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The Historic Charm of Northern Portugal: Porto, Braga, and Guimarães

February 2024


Porto has a certain romantic charm; you can't help falling in love with its History, Architecture, Culture, and, of course, the food—a perfect reason for a Valentine's week getaway.


We've often heard Lisbon is where the pretty people live, and Porto is where the working class lives. Our translation is that Porto is more down-to-earth, friendly, and welcoming, whereas Lisbon is more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and rushed. Each city has its personality, but this week is about the North.

Our trip begins with a short flight from the Faro airport. In February, you can expect rain, a little sunshine, and some wind, sometimes all at once in Porto. We were fortunate on this trip to have some sun mixed in with clouds and light rain.


We decided to split our five nights here into two separate but unique locations in the city. The first was the Yeatman Hotel on the river's Port Wine side (Guia). From here, the views of the river and city of Porto are spectacular.


On the Porto side of the city for dinner tonight at Casario, with views looking back across the river to Guia, where our hotel is. It was a fantastic meal, Michelin-star quality without the price. It is well worth the effort to find this gem of a restaurant. Situated in the heart of the riverfront tourist area, but once you arrive, you feel far away from the commotion and activities. The second-floor location places you above the chaos with a quiet bird's eye view. The view is exceptional, as is the setting, the food, and the service. You can choose between a multi-course menu do Chef or ala carte; we selected the Menu do Chef and were not disappointed. All fresh, quality ingredients are well prepared and professionally presented.


More views of Porto from the Guia (Port wine) side of the river


We spent part of a day exploring the "World of Wine" in the heart of the Port wine lodges. This complex of exhibits, museums, restaurants, and entertainment venues is scattered along the hillside between our hotel and the river. The exhibits/museums are focused on Portugal's history, world trade, wine, and port and present an interactive journey through history and the processes. We toured the Wine Experience and the Chocolate Story, and both were well worth the time.


We kept seeing Falcons and their handlers throughout this area. We assumed they were there to control any potential rodent populations that might get into the port/wine barrels and keep the Pidgeon and seagull populations at bay.


Carnival is widely celebrated in Portugal, somewhat like Halloween is in the US. There are many costumes for children for sale in stores and events for them. It is another religious-focused holiday for them. Carnival in Venice is on our bucket list, but we decided to try something less grand and work our way up to Venice. Our hotel was hosting a more adult-oriented version with entertainment and dinner. The food was excellent, and the entertainers were spectacular.


A short ride over to Matosinhos today, just northwest of Porto. Known for its beaches and seafood, this is the commercial port of Porto, where cargo, cruise lines, and fishing boats unload their goods. The coastline is beautiful, with long stands of sandy beaches and rock shoreline. The Mercado here is supposed to be spectacular, especially for its fresh harvests from the sea, but since it's Fat Tuesday, most things, including the Mercado, are closed.


Lunch in Matosinhos at Casa de Cha da Boa Nova was a fantastic experience. The location, the view, the food, and the service all were above expectations. The courses were fresh and creative but not over the top, and the wine pairings were very well done and enhanced each course. The timing between courses was perfect, allowing us to control the pace of the meal. Adding to this was the setting and the breathtaking view as the waves crashing on the rocks felt like you could reach out and touch them.


Our second hotel for this trip is the Maison Albar Monumental Palace located in the heart of Centro Porto.


Somewhat jaded from working so many years in hospitality, we avoid eating out on holidays like Valentine's Day. As you can see in this post, we dine out the rest of the week but celebrate a bit more low-key on the day itself. Tonight was an excellent Mexican restaurant find in Centro Porto called Callejero. A husband and wife own it; she's from Spain, and he's from Guadalajara, Mexico. The small restaurant was full, so we sat at the sidewalk tables outside. A little on-and-off drizzle made for a memorable night leaning into the wall so we could be protected by the overhang above.


A few random sights from Porto.



We took a small group day tour to Braga and Guimarães, which ended up being just the two of us and our guide.


These shots are of the Braga Bom Jesus do Monte complex, a neoclassical church atop an elaborate 17-flight stairway. Located on the slopes of Mount Espinho, the sanctuary was developed over more than 600 years, primarily in a Baroque style. The stairway includes a series of chapels that house sculptures evoking the Passion of Christ, as well as fountains, allegorical sculptures, and formal gardens. The celebrated Stairway of the Five Senses, with its walls, steps, fountains, statues, and other ornamental elements, is the most emblematic Baroque work within the property. They are framed by lush woodland and embraced by a picturesque park that, masterfully set on the rugged hill, highly contributes to the landscape value of the ensemble.


In the city center, the medieval Braga Cathedral is home to a sacred art museum and the Gothic-style Kings' Chapel. Nearby, the imposing Archbishop’s Palace overlooks Santa Barbara Garden.


