Gluten Free Family Travel: Porto, Portugal

View over the city from the Se Cathedral

I'm writing about our first experience in Porto, Portugal, while on the train to Evora. It's not the first time I've been on a train with wifi service, but it's the first time it's actually been fast enough to use to get some work done!

We took an EasyJet flight into Porto from Paris, and  the flight went really smoothly. Despite the traffic getting into the airport being insane (it took 1 1/2 hours instead of the usual 30-40 minutes), the check-in and security went really quickly.

I was excited to discover and Exki in the waiting area, because they always have a few gluten free food options available and they're labelled quite clearly. This Exki had some meal-sized salads, yogurts, fruits, drinks and some desserts that were safe for my son to eat.

Our arrival in Porto was quite special, as the airport had a troupe of traditional musicians and dancers performing for incoming passengers. We also received some porcelain doves as welcome gifts, which I  found really sweet. We purchased a ticket for Violet metro line that connects to the city centre, and arrived at Sao Bento station just over a half hour later.

For this stay in Porto we booked an AirBnB near the Ribeira area down by the river, called Miragaia. It's a lot less touristy and a bit run down, but the apartment we rented was spotless and had everything we could possible need. Located above a small restaurant called Chez Dany that is run by the woman who rents out the apartment , we were welcomed with two small bottles of Port, and then she sent up a seafood rice dish and French fries for the kids.

Since we are returning to Porto for a few days again at the end of our trip, we didn't feel the need to cram everything into our sightseeing all at once, which I must admit is a first for us! We're slowly getting better at realizing when enough is enough, and at prioritizing time with the kids over checking everything off our list. My kids are used to travel and are quite happy to trek around town, but it's nice to just hang out watching movies or taking a stroll by the river.

We headed out for a walk the day we arrived to kind of orient ourselves around the neighbourhood. After arriving at Sao Bento station, we walked downhill, passing several beautiful buildings along the way. The lower part of the city is also the more historical one, with narrow streets and steep staircases.

There is a real feel of renewal here, which lends an air of excitement. It's hard not to notice the many empty, crumbling buildings, but looking more closely I noticed that almost all of them had signs announcing their renovation by various investment companies. That means that over the next few years, these buildings will have new life breathed into them, and I can only imagine how much more beautiful the city will become as a result.

After checking into our apartment and enjoying a surprise meal from the owner, we went out for a walk around the neighbourhood. We noticed that there were two locations for kids right nearby, a temporary dinosaur exhibit, and a permanent museum called World of Discoveries. Since both kids have already been to dinosaur exhibits in both Canada and France, we decided to check out World of Discoveries.

Located in what looks like a skinny townhouse, it's actually a really big place once inside. It showcases Portugal's history, focusing much on its overseas exploits and trading success of the past. Everything is presented in a positive light of course, and my husband and exchanged a glance when the narrator explained how at first China wouldn't trade with Portugal, "forcing them" to smuggle goods out of the country.

Still, it's a great way to teach kids some Portuguese history in a way they will find interesting. The staff are dressed in outfits from various time periods, and there are rooms with weapons, armour, ships, and more. The highlight of the visit is an indoor boat ride that takes the visitor through the various time periods and destinations of Portuguese exploration and trade. It lasts probably a good 10-15 minutes, and has narrated explanations in several languages. Worth a visit, particularly with kids.

We took a walk down to the riverside and oriented ourselves in the city, before buying a few food items for the next day and then heading back to the apartment for the evening.

Day Two

We wandered along the waterfront before walking to the famous Ponte Dom Luis I. We decided not to walk across this time because the sun was blazing and we were afraid it would tire out the kids for the rest of the day, but it's on our list for when we return at the end of the trip.

Ponte Dom Luis 1. I mean, if you're going to build a bridge, go big or go home, right?

We took the funicular up the hill (another request once my son realized it was there), and then walked over to the Se Cathedral. I find that the outside of churches are often as interesting as the inside, and the churches in Portugal don't disappoint. They all seem to have large outdoor squares and gorgeous views over the city and river.

The inside of the Se is free to explore, but access to the cloister costs a small fee. There is a statue of a night defending the church outside, which of course the kids found more interesting than the church itself. Portuguese churches all seem to be coated in gold inside, which reminds me a bit of the churches in Spain. It can be a lot to take in if you're not used to it, and I find that I have to force myself to slow down and really look at the decoration, because otherwise it can all blend in together.

