I know for sure that I am generally a very low-maintenance girlfriend, but one thing I can get quite bratty about is my birthday. On that one day, I become a rampant attention whore; I want to bask in compliments and cake and birthday cards with emotional essays handwritten inside them. So last year when my boyfriend presented me with my gift – tickets to see his favourite comedian followed by drinks with his schoolfriend and the schoolfriend’s family – I wasn’t particularly impressed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I must have thrown the mother of all strops about it because he really came up with the goods this year. I was absolutely delighted when this fell out of my birthday card.
I’m a Ms not a Miss but top marks for effort otherwise
Moral of the story: ladies, choose your battles and use the power of the sulk sparingly.
Before I start, I want to say that obviously I’m joking – please don’t be horrible to your partners and Ollie, I’m sorry I was such a drama queen and thanks so much for this amazing thoughtful gift. Also massive thanks to Alanna Kitson for recommending most of the restaurants and brunch places we visited and huge apologies to you, the reader, for the absolute state of these photos. This is the best I can manage with them, but they’re still terrible quality.
We arrived in Porto on Friday afternoon having done extensive Porto research (i.e. reading a guide book cover-to-cover and asking friends for recommendations). We also spent a lot of time cringing at a horrific AirBnb Experience called ‘What would you like to be Eternal?’ that involves some poor soul following you around the city all day taking staged ‘candid’ couple shots for Instagram.
Ollie had chosen a great AirBnB in the super cool district of Baixa that happened to be located on an entire block of restaurants, bars and cafés, so of course the first thing to do after dumping our bags was to get our bearings by wandering around the city centre, foraging for food. We found a café on the super touristy Rua dos Clérigos that didn’t look like much from the outside, but which promised bacalhau and a glass of port for €4.50. Confeitaria Dos Clérigos turned out to be a very simple, clean Portuguese café, with a counter full of cakes and pastries; there were no other tourists inside (most of them were probably distracted by the Flying Tiger opposite and the Starbucks next door) and the owner didn’t speak English, which we took to be a good sign. I had never heard of bacalhau before researching Porto, but they make amazing comfort food; they’re codfish cakes, a bit like croquettes or fritters but with potato and cheese in the middle as well as fish. My brain balks at the idea of fish, cheese and potato mashed together, but they are muito bom.
Bacalhau and port with this one!
We’d been in Porto for a matter of hours and I’d decided I was in love. My brilliant mood was improved further by the fact that it wasn’t raining like the weather forecast has predicted, so we went to explore further as the sun went down. We saw the Luis I Bridge, the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso and loads of gorgeous azulejos that adorned every other building. Azulejos are the super pretty printed tiles for which Portugal is famous. They were exactly my ~aesthetic~ and I’d like to have a house (or at least a bathroom) covered in them one day.
Igreja de Santo Ildefonso and the Luis I Bridge
We had time for a glass of wine at Wine Quay Bar (say that out loud – are they playing a joke on us?) on the riverfront, looking over the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia where all the port cellars are, their huge neon signs lighting up the skyline.
We had a dinner reservation at a bougie restaurant called Flow, and which turned out to be just around the corner – literally – from our AirBnb. Flow is situated in an old industrial building which contrasts perfectly with its modern and ultra-stylish interior; it was already buzzing with locals and tourists alike when we arrived at 8pm. After much deliberation, I ordered the Iberian pork and I can honestly say that it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten; I’m no meat expert, but even I could tell that was cooked to perfection. It tasted like the most flavoursome, juiciest steak I have ever eaten*, and in the nicest setting – it really felt like a Michelin star restaurant except that we got two main courses, a bottle of wine, a dessert, a coffee and water for £30 each, including tip. We were enjoying the food and the atmosphere so much that we stayed for the entirety of our 2-hour reservation and then moved to the bar to stay a bit longer afterwards, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before. We ambled back home and fell asleep sleepy, full and very happy.
*not actually that many
We meant to get up early on Saturday but accidentally slept in late (no regrets). When we finally did leave our apartment, we had brunch at another place just round the corner called Zenith; it scored absolutely off the charts in terms of basic-ness – it had a pink neon sign on the wall that said ‘No bad vibes’ – but the food was good (smashed avo on sourdough toast and poached eggs, obviously).
