Let’s Go Exploring! The Magic of Porto, Portugal

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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There’s something magical about Porto, Portugal. And I don’t mean it in a ham-fisted “woo woo” kind of way. I mean it in a Harry Potter magical spells kind of way.

Literally.

Picture this. I’m sitting in a quaint little café beside the serene Douro river, biting into a flaky Pastel de Nata (Portuguese egg tart) with fluffy melt-in-your mouth egg center.

Yum! Pastel de nata–my favourite! (photo source: Lou Stejskal @ Flickr)

As I reach for my decadent cup of foamy cappuccino, I see a black cape out of the corner of my eye, and what I think is a group of wizards turn out to be Portuguese university students in their traditional school garments, complete with black suit, tie and cape.

Photo by Max Pixel.

I would later find out even though Edinburgh is often credited as the “city that birthed Harry Potter”, it actually all started in Porto, the magical city that inspired J.K. Rowling’s best selling children’s books of all time.

Back in 1993, J.K. Rowling was teaching English in Porto, married to a Portuguese dude, and pregnant with her daughter. She’d already come up with the concept of Harry Potter during a train delay from Manchester to London back in 1990, but it was in Porto that the pieces started to fit together, and as we walked around the city, we could see all the places, people, and stories that inspired it.

Livraria Lello (“Flourish and Blotts”)

Spiralling staircases, Art Nouveau splendour, and floor to ceiling shelves of books? Hell yes! This historical bookstore, which harkens all the way back to the 1800s, was J.K. Rowling’s favourite bookstore and inspired her to create “Flourish and Blotts” in Harry Potter.

While we were there we even noticed a roped off section containing “special and rare” books, which I’m sure had something to do with the “special and rare” books in the Hogwarts library that Hermione stumbled upon.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sold on this bookstore in the beginning. Not only did you have to pay an admission of 5 Euros (who charges admission for a store?!), there were frequently line ups around the block just to get in.

But luckily, since we’re retired, we simply decided to go at 2 PM on Tuesday and the line was much more manageable (though there was still a line). Apparently, 4 million people visit this bookstore each year, and even though they were originally giving free entry and relying on book sales, they eventually had to charge admission as less than 1% of the people actually bought books.

But given my bibliophile tendencies, the pull of the books was just too strong.

I didn’t regret it, even though it was a bit crowded. There’s just something intoxicating about being inside an ornate historical bookstore and being surrounded by books. Takes me back to my good old English class days. I may have started randomly opening books and smelling them until the staff started giving me weird looks.

Unless you’re a raging Harry Potter fan (or “Potterhead”), you’ll probably think it’s touristy and not worthy the entry fee, but as a writer who grew up with books as friends, Livraria Lello was cocaine to me. I loved every single moment of it.

Traditional Capes (“Hogwarts uniform”)

By Bobo Boom (Coimbra university studentUploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thought wearing a cape to school was an original invention? As it turns out, the eye-catching ensemble of Hogwarts students were inspired by Portuguese university students who have been wearing these traditional outfits for centuries (they were originally made to resemble the clergy).

 

Majestic Café (J.K. Rowling’s writing spot)

source: By AntoniusJ [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
source: By José Moutinho from Leça da Palmeira, Portugal (Majestic Café) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

One of the most beautiful cafés I’ve ever seen, Majestic café makes you feel like you’ve been transported to Paris with its gilded chandeliers and opulence.

Rowling used to come here to write her novel, though I don’t think jotting ideas down on napkins was allowed, considering they use pristine white linen.

António de Oliveira Salazar (“Salazar Slytherin”)

It doesn’t take much to see the connection between Portugal’s dictator from 1932 to 1968, and the founder of Hogwarts’ infamous House of Slytherin, Salazar Slytherin.

Ruthless and ambitious, Antonio was a big fan of taking down his opponents and assassinating his political enemies, and was able to stay in power long enough to keep the literacy level low throughout his regime. Gee, I wonder why J.K Rowling chose to make him the villain?

I was intrigued by all the Harry Potter references but if you’re not a Potterhead, there’s still tons for you to see in Porto.

From the handcrafted pastries to the art nouveau buildings to the manicured gardens, everything was filled with decadence (I’ve never eaten any pastries that good outside out of Paris) and extravagance, yet we never once experienced the aftermath of wallet regret.

