This winter I managed to take not one, but two trips to Portugal within a month! I’d never been to Portugal before, but I am already hoping for another return visit.
In January, my friend Amber visited me in London again (third time! gold star for her), and we wanted to go somewhere for a three-day ladies’ weekend. Our criteria was it had to be a short, direct flight, and somewhere where it might be sunnier than London.
Our flight was direct, but we arrived in Porto Thursday evening in the pouring rain.
But you know what, we weren’t too upset. Because we didn’t have kids with us to entertain, and because we were staying in a legitimate PALACE.
The Pestana Palácio do Freixo was a steal in the off-season, and the place was really quiet. We had the fitness room to ourselves every single morning. We asked for a river-view room, which we got… sort of.
After unpacking, we found our way to the lounge and bar area, which was beautiful and nearly empty of other guests.
We sat and read, with a glass of wine, while the rain beat on the windows behind us. I also found it amusing that I was 5,000 miles from home, but there was a Portland Trailblazers basketball game on the TV in the lounge.
We decided to just eat dinner there that night and continue relaxing, rather than take a taxi out somewhere in the bad weather.
On Friday morning, we worked out in the fitness room, then enjoyed the remarkably nice breakfast. Fortunately, the rain had subsided, so we headed into the town center on the hotel’s complimentary shuttle.
It dropped us off at the Se Cathedral way up on top of a hill, so we started there, and loosely followed a self-guided walk in our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook. (I find his walks to be the most useful and rewarding aspects of his books.)
We were in the Rebeira district, the historic old town area of Porto. From the cathedral, it was a downhill walk to the other sites.
We stopped in the train station that’s famous for its beautiful blue and white tiles (azulejos) that tell the story of Portugal’s history.
Then we detoured off the guided walk to what’s been billed as “the world’s most beautiful McDonald’s”… for the world’s most average restrooms.
We wandered through the cobbled streets,
to the Stock Exchange Palace and the big square there,
then ended our exploratory stroll down at the riverfront.
We found a waterfront café to sit and have a drink and enjoy the view.
I tried a Super Bock beer, the Portuguese big beer brand, and Amber had a Somersby apple cider, served with a cinnamon stick, which was the clear winner.
Then it was time for our port wine lodges tour, which we’d booked through TripAdvisor. We walked across the famous double-decker bridge, Ponte de Dom Luís I, to Vila Nova de Gaia, which is separated from Porto by the Douro River, and is home to all the port wine lodges.
Like how sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s made in that region of France, fortified wine can only be called port if it’s made of grapes in the Douro Valley and then stored in the port wine lodges in Gaia. Why, then, it’s called port and not gaia, I’m still not sure.
Our tour guide took our group to three stops, and in total we tasted seven different ports. Which is a lot of port. At somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% ABV, I was expecting much less generous pours in our tasting glasses than we were given. I learned a lot about port, but my notes get a bit less specific as our tour progressed and the fortified wine fortified the relaxation sensors in my brain.
Our first stop on our tour was Ramos Pintos, in which we took their house tour through their museum and learned about their history.
At the end of that tour, we tasted a white port and a tawny port, both seven years old, but neither was my favorite. From the couple of white ports I’ve tried, I’ve decided I am not a big fan. Too cloyingly sweet. I’m a tawny girl.
I’d say the highlight of that particular tour stop was probably this:
We made a quick side stop before our next tasting to see this giant trash rabbit made by street artist Bordalo II, which I loved.
I made a mental note to seek out more of his street creatures on my upcoming trip to Lisbon (blog post coming soon).
Our next stop was a wine shop called Piano, which is tucked away down a narrow alleyway—we would never have found it on our own.
There, we tasted the first-ever rosé port, made by Croft in 2008. They were trying to capitalize on the rosé wine trend, and now other port lodges have followed suit. I liked it fine, but I think it will be even better as a summery cocktail, mixed with sparkling wine and served over ice.
We also tasted a Valriz ruby port, which they had us try paired with dark chocolate (yum!)
Our final stop on the tour was at a small producer, called Vasques D’Carvelho, where we tried a white reserve (nine years), a late bottled vintage (LBV) from 2011 (a good year), and a seven-year tawny (I liked this best).
Here are some of my takeaways from what I learned and managed to retain from my port tasting tour:
- White port should always be served chilled, but red port should be room or cellar temperature.
- LBVs (late bottled vintage) come from a single harvest that is considered good but not quite good enough to be vintage; they spend about twice as long in the wood casks before bottling (about four to six years from the vintage date), and are always ruby. They are high quality but not as pricey as vintage port, and can be opened and consumed much earlier than a vintage. Once opened, the bottle should be consumed within a few weeks.
- Vintage port should be stored (for many years) horizontally. Once opened, the bottle needs to be consumed within a day or two. The cork may have disintegrated over time, so you will likely need to decant the bottle through a sieve or cheesecloth to remove the bits of cork.