City center of Braga


Guimarães Castle (10th Century), Church (12th Century), and Dukes Palace (15th Century)


Guimarães Centro


Happy Birthday/Valentines Day to Mary


On our last night in Porto, dinner was at Chama, a trendy Taberna-style restaurant focusing on imaginative, wood-oven dishes with area-sourced ingredients. It was a Cozy setting, and the food was fantastic, as was the service. The only negative we experienced was that they couldn’t handle a full/busy restaurant. Lots of time between courses and little communication. 3.5 hours for seven courses is a bit long!



Porto Feb 2024


Sun

Depart to Faro,

Ryanair flight to Porto (1 hour, 10 minutes)

Uber to Hotel (30 minutes)

Hotel: The Yeatman

Dinner @ Casario


Mon

Hotel: The Yeatman

World of Wine: The Wine Experience, The Chocolate Story

Carnival event/dinner @ Yeatman


Tue

Check out of the Yeatman

Move to next Hotel: Maison Albar Hotel Le Monumental Palace

Visit Matosinhos (25 minutes BOLT)

Lunch in Matosinhos @ Casa de Chá da Boa Nova (the view)

Dinner – Callejero for Mexican food


Wed

Hotel: Maison Albar Hotel Le Monumental Palace

8:45 am pick up from Hotel - Day trip From Porto (8 hours): Braga and Guimarães Full Day Tour with Lunch

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARY

Dinner @ Thailander – good basic Thai restaurant when you need a little variety


Thu

Hotel: Maison Albar Hotel Le Monumental Palace

Shopping

Churchill Port Lodge

Dinner @ Chama


Fri

Walk the Santa Catarina District

Depart to Airport (30 minutes by Uber)

Ryanair flight to Faro (1 hour, 10 minutes)



Things to do

  • Wine Country tour of the Douro by car, train, or boat: day trip or overnight

  • Visit Port Wine Houses/Lodges, Port tasting

  • WOW World of Wine

  • A cruise along the Douro River

  • Eat a Francesinha; Portos own version of Croque Monsieur. Bring your appetite or several friends.

  • An evening in the Ribeira district

  • The tram ride to the Foz district

  • Shopping and eating at the Mercado do Bolhao

  • Visit the fishing village of Matosinhos for beach time and great seafood

  • Dining at Bom Sucesso market (or the new Time Out Market)

  • Enjoy the nightlife along the Galerias de Paris

  • Almada 13 - for all your souvenirs. The small shop sells ceramics, art, jewelry, and other wares by local artists, and everything is well-priced and impossibly beautiful.

  • For breathtaking views of Porto’s famous bridges, head to the banks of the Douro River. Take a bottle of wine and some delicious Portuguese sandwiches for the perfect picnic.

Sites to see

  • The Ponte Luis I bridge

  • The Igreja de Sao Francisco church; elaborate wood carvings, lavish gold leaf, Tree of Jesus

  • The Livraria Lello bookshop; Inspiration of Harry Potter books

  • The Torre dos Clerigos: 18th-century church with a 75m bell tower

  • The Igreja do Carmo church; stunning tiled exterior, Portugal's narrowest house between the two churches

  • The Majestic Café coffee shop; elaborate Art Nouveau architecture, heart of Portos shopping district

  • The Sao Bento train station; Portugal’s history in large Azulejo tile images

  • The Half-Rabbit; Urban Art


Restaurants

  • Casario - One thing about Porto: There’s a great view wherever you look. It’s impossible not to be charmed by this rugged, colorful city. Nowhere will you feel more in love with the place than down by the river, where you can stroll along to the Dom Luís I bridge or gaze across the water to Gaia. Down on the street, the tourists can be a little overpowering—but if you manage to bag one of the tables overlooking the river at Casario, you’ll escape all the hustle and bustle, leaving you to enjoy the blissful sunset over dinner. Found in the Gran Cruz House, now a hotel in a 16th-century building formerly used as a trade house for coffee, Casario undoubtedly has some of the best tables among Porto's restaurants. The restaurant is sleek but holds on to its Portuguese traditions; expect a huge range of local wines, and port made just across the river.

    • Well worth the effort to find this gem of a restaurant. Situated in the heart of the riverfront tourist area but once you arrive you feel far away from the commotion and activities. The second-floor location places you high above the chaos with a quiet bird's eye view. The view is exceptional as is the setting, the food, and the service. Choose between a multi-course menu do Chef or ala carte, we selected the Menu do Chef and were not disappointed. All fresh, quality ingredients, are well prepared and and professionally presented.


  • Casa de Chá da Boa Nova - In a stunning house designed by local Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Álvaro Siza, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova (Boa Nova Tea House) provides dramatic ocean views with waves crashing against the rocks below. The two-Michelin-starred restaurant, helmed by acclaimed chef Rui Paula, serves traditional Portuguese dishes, many highlighting local seafood and fish, as well as a vegetarian menu featuring local potatoes, fava beans, and greens.

    • A fantastic experience. The location, the view, the food, and the service all were above expectations. The courses were fresh and creative but not over the top, wine pairings were very well done and enhanced each course. The timing between courses was perfect, allowing us to control the pace of the meal. Adding to all of this was the setting and the breathtaking view as the waves crashing on the rocks felt like you could reach out and touch them. I would expect three stars to be close at hand.