After staying Portugal for a month, we fell in love with this laid-back yet extravagant city.

Even their McDonald’s was out of this world. If you don’t believe me, just look at this picture:

credit: By Manuel de Sousa [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

There’s a chandelier! In a fricking McDonald’s!

If you’ve never ordered a big Mac under a chandelier, surrounded by art nouveau splendour, you’re missing out.

Food

You can’t leave Porto without trying their specialty, the “Francesinha”, a steak sandwich covered with cheese and a “special Francesinha sauce”—which tastes like someone dropped a croque-monsieur into a vat of cheese and gravy. Just make sure you wear your stretchy pants that day.

The best one we’ve had was at Café Santiago. If you go on the weekend, be prepared for a line up.

Another favourite place for us to grab a bite to eat is the Petunia café, near Case de la Musica (which conveniently is where our AirBnb was located). We kept getting a “prego,” which is basically a steak sandwich with mustard. Another simple yet satisfying Portuguese staple. Be sure to get it extra juicy and “mal passado,” or rare.

If you’re more into the international food scene you could also get sushi buffet:

The cost? A ridiculously low 7.50 Euros per person for all you can eat:

Sushi Buffet Menu

Fun fact: Did you know that tempura was introduced to Japan by early Portuguese missionaries?

Another fun fact: Apparently, the people of Porto are referred to as “Tripeiros”, or Tripe-eaters. Back in the 1400s, the citizens of Porto would give up higher quality cuts of meat for their sailors and merchants, who needed as much food as possible to sail great distances and bring back wealth via trading and exploration. The citizens would eat the leftover cuts like tripe and proudly call themselves “tripe eaters” to celebrate their heroic sacrifice. As a result, “Tripas à moda do Porto”, a soupy dish with tripe, white beans, and carrots is still widely enjoyed in Porto today.

We tried to find this dish, as it reminded me of the food I ate as a kid in China, but you’d have go to special restaurants and they only serve them on certain days.

We eventually did find it in a mom and pop restaurant (called “Churrasqueira Lameiras”, behind the Trindad subway station) that was full of locals and no one spoke English (just the way we like it) and everything was so ridiculously cheap I felt like they were being robbed.

Tripas à moda do Porto. Just 2.50 Euros per plate:

Roast garlic chicken and fries: 8 Euros for a massive portion that we ate over 2 days between the two of us.

And after chowing on all that good food, we decided to wash everything down with a delicious glass of—you guess it—Port:

credit: By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And for dessert? Gelato in the shape of a rose:

You can get this at Amorino, which is right next to the “Livraria Lello” bookstore. You can choose as many flavours as you want for a 4.50 Euro medium-sized cone—even all 24 flavours! But I would recommend getting weird flavours like “fig” and “port wine” because those are the most unique and memorable.

After the food coma, we decided to wake ourselves up by walking over the Dom Luis bridge, which is a bit of an adventure for those with vertigo, but has the best views of the city:

With all the magic the city has to offer, Porto is definitely a gem that we’ll be returning to, and the good news is that Portugal has a similar non-lucrative visa like the one in Spain called the D7. We’ll write about this in a future post.

And if everything I told you doesn’t make you want to immediately hop on a plane and head there, you likely will once you see how much we spent:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $27 USD/night $35 CAD/night We stayed in a self-contained studio apartment near Casa de la Musica station, which has easy access to the subway and gets us into sightseeing places within 10 minutes. Rent was super cheap at 700 Euros/month. We could've even gotten a 2 bedroom for 750 to 800 Euros/month in the same area but we felt the extra space would've been wasted since our friends weren't available that month to come visit. Rent in Porto is fantastic!
Food: $26 USD/day $34 CAD/day ($21/day for eating out, $13/day for groceries) We ate out pretty often since eating out in Porto is so cheap. When we got sick of eating out, we simply went to Pingo Dolce (an upscale grocery chain) and got the roast chicken special for only 5 Euros (enough for 2 meals for 2 people) so we barely had to cook.
Transportation: $8 USD/day $10 CAD/day Transportation was convenient and cheap at only $1.20 Euros per person per ride. All you need to do is get a subway card for 0.50 and charge it with your credit card. If you buy 10 tickets at once, you get one trip free. Trips on the train to go to neighbouring cities for day trips was also convenient and cheap–around $10-15 Euros/person for a 2-3 hour trip.
Entertainment: $2 USD/day $3 CAD/day The city and landscape itself was endless entertainment. There were many free gardens all over the place and we spent many happy hours just exploring Porto's winding alleyways on foot. The only time we spent money on entertainment was tips for a free Sandeman's guided tour.
Misc: $1.60 USD/day $2 CAD/day We bought some toiletries during the month which ended up being once again really cheap, because everything is cheap in Porto.
Total: $64 USD/couple/day $84 CAD/couple/day