- Port and dark chocolate is a lovely pairing.
- Seven glasses of port is more than enough.
After our tour, we had dinner at a restaurant called LSD. We actually sat outside, thanks to their outdoor heaters and blankets, and enjoyed the oh-so-Old-World-European atmosphere of dining al fresco in a square, with a busker serenading us.
On Saturday, we sweat the port out of our pores in the fitness room and then in the hotel spa’s sauna and steam rooms. We had massages and a swim in the (indoor) pool and didn’t worry a bit about the weather not being great.
And after our recovery… we went back to Gaia. This time, dragging along a 12-bottle wine suitcase I borrowed from a friend. We were there to BUY.
We started our self-guided tour back at Piano. We shared a flight of red wine from the Douro Valley, and a flight of Portuguese alvarinho, and a Portuguese olive oil tasting as well.
Our next stop was Kopke, which bills itself as the “oldest port wine house.”
We tried both the 10- and the 20-year tawny ports side by side, and they are both delicious, especially the 20-year. I bought a bottle of the 10-year and two bottles of the 20-year. One to share and one to keep alllll to myself.
Then we walked uphill to Croft, which has a large tasting room. I bought a bottle of the Croft Late Bottled Vintage 2013 for a steal of €15, and a bottle of the rosé (€12.50) we had tried on our tour the day before. I’m saving that one for summertime.
Then we stopped in a shop that was selling all different brands of port, and on a recommendation from the shopkeeper, bought a Sandeman Vau Vintage for €34.
Our final stop was back at the small producer, Vasques D’Carvelho. They let us taste their 40-year tawny, which sells for €185 a bottle, for free. Surprisingly, they serve it chilled, though our tour guide had told us never to chill red port. Instead of the €185 bottle, I bought a €15 bottle there instead. And it’s perfectly delicious.
At this point I was officially up to my eyeballs in port. I think my eye color can now be described as “tawny.”
Post-day-drinking, we needed some fried food. We went to the nearby Mercado Beiro-Rio food hall and settled on some fries, and then I also stopped at a street vendor along the river for a chocolate-filled churro to devour on our walk back across the bridge to Porto.
After a nice dinner at a restaurant called La Ricotta, our final stop of the night was the Hot Five jazz club. We really wanted to hear some live music, and this looked like a great option, but it started so late, and we just couldn’t hang. The band was supposed to go on at 11, but didn’t go on till after 11:30, and we were turning into pumpkins by then.
The other problem with the place is that smoking is allowed inside (come on, Europe!), and the second-hand smoke was giving me a horrible headache. So we made it for about three or four songs and then called it a night. Which was a shame, because the band was actually really good.
If only it had started earlier and in a non-smoking atmosphere, alas.
Sunday morning was our last port-sweat-out session in the fitness room and amazing breakfast spread. Goodbye fresh tropical fruit buffet, I will miss you the mostest.
And would you look at that, we finally had a sunny day and could properly see our room’s river view:
Well that was nice for the few minutes we could enjoy it. We checked out of the hotel and headed back into town to do some more sightseeing. Our first stop was the “most beautiful bookshop in the world,” the Livraria Lello.
It’s said to have inspired J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for a while during the time she was writing the first Harry Potter book. The fantastical staircase may have inspired the Hogwarts library, apparently. So now Potter fans flock there and you have to queue and pay €5 to enter the bookshop.
It truly is the most beautiful bookshop I’ve ever seen. I took a bunch of pictures, but it’s impossible to get one of the staircase without tourists posing on it.
And no trip to Portugal is complete without trying their famous pastel de nata custard tarts. Manteigaria supposedly makes the best in Porto, so that is where we went.
Yep, freshly made pastel de nata ARE all they are cracked up to be.
Next, we tried to find a street in my guidebook that is home to some small boutiques and local shops, but since it was Sunday, they were all closed. We did get a free art show, though.
We got a bit lost at this point. OK, a lot lost. But that actually worked in our favor, as we accidentally ended up at Cristal Palace Gardens, and it was the most beautiful day of our trip, so we just enjoyed wandering around the gardens in the sunshine.
We got a cider and sat on a bench and watched the peacocks, then started our descent back towards the Rebeira, stopping often to admire the views on our way down.
Back down at the riverfront, with a bit more time to spare before we needed to head to the airport, we had a late lunch/early dinner at the café on the waterfront, soaking up the sun.
At the airport, I made one last port purchase. I’d learned that 2011 was a really good year for port, but the port houses we’d gone to had sold out of their 2011 vintage bottles. I found one from Barros at the airport, so I nabbed that for €50 on our way out of the country. Here’s the majority of my haul:
Farewell, Porto. I hope to be back, probably as soon as we run out of port.