  • Thailander - Laid-back restaurant serving traditional Thai cuisine amid no-nonsense surroundings.

    • Good basic Thai restaurant when you need a little variety.

  • Chama - a trendy destination focusing on imaginative, wood-oven prepped dishes with area-sourced ingredients.

    • Great location on charming backstreets, inside feels like a traditional Taberna. Food and service were excellent and creative. Only negative during our visit was the time between courses and lack of communication. The menu is not announced so you don't know how many courses are coming or if you are finished. 3.5 hours is way to long for 7 courses!

  • Le Monument @ Maison Albar - Discover the talent and excellence of chef Julien Montbabut at the Michelin-starred Le Monument gourmet restaurant in the heart of Porto. After spending two years visiting the wonders of Portugal, the Michelin-starred Chef recounts his journey and encounters through a unique menu. Let him take you by an exciting gustatory journey, punctuated by Portuguese-influenced flavors, stories and surprises, sublimated by French savoir-faire.

  • Gruta - Hidden in the basement of a building amidst the buzz of Rua de Santa Catarina (the main commercial street in Porto), Gruta is a rare find for good food and attentive service. Follow the ramp strung with lights down to the charming dining room with stone walls. Fish and seafood are the stars of the menu, which also includes lots of vegetarian options. Start with the fritto misto di mare (crispy golden soft shell crab, squid, and prawns) and a refreshing zucchini salad, followed by codfish confit with pea puree and green vegetables. Or go for the moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew with cassava porridge, which highlights the culinary roots of head chef Rafaela Louzada, who left Rio de Janeiro for Porto.

  • Euskalduna Studio -Vasco Coelho Santos is one of the best chefs in Porto and a prominent cook-turned-businessman with restaurants spread out across the city. After stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli, the chef returned home to open this high-end restaurant, which remains his best-known brainchild. The intimate, Michelin-starred restaurant is built around a chef’s counter, which gives diners the feeling of being invited to a talented friend’s home. The chef and his young team incorporate Asian flavors and techniques, but the focus remains on Portuguese produce and dishes rooted in tradition.

  • Café Santiago - You absolutely can’t leave Porto without trying this classic Portuguese sandwich, and we think Café Santiago has the best one in the city. We recommend the classic, which will keep you full until way past dinner time, but vegetarians have other options on the menu such as Bacalhau à Brás (cod fried with onions and thin potatoes) or simply a plate of fries served with the incredible francesinha sauce. Go hungry and expect to queue, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend.

  • Francesinha Café - In Porto, the francesinha is like soccer or religion: Everyone has their preferences, and it’s better not to discuss personal tastes in unfamiliar company. This cafe, named after the famous local sandwich, serves one of the best recipes in town — though it rarely makes the most popular lists, fortunately. The sausages (mortadella, ham) come from good suppliers, the steak is served medium-rare, and the dense, coppery sauce brings subtle flavors of tomato and beef. If you still have some room, try owner and chef Fernando Cardoso’s version of the prego, another popular local sandwich, here layered with tender beef, cheese, ham, and pickles on slightly crunchy bread.

  • O Gaveto - Marisqueiras serve the freshest seafood in Portugal, a country known in Europe for its oceanic specialties. In Porto, they concentrate near Matosinhos, a fisherman’s paradise, including O Gaveto, one of the best in the area. Percebes (barnacles), clams, carabineros (red shrimp), and a myriad of sea creatures look as if they came straight from the aquarium to your plate. Start with stuffed sapateira crab (sweet, delicate crab meat in cream sauce), followed by clams bulhão pato-style (cooked with white wine, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and cilantro). Don’t miss the blue lobster with brothy rice, a rare local delicacy turned into a homey recipe.

  • Nood Restaurante Atlantico - Nood offers a delightful surprise in Asian dining. The service was top-notch, and every dish, especially the Salmon Teriyaki Don, was superb. The atmosphere is fresh and inviting, and the central location in Porto is a bonus. Great value for the quality provided. Highly recommended for Asian cuisine lovers.

  • Vinha - Portugal is known for its cod recipes, but the salted cod at Vinha, a beautifully decorated fine dining restaurant run by Michelin-starred Portuguese chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, is the best we’ve ever tasted. That, combined with the ambiance and service, makes it a certified favorite. Make sure you save room for the famous Portuguese pudding.

  • Mito - Cozy wine bars serving gourmet tapas abound in Porto, but Mito is special. The restaurant serves high-quality food like octopus, bone marrow, and sea bass in a casual setting with affordable prices. As one Yelp reviewer put it, “I don’t think Mito has a Michelin star, but, if they keep this up, they’ll get one in no time.”

  • Galeria de Paris - If you want a night out, Galeria de Paris is your place. Most evenings you can catch bands playing live music—everything from traditional Portuguese tunes to Oasis and Radiohead covers—and the crowd is a fun mix of locals and tourists, all drinking and dancing in harmony.


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