$2600 for the month?! Holy shit. That’s like South East Asia prices! If we get the D7 Visa, we could live in Porto for $31,000 CAD a year (which is a Safe Withdrawal Rate of only 2.7%)!

When we travelled for the first time around the world, we thought we’d have to divide our time between Western Europe and South East Asia, but traipsing around Europe this year using our German Working Holiday Visa, we’ve discovered you can just as easily stay within the $40K/year range simply by substituting South East Asia with Portugal, Spain, and Eastern Europe!

What do you think? Have you been to Porto before?



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45 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! The Magic of Porto, Portugal”

  1. You guys are my role models, so inspiring! I’ve never been to Porto, but i remember watching their football club FC Porto as a kid.

    I love Hogwarts, and want a cape too! I think that reason alone could get my wife on board ;). The prices are ridiculous, we may even be able to FIRE there right now….Thanks for sharing!

    1. I know right? The prices are shockingly low–no wonder so many digital nomads like to go there.

      Hope you will check it out sometime!

  2. I keep hearing about how lovely Portugal is — from [email protected], from my dad’s State Department neighbors, now from y’all. And I keep thinking that my B+ high school Spanish would leave me completely bewildered in the face of that similar-but-different language. Mom-and-pop restaurants aside, how’d that work out? Is English truly the modern lingua franca of Europe nowadays?

    1. We learned some Spanish in Mexico so we kept accidentally saying “gracias” instead of “obrigado” but they get what we were trying to say. Portuguese is different enough that being able to speak Spanish doesn’t really help, but many of the locals understood Spanish.

      I’m surprised how far we’ve been able to get with English in all these countries. Most Europeans speak it, and even if they don’t we just use google translate or hand gestures and they get our point. Sometimes I find a Chinese store and just ask in Mandarin.

  3. Those pictures are great! We were planning to visit Lisboa when we went backpacking for 8 weeks in 2003, but we didn’t make it there. Mrs. RB40 got sick and it was a rough trip for us. Good to hear that it is still affordable. We’ll make it there someday. It might be a while, though. I want to visit Eastern Europe first. Short hops are cheaper now so maybe we can fly there from Eastern Europe.

    1. Aww, sucks that Mrs. RB40 got sick and you weren’t able to make it to Lisbon. Good news is that it’s pretty easy to get to from North America and yes, definitely still affordable.

      You’ll definitely be able to fly there from Eastern Europe. Baltic Air and Wizz Air are good options.

  4. Fascinating place and the food looks good! I had no idea there were so many connections with JK Rowling and Harry Potter there. Very interesting, but admission fees to a bookstore are pretty cray-cray.

    Still, I love the old world charm. Quite affordable too!

    1. Me either! I thought HP was only related to the UK.

      Yeah, that book store is definitely raking it in 🙂

  5. Sorry, I got stuck on the 4 million visitors at the bookstore. At 5 euros a pop, that’s 20 million euros a year. Holy shit! That’s the best con ever! Ever!!! Don’t bother selling anything, employees. Just dust the shelves and attend the door. Jackpot!!!

    1. Oh they definitely aren’t hurting for grocery money 🙂 Explains why they weren’t interested at all whether people were buying books or not.

  6. Wow, the bookstore is making bank!!! Though, I think it would be more fair if the five dollar charge could go towards the purchase of merch. If you don’t buy anything, then you’re out five bucks. If you do, you get a five dollar discount….

    1. Oh I forgot to mention it but yeah, you can put the 5 Euro entry fee toward book purchases. But that being said, the books are kind of over-priced and you can only use 1 ticket per person. Still, I ended up picking up a book for 7 Euros with the entry discount, so that’s something.

