The city of bridges, boats and one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen… Perfect little Porto is impossible not to enjoy. I had no expectations when I arrived last year, and explored it with my eyes wide open. With such fond memories in my back pocket, this was one of the cities that I was most excited to return to this year – and it didn’t disappoint! With its vibrant streets, delicious food, rich history, distinctive architecture and sweeping views of the water, I rediscovered everything I loved about this place and managed to find even more.
Hills, History and Hogwarts
I’d heard there were croissants at the Blue Socks breakfast buffet, so I was up bright and early the next morning to indulge (they are my weakness!), before working them off up the sloped streets to meet the Sandeman’s free walking tour group at 10am. Now, I might like croissants, but I LOVE free walking tours for gaining my orientation, meeting new friends, getting local tips, learning the history and seeing the highlights of the place that I’m in. This one was no exception, running us through Porto’s long history, from the early Kings, to the cruel dictator António Salazar, who controlled the country in the mid-1900s. We waked past the jail cells of famous love poets, through the old Jewish quarter, the square where public hangings used to take place, and finished the tour off with the spectacular 360 degree views from the Porto Cathedral, looking down on Porto, Gaia and the water.
I would not be a genuine Gen-Y if I didn’t dedicate a paragraph to Harry Potter and all of the inspiration that J.K Rowling apparently drew from this city when she lived here with here Portuguese husband. If you come across a long line of people on an otherwise normal street, you probably would’ve reached Livraria Lello, a beautiful old shop with a curved staircase in the centre that presumably inspired Hogwart’s architecture. Porto is also a university city, though its first year students have an unusual tradition of wearing flowing black capes, similar to the robes worn by the witchcraft and wizardry students in the books. If you’re lucky you might even catch groups doing street performances during their study breaks! Some names are even inspired by this beautiful place – does Salazar Slytherin sound familiar?
Who Knew Port Was From Porto?
During the walking tour, I met a lovely group of solo travellers from Australia, America and Canada, and afterwards we all met up with the squad to go on a port tour. We crossed the bottom of the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge to Gaia, which is technically a different city to Porto (for great views, you can also cross along the top of the bridge). All of the port producers are in Gaia for two reasons – the taxes used to be cheaper; and the sun hits Porto during the day, while North facing Gaia stays cooler, providing optimal conditions for the port to age. Before doing this tour, I didn’t really know much about port (mainly as I don’t drink), but after tasting and learning about the various production processes in 3 different cellars, I felt like a port pro! To the uncultured palette, Port basically tastes like a sweet wine, as it is made out of wine mixed with brandy. The grapes are specifically grown in the Douro Valley and shipped to Gaia to age, so technically it’s not made in its namesake city at all!
The sun was starting to set as we wrapped up our port party on the rooftop of the lovely Espaco Porto Cruz. Though the views were beautiful from there, we could do better. First, we stopped at the Beira-Rio Market, where there was an assortment of different dessert, cheese and hot meal options to choose from. With my selection of cheeses and container of vegetarian takeaway in hand, we tackled the short but steep walk up near the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, a beautiful former monastery. From there, we had panoramic views of Porto and the water, and the best vantage point to see the sun set over the string of bridges that stretch out in the distance. As the sky turned orange, pink and purple, we enjoyed the company of our new friends and our final night in one of Portugal’s hidden gems.
The Final Challenge
Before we left, we simply had to to take on the famous Francescina challenge. Basically, this is a sandwich on steroids – traditionally made with two slices of bread filled with ham, linguica (smoked pork sausage), fresh sausage, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese, a fried egg, and a beer and tomato sauce that kind of tastes like what baked beans are served in … now you can see why it was a challenge! Somehow we made it, though I bucked the system and had the vegetarian option with tofu sausages and slices. Afterwards, I practically rolled down the hill to the hostel, trying not to think about my bikini body as we headed for the next destination – the beaches of San Sebastian!
The Recommended Hostel: Blue Sock Hostel
First impressions aren’t often wrong, but mine was – as I could’ve sworn that I was in a hotel rather than a hostel when I arrived at Blue Sock. I had heard from travellers last year about this infamous hostel and their luxurious stay there, but I didn’t realise how awesome it really was until I got to experience it for myself. The entire building is large and modern, including the rooms, reception and chill out areas. As far as facilities go, there is everything you could want – elevators, kitchen, laundry, huge tv, lots of common areas and great wifi. From our window, we could look out onto the water, as the location is in the heart of Porto’s central area. Every morning, it was a pleasure to wake up in the comfortable bed and go down to the delicious breakfast – this is one accommodation not to miss out on!