During my first trip to Porto, Portugal, my cousin and I had driven in from the Douro Valley and needed our morning coffee. We found a café on a street by the Douro riverside, ordered our coffees at the inside counter and decided we would have them outside on their terrace. I found it odd that the tables seemed to be a distance from the café until about five minutes later when a clamouring tramway car began to fill that gap between the terrace and the café’s front door! “This place is nuts!” I thought to myself! “Surely an unsuspecting and distracted tourist could be runover if they did not know better!”

Porto Vintage tramcars

Vintage tramcars serve as a popular form of
transit throughout Porto 
Photo: Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau

A similar thought of insanity occurred to me on my next trip to Porto as I sat at a restaurant in the Ribeira neighbourhood watching the Portuguese navy run helicopter training maneuvers of landing and take-off from a naval vessel anchored right next to the heart of the restaurant district! “What if one of these pilots made a wrong move? There are hundreds of tourists just meters away the water’s edge!” And do not get me going about the dare-devil teenage divers who jump off the lower level of the Dom Luis I bridge into the Douro River 20 meters below!

This is a city full of surprises.

Serralves Foundation

One of Europe’s best examples of Art Deco architecture can be found at the Serralves Foundation which consists of expansive city gardens, a contemporary art museum, a tree-top walkway and a working farm
Photo: Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau

Porto is the second largest city in the country (population 237,000) and, while easily accessible by a train ride from Lisbon, it has also become a flight destination in its own right revered by city travelers from throughout Europe and North America (Air Transat offers direct flights to Porto from Montreal). And with good reason! It offers historic charm; scenic views; wine and port cellars; cathedrals that date back to the 12th century; riverboat tours; a world-famous bookstore (Livraria Lello) that legend says inspired J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; and one of Europe’s best examples of Art Deco architecture that would give film director Wes Anderson the shivers (at the Serralves Foundation)!

Oh, and did I mention the food? Seafood is synonymous with this country and with Porto being only a sixty-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean, the sea’s bounty is on full offer here from one hundred ways to prepare cod to oysters so fresh they almost jump from their shells into your watering mouth! Even die-hard carnivores are rewarded in spades with the local delicacy, the “Francesinha”, which consists of a plated-sandwich of thick, white bread, sausage, Portuguese ham, cheese and steak, smothered with copious amounts of more melted cheese and finished with each chef’s own take on the secret tomato and beer sauce. Your cardiologist’s frowning face vicariously peering over your shoulder will be but a distant memory after your first bite!

Porto Cathedral

The Porto Cathedral has sections that date back to the 12th century and offers beautiful views of the Douro River
Photo: Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau

However, with Porto’s success as a most desired travel destination so do come the crowds, so a little insider strategy to ensure a pleasurable, stress-free trip is in order. One tip that I employed during my last trip to this region was to stay at the Boeira Garden Hotel (part of the Curio Collection by Hilton) on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Douro river, which is a city directly opposite Porto itself.

Boeira Garden Hotel

The Boeira Garden Hotel has an inviting exterior pool in the shadow of the original manor that dates back to 1860 
Photo: Boeira Garden Hotel

Vila Nova de Gaia still offers the riverside dining experience with truly breathtaking views of Porto and the Dom Luis I bridge while also giving the visitor alternate choices of accommodations and some breathing space from the masses that descend upon Porto’s narrow streets and city squares.

In my case, the Boeira Garden Hotel also served as a bit of an oasis as it is set on the grounds of the former Quinta da Boeira (circa 1850) which has been preserved as a kind of nature reserve (complete with a natural duck pond) into which the hotel is set. This five-star hotel also has an inviting outdoor pool facing the original manor. A luxurious spa serves guests on site. The hotel, itself, is of a modern design having been completed in 2019 and has 119 spacious rooms with many overlooking the lush gardens. One really feels immersed in nature here, yet it so conveniently located with access to all that Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia have to offer.

Boeira Garden Hotel

The Boeira Garden Hotel features a contemporary architectural style and opened in 2019 
Photo: Boeira Garden Hotel

Just outside the gates of the Boeira guests can wander up the street and find themselves in the midst of an authentic Portuguese neighbourhood with locals running errands and gathering in the restaurants and cafes. Here the menus are strictly in Portuguese and the dishes are indigenous so, unless you have a local culinary guide, it can be a bit of a hit and miss. My own guide adored her appetizer of Moelas which are chicken gizzards simmered in tomatoes and garlic and considered a Portuguese comfort food.

Alternatively, a fifteen-minute walk down the winding streets of the town will bring you into the thick of the more tourist-friendly businesses such as the Sandeman Port cellars plus a multitude of restaurants and bars, and a further walk across the Dom Luis I bridge will bring you to the Ribereira district in Porto. Travel tip: Make sure to have the Uber app on your phone. While your GPS may indicate that it is simple walk back to the Boeira Garden Hotel, most of it will be at a ninety-degree angle! The 8 Euro Uber-ride will be well worth the discretionary expenditure!

Porto’s city hall

Porto’s city hall offers a perfect backdrop for
social media photos  
Photo: Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau

Porto is an easy night or two trip to incorporate into your travel plans to Lisbon. Trains to Porto leave from the Oriente train station in Lisbon and, if possible, it is a good idea to secure your tickets prior to your departure trip as they do sell out (through the Comboios de Portugal website). One advantage of staying in Vila Nova de Gaia is that it is an earlier stop than Porto (the last stop prior to) so travelers also avoid the hustle and bustle of the Sao Bento train station (though the station itself is a photo-worthy destination as it is adorned with an impressive display of story-telling blue and white ceramic tiles). The express trains shorten the journey to two hours and thirty-nine minutes (from three hours or more) and a first-class option is also available.

Travel Planner 
For more information on Porto go to: www.visitporto.travel
You can find details on the Boeira Garden Hotel by searching: www.Hilton.com
Direct flights from Montreal to Porto can be found at: www.airtransat.com

A.J Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer. www.ajtwist.net

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