I didn’t plan on visiting Porto. I took a bus from southern Spain that brought me across the border to the Algarve region in Portugal. There a second bus unceremoniously took me the rest of the way north through endless fog and rocky green hills to Lisbon.
Don’t get me wrong when I say “without flash,” there’s plenty of wonder in Porto but it’s all of the weathered sort- the type of grandeur left over from a significant colonial past that hardly echoes through Portugal’s modern financial troubles. Porto has worn down with time and while its inhabitants certainly care about their city they haven’t polished it to a sheen to appeal to tourists.
The tourists who do come tend to arrive during the summer months to take advantage of the city’s gorgeous beaches. I stayed in Porto during the spring, before the busy season, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed the city less if it was teaming with students letting loose on summer break. Arriving in the off-season you’ll trade swimmable warm waters for understated leisure, an exchange I was more than happy to make and would accept again in a heartbeat.
Even with the waters cold the beaches are more than worth a visit. Open expanses broken with ragged rocks, soft sands dotted with sea-shells whose blue-and-white coloring mirrors the hues of traditional Portuguese ceramics. During the days you can sit and watch locals fishing and during the nights you can walk the shores and sit undisturbed on ancient stone structures as the waves crash under the moonlight.
The docks by the Dom Luis Bridge are lively during the day but offer a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience when visited at night, as the top of the bridge offers an unbelievable view of the rolling city and river illuminated by the lights of countless small stone homes. I could write endlessly on this view, but I’ll refrain. Go to Porto, go to the Dom Luis Bridge at night, and thank me when you return.
Porto is a beautiful city, not quite as steep as Lisbon but still filled with its fair share of hills and rocky outcroppings half disguised by beige stone buildings with subdued red tile roofs. The city has plenty of distinguished centuries-old buildings but nothing caught my attention quite as much as the Casa da Musica, a large and seemingly unwieldy modern concert space-slash-school lying fairly close to the heart of the city. The Casa da Musica is impressive and imposing inside and out and looks almost like the sand crawler from the movie, Star Wars.
This pillar tells you everything you need to know about what Porto gets right. The city, like much of the Portuguese spirit, is hyper-masculine at its core. The streets and the people are craggy, the museums are housed in imposing castles, the region’s namesake wine flows thick and strong and is served alongside heaping dishes of some of the simplest, heartiest food I’ve ever had in my life.
Porto’s food is heavy, oily and delicious. The city’s signature dish is salt cod, and seafood dominates most of the menus you will encounter. Whitefish baked or fried, whole sardines, grilled octopus, all served with plenty of potatoes and vegetables. If having some of the world’s best seafood isn’t your thing you can avoid the fish and order stewed rabbit pulled off the bone and mixed with greasy rice, fatty cuts of red meat cooked down until they melt on your tongue and thick-cut pork sausages every bit as spicy as Spain’s famous chorizo, all of which are served in generous portions. Porto’s food is NOT vegetarian friendly, but if you allow yourself an expansive field of dietary options you will find much to love eating out in this small city.
I can’t write about Porto without mentioning the Yellow House Hostel, the place I called home during my three weeks in this city. The Yellow House Hostel is everything you could want from travelling accommodations. It is inexpensive, about $10-15 USD (€8-12, £4.50-9) or a night when I stayed there), it is clean, and it provides a comfortable, cozy common area as well as a full kitchen and garden in the back. The Yellow House Hostel sits within a beautiful old building and the people who run it are wonderful, friendly, and truly care about their guests. If you visit Porto, and I hope you do, stay at the Yellow House Hostel.