Let’s all move to Porto. Azulejos— colorful, hand painted tiles—cover every imaginable vertical surface. The Duoro River snakes along the southern border of town, spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Blissed out golden sunset views beckon from the Ponte Dom Luis I. And, there are no wildfires. All good reasons to live there, right? Also, my Portuguese is really coming along so I’ve got us all covered.
Azulejos made their way to Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries from Spain via North Africa. Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto (or Oporto in Portuguese), has particularly embraced these hand-painted tiles. From the city’s southern riverfront to the hilly northern neighborhoods, from watch repair shops to Carmelite convents, tiles grace every city block in an explosion of colors and designs.
The Rio Duoro
The majestic Duoro river winds down from Northern Portugal’s border with Spain, through the hillaceously stunning Duoro Valley wine region, out toward the coast where it divides the city of Porto from the (no-longer so small) fishing village of Vila Nova de Gaia. Six bridges span the Duoro River through Porto before the water spills into the sea. For ultimate river glory, walk the Dom Luis I Bridge as the sun sets into the Atlantic and the city of Porto turns solid gold. Do not resist the selfie opportunities.
The Ribeira (riverside in Portuguese)—Porto’s UNESCO world heritage neighborhood that borders the Duoro—is home to the Sé Cathedral, the 14th-century Igreja do São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), and medieval cobblestone streets. After the obligatory tourists sites, enjoy a view-rich riverside ride on the Line 1 tram (departing from Infante stop in front Igreja de Såo Francisco).
The tram is totally tourist, but just roll with it. Cruise the electric rails up the river bank to hop out at Jardim Passeio do Alegre. Then walk (or take an electric scooter!) to Lapa Lapa for the darling boho brunch scene that really had me needing a caftan. At Lapa Lapa, like everywhere in Portugal, make reservations.
Hot tip, on the tram, sit on the left or stand. The right hand seats have the least water views.
Pastries, cured pork, salted, dried cod (bacalhau), and the bonkers Francesinha sandwich are culinary staples in Porto. Definitely eat at family joints, but a progressive meal of regional specialities from upscale food hall Mercado Bom Successo is an easy place to start. Also, go to Venham Mais Cinco (thanks Autumn + Guy!) for their prego sandwich. Once you recover, walk into virtually any cafe for a Francesinha—arguably the meatiest, fattiest, fry-iest creation in the world with ham, steak, fresh sausage, linguisa, cheese, a tomato-beer sauce and a fried egg on top. I left that sucker alone.
Butter-rich pastries are everywhere and it goes without saying you’ve gotta try the Touchino do Ceu—a sugar sweet squash and almond-based dessert cooked with lard. The name in Portuguese means Pig from Heaven.
In Porto, and most places, we begin with a free walking tour (tip your guide!) to orient ourselves and take in major sites. After seeing the Sao Bento train station, the Dos Igrejas, and the rest we were free to roam the city. I adore Porto’s history, but also love its modern life, its tile-covered neighborhoods, charming coffee shops, friendly residents, and nooks and crannies. You can’t get that from a guidebook, you just have to wander.
Cedofeita (both a street and neighborhood) is perfect for city strolling. Sip espresso at the mid-century fabulous O Consulado, shop the well-curated consignment and secondhand clothing stores, find jewelry and regional food products at CC Bombarda, then have a craft beer in the secret back garden of Catraio. (Or, if you’re like me and don’t drink, have a Lemon Pedras Salgadas…my new favorite mineral water). After, stroll the scores of contemporary art galleries lining Rua de Miguel Bombarda (but, like, plan ahead because no galleries are open Mondays and only sometimes Wednesdays and definitely only after 1:00pm and before 6:00pm, etc.).
Then, venture further afield. Go wild! We did a wonderful urban hike through Gaia with PortoCampo which took us into tiny back alleys with breathtaking views, past aged port wine warehouses, and through romantic, abandoned farm manors. Boavista neighborhood has the Bom Successo food hall, the Cemetery of Agramonte (with fabulous statues and beautifully gothic mausoleums), and the architecturally glorious Casa da Musica. Walk and discover!
Museo de Serralves
Spend an afternoon at the fabulous contemporary artland of Fundação de Serralves. This 44-acre campus includes the Serralves Museum (we love a modern art museum), the amazing (peachy pink!) art deco villa built in the Streamline Moderne tradition, an elevated wooden tree-top walk, outdoor sculpture gardens, an art cinema, and rotating exhibitions from an excellent mix of contemporary Portuguese and international artists. The restaurant museum and tree-lined Serralves park cafe are also dreamy.
There is so much pink in Porto and I love it. Arguably some of the pink is faded red, and there’s a healthy amount of peach in the paint and tiles, but it’s fun to make up nicknames and Porto Pink has a real ring to it. From grand homes on Rua da Cedofeita to ramshackle barns in Vila Nova da Gaia to wall tiles wearing pops of fuchsia, the buildings of this city are not afraid to rock the rosa. May we all be inspired.
Day Trips from Porto
Portugal is relatively small, but each new region has its own culture, culinary specialties, church extravaganzas, and architectural styles. So fun and easy to explore if you have rental wheels. In our two-week Porto stay, we took day jaunts to the medieval town of Guimarães, saw the Catholic religious complex of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga, visited Ponte de Lima with its medieval bridge and faced the biggest plate of pork innards I’ve ever seen my wife eat, explored the annual International Garden Festival in Ponte de Lima (thanks to a hot tip from Autumn!), and took in sweeping Atlantic Ocean views from the Santuário de Santa Luzia in Viana do Castelo before driving through beachy outpost towns back down the coast to Porto. Each adventure was less than 90 minutes away.
The Social Factor
I love so much about Portugal. The language, the chill nature of the people, the beautiful and unique regions, the Pedras Salgadas bubbly water. Certainly Portugal has work in regards to reconciling current-day racism and a painful colonial history (they began the transatlantic trade of enslaved people from Africa). That said, I greatly appreciate the wide-ranging protections for LGBTQ folks, the astronomically small number of gun-related deaths, the (relative) lack of people living on the street thanks to effective drug treatment programs and the Basic Housing Law which ensures housing as a citizen’s right.
Maybe it’s the social policies, maybe it’s the beautiful hand-painted tiles, but of all the many wonderful places I love on this planet, Portugal is only one of three places my body has told me: we should live here.
Of course I want to live everywhere. Of course I love many places. But it’s as though a molecular piece of me fits better when I am in Portugal.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Where does your body want to be?