Ollie looking cute and basic and me saying, ‘Alright listen up you filthy lot, imma learn u a thing or 2 about Porto…’
We strolled through a cute little craft market until we came to the Igreja do Carmo and its beautiful azulejos.
The inside of the church was ok, but not as pretty as the outside. There were plenty of Jesuses on crosses, some priests’ robes which reminded me of the sexy priest from Fleabag, a truly creepy Jesus statue in on a little balcony that you could climb into and peer out from behind Our Lord and Saviour and a carving of a priest with a badly receding hairline that looked a lot like my brother.
Sexy Fleabag Priest, my brother, and me in the nook behind Jesus
Despite brunch, all that church-ing had us hungry again and God must not have minded us being so blasphemous in His house because He presented us with Manteigaria, a café that only sold pastéis de nata and coffee. The custard tarts were €1 each and and we ate ours warm and gooey from the oven, standing at the little ledges around edges of the room, sipping our 70c espressos and watching the bakers fill row after row of pastry cases with sweet yellow filling. If Heaven exists, I’m pretty sure it looks something like Manteigaria.
We saw São Bento, Porto’s main train station but also a work of art in its own right, covered in yet more stunning azulejos depicting battle scenes that I should have learned more about – but I got distracted by the fact that the tour guide I was trying to eavesdrop on was being chatted up very enthusiastically by one of his group members.
From there, we walked further up the hill to Sé do Porto or Porto Cathedral, the only cathedral I’ve ever been in that has a courtyard in the middle and a sort of corridor around the outside. It was of course plentifully bestrewn with blue azulejos.
“Get a candid, wait, wait! I’m not ready. Is it good? Give it here, let me see.”
Ollie then got all excited about walking across the Luis I bridge – what is it with men and infrastructure!? The Luis I Bridge has two tiers, the bottom one for cars and the top one for pedestrians and trams. I suppose it is quite amazing that humans are capable of building things like that, especially in the 1800s.
The other side of the Douro River is called Vila Nova de Gaia and is most famous for being where all the port cellars are. We were looking at the view of Porto from Morro Garden and preparing for our descent towards the alcohol when we saw a real-life public proposal! A few people in white masks set down a huge speaker and started doing a dance routine; a small crowd gathered, mistaking them for street performers or a flash mob. I worked out what was about to happen when I saw a nervous looking man holding some flowers and his friend filming from the top of the hill. Nervous Man ran down the hill as ‘Marry You’ by Bruno Mars started up, tapped a woman on the shoulder and presented her with the flowers before leading her to the centre of the crowd. Then there was a slightly awkward 45 seconds or so where they just stood and looked at each other while she clutched her flowers and flicked her hair and he fiddled with his pocket. Finally, the song ended their friends in the white masks took off their jackets to reveal t-shirts printed with WILL YOU MARRY ME?
(Well, it was in Portuguese, but I assume that’s what it said given the woman’s reaction, which was to nod and smile and cry and throw her arms around Nervous Man. It could have just said, DO YOU WANT TO GET THE CABLE CAR DOWN TO THE PORT HOUSES AND HAVE A DRINK?, which is what we were planning to do and would have garnered a similar reaction from me.)
We clapped and awww-ed along with everyone else, but when Bruno Mars started up again and the couple began posing for photos, we decided that that was enough cuteness for one day. We took the gondola down to the riverfront with a stony-faced French couple who were obviously not feeling the love. After claiming the free port tasting that came with the gondola ticket and puffing up the hill for another glass of port at Taylor’s, we stumbled across another small port cellar that I can’t find the name of, so it shall remain a mystery to all. It seemed quite quiet inside and was offering 5 tastings for a price so cheap that it would have been rude to refuse.
Not long after we sat down, a group of tipsy Americans arrived having just finished a port tour. I was so absorbed in listening to their guide talk about the history of port and watching the group cheerfully heckle her that I didn’t realise for about 45 minutes that our port hadn’t arrived; it turned out that the waiters had been so preoccupied with the noisy Americans that they had forgotten us, such is the curse of being British. To apologise, they brought us an extra glass of port that they said was an expensive vintage but could have been literally anything for all I know. Nonetheless, it was very sweet of them (see what I did there? Sweet? Port wine? Forget it).
