We usually try not to hop across too many cities when we’re taking our Spring/Summer break but we decided to make an exception with Portugal. Simply because this slender strip of land in southern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula has so much to offer, irrespective of the kind of traveller you are. After spending a few fantastic days in Lisbon (which included a day trip to spectacular Sintra), we decided to hop into Porto before we began our drive through the Algarve. And while there’s lots to do and see and taste and experience in Porto, we’re presenting our Porto Top 5 things to do if all you have is a short trip in Porto.
We took Porto (and the rest of Portugal) really slow. But if you’re just doing a quick stop and want to catch just the highlights, here’s our list. Just remember that Porto is easily doable on fit although it’s the second largest city in Portugal.
1. Port in Porto
Let’s just get this one out of the way, shall we? Yes, most people dive into Porto for a day and jump right into port wine tastings and it’s usually at the top of every Porto Top 5 list. While we love wine, we certainly have a long way to go before we turn into the aficionados we wish we were, we played smart and reminded ourselves that this is port wine, not the wine we’re used to consuming. So to jump into a few tastings, you will need to head away from the city centre and towards the Ribeira, and cross the Duoro into the Gala hillside. From the famous Sandeman to the popular Taylor’s, you can walk into their cellars and jump into a tasting.
Some of them have wonderful restaurants attached as well and if you’re around during meal times, it’s a nice way to soak up all the port in your stomach. Do remember again, it’s sweet, thick port and I’ve seen many a hardy drinker left groaning in pain clutching his head and stomach the next day thanks to one too many glasses of port.
We loved our tastings though and while I preferred the ruby port (a ‘red’ that’s aged 3-5 years), Revati gravitated towards the tawny (a ‘white’ that’s aged for a minimum of 7 years).
[Tip: Our favourite though wasn’t a port at all. It was the sublime Vinho Verde, literally the ‘green wine’, young wines released just months after harvest.]
2. Palácio da Bolsa
The Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) is a historical building that was built in the 19th Century by the city’s Commercial Association when fires destroyed the neighbouring convent and the Queen donated the convent ruins to the city merchants who decided to build the Palácio da Bolsa.
Don’t let the name mislead you. This isn’t some boring stock exchange filled with suited number-crunchers. This extravagant Palace finished finally in 1910 has been beautifully decorated by numerous artists. Your first glimpse of the extravagance is when you step into the central courtyard. Look up and you will see the octagonal glass done, and look at the floor and you will see the elaborate work done on floor of the Nations’ Courtyard. The Palace features numerous rooms – the Tribunal Room, Assembly Room, Golden Room and most notably, the Arab Room decorated in the exotic Moorish Revival style.
The Palacio is a regular on most Porto Top 5 or Top Things To Do lists, so things can get crowded. Do remember that entry to the Palace is via the paid guided tour only, so ensure you get a fix on the tour times (and language) before you head there.
3. Porto Cathedral
The Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) is a 13th Century Roman Catholic Church built in the historical centre of Porto. Both the exterior and the interior underwent changes in the baroque period and one of the chapels houses a magnificent silver altarpiece. The Gothic rose window is the only part of the original facade that remains.
This austere, fortress-like church actually houses a fantastic cloister covered with blue and white tiles from the 18th Century. We spent most of our time in the cloister, taking in the beautiful azulejos that stretched from floor to ceiling, before heading out to Porto’s most impressive church.
4. Sao Francisco Church
Don’t let the ordinary looking exterior fool you, Sao Francisco is clearly unlike any other church we’ve seen in Europe. Rumoured to be Europe’s most opulent church, the extensive, elaborate and intricate interiors supposedly house over 400 kg of gold!
Take your time with the gilt wood carvings in the pillars and columns. Discover cherubs, plants and animals literally dripping in gold and think about where all the gold here might have come from. One of the notable pieces is the Tree of Jesse from 1718, representing the family tree of Jesus.
5. Not-to-be-missed dinner: Cantinho do Avillez
Like us, if food is a major part of your travels, Cantinho do Avillez will not disappoint. We were slated to dine at the Michelin-starred Sao Gabriel at Almancil in the Algarve, so we weren’t really expecting to run into any other establishment that will blow our minds away. We were so wrong!
Of course, we knew who José Avillez was and what an astounding job he was doing with Belcanto for the culinary universe. I did hear about Cantinho do Avillez, one of his other restaurants in Lisbon, but it didn’t occur to me to check if there was one in Porto.
So there we were on our last evening in Porto, strolling down Rua Mouzinho da Silveira, when a black square and something in a restaurant window caught me eye. We walked across the street to confirm my sighting – it was the black Cantinho do Avillez logo and a picture of José Avillez on a poster featuring his book that I saw through the window from across the street (to this day, I don’t know how).
If you are in Porto for dinner, make a reservation (obviously, there’s hardly ever room and we just about managed to get seats at the bar) and prepare yourself for a culinary delight. The cocktails will wow you, the food will make you wish you had another stomach and dessert will make you live in your chair at Cantinho do Avillez forever.
So that’s it, our Porto Top 5. Sure, there’s so much more to see, experience and taste in Porto, but if you’re short on time, don’t pass on these typically Porto experiences and sights.