The statue outside the Se Cathedral

We stopped by Sao Bento station on our way back home to take photos of the gorgeous azulejo murals and to check out train options for our trip to Evora. When I was a kid my dad worked as a tile setter, so tiles have always held interest for me. I love seeing mosaics, and the painted tiles of Portugal are equally fascinating. I have a real appreciation for the work that goes into not only creating but also laying tiles, and I have always spent a lot of time admiring tile work wherever I am. The hand-painted azulejos of Portugal are works of art, and I had to stop and take photos whenever I came across a mural in an unexpected place.

Just one of the many azulejo murals in the train station

My 6 year old is a bit of a transportation freak, so when asked what he wanted to do in Porto, he mentioned three things: take the tram, take a boat, and take the double-decker bus. We decided to start with the boat, and took one of the many scenic boat tours that line the shores of the Douro along the Ribeira area of town. The tour we took lasted 50 minutes, and covered six of the major bridges the city has to offer.

The kids loved cruising the Douro, and my husband and I appreciated the narrated tour, as it gave us a great sense of the local history of Porto and the surrounding areas. We made a mental note to check out at least one of the Port lodge on the other side of the river.

We stopped by Chez Dany for a late lunch/early dinner, and she cooked up fried fish for my husband and me, and omelets with fries for the kids. She has a separate fryer for the fries, and my son didn't react to anything he ate from her restaurant, which was a relief.

Both kids were really tired at that point, so we went up to our room for the rest of the evening and had an early night.

Day Three

We started day three with an early morning visit to the Sao Fracisco church. It's a huge church that overlooks the Douro, and is quite austere from the outside. I admired the large square in front of the church before buying a ticket to go in. There are no photos allowed inside, and despite watching people take furtive shots, I decided to spare myself the wrath of God and follow the rules ;).

The interior of the church is filled practically floor to ceiling with gold carvings. I have to admit, it's not my favourite style of décor for a church, but it is impressive in its own way. After exploring the church, we walked over to the museum that is also part of the ticket price.

Interestingly, the museum was the part my son liked the best because it includes access to the burial area under the church. In the past, anyone who died in Portugal was buried under a church, rather than in outdoor cemeteries until a law forbidding it was eventually passed.  My son was fascinated with all the names and dates, as well as the skulls lining the upper walls.

The crypt. Of course my kid was fascinated by it.

After the church we took the tram at the foot of the church. It's one of the old trams that chugs along quite slowly, but my son still says it was his favourite thing to do in Porto. I recommend taking it just for the experience as well as for the views of the river. We got off at the end of the line and discovered a beautiful garden and a small mini-golf course just across the street.

We wandered along the riverside until reaching the point where the river meets the sea. There is an old lighthouse and a bit of a pier to walk down, but there are signs warning visitors of high waves. We saw a few waves break the barrier so we made sure to stay well back. There's a little beach nestled in between two walls, but the water didn't look very clean to us, so we didn't let the kids go in.

On the way back into Porto we took the 500 bus, which is a double-decker public transportation bus that has free wifi onboard. The bus takes the waterfront route as well, but continues up past Sao Bento station all the way to Praca Liberdad. We rode to the end of the line, and then stopped at a café just down the street from the Torre dos Clerigos, called Forno des Clerigos. There's a takeaway counter at the front (not much is gf there) and a restaurant area at the back. Prices are quite good, despite being in a very touristy area.

The café has a good menu selection, and we explained my son's gluten issue by focusing on the no wheat aspect above all since the flour is the most likely culprit to be found in Portuguese cooking. He enjoyed his meal and didn't have any adverse reactions to the food. Just to clarify, my son has very severe reactions to even the smallest exposure to gluten, so unlike those who are "silent" or who don't have outward symptoms, it's always very obvious to us when he has ingested gluten. When he doesn't react to a food, we know it was safe for him to eat.

After lunch we walked up to see the tower and the church. The kids didn't want to wait in line to climb the tower so we just took some photos of the outside, which was fine by us. We're heading back to Porto for a few days at the end of our trip, so maybe we'll climb it then.

We then walked up to the Igreja de la Misericordia, which also boasts a lovely azulejo mural along the outside wall. After checking out the Lello bookstore, we agreed to go in on our return visit since you have to buy a ticket to get inside and the line-up was already quite long.

Instead, we wnd our way back down to the Rua dos Flores, admiring the cute cafes and shops along the way. We stopped at a local juice place to cool down before returning to our apartment to pack and have dinner. Later we took an evening stroll back down by the river before calling it a night.

Next up, Evora in the Alentejo!