Porto – the city of Port Wine, The Douro River, and azulejo tiles.
One of the oldest cities in Europe, proclaimed by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, yet kind of forgotten in the past. Only 15 years ago the locals were complaining that the medieval streets of their city were empty. Now, mainly thanks to low cost airlines, the tourists are flowing into the city, making Porto the proud owner of “European best destination” title, 3 times in the last 7 years. Lisbon, you better watch out, you better not cry – you have strong competition.
So why is Porto so popular? Thanks to charming streets surrounded by colourful buildings which appear to be growing out from them, a promenade along the river, the fascinating bridge glancing down at you, beautiful, sunny weather? Yes yes yes…but there is more. What do I mean by more? Have a read and discover 11 best things to do in Porto.
1. Test your fear of heights on Dom Luís I Bridge
This was the first thing I did when I arrived in Porto. Well, not because I wanted to test my fear of heights (I don’t have it. Haa!), but because after seeing this magnificent bridge in so many pictures, I knew I had to conquer it. And I must say: it is high indeed.
With a height of 44.6 metres (146 ft) and a span of 172 metres (564 ft), the Dom Luís I bridge is an icon of the city of Porto. It crosses the River Douro, linking the Port wine houses of Vila Nova de Gaia with the bustling downtown Ribeira. One of the distinctive features of the bridge is it’s two levels: one on top of the arch and the other suspended below it. Both decks were initially intended to carry road traffic but these days the top carries the Porto Metro trains as well as having a pedestrian walkway.
There are 3 ways to get to the top: use your legs and climb the stairs (there are signs all over the city showing the way to the bridge), take the funicular (from the bottom of the bridge on the Porto side) or to take a tram from either side of the river. But there are no stops on the actual bridge, so if you want to walk it, you will have to use your legs anyway.
Just remember, the bridge gets busy, especially at sunset and the metro doesn’t stop running. So be careful while snapping those beautiful sunset shots.
2. Visit all the neighbourhoods
Porto has many fascinating districts where everyone can find something for themselves.
The most recognizable and popular is Ribeira – filled with cafés, restaurants, quirky houses covered with azulejos, and a promenade that runs along the Douro River; Baixa – rich with major landmarks and more examples of azulejo artwork, like São Bento railway station; Miragaia – full of colourful houses, locals doing their things and a great location near the river; Foz do Douro – located at the seaside where you can have a fun beach day and admire the beauty and power of the Atlantic Ocean; Vila Nova de Gaia – the home of Port Wine, full of wineries and good restaurants, offering an incredible view across the river of Ribeira’s vibrant buildings.
No matter where you go, and I recommend going everywhere, you will need comfy shoes and some leg and bum muscles. Porto is very hilly and strolling its cobbled streets can be a challenge. So ladies, you better leave those high heels at home.
3. Have a drink on Ribeira’s waterfront
Walking along the Douro River in Ribeira is a must. The oldest neighbourhood in Porto is a place where you and thousands of other travellers will go to feast their eyes on incredibly picturesque, colourful building facades and their ears on the music of local performers and the hustle of the city. You won’t be able to stop “ohhs” and “ahhs” coming out of your mouth when you see the Dom Luis Bridge up close. The view of the bridge is amazing from the waterfront, which makes it the perfect place to snap a few pictures and stop for a while to enjoy its beauty.
I’m sure that in every travel guide you will read that you haven’t visited Porto if you don’t try the seafood in one of the Ribeira’s restaurants with the view of the river. Well…let’s just say, there is a reason why I titled this paragraph: ‘Have a drink”, not “Have food”. I can’t speak for all the restaurants, but the one I had lunch in was not very pleasant (and I went there only because I was hangry). They served me only the expensive appetizers I didn’t ask for, opened an equally expensive bottle of water I also didn’t ask for and the attitude of the staff. If you don’t want to be ripped off and deal with a grumpy waiter I recommend finding another place and Porto has plenty of them.
However, for colourful cocktails, tapas and the atmosphere of beach holidays, go to Botequim Nostalgic. Fun in the sun guaranteed.
4. Walk along Vila Nova de Gaia
For the remarkable views of Ribeira, for the spectacular panorama of Luis Bridge, for delicious Port wine and wine cellar tours and for the breath-taking colours of the sun setting on Ribeira’s houses, you will have to cross the bridge and wander around Vila Nova de Gaia. Located on the other side of the Douro River, this neighbourhood doesn’t technically belong to Porto. Gaia is actually a separate city, but is considered by tourists as a part of the Porto experience.
Since the XVII century it has been home to several wineries and vineyards producing Port wine, now known in the whole world. Rabelo boats – traditional wooden boats that you will spot along the promenade, are a great reminder of Gaia’s heritage. They were originally used to transport the barrels of wine across the river. Nowadays they have become cruise boats for tourists that wish to explore the Douro.
