We have to admit, Porto was not on our radar. When traveling to Europe, we typically have tried to get to our destination as soon as possible. Then we flew TAP Portugal airlines. TAP offers up to a 5 day layover in Lisbon or Porto with no additional cost. This was a perfect opportunity to get to know a country and cities that we had previously not thought about. And we were not disappointed and loved every minute of our travels. Porto is probably Portugal’s most famous city besides Lisbon (the capital) but, in many ways is the heart of its people. Porto is probably the most important city in the country – perhaps the world! For some, it may seem overconfidence but for them it’s only fair given the city’s history. Even the name of Portugal comes from the old Roman name given to the area of Porto: Portus Cale. So they can get braggy. If you end up wondering in “Europe’s most interesting city to visit in 2019” / “2nd most recommended city in the world” (Award given by Culture Trip) here’s what you can’t miss:
Lello Bookshop: In 1906, right in the heart of Porto, it was born what in 2017 was considered by the Lonely Planet the 3rd most beautiful bookshop in the world! When you pass by you can’t miss the huge line of people waiting to get in but don’t let that scare you! Porto is a very small city so you can easily go see something else and then return. The best time to go in (it’s a bold sentence because there’s no absolute truths and secrets) it’s right at the last minute. The bookshop closes at 7 pm and you’ll need 10 to 15 minutes to see it well, so you can buy your ticket whenever it’s more convenient, be there at 6.45 pm and just enjoy it. In the winter months, the sun sets at 5/6 pm, the bookshop lights up and then it’s truly magical. Many people associate it with Harry Potter given some similarities but J.K. Rowling already said that she never wrote it there. Nevertheless it’s 100% worth visiting and the reason why it’s the number one thing to do in Porto (especially for first timers). The ticket costs 5€ but you can discount it in any book available (there are some English/other languages editions).
Port Wine Cellars: Port wine is a fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley (northeast of Portugal), a location that was considered World Heritage by UNESCO in 2001. And it doesn’t stop here, they were also the first demarcated wine region in the world in 1756. Port wine is a sweet and elegant drink that exists since the 16th century and currently there’s a production of millions of bottles per year. If you have a sweet tooth and even if you’re not, don’t miss the Port Wine Cellars. Here’s the deal: if you have the time, the money and want a deeper experience then go to the Douro Valley with a tour (you can go on your own but it requires a very good preparation and a car – going by train is very limiting). There you’ll be able to see the vineyards and landscape without comparison, taste wine, food and the local delicacies like olive oil and honey; if you’re in Porto for a short time and still want to do a wine tasting, then choose one of the many wine cellars available in Gaia (the other side of the river) and indulge. Average ticket price is about 10€ and it includes a guided tour and a Port Wine Tasting. Keep in mind: you’ll only see the wine being produced in the Valley in August/September. It’s still worthy during the rest of the year but if you’re targeting Port Wine itself then it’s in Gaia where you’ll see the huge vats and barrels with all the production aging.
Do a free walking tour: Free walking tours are the easiest way of seeing a city and getting to know local people. They’re not literally for free but you can go on the tour, it lasts for about 3 hours and in the end you pay whatever you think it’s suitable. What’s in it for you? Besides a fully detailed tour about the city, giving you more insight about its history, you get in touch with a local guide that can give you the answer to almost all the questions you might have (where to eat the best food, local events that are going on, his personal favorite bar, where to meet locals, etc.)!
Go explore the Craft Beer of Porto: Yes, you read correctly. Porto is already producing large amounts of craft beer to compete with the North’s biggest producer – Super Bock. You can find online some guides about the local breweries and where to find them or, in case you don’t want to bother, take a tour! Porto Craft Beer Tours are currently operating and they have a local guide/brewer that takes people around the city while drinking beer and learning about the production process and its history in Porto.
Palácio da Bolsa: It’s a national monument built on top of the ruins of the convent of St. Francis in the 19th century. It was the place for the merchants of the city to discuss its businesses and the current headquarters of the Commercial Association of Porto. The ex-libris is the Arab Room with its arab characters all over the walls and the ceiling of the room. The cost of entrance is 10€, there’s discounts for seniors, students and children and every half hour there’s a visit which we definitely recommend you going on. Right next to it there’s the St. Francis church and it’s a must as well.
TreeTop Walk – Serralves: The gardens and museum of contemporary art of Serralves are in the modern area of the city. You can go there by bus, take the metro to Casa da Música and walk or go by Uber (or similar). It’s all depending on you and which part of the city you’re staying in. It’s an amazing place to go bright and early in the morning. They open at 10 am and from there you just need to explore. Take your time to visit their gardens (even if you’re not interested in contemporary art) but the one thing you can’t miss is the treetop walk! It’s a walkway on the top of the trees with amazing views over the city and their property. It takes about 20 minutes but you can take your time taking pictures and reading about the different trees. It costs 20€ to visit everything (gardens, treetop walk, museum and house of serralves) or 12€ if you’re just interested in the park and treetop walk.