    1. The egg tarts are the best! Even better than the Cantonese egg tarts–which I love–so that’s saying something!

  7. We were just in Porto in early May! I fell in love with the pastel de natas as well (and grabbed a 6 pk on route to the airport!). After review of the cost and the line ups, we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay to go into the bookstore. So we climbed the tower at Clérigos Church instead (same cost, but with views of the whole city) and also ate at Café Santiago! Absolutely delicious meals with vinho de casa, of course! We must research destinations similarly – we also binged on pork sandwiches and a meal of all you can eat sushi! Great post once again. Where to next? Have you looked @ Croatia? It’s amazing!

    1. We were also considering climbing the Clerigos Church tower but in the end my bibliophile tendencies won so bookstore it was!

      So cool that we went to many of the same places and ate similar food 🙂

      We’ll be splitting the rest of the year between Germany, Iceland, Eastern Europe, and maybe Scandinavia too.

      Croatia is high on our list! If we hadn’t gotten the Germany visa, we would’ve gone there to wait out our 90 day Schengen period. Going to check it out next time, hopefully!

  8. Amazing, my work colleague just got back from Portugal, where he did a cycling tour thru the mountains, and stayed in hostels. Said the Hostels were great, and inexpensive, flight was just under $700 Canadian, return

  9. Thank you very much for your nice words about my city (tears are rolling down my face).

    If you are considering living in Porto, I think you should consider checking out the prices / cost of living across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia.
    (Did you visit The Yeatman Hotel, São Bento Railway Station, or the esplanades bordering the beaches?)

    If you need inside information about sightseeing in any of the cities, let me know.

    1. Awesome, thanks for the recommendation, MissF! Our tour guide did tell us that cost of living in Gaia was even more reasonable. And yes, we did go to the Sao Bento Railway Station (love the gorgeous blue tile paintings) and the esplanades. There’s so much to write about in Porto I couldn’t fit it all in one post! Love your city 🙂

  10. Portugal is off the hook. After Croatia, Portugal is my favorite digital nomad spot to stop and camp out. Lisbon just oozes style and chillness, and the coast isn’t far away. Great weather, great food, great people. Enough said.

    Keep it up MilRev!

  11. Hi FIREcracker! Love the blog and information you provide to help others be inspired. My wife and I just got out of debt and are aspiring to save more. Now I’m attempting to create a plan that will get us on the road to FI. I just have a question about your previous career in coding. What type of degree did you get in university? I actually work in finance but I’m possibly looking to make a career change to something that would allow me to do some freelance stuff. Hope you have a good one. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Jeremy and glad the blog has been helpful. To answer your question, my degree is in Computer Engineer but I think as a career switch, it’s a bit of an overkill (took me 5 years to get through it and it was PAINFUL). I know friends who didn’t bother with a university degree, got a college degree in IT instead and still managed to get their salary up to the 6-figure level.

      If you want to gain those skills to be able to do freelance coding, maybe take an online programming course and see how you like it?

  12. Looks beautiful. Even more “quaint” than Lisbon. Now I’m wishing we would have visited Porto too while we were in Portugal.

    Interesting how those university students dress. I know universities in general date back to the days when they were sponsored or at least centered around theological training (why would you educate anyone other than the clergy, right?). Kind of neat that they kept the tradition till today.

    I guess it’s like the English attorneys (barristers??) and judges wearing the robes, funny tie and sometimes the white wig. I think some of your attorneys do that in Canada too (the robe and funny tie). In the US, only the judges wear the full robe.

      1. I wear the gown to work twice a year. It is not quite a cape, though I think some of my colleagues have a cape. At Oxford they have meals where they wear the gown.

      2. Now that you’re retired you can wear a cape all the time. It’s always cape weather somewhere!

  13. Porto sounds wonderful … especially the food and closeness to the water …. so if you spend a month there … do you go exploring everyday … or balance it out with chilling out days in your pad … do you need aircon … I will be off to Berlin this summer … but am thinking of doing a proper Euro tour again maybe in 2019 … another great spot to chill for the summer is Lake Annecy, France … it is near Mount Blanc … From the far side of the planet … it is 38 C here today near the Emperor’s former abode …

    1. I’d say we go exploring every other day–can’t do it everyday since this book can’t write itself 😛 I’ve heard that Porto gets hot in the summer but definitely nothing like 38 C. So Aircon isn’t a necessity.

