Porto is one of those European cities that has been on my list for a long time. Having visited Lisbon twice, I had high hopes for Portugal’s “second city” (don’t call it that to their faces).
So when I was planning my Camino along the Portuguese Coast, I took the opportunity to add a couple of days in Porto at the start.
And it did not disappoint!
I arrived in Porto dead tired from my 6 am flight, and the weather was gray and rainy. But the moment I caught my first glimpse of a white and blue tiled building, I was sold. With only two days to spare, I tried to cram in as much sightseeing (and eating) as possible. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see and do everything I wanted, but I’m sure I will come back soon.
I’ve collected my best tips and recommendations for things to do in Porto in this blog post to help you plan your own visit.
Join a Free Walking Tour to learn about the history
Porto has a great public transport system with various subway lines, but you probably won’t use it, as the city center is very walkable. I hope you have strong legs, though, because the hills in Porto don’t play! I though walking through Lisbon was a work-out, but Porto is just as challenging. My legs were sore before I even started my 280 km hike to Santiago de Compostela.
While wandering aimlessly around Porto is a joy in and of itself, I recommend joining a guided tour. The historic city center is full of beautiful architecture and important monuments, so it’s nice to know what you’re looking at exactly. It’s why I try to do a walking tour on every solo trip.
My choice was the Free Tour of Porto by Sandeman’s New Europe. I’ve done several of their tours around Europe and have always been a very happy customer. The friendly and capable guides take you along some of the highlights of the historic center of Porto, telling you lots of interesting facts along the way. It’s a nice introduction to the city, history, and culture. And the guides always have tons of great recommendations for where to eat and what else to do.
Marvel at all the colorful tiled buildings
Portugal is famous for its beautifully tiled buildings. The habit of covering building in these tiles called azelujos comes from the Moors. They are peoples from North Africa who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for a while. The Portuguese mixed the crafts of the Moorish tiles with Dutch Delft blue and Italian enamel layered painting. Azelujos are the beautiful result.
The tiles don’t just look beautiful, they also help keep the houses cool. Which comes in handy during the hot Portuguese summers. But mostly, the tiles were a status symbol, showing off your wealth and taste. Lucky for us, a lot of historic tiles facades have been preserved. And Porto is just as good a place to see them as Lisbon.
Simply walk around the city and take in all the different colors and styles. My whole phone is filled with pictures of them. The most famous example is the train station. The inside of the hall has been decorated with huge murals made of tiles. They depict the history and culture of Portugal.
Visit Porto Cathedral and churches
The last stop on the Porto walking tour was the Cathedral. This huge building is what the rest of the city was pretty much built around. It rises high above the Ribeira neighborhood, and you can spot from almost everywhere.
At €3 entry, it is well worth a look on the inside. There are rooms filled with art and artifacts, a very photogenic courtyard and a bell-tower with a spectacular view.
The Cathedral ticket booth is also where you need to pick up your pilgrim credentials if you’re hiking the Camino, like me.
Like any European city, Porto is full of other churches as well. You’ll probably stumble on a few as you’re walking around. Some that are particularly worth a look (if only from the outside) are: Clérigos Church, Church of Carmelitas and Church of Carmo, and Santo Ildefonso Church.
Take in the views from the bridge, riverside and funicular
Porto is build on a hill, so there are lots of vantage points from which you can get a great view. The riverside at Ribeira is a lively place and great for enjoying a drink with a view, or just chill with a snack. From here, you can see across the Douro river to Vila Nova de Gaia. Officially, this is a separate town from Porto, but it feels like it’s part of the city. This is where all the port wine houses are located.
To get to Vila Nova de Gaia, you cross the Ponte Louis I bridge. It consists of two levels, if you’re walking from Ribeira, I recommend taking the lower level. Once you’re in Vila Nova de Gaia, you have an ever better view across the river as you’re watching Porto. I really enjoyed lounging in the grass here, looking at Porto spread out before me.
If you wish to head back to Porto, there’s a funicular that’ll take you up the hill. I would recommend that over climbing, as you have a really nice view on the way up (and walking around Porto is hard enough on your legs already). Once you reach the top, walk across the upper level of the bridge back towards Porto Cathedral. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the views are incredible.
Go on a port wine tour
You can’t go to Porto and not try their most famous drink: port wine. This special type of wine is made by adding brandy to wine to interrupt the fermentation process. The result is a high alcohol, sweet, full-bodied wine. Because of the sweetness, it’s mostly drunk as an apéritif or dessert wine.
You can generally differentiate into three categories: ruby, tawny, and white port. Within those categories, there are different types of vintages and style.
Ruby port is the most common type. This red port wine isn’t aged and usually blended. White port is lighter and sweeter and particularly suited to making cocktails (white port with tonic is delicious). Tawny port is barrel-aged red wine, either a blend or a single vintage. This wine is more complex than ruby or white.
The practice of making port wine dates back to the 17th century. The English started to import wine from Portugal, rather than France. But winemakers needed to find a way to preserve their wines for these longer distribution routes. Their solution was fortifying the wine, which resulted in port wine. The wines from the Douro Valley were traded through the port of Porto, hence the name.
Many English and Portuguese wine traders set up cellars and warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, which are still in use today. You can visit them to get a tour of the cellars, learn about the history of port wine, and have a tasting. I recommend booking at least a few days in advance. I visited Sandeman and really enjoyed my tour there.
If you want to see where port wine originated, you should take a day trip or organized tour to the Douro Valley.
Try some typical Portuguese delicacies
There is more to Porto cuisine than wine! Traditional Portuguese cuisine isn’t very vegetarian friendly, but if you like fish and meat, you’ll love the food here. Porto wasn’t historically a very rich city, so the food tends to be humble but full of flavor. Nothing is wasted!
Being by the coast, seafood and fish are represented on every menu. Salted cod is a typical Portuguese delicacy, especially in a croquette or empanada style pie. Canned fish are also very popular.
Meat lovers will delight in the northern Portuguese sausages and staples like steak, ham, and chorizo. If you’re a bit more adventurous, the citizens of Porto are known as “tripe eaters”, so you might want to try the cow’s stomach that they consider a delicacy.
The most famous dish of Porto is a sandwich called the Francesinha. Several types of meat are stacked between bread, covered with melted cheese, gravy, and a fried egg. This is a huge meal! I tried a vegan version of it in Francesinhas Al Forno da Baixa, but wasn’t able to finish more than half.
I loved my time in Porto! Two days definitely wasn’t enough, so I will have to come back in the future. Porto is a vibrant place, with lots to see and do. My tips will help you scratch the surface of all that Porto has to offer.
If you enjoy good food and wine, historic architecture, and a lively atmosphere: Porto is the place for you. It’s also a great option for budget travelers. Whether you are going on a romantic trip or backpacking solo, you’ll have a great time here.
Have you been to Porto? What were your favorite things to do there? Tell me everything I missed in the comments.
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