By Emma Marshall
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Of all the things you can spend your time doing on a weekend in Portugal (and it’s a long list!), port tasting in Porto has to be one of the most pleasurable pursuits.
So if you like a tipple, and want to find out more about the highlights in Portugal’s second city, read on.
Port tasting in Porto: tips on how to do this
If you have a penchant for port, or drink alcohol, you can’t leave Porto without a visit to the port cellars and caves. It’s the trade that is synonymous with the city.
There are a number of ways to savour Portugal’s most famous tipple. Which one you opt for will depend on how much time you have and what else you might be doing on a weekend in Porto.
But all of them will give you a bit of an insight into the country’s most famous export.
Below are my suggestions on how to include some port tasting while on a trip to Porto.
Visit the Porto wine cellars in Gaia
The Porto wine cellars caves (caves de vinho) are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, which sits on the opposite side of the Douro river from Porto. So, it is a bit of a misnomer that the main port cellars are located in Porto.
The cellars in Gaia are a particularly special place to visit. The riverside walk is perfect for strolls alongside the waterfront with its fabulous views of Porto on the facing side.
Its also an ideal area to sit and watch the rabello boats bob up and down. Traditionally used to ferry the port to the cellars from further upstream, they can only be found in Porto.
We were fortunate enough to come across this incredibly scenic view as the sun was slowly fading. The evening light made it really atmospheric and dare I say it, rather romantic.
The majestic view evoked a real sense of the waterfront in bygone days.
How to get to the Porto wine cellars
If you’re staying in the centre of Porto, you’ll need to cross the river to reach the cellars.
You can do this either via a leisurely stroll across the top of the Dom Luis I bridge or across the lower level. The famous 19th century bridge links the old part of Porto – Ribeiro – to Vila Nova de Gaia.
The walk across the bridge is worth it for the stunning views alone. At times it can feel a bit hairy as you are so high up. However, you’re afforded the most fantastic vistas of Porto.
From this vantage point, you can see the colourful historic buildings clinging to the steep hillside and the river Douro snaking through the valley below.
If you’re not a fan of heights, you can walk across the lower level. Or you can catch a train across the top.
Once on the Gaia side, you can then walk down to the riverside. Alternatively, you can hop onto a cable car (the Teleferica de Gaia) from the station just below the monastery of Serra do Pilar.
If you don’t like travelling in cable cars (I’m not a fan!), have no fear. The ride only takes a couple of minutes and is quite a pleasant way to look down on Gaia.
The cable car costs six euros one way for adults, and three euros for children (or 22.50 euros for a family ticket).
It includes a free sample of port at the end (when we were there at the Quinta Santa Eufemia; read on for more information).
Porto wine cellar tours
Once you’re in Gaia, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to which cellars to visit. These include Sandeman’s, Graham’s, Vasconcelos, Calem’s, Cockburn’s and Ferreira’s.
Many offer guided tours and experiences that you can sign up to. It is relatively quick and easy to do some port tasting in Porto.
Cockburn’s wine cellars tour
We chose to visit Cockburn’s. My research before we visited showed that the tours got good reviews. They also had spaces available for the day we wanted to visit.
Our tour lasted around one hour and included a short tasting at the end. As well as the finale of sampling some of its world famous port, we got a potted history of the Cockburn’s brand and the cellars.
The tour is largely a walking tour through the cellars. Here you get to see the barrels and vats up close.
We also learnt about the different varieties of port (white, ruby and tawny), as well as the more expensive vintages and “colheitas” that are dated to specific years.
You also get information on how port is made. How it’s produced through a process of stopping the normal fermentation process and then adding brandy to the mix. It’s a lot more complex than I had originally thought.
The tour also included a short video. But it was our tour guide that imparted the most information.
He was probably one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve had on a tour like this. It felt like there was no question that he couldn’t answer.
He guided us through our tasting – which for us consisted of three samples of port. He explained the differences between them and at what temperature you should ideally serve each one.
You could also pay extra to pair them with chocolate or cheese if you so desired.
We tried a ten-year-old tawny, a Late Bottled Vintage and a Special Reserve. I came away knowing that my favourite is the tawny port (possibly because this is like sweet sherry, which I love!).
I was so taken with the ports that I stayed on after my tour and tried another couple of varieties from the café bar!
You can book wine cellar tours, or join an organised tour here.
I thoroughly recommend that you book as far in advance as possible. You’ll find that Porto wine cellar tours get booked up quickly.
You can also buy bottles of Cockburn’s port to take away with you and try later from their onsite shop. Or buy later if you don’t have time during your visit.
Book onto a Douro river tour
If you have a bit more time, you could consider a tour of the city. Some of these combine learning about port with a trip down the Douro river.
You can book cruises that are sold alongside the river. However, if you don’t want to be disappointed, I’d suggest booking something in advance.