So walk the promenade, get amazed by the views, take a cable car for a more intense experience, buy some souvenirs from the street sellers, but most importantly…
5. Take a wine cellar tour and try not to get day drunk on Port wine
There are plenty of wineries in Vila Nova de Gaia: Sandeman, Graham’s Port Lodge, Croft, Calém, Offley, Burmester, Ferreira…you name it. The tours look more or less the same: first you visit the cellars, learn about the history of Port wine and the particular winery, then there is a time for tasting. Pricewise, there are also not so many differences: from 15 to 20 something euro.
Following the recommendation of some locals, I decided to visit Ferreira winery and couldn’t be more happy about my choice. The tour was very informative, our guide was very professional and had a lot of knowledge regarding the subject, the wine was super delicious. With knowing really nothing about wine and the culture of tasting it, I was able to tell all the different flavours that each wine consisted of. It was an incredible experience and I surely recommend visiting Ferreira winery to anyone.
6. Watch the sunset from Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar
If you’re already on the other side of the river and wine tasting gave you extra power, climb up the little hill and go watch the sunset from the huge “terrace” in front of Mosteiro da Serra Pilar or Jardim do Morro located on the opposite side of the convent. Views like that guaranteed.
7. Chase azulejos
When in Porto you simply can’t not notice them, because they’re everywhere – am I talking about tourists? Yes, but most importantly: azulejos. Azulejos is a term describing tin-glazed ceramic tilework. It was King Manuel I of Portugal who brought azulejo tiles from Seville in Spain, to Portugal, during the 15th century. Azulejos were very common in parts of the Iberian Peninsula dominated by the Islamic Expansion during the middle ages. The word “azulejo” actually comes from the Arabic word “al zellige” which means “the polished stone”. Seems about right.
Azulejo tiles in Porto come in different colours, but most commonly, they are white and blue. They cover houses, churches, cafés, train stations, benches, street signs, fountains, even single stones. The places that represent azulejo style the best and you simply can’t miss are: São Bento Railway Station, Igreja do Carmo, Capela das Almas, Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, Sé do Porto. Those are also the best spots for those Instagram shots. Yet, like I mentioned before, azulejos in Porto are everywhere!
8. Hop on the boat
If you want to feel like a sea rat and chill for an hour, take a Douro River 6 Bridges Boat Tour. As the name implies, it’s a cruise on the Douro, that will take you under 6 main bridges of Porto. You’ll be able to admire the panorama of Ribeira and Vila Nova de Gaia from the middle of Douro and have a good look under the Luis Bridge. Fascinating. HINT: take warm clothes. It’s pretty windy out there.
9. Let’s go to the beach
With all the amazing historic landmarks in the city, let’s not forget that Porto also has a beach, a few beaches even. If you don’t want to travel far, go to Praia do Carneiro. This sandy beach located in Foz will spoil you with the choice of beachfront cafés and a little run down, but still charming Lighthouse of Felgueiras. If you take an old-school tram (Line 1), you will have another “must do” in Porto to check off the list.
However, for the real beach experience, there is only one choice: Praia do Matosinhos.
10. Soak up the world of magic in Livraria Lello Bookstore
Yes, this is the magical place. The place where all Harry Potter fans will take out their wands and whisper Lumos in order to see everything better. The place where J.K. Rowling took inspiration to create Flourish and Blotts bookstore. The place where she was writing the world famous Harry Potter series. Ok, the last one is not true and when you enter the bookshop you will see why. There would be simply no space to do that. But the fact is, that during her time in Porto, J.K. Rowling was a frequent guest in Livraria Lello.
One of the oldest and most beautiful bookshops in the world will charm you with neo-gothic design, colourful stained glasses, carved ceilings and an incredible wooden staircase with crimson steps. While being there you really feel like a character from some magical novel. There is only one “but”… this place is extremely crowded. Even coming before it’s open won’t help. It gets packed in literally 5 minutes. And don’t forget that you have to get a 5 euro, redeemable ticket (April 2019) from a ticket office located next to the bookstore. TIP: If you’re two or more people, make sure that one of you is queuing for the tickets and other is in the line to the actual bookshop.
11. So you think you like meat? Try Francesinha
All the meat eaters will be rapturous when they find out that a “must eat” in Porto is a sandwich consisting of 4 kinds of meat. Francesinha is its name and it’s a traditional Portuguese delicacy, originating in Porto, made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça (smoked-cured pork sausage), fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat. To make it even more unhealthy it’s covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick tomato and beer sauce. And it’s usually served with French fries. Sounds like a recipe for a heart attack. You can find many traditional Francesinha restaurants in Porto, but if you’re a vegetarian, like me and don’t want to miss out on this experience, go to Lado B. They serve both meat and veggie options. Simply yum yum yum!
Hope the activities mentioned above will keep you busy during your time in Porto. If you feel like you could do even more, climb the Clérigos Tower, go admire Café Majestic, visit all the churches (Porto has plenty of it) and take a break in Jardins do Palácio de Cristal or Fundação de Serralves. Enjoy!