We lined all ten glasses up in front of us from least to most sweet and started to taste them; we numbered them 1 to 10 and then tried to guess which number we were drinking with our eyes shut, which we got progressively worse and worse at the more we drank. By this time, a group of Dutch guys had come in to replace the tour group and were looking at us like we were brave or stupid or both, much the way I had been previously watching the Americans. They ordered a half pint each.
We could have stayed there for hours, but eventually the cellar closed; so we drained our port and began to wind our way home, back across the bridge and through the cobbled, hilly streets, before happening across a Portuguese tapas restaurant called Tapas 65. It was the perfect find as we were able to try lots of small plates of traditional food; the Portuguese sausage stands out as particularly delicious. We followed this up with a couple of cocktails in a bar on the same road as our AirBnb where we were served by a sweet but timid bartender. We think he may have been on his first shift because our Dark and Stormy and Old Fashioned arrived looking and tasting exactly the same – like straight rum with a bit of Jiff lemon juice. They were anti-delicious and we considered sending them back but in the end were very British about it and decided to just drink them and not make a fuss.
Safe to say that we were not sober by the time we made it to bed.
On Sunday we woke up hangover-free (a miracle!) to the soft pitter-patter of rain outside the window. It was the first rain of the trip – not bad, considering the forecast had predicted it would piss it down all weekend.
We went to another basic brunch place called Nicolau. It was especially busy because of the rain; there was a growing queue and it was packed inside. In the end, we ended up sharing a four-person table with two stunningly good-looking Americans called Jeff and Keely, who were very friendly and ordered a vegan burger with a bright green bun and an açai peace bowl decorated with edible flowers to share. Ollie and I went for considerably less healthy options (pancakes smothered in syrup and bacon). We got chatting and they told us they were headed to India for the next few weeks. I asked what they were going to do there, assuming from their food orders that they’d be on a yoga course or a silent meditation farm or something. Imagine my delight when Keely said, “We’re actually going to be teaching the Bible!”
I struggled to keep a straight face as every song from the Book of Mormon filled my head and instead satisfied myself with kicking Ollie’s shins mercilessly under the table, while out loud I said something along the lines of, “Oh, how lovely! You must both be very involved with the Church, then?” They didn’t try to convert us (which was good of them) but we ended up having to make a swift exit when they recommended us the exact same AirBnb Experience that we’d been cringing at only days earlier and had been threatening to buy each other when one of us got too annoying (“Stop singing Old Town Road or I’m buying you the Eternal photoshoot”)**. Ollie’s poor shins were pretty bruised by the end of this ordeal.
**This is here for comedic effect only. As Ollie has ruthlessly pointed out, I didn’t actually hear Old Town Road for the first time until January 2020, a full 2 months after we went to Porto but CHRIST ALIVE I am an ~ARTIST~ will you PLEASE give me some room for ARTISTIC LICENSE!
I then insisted on going to see a Gothic church called Igreja de São Francisco that I had read about, but after having a mooch about inside I was forced to concede that churches are generally quite samey. This particular church had some catacombs that straddled the fine line between cool and creepy as they included wall-to-wall coffins as well as gravestones covering the floor; there was a glass cutaway over one of them, revealing the mountains of bones beneath. It was eerily quiet, so we didn’t stay too long but instead headed back over to Gaia via a hipster café called 7g Roaster where we stopped for coffee, more pastéis de nata and to write our postcards.
Then it was PORT TIME. We took a tour of the Ramos Pinto wine cellar which I found really interesting; even though the guide must get bored of doing the same tour multiple times a day, she still made it funny and engaging. She talked about how port is made as well as Adriano Ramos Pinto himself and his clever branding – I absolutely love that kind of thing because I am a huge nerd and bought several postcards afterwards of old Ramos Pinto advertisements. Included in the price of the tour were a couple of port tastings which is obviously not why we bought the tickets but was a nice bonus (ahem).