      Good to know about Lake Annecy, France! I’ll put it on my list.

  14. Great post! A friend of mine just finished a cycling tour through Portugal and one of the stops was Porto. Just curious. What were your costs for the month for a phone, medical insurance and Netflix? Thanks…

    1. For phone, we use SIM cards, so it’s barely $5-10/month since the Airbnb has free wifi. In Porto, we still had credit left over on our SIM card from Tenerife so there was no extra cost. For medical insurance, use buy expat insurance from IMG, which costs around $1200-1500 for the whole year for the 2 of us. And we don’t really use Netflix since we spend most of our time writing or travelling/exploring. Every now and then we rent a movie from Apple and that’s $5-6, so that’s under entertainment costs.

  15. I got tears in my eyes from reading your post! Born and raised in Porto, me and my partner have been living in London for the past 5 years! Although we love it here, Porto is a completely different story: the people, the food, the sights, the places… the prices!
    I’m super happy and proud that you loved our city, and I’m actually sad that we didn’t know you were there; we were visiting family end of May, and would have loved to take you to our favourite Francesinha place: Restaurante O Golfinho. So much better than Santiago’s 😉 If you’re still in Porto, maybe you would like to try the cruise going up Douro River and coming down by train. It’s a days trip and so, so worth it!
    Ive been following you guys for a few months now, and still on our first steps towards FI, but eventually we will get there! We can’t use must of your info due to us being in Europe, but the advices and ideas are always most welcomed!
    Thank you again for this amazing post, and I wish you all the happiness in the world! One day, we will be doing it as well! **

    1. There’s a better Francesinha place than Santiago’s?! GAH! Why didn’t tripadvisor tell me this?! Well, now I have no choice but to go back and try it sometime 😀

      Sorry we missed you guys in Porto but I’m cheering you guys on on your path to FI! Thanks for the Porto tips!

  16. That bookstore!!!! ❤❤ Although I was weirded out at first about the idea of paying to go into a bookstore, that is no ordinary bookstore! And it’s true there would be a good chance I would go in to gawk and smell books (ha!) and not to buy any so I can see why they charge a fee.

    1. The good news is that I was able to use my entrance fee toward the cost of a book, so I did end up leaving with more than just memories 🙂

  17. I love Harry Potter and food, so Porto goes on my bucket list pronto.

    As a writer, though, I’m disappointed at how many people don’t want to pay to enter an incredible bookstore, even though they’ll pay the same amount to climb a church tower. Bookstores are businesses that cost money to run, same as any other. Visitors tramping all over the place, handling books, not paying for them, and interfering with actual book-buyers, costs even more money. So it makes sense to charge a fee.

    Good on Firecracker for buying an actual book. Best of both worlds.

  18. USD64 per couple per day. As I am single, that means it only cost me USD32 to survive a day. USD960 for a month’s survival and exploration. Sure it’s tempting.

    1. That’s why expats and digital nomads are flocking there. Cheap, good weather, and opulent! Your US dollars will go far.

  19. We love love love Portugal! Unfortunately, we only got to do the more southern regions and didn’t make it to Porto when we were there and by the sounds of it, we missed out. Your pictures are making me crave a pastel de nata, bifana, and cataplana. That is definitely a place we will be back to. Did you do any diving there?

  20. As a Porto native is always awesome to see other people give credit to the amazing city I was fortunate to be born in. I had my Erasmus last semester and visited a lot of Eastern Europe but non of them compared to Porto, I know I´m biased but I truly believe it is one of the best places to live in the whole entire world!! And youcan´t forget the fact that living by the sea is a huge advantage during the summer, even people with less possibilities are able to enjoy a nice beach day anytime they want. Good work and thanks for the article!

  21. I was in Lisbon a few years ago and was surprised by how cheap everything was — and that was their capital! My goal is to live there for a while and explore other cities, such as Porto and Coimbra. The sad thing about this post is that now more people know about this hidden gem…

    1. Yup, I’m always torn between keeping the secret gems to myself and shouting it from the roof tops (when I love something I can’t help but talk about how much I love it). Glad you enjoyed Lisbon!

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