Portugal had become one of my favourite destination, right after my first trip there, back in September 2017. Since then, I’ve been to Lisbon several times, and each one of the visits was one of a kind, with its own characteristics and experiences. Lisbon is definitely not a city in which you could get bored easily. But as you might know, I’ve always been interested in discovering other places as well, and Porto was on top of my list. And that’s not all. I wanted to try surfing one more time, and approximately 100 kilometres north of Lisbon, lies the Portuguese capital of surf: Peniche. I had heard good things about this place and about Baleal, a small island located 3 kilometres away from Peniche, so I had to go there and check it out.
Getting back to Porto… How many of you are aware that it has been named the top destination in Europe by the European Best Destinations Organization three times in the past six years? I can bet that the first thing that comes to most people’s minds, when hearing its name, is the famous Port wine, produced for centuries in the Douro valley. And I won’t blame them, because the wine is the trademark of the city. But Porto has so much more to offer! I mean, its beauty is simply breath-taking and has left me almost speechless, after just a few hours of wandering its narrow and hilly streets. And no, I didn’t have to drink anything before getting to this conclusion. Porto has won my heart, like only the Italian region of Tuscany has managed to do so far (you can read more about my Tuscan experiences here and here).
Charming and diverse. Vibrant and cultural. Perfect for relaxation and walking. And for live street performances and artists. These are just a few phrases that can describe Porto. Situated along the Douro river estuary, a few kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, Porto is the second biggest city of Portugal and one of the oldest. Its popularity has increased a lot in the past years – of course, being named the Best European Destination helps a lot -, and nowadays it attracts crowds all year round, even in the cold season.
How to get to Porto
The city of Porto is served by the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport, which has become a hub for the low cost carrier Ryanair, as well as for TAP, the flag carrier airline of Portugal. Flights are regular, so getting here at a decent cost, with maximum one connection, can be achieved without any headache.
But I didn’t fly to Porto, because I was already in Portugal – in Lisbon, to be more precise. The options I had were to go either by train or by bus, and after checking the prices, I got to the conclusion that the bus was considerably cheaper, and that the time gained from taking the train was not substantial at all. So I’ve ended up paying €34 for a round ticket with Rede Expressos, the main bus company in Portugal. The distance between Lisbon and Porto is just over 300 kilometres, and the bus trip takes three hours and a half.
Since it was a last minute decision, I didn’t want to pay a lot for the accommodation. I wanted something affordable and close to the city center, so I had either the option of a hostel (shared bedroom) or of a private room, via Airbnb. This was the first time when I booked a private bedroom on Airbnb, and not the whole apartment. But it turned out to be an inspired decision: I ended up with a small and basic room, inside the apartment of Matheus, a Brazilian guy studying architecture, and Tânia, a Portuguese girl who was already an architect. But who cares about the room, when you meet two nice people, who make your stay great? Not me. In the end, that’s what traveling is all about: discovering new places and meeting awesome people, in the same time. They invited me out in the first night and gave me a lot of useful tips, helping me feel the city vibes.
Guide to Porto
I’d say that Porto is a city which needs at least two days of stay, in order to enjoy it and see all its major sights. Of course, the more days, the better, because this city is really a special place. So here’s what I recommend doing:
- Start your journey in the historic center, an area recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Wander the narrow streets and live the joy the city spreads. And don’t forget about the tiled buildings – God, I love those. There are a ton in Porto, including iconic churches, like Igreja do Carmo or Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, and the main train station, São Bento.
- The historic center abounds with iconic buildings, dating back to different time periods and built in various architectural styles. The Baroque church Igreja dos Clérigos is a symbol of Porto; its 76m-high tower, Torre dos Clérigos, can be seen from different areas of the city.
- Palácio da Bolsa used to host the city’s stock exchange. It has been a National Monument for many years now, and is open to visitors. Right next to it, you’ll spot the Gothic church Igreja de São Francisco, widely known for its outstanding inner decoration.
- Câmara Municipal do Porto is a striking building, reminding of the palaces of Northern Europe. Not far, one of the oldest monuments in the city, Sé do Porto, a mixture of the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles, dominates the area.
- Time to cross the Douro into Gaia on Dom Luis I Bridge, using the upper deck. You’ll have a lovely view over Ribeira, Gaia, the river and the other bridges.
- Once across, be prepared for a short climb, to Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar (a round church which was initially a monastery), for a panoramic view of the entire area.
- Gaia is the place where all the wine cellars are located. It would be a pity not to take a tour, there are several companies which offer this service. I chose Ferreira, one of the biggest companies, founded more than 250 years ago. I had to pay €12 for a 30-40 minutes tour, a lot of interesting information about the Port wine production (which, of course, can be found online at anytime) and the tasting of two of their wines.
- When feeling hungry, go for the francesinha, a local dish consisting of two toasted bread slices, with ham, sausage and steak inside, covered with melted cheese and a tomato and beer sauce. Most times, it comes served with a fried egg on top and French fries. I’ve tried the dish at Cafe Santiago F (Rua de Passos Manuel 198), one of the best places in town.
- Last but not least: if you like to party, then you’re in the right place! Porto has a tumultuous nightlife, with many bars and restaurants spread across the city center. The most popular streets, packed with huge crowds during the night, are and .
It seems that I have to repeat myself – but I can’t help it. Porto is mesmerizing, it’s as simple as that. It has exceeded all my expectations by far. If you’re planning a trip to Portugal, don’t forget to include this city in the itinerary. I was able to see most of it in one day and two evenings. Yes, it can be achieved, but you might want to spend a bit more time.
Surfing in Baleal
So how much fun is surfing, in the end? And is it really worth the hype? I’ve been a snowboarder for 12 years now, and always thought that the two sports have multiple things in common. Well, I’ve learned that this is not true. First of all, surfing is way more energy consuming. And second, you need a lot more patience for it.
Peniche has become a popular surfing destination for two reasons: the amazing waves and the fact that it has always a beach which faces the best swells. Reaching the town can be done by bus, but from there you’ll have to either take a cab or simply walk to Baleal. The second option is to rent a car, which I think it’s the optimal solution, if you’re a group of three or four, because it also gives you the freedom to move around and easily switch towns or beaches.
Thanks to its coastal shape, Baleal offers some of the best conditions in Europe for surfing and body boarding. It has developed a lot in the past years in terms of real estate, so there are many accommodation places around (I’ve stayed at Alex Surf Hostel). It has about 10 to 15 surf schools in total, which is a lot. A day class is €50, including gear, while renting a wetsuit and a board for one day, without any lessons, is around €20.
But Baleal doesn’t impress only with the surfing conditions. The small village is full of charming, small houses, and the cliffs surrounding the island have some of the most incredible shapes you’ll ever see, aligning perfectly with the whirling waters of the Atlantic Ocean. So it’s a great place to relax and find your inner peace. And also to have a glass of wine and a delicious octopus stew, like I had at Restaurante Prainha, right next to the beach.
I think it’s time to answer the initial questions. Yes, surfing is fun and definitely has the cool factor. But it’s also tiring and requires a lot of patience, so it might not be the sport for me. I think I’ll stick to snowboarding, at least for now.
There’s nothing else that needs to be said. Portugal is all about pure emotions and worry-free. And it has been perfect, once more.
Até a próxima! Saúde!
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.