If time is particularly limited, you might prefer a half day tour. On this trip, you get to travel on a tourist train, cruise the river for an hour and try a couple of port tastings.
Alternatively, you could opt for this tour that offers a cruise, a trip to some cellars and two days on the hop-on/hop-off bus.
These types of tours are perfect if you’re short of time. You can try out some port whilst soaking in some of the main sights the city has to offer.
Try a flight of port in a Porto wine cellar bar
On our first visit to Porto, we didn’t book a Porto wine cellar tour in advance. This meant that we weren’t able to visit a cellar during our trip.
But if like us, you don’t get round to making a booking, all is not lost. There are plenty of riverside bars, particularly in Gaia, that offer “flights” of port tastings.
Here you can sit out in the sunshine trying a few different varieties or snuggle inside in the winter months. Or, as we did, you could visit the small bars/shops belonging to some of the cellars.
The Noval Cellars
We went to the Noval cellars. We stumbled upon it, a little disappointed not to have made it onto a tour around one of the big cellars. However, it was a great substitute and there was plenty to learn about while there.
On entering, we were presented with an extensive drinks menu, divided into port categories. Having no knowledge whatsoever of the difference between the types of ports available, we opted to try two different ones. We went for a Noval Black and a “fine white” so we could compare and contrast.
Our waiter didn’t just serve the drinks. He also stayed and provided really interesting insights into the two different samples. This covered some of the information we got in the cellars.
So it’s definitely worth going to one of these places if a cellar tour is too expensive or you don’t manage to book a place on one.
Quinta Santa Eufemia
We received a voucher for a free sample of port when we took the cable car. This was at the Quinta Santa Eufemia, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the main boulevard on the riverfront.
Here we you can redeem your voucher, taste the port on offer, order more if you wish, as well as learn a bit about the city’s famous export.
The walls are adorned with information on port. You can, for example, read about the optimal climate and soil for growing the grapes, the variety used, and how the barrels are transported downstream to Gaia for the fermentation process.
Visit a local bar
When you wander around, you’ll find that a lot of bars and restaurants offer a few different ports to try. Hardly surprising given you’re in Porto!
Just popping into a local bar is probably a good option if you want to try some port tasting and only want one drink. You can then move onto other drinks if you choose to.
There are loads of bars to choose from in the centre of Porto. You don’t need to be in Gaia to discover these. So just pop in somewhere that takes you fancy.
The Wine Box bar
My favourite is the Wine Box bar. This is on the Rua dos Mercadores, by the entrance of the tunnel that skirts the top of Rebeira. If you’ve going from the old town down towards the river, or to the Dom Luis I bridge, you’ll easily find this.
It’s a small and intimate bar with an impressive range of wines, not to mention an extensive port selection. You can also eat here and buy port from its in-house shop.
How to get to Porto
There are direct flights to Porto from many European cities. This includes a variety of airports in England, Spain, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
There are also direct flights from Casablanca in Morocco, Istanbul in Turkey and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
If you fancy combining a trip with sightseeing in other Portuguese cities, you can fly between Porto and Lisbon, Faro, Madeira and Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
If Portugal is a place you like, click here for my other posts on a short break to Tavira in the Algarve, a wonderful botanical garden in Madeira, and a few days in the Azorean islands of Sao Miguel and Terceira.
For other great ideas for short breaks in Europe, go to my website.
Porto airport to the city
When you arrive at Porto airport, there are a number of ways to get to the city centre.
Line E on the Metro system runs to the city and takes about 30 minutes; buses take around around 25 minutes. Taxis are a bit quicker. We paid 22 euros for a one way journey when we arrived late at night.
Places to stay in Porto
We have stayed in Porto twice. We’ve tried out two different accommodations, but we’d whole heartedly recommend both.
The InPatio Hotel
The InPatio hotel is a small bed and breakfast situated between the river and the main train station (Sao Bento). Both are around a five-minute walk away. The rooms are beautifully simplistic with organic products.
The breakfast was also utterly amazing. The owner comes out with your own personal tray and explains what is on offer for the day. That might be cheese from the mountains, meat from the Algarve, local honey, homemade banana bread, yoghurt and fruit.
I also loved the welcoming touches in the room every evening. One night we got mini pasteis de natas, and on another evening almond tarts. On our final night, they left us a glass of the local port.
So if you like small, intimate places, you’ll love it here.
The Porto River Hotel
We’ve also stayed in the Porto River hotel, right in the heart of the old town Rebeira. We had a massive room, complete with a balcony overlooking the Douro.
Breakfast is served in a light and airy room with direct views over the river. When we stayed over New Year, we also received a gift of port and 12 raisons (the Portuguese tradition at this time of year) in our room.
This hotel is in an ideal location and you can just step straight out into the action. There are restaurants literally underneath the hotel in the arches of Rebeira old town.
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