The second largest Portuguese city, Porto – so called for its historical and present day significance as a shipping port – has a lot to boast about. Think Romanesque and Gothic architecture, a multitude of places to try the region’s delicious seafood, an array of nightlife options – and that’s just for starters.
What else is there to love? Well, the fact it’s so underrated. All too often overshadowed by popular capital Lisbon, Porto is a colorful, UNESCO-listed city that offers an authentic slice of Portuguese life. The pace is much slower than in tourist-heavy Lisbon – and in that sense, it feels much more European. Here, you feel able to enjoy an espresso by the riverfront, or wander languidly through the pretty streets, admiring shop windows. It is split by the river Douro, or ‘river of gold’, which adds to the sense of calm.
Here’s what else I advise you eat, drink and do when there:
Must-see landmarks in Porto
Porto is a city that’s very easy to get around. Your tour begins in the Ribeira district, the old town of Porto, which is located on the northern side of the river. The area is made up of narrow, cobbled streets set on thigh-challenging hill slopes – make sure you have a bottle of water handy for tackling them.
To see the city in its entirety, there’s no better vantage point than the Clerigos Tower observation deck, which is accessed through a steep, spiral staircase inside the building. If you’re anything like us, you’ll wake up with sore thighs the next day – but the view is well worth the muscle aches.
Then, you’ll want to visit the city’s Sé cathedral, a Roman-Catholic cathedral complete with 12th century Gothic rose windows. From here, you must carry on to famous book shop Livraria Lello Porto, which is widely considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The book shop is famed for playing host to JK Rowling, who once taught English in Porto. Such celebrity status has, however, forced the location to charge a small entrance fee to visitors, and there is a small queue outside (something we were not expecting when we popped in for a browse, before a fellow traveler filled us in on the shop’s significance).
If you are feeling ambitious, you might want to journey to the nearby city of Braga – an hour’s train journey away – to visit the famous Bom Jesus de Monte, where you have to climb a 600-stair high Baroque staircase to reach the top (unsurprisingly, this has been a historic location for pilgrimages).
Where to eat in Porto
For those looking for a delicious, low-key meal, head to Mercado do Bolhao, a bustling flea market which serves street food.
Find a table in the center (get there early to snap one up) and gorge on fresh seafood from the vendors. Try it with vinho verde, a Portuguese specialty wine; the slight fizz of the wine at first made me think it was off, but I was convinced otherwise by the sweet taste and a patient waiter.
Alternatively, there are a number of places selling Francesinha, a Porto speciality sandwich containing cheese and a number of different meats in a tomato and beer sauce. Try Restaurante Verso Em Pedra, which is located along the riverfront. This particular Portuguese special will probably require a few walks up and down the river to burn it off, but it’s definitely worth it. Finish off with a coffee and a pastry at Cafe Majestic, where – Harry Potter fans will be glad to hear – JK Rowling also spent a lot of time.
For your evening meal, enjoy an authentic Portuguese feast at Camafeu, a restaurant that consciously looks like someone’s home, with mismatched chairs and shabby-chic shelving.
The roasted octopus is a must-have. Also worth a mention is Restaurant O Buraco, a value-for-money spot on Rua Bolhao which serves traditional Portuguese fare such as codfish, sardines and pork.
Wine fans will of course want to cross the Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge (which has an upper level for pedestrians), in order to visit the famous port cellars on the southern side of the river, many of which are located in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia.
What (else) to do in Porto
Satisfy your creative side at the Museo de arte contemporanea de serralves, a gallery famous for its minimalist space built by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira and its world-leading exhibitions. Wander out afterwards into the Foundation Serralves gardens, which contain a giant trowel sculpture which looks poised to fall on top of you.
Aside from that, well, strolling round the dreamy streets is sheer bliss in itself.
And if you’re looking for a place to shop, Rua Santa Caterina is the place. It’s a gorgeous retail destination which has international brands such as KIKO, H&M and Zara interspersed with patisseries where you can get your hands on a traditional Pastéis de Nata (custard tart), to refuel after all that shopping.
On a sunny day, there’s nothing more idyllic than a trip down the Douro river on traditional Rabelos boats – head to Estiva Quay near Ribeira to enquire about a rental. Alternatively, you could take the Metro for 25 minutes to get to Matosinhos beach, where you can take a break from sightseeing to enjoy the sand and sea.
Porto at night is a beautiful sight – the view from Cais de Gaia is best, where you can see the whole city lit up.
If this inspires you to hit the Porto nightlife, begin with a laid-back drink at cafe-bookshop Candelabro (where, after 6pm, customers flood out on to the sidewalk). Gin-lovers – and I definitely count myself as one – will also enjoy The Gin House, which offers knowledgeable bartenders and more than 150 brands of gin. I enjoyed a Beefeater gin, flavoured with black pepper and lemon – delicious (although one to avoid if on a strict budget – the drinks are pricey).
If you’re looking for commercial house music, head to the Zona Industrial by taxi (it’s a little way away). Alternatively, try Foz’s Trintaeum or Hard Club, which is based in Ribeira. After all that, you’ll probably want to catch a little sleep before spending another day discovering this beautiful city.
Fancy exploring the stunning sights of Portugal? Check out our range of small group tours there.
Image Credits (top to bottom): Intrepid Travel, iStock x2, Camafeu Facebook page, iStock, Intrepid Travel