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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.