The Algarve has the beaches and coastal charm, Lisbon has the culture and city living, but Porto has history and for me much of the heart of Portugal. You could spend enough time walking through the city just exploring but here are some recommendations of some of my favorite things I stumbled on while in this UNESCO World Heritage city.
A small old city, Porto winds through narrow alleyways towards the Duoro River. The Ribeira is the soul and historic center of the city, the best place to see beauty by the river, colorful tiles and crumbling old buildings. By night it’s a great place for dinner or drinks. Aside from the picturesque waterfront, there are several other spaces to find and explore. The oldest bookshop in Portugal, Livraria Lello & Irmao is a book worm and Art Nouveau lovers paradise. The shop was said to be frequented by J.K. Rowling and the interior architecture is more than inspiring.
Sao Bento Railway Station is a quick but memorable stop. Still in use today it has hauntingly interesting history. The building began as monastery in the 16th century and was a victim of a fire, was renovated and then fell into a state of disrepair. The city was eager to demolish the building but the plans could not begin until the nuns left. Refusing to leave their monastery, the city patiently waited until they all perished, with one solo nun living there for years before her death and is said to haunt the station today. The tile work was completed in 1905 and the history of Portugal is displayed on thousands of alabaster and powdery blue tiles. Have a minute to spare? Watch the women who sell basil by the train station, they shoo away potential customers who pinch their plants, with a superstition that you’ll pinch the fragrance out.
There are two bridges crossing over the Duoro that are of significance. The Dom Luis I Bridge is a double-decked bridge that was the longest of it’s kind during construction in the late 1880s. The best way is to walk over on the top level, make your way back down through the neighborhoods of Vila Nova Gaia and then head back to the city on the lower level which leaves you conveniently at the main street on the waterfront. This massive metalwork is not to be confused with the Maria Pia Bridge, engineered by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the Eiffel Tour Eiffel) the other arched metal bridge connecting the two municipalities of Porto.
The Imperial Cafe. This next suggestion usually goes against what a lot of travelers tell you. “You’re in a new country, avoid American food.” or “You can eat McDonalds back at home.” Say what you will about avoiding the mega chain when abroad, but this is one Mickey D’s I recommend you visit, it’ll be the prettiest place you’ll eat a burger wrapped in paper. It’s conveniently located in Praça da Liberdade, so you can head to the square in town and check out some remarkable architecture.
I hadn’t had much experience with Port wines before coming to Portugal. For some reason I had a preconceived notion about Port being overly sweet without any flavor profile but I quickly learned that if you want to change your opinion about something, go to the source. Port can be on the sweet side, but if you taste a quality purveyor, it’s delicious. Port wine comes from grapes in the Douro Valley region of Portugal, it’s barreled and aged before bottled. Much like other wines there are several different styles of Ports; Tawny, Ruby, Rose and White along with vintage reserves and late bottle vintage wines. Take a few hours one afternoon and have a tour of some of the wine makers in town and if time allows head out on a day trip to the Douro Valley to see the lush wine making landscape that flourishes along the river.
There are Port Houses as far as the eye can see but there are a select few that are pumping out quality port. Ramos Pinto has a Port wine museum and you can get a great look at their massive cellar along with their famous vintage port posters. Offley Cellars are a great place to see an original Port house and taste some top notch wines as well as nearby Taylors. Fancy some Fado music with your wine tasting? Quevedo conveniently has both, so get out your map and start creating your own wine walk.
The Frankenstein of Sandwiches
Portuguese for “little Frenchie”, this sammie is anything but. I dubbed it the Frankenstein sandwich because in my mind it had to have been an invention from a mad scientist turned chef. The story is that the creation is a high caloric take on the classic french sandwich, Croque Monsieur, locals may tell you that Daniel David Silva tried to lure beautiful French women in with the promise of a French “inspired” food. This sandwich is a meal on it’s own, with ham, sausage and beef stuffed between two thick slices of bread, topped with melted cheese, a fried egg and then a spicy tomato & beer based sauce is drizzled on top.
Where’s the best place to stuff your face? For this particular feast there are a couple of local spots. Restaurante A Regaleira is a diner style spot great for local dishes, Cafe Majestic is a beautiful touristic cafe on a popular pedestrian shopping street and Cafe Santiago is a no frills spot with some great home cooked food. Get adventurous and try all three!
Room for Dessert?
If you have already eaten and drank your way through the city, there is one thing to make room for. A small local sweet shop where the best chocolate cake I’ve eaten is being baked. If you can find Cozinha Doce it is worth
Travel Tip: This place is A. not easy to find and B. if my memory serves me the woman working there doesn’t speak much English and usually caters to locals and not tourists. She must have been in love with our tour guide because that morning we had a small group and he took us there, she obliged and the desserts were so delicious a handful of us went back later in the evening and she begrudgingly gave us more cake after some persuading and hand gesturing. It’s heaven in your mouth and worth all the hassle.
Sunset at the The Yeatman
Stroll across the bridge, head up to the luxury Yeatman Hotel, they have wonderful cocktails and a Michelin Star restaurant if you can’t afford to stay there, make a reservation and enjoy the view, I think it was the best place to see the sunset and look out over all of Porto. If the Yeatman is too swanky for you, I’d also suggest the rooftop bar at the Espaco Porto Cruz. An 18th century building with modern interior, the port house has a gallery area, restaurant and ultra modern tasting room in addition to the 360 top floor views.
I stayed at Yes! Hostel, they have a location in Porto and in Lisbon. Clean, good location, busy but attentive staff. They have activities if you are traveling solo to join in with the group or private rooms if you are looking for a low cost accommodation option. Portugal is a relatively inexpensive European vacation destination so you can find nice hotels at a good value.
How to get around?
By foot is my preferred option and their is no better way to get acquainted with a city than with a walking tour. Did I mention it’s free? I spent the morning with Porto Walkers, it was a fun, well informed tour that was a great introduction to some things I went back and explored later. If you can’t get enough of your tour guide, they also offer afternoon Port wine tours, a must when in THE city that makes the wine.
When to go?
Portugal as a whole is a wonderful place to visit in the summer, sunny and warm. Porto has a Mediterranean climate so May to September are ideal times to visit for heat and sunshine, while October through April can be cool and rainy. I stayed for a week in early June and it was perfect.