Check the city’s activities!: This is a little secret advice. Porto has a huge amount of activities going on but often they’re not so well advertised. So once you’re in the city ask around and google what are the offers. If you like music then give a go at the Casa da Música (The house of Music – in english). It was built in 2005, it’s Porto’s main concert hall and there are a lot of concerts every day (some of them are even free). It’s for sure one of the best places to hear classical music in Porto. For 12,5€ you can have a fully guided visit in English everyday at 11 am or 4 pm and a glass of Port Wine. You can also check music festivals hosted by students often called “Tuna Festivals”. Not tuna like the fish but a male or female group of university students from different faculties that perform latin folk music. They have flag and tamborine acrobatic routines and great musical skills, alongside with an awesome show! This is something truly genuine and if you’re fortunate enough to see it, it will be an experience you will never forget. The ticket price varies but it’s an average of 5€ for the whole night in the local theatres! These are just examples of many things you can do in the city.
Six Bridges Cruise: This one’s a classic and no matter what people say, it’s always nice to see the city from a different perspective. You’ll have Porto on one side and Gaia on the other and for about 1 hour you’ll be on the old Port Wine boats exploring the entire length of the city and its 6 bridges (the famous pedestrian Luíz I but as well the D. Maria Pia bridge that inspired the construction of the Eiffel Tour). The tickets cost about 15€ but do a good check because some tickets might pay off when compared to others. For example: some may have a deal with a wine cellar and then you can buy a combo ticket and save some money.
Porto Bridge Climb at sunset: This one is not for the faint of the heart! Like the name says, you’ll be climbing the last bridge of the city until you reach the middle and have a clear view to the mouth of the river and the ocean. Many people do this at sunset (there’s no need to explain why) so make sure you book it with time to guarantee a spot. It’s perfectly safe and it’s not very physically demanding but it requires effort and the wind can be felt pretty strong sometimes. It’s just not recommended if you have fear of heights or if you have any type of physical limitation. Apart from that it’s very fun and gives you the chance of doing something different in the city. The price of the ticket is 17,5€, you can buy it there or online, and it includes all the equipment and a local guide.
“Palácio de Cristal” gardens: Porto’s most iconic gardens! Don’t be fooled by the name! Today, where it once stood a Crystal Palace, there’s the city’s pavilion in the shape of a dome that hosts some of Porto’s main events. Check them by sunset to really get those perfect pictures and keep in mind you’ll need at least 1 hour to see it well. The House of Music is just 15 minutes away by foot so it can be good to see them on the same day, alongside with the Serralves Gardens!
Churches (even if you’re not religious): It would be a sin not to recommend some churches in the city. Besides Porto’s Cathedral – a beautiful, castle-like, 12th century old monument in the top of the city, you have many others that are worth visiting. The Clérigos Tower and Church is a 18th century baroque monument that will give you a 360º view of the city. Of course, before this, you will need to climb 240 steps of this 75 meter high tower! You can also visit the St. Francis Church, a gothic 13th century church that not only has the most amount of gold leaf you’ll ever see in a single church but has as well some impressive catacombs with glass in the floor revealing thousands of bones. We could not leave behind the St. Claire church which you’ll find hidden behind some of the old city’s buildings or the Church of Carmo and the Church of Carmelitas that call people’s attention because of the very narrow house that stands between them. It’s unfair to leave a few out of this list but it’s precisely because of this that we recommend you take a free tour right on the first day!
Take a bike (Porto it’s not just hills!): It may not be the first thing you think of but riding a bike in Porto can be really cool if you know where to start and where to go. So here’s a simple suggestion: rent a bike by Ribeira (the river side) and go to Matosinhos or Afurada. They’re both fishing towns and the views are amazing. Matosinhos is a bit more touristy and further away but it has its perks like having a bicycle lane and having more options of what to do. In both towns you’ll find great restaurants to have fish or seafood! Bike rentals can have different costs but with 12€ you can rent it for 5-8 hours.
Food, food and more food!: To finish strong we’ll speak of food and, my friends, Porto is a culinary heaven for foodies. You have to consider that Porto was always a city of workers and merchants so the food represents well those heavy workers by being strong! The most traditional dish is called “Tripas à moda do Porto” or just simply tripes. We can assure you that it is an absolutely delicious cow’s stew where you’ll find white beans, chorizo, carrots, beef and cow’s stomach. You can eat it over rice at the most local restaurants of Porto on Thursdays and Saturdays. Besides Tripas you can also find: Francesinha (a must in Porto, a sandwich filled with meat, covered in melted cheese, sauce and a fried egg – yes, not for the faint of the heart but utterly delicious); Portuguese hot dogs at Gazela (leaving Porto without giving it a go is a crime); Bifana – the portuguese spicy piri-piri pulled pork sandwich; Codfish or Bacalhau – the portuguese have more recipes for codfish than days of the year!; Seafood rice (a stocky tomato rice with shrimp, crab, clams and parsley); Caldo Verde: literally translated to “green broth”, it’s an amazing soup made with potato, cabbage and chorizo; Don’t miss out on the wine bars to go have some tapas! There’s so much to eat that you’ll lack the time to try it all!
Even though it’s difficult to resume Porto to just a few words, this is sufficient for you to have 3 magical days in the city. If you’re staying for longer than that don’t worry, in Portugal there’s no such things as too many days.