge of falling asleep by the end of dinner, so we went our separate ways and agreed to try and meet up again the next day.

On Sunday morning we made our way towards the river again, and decided to take a Douro cruise.  It didn't depart until 10:30, though, so we had time to walk around a bit and explore.  If there's water around, we're happy.

The Douro River cruise was 50 minutes long, and took us to see the six bridges that span the Douro between Porto and the city across the river, Gaia, as well as the sights along the way.  It felt a little overpriced to us at 12.50 euros a person, but the narration is in English (as well as Spanish and Portuguese) and it's definitely a quicker and more leisurely way to see things than from a bike.

After our river cruise, we checked out the São Bento train station, which is known for its beautiful interior tiles that tell the history of Portugal.  We visited the station on Friday evening, but it was dark, so we came again so that we could try to take a few pictures and see the tiles better in the light.  They really are beautiful, and it was hard to capture that.  It's definitely worth stopping inside if you're ever in Porto - the area where the trains arrive and depart is pretty neat and I'm sure it looks exactly as it did when the station was built in 1916.

Tiled buildings are actually quite common in Porto, and the Church of Saint Ildefonso is another beautiful example.

We tried to check out a few other places in the area, like the Majestic Cafe and the Mercado do Bolhão, but they were both closed on Sundays.  In retrospect, we wished we had done our bike ride on Sunday and more of our sightseeing on Saturday, but hey, hindsight is 20/20, and we originally chose bike riding for Saturday because the weather was supposed to be the best on that day.

We decided to check out Livraria Lello & Irmão, which is a famous bookstore, next, and meet Sam there.  It's become so famous that many people were visiting and very few people were buying books that in order to go inside, you must purchase a three euro voucher from a little booth across the street.  You can put the three euros (or pool it together with your friends) towards a book (not little trinkets or bookmarks or pastries, unfortunately), though, which we did.  So after looking around and taking some pictures the three of us (thanks, Sam!) put our nine euros of entry fees towards a 10.90 euro pretty little copy of The Little Prince, making it a fairly reasonable purchase.

After the bookstore we had a late lunch at one of the few cafes that was open on Sunday before trying to take the bus to the beach.  After about 45 minutes of waiting, we gave up and summoned an Uber for the same price and a much quicker ride.  Unfortunately for us, Spain outlawed Uber last December, but it is okay in Portugal, and has been around for about a year there.  We took it to and from the beach on Sunday night, and then on Monday morning to the airport and had great experiences.  Here's hoping the tides will turn in Spain, especially for those times we need to get around before the Metro is open, as taxis can be rather expensive.

We made it to beach right as the sun was setting, and stayed till dark.  We walked around and took some pictures and just enjoyed being so near the water.  The Atlantic was so powerful crashing onto the rocks, it was all at once a noisy and peaceful experience.  A perfect ending to our trip.

So the question is, do I recommend a trip to Porto?  Yes.  I recommend Porto because it's low-key, it's inexpensive (Sam stayed at a pretty nice hostel for 17 euros a night, and our Airbnb was $27 a night), it's close to the ocean, and Portuguese food is good.  There's more than enough to do for a weekend trip, and if for some reason you want to stay longer, there are many day trips out of Porto that seem to be worthwhile (I had two that I was interested in doing because I wasn't sure if we would get bored in Porto - if we hadn't spent all of Saturday riding bikes, I think we may have done a day trip to Braga or Guimaraes by train on Sunday).

If we find cheap flights to Porto again, I would be very interested in going back, especially when the weather is warmer, because the ocean is so accessible and we'd love to actually be able to swim in it, and there are a few things we'd still like to see in the city.  Plus, I forgot to mention it in the main post, but we had Portuguese croissants for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, and oh my.  That is reason enough to go back.  I'm sorry, but the kind you can get here in Spain (basically what you might find in Paris or anywhere else in the world) don't even compare.  Perhaps they shouldn't be compared, and should both be enjoyed and respected for what they are, but oh the Portuguese croissant!

So, go to Porto, eat the food, enjoy the water, walk along the charming streets, and definitely ride bikes.  You'll be glad you did.