We had a dinner reservation at Cruel, a ‘concept restaurant’ on the same road as our AirBnb because apparently our criteria for choosing restaurants was ‘those within 200m of our apartment’ (that’s not even an exaggeration). Cruel had 3 different menus named ‘Fearful’, which was traditional Portuguese food, ‘Cautious’ which consisted of Portuguese food with a twist and ‘Cruel’ which I can only really describe as batshit crazy.
Ollie’s steak ‘starter’ and my TROWEL of potatoes
Ollie had an incredible steak-based starter from the ‘Cruel’ menu and I had ‘batatas bravas’, which turned out to be a literal TROWEL of potatoes covered in spicy sauce. They were both delicious but there was So. Much. Food. For the main course, Ollie ordered a Francesinha, which is Portuguese for little French thing; misleading as it is neither little nor French. It’s a sort of salami sandwich covered in cheese and a gravy-like sauce (if gravy was made with beer). I got the magic mushroom risotto which was absolutely bizarre – it was covered these weird flakes that moved and waved of their own accord throughout the meal.
I later questioned the waiter and found out that the flakes are called katsuobushi, dried, fermented and smoked tuna from Japan, sliced tissue-thin. The risotto was really tasty but there was such a huge portion, and no matter how much I ate, the plate seemed to keep refilling itself. By the end of the meal I was so full that there was absolutely no way I could put even one more grain of rice into my mouth, yet my plate looked like it hadn’t been touched.
Ollie was not a fan of ‘the devil food’
We woke up on Monday morning and went straight to Livraria Lello to inspect the queue. I had seen pictures of the inside of the bookshop and really wanted to have a look inside; but even before it had opened, there was a huge queue outside and I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach the crowds in such a confined space. I reluctantly agreed to give it a miss and instead we went to a bakery called Solar Pão Quente, where I cheered up immensely when we shared two of the best coffees I have ever tasted and three delectable pastries, all for less than the price of a flat white in London.
We were all church-ed out by this point, but I still insisted on walking to see the azulejos at the Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls) because I am a basic bitch and like I mentioned, they’re my ~aesthetic~.
From there, we walked back to the Douro and watched the street performers on the riverfront for a while before hopping onto a short boat tour that showcased the six bridges of Porto. At this point, I started feeling a bit sorry for Monsieur Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) because he had designed a bridge just out of sight upstream and one of his students had clearly just copied his bridge and improved it a bit when designing the bridge that would become the famous Luis I Bridge that Ollie got so excited about. Then again, the student was never actually named in any of the information we could find; he was only referred to as ‘a student of Gustave Eiffel’ – so I suppose Mr Eiffel had the last laugh really.
We had lunch at an unassuming restaurant on Ribeira Square set back from the waterfront which turned out to be quite tasty and not ridiculously overpriced; it was also one of the first times on the trip that we actually managed to eat some vegetables.
By chance, my friend Angela happened to be in Porto on a work thing at the same time as we were there which we only found out because she had replied to my (extensive) Instagram stories, so we hopped in an Uber to meet her. The Uber driver was extremely friendly, and although our Portuguese was non-existent beyond ‘obrigado/obrigada’ and his English was not much better, he made up for it in enthusiasm and hand gestures. We managed to glean that he was a professional Fifa player and started every day with a pastel de nata and an espresso, which made me feel slightly less like a sheepy tourist and a bit more like your average Portuguese person who just loves pastries and coffee.
We met Angela in the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal from which we had a gorgeous view over the Douro and the city. We wandered and chatted and told her about Jeff and Keely before finding ourselves back at Manteigaria (oops) for a final pastel de nata and espresso each, before jumping on the tram back to the airport.
I can’t recommend Porto enough; it was beautiful, full of friendly people, fascinating history, gorgeous art and, of course, port. The amount of amazing food we ate for relatively cheap prices was a welcome, if unexpected bonus. Even in November, the weather was generally bright and sunny, and it was so easy to get around; the Uber we got was super cheap, and the tram went straight from the airport to the city centre. Porto itself is small enough to walk around if you don’t mind cobbles and hills. It’s the perfect place for a mini-break, or to stay longer if you have more time: there’s definitely enough to do and see, and you could take a day trip out to the coast.
That’s all from me, until next time xoxo