Porto

Lisbon was pretty, but I preferred the gritty, working-class city of Porto, located in the northern part of the country. Porto fees less polished but is better preserved because it was spared by the 1755 earthquake that demolished Lisbon. Houses with red-tiled roofs spill down steep hills to the riverbank, while flat-bottomed boats meander along the lazy Douro river. The city is made of dark granite, which contrasts perfectly with the bright tiles everywhere.

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Porto skyline

It’s not hard to fall in love with Porto immediately upon arrival because its train station is absolutely magnificent. São Bento Railway Station is covered with some of Portugal’s finest azulejos that depict historical and folk scenes of the Douro region.

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Gorgeous station
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Portuguese history depicted in the azulejos

While steep, nearly everything is within walking distance, and we arrived at our guest house in just a few minutes. Tucked into a little courtyard is InPatio Guest House, which is run by an adorable couple who renovated a 19th-century building into five sleek rooms with modern furnishings like heated floors and a luggage lift. We had one of the best breakfasts here, consisting of chorizo and ham from northern Portugal, cheese from southern Portugal, an assortment of fresh bread and croissants, homemade carrot cake with walnuts, fruits, pear yogurt with pomegranates, fresh squeezed orange juice, and made-to-order cappuccino. They also left us glasses of port and little pastries in our room.

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Our cozy room, with one wall from the original building
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Breakfast
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View of the courtyard from our windows
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Port and pastries left in our room

We only had a short time in Porto so we decided to go on a four-hour port tasting tour with Porto Walkers. We met a large group at the entrance of Luis I Bridge and crossed the Douro river to the neighboring town of Vila Nova de Gaia. Port is called port not because it is produced in Porto. It’s actually produced about 60 miles upstream in the Douro Valley. Port is not even aged in Porto; it’s aged in Vila Nova de Gaia. On our tour, we learned that the only reason port is named after Porto is because it’s shipped from Porto, so that’s what shipping labels called it. We visited four different wine lodges and tasted seven types of port. I learned that my favorite is tawny port, which has a delicious oak flavor because it was aged in a smaller barrel, thus exposing it to more of the wood. Ruby port is the cheapest, while vintage port is the most expensive. Late Bottle Vintage was invented after World War II, when British wine lovers couldn’t afford true vintage port, so they would blend wines from a single year and age them together for a short time.

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Some of our port

The rest of our night was spent tipsily crossing the bridge in the rain back to Porto with our new Australian friends from our tour, trying blood soup, and ending the night with an espresso and some pastéis de nata at Manteigaria, which I had discovered back in Lisbon.

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Vila Nova de Gaia from our rooftop bar
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Walking across the bridge back to Porto

The next day was raining on and off, but we woke up early to walk around the riverfront again. The sunrises are just as beautiful in Porto as they are in Lisbon. We crossed the bridge to stare at the Porto skyline across the Douro river one last time. Barrels of port used to sail down this river from the valley. It was a dangerous and time-consuming journey, so now port is just driven in by trucks.

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Sunrise
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Douro river

From this side of the river, we could see all the different modes of public transportation available in Porto: buses, trolleys, metro, funiculars, tuk-tuks, even cable cars connecting the riverfront with a historic monastery. It reminded me of Istanbul, which is always a good thing. Our time in Porto was way too short, but I’m glad we had at least a brief introduction to another part of Portugal. Tchau, Portugal!

Hamburg

If Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a Germany stuck in time, and Nuremberg is a Germany cautiously toeing the line between past and present, Hamburg is a Germany dashing into the future. While popular with domestic tourists, Hamburg is usually absent from travel itineraries of international tourists, and that’s somewhat understandable — Germany’s richest and second-largest city doesn’t have time for lederhosen or quaint half-timbered homes! Hamburg feels a lot more like Scandinavia than stereotypical Germany. It has more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. While I found Munich and Berlin to be more interesting German cities to visit, I sure wouldn’t mind living in Hamburg.

But first, some history. With its crucial port and strategic transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for Allied bombers during World War II. Bombers hit the city with air raids that destroyed roofs, broke water mains, and tore up streets. Since that summer of 1943 had been especially dry and hot, the result of the attack was an unprecedented firestorm. A tornado of flames raged, baking many inhabitants inside their bomb shelters, and sucking those who ventured outside off their feet and into a heat vortex. Roads and sidewalks caught on fire, and anyone who tried to run across got stuck in boiling asphalt. In just three hours, the inferno killed 42,000 civilians. After the eight days of air raids, roughly one million survivors were evacuated, leaving behind a demolished city.

Of course, you can barely tell now. Hamburg has successfully recovered, growing wealthier than ever, and its new port is currently the second busiest in Europe. The port left its original location to accommodate larger modern container ships, leaving behind vacant prime real estate, which is being developed into HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project. When it’s done, downtown Hamburg will be 40% bigger, employing 15,000 workers and housing 10,000 residents.

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Hamburg’s bustling port reminded me of Istanbul
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Beautiful sunset views of the port from HafenCity

The pride and joy of Hamburg — and an icon of modern Germany — is Elbphilharmonie, a stunning building that just opened this year, and houses a concert hall, hotel, apartment complex, and shopping mall. Its wavy silhouette and reflective exterior resemble water and steamer ships, both of which have been so integral to Hamburg. When we visited Elbphilharmonie on a random Tuesday evening, hundreds of Hamburgers of all ages were sitting right outside, elegantly drinking wine while watching a free live screening of the Philip Glass/Vivaldi concert that was taking place inside. Free classical music for the masses, while watching the sunset over the water? Hamburg has clearly figured out the good life.

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Crowd outside Elbphilharmonie

Our time in Hamburg was brief, but it offered us a sufficient preview into another side of Germany: the Germany that isn’t bogged down by its history, as so many of its other cities are. Americans tend to visit Germany for two reasons: getting drunk off good beer, and satiating our obsession with World War II history. Hamburg doesn’t pander to those; it’s too absorbed with its own future and I respect that. Compared to all the other German cities we visited, this was where we heard English the least, which makes sense since its economy doesn’t depend on English-speaking tourists as much. Hamburg is still rapidly developing, and I look forward to returning someday to see how much has been transformed.

Tips for future travelers:

One of my favorite areas was touristy Landungsbrücken, which includes a half-mile-long floating dock designed to accommodate the Elbe River’s 13-foot tides. The best meal we had in Hamburg was from one of the many fish stands at Landungsbrücken — “Fischbrötchen und Pommes”, or pickled herring in a bun, with a side of fries (and the best ketchup I’ve ever had!). In fact, we loved it so much that we had it twice in one night.

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First Fischbrötchen of the day
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Second Fischbrötchen of the day

If you still like the Beatles, visit the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s Red Light District. Sure, you can find prostitutes if that’s your thing, but there are also some pretty legit music venues here. The Beatles were unknown when they first arrived in Hamburg from Liverpool, but after a season of gigs in front of tough crowds in the Reeperbahn, they launched into international stardom.

Check out the Schulterblatt neighborhood for cafes and restaurants. Nicknamed “Latte Macchiato Boulevard,” this gentrifying neighborhood is oozing with creative energy thanks to its squatter-building-turned-arts-venue.

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We stayed at the Scandic Hamburg Emporio, which is actually a Swedish hotel chain, but it felt appropriate for Scandinavian-esque Hamburg. Each room has huge windows, and the hotel provides the most lavish breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced.

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To get to HafenCity, catch the 7-minute public ferry, which takes you straight to Elbphilharmonie. Once there, wait in line at the main entrance for a free ticket to the public plaza on the sixth floor. It’s a great place to watch the sun set.

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