Last updated on October 14, 2018
Ready to sip some port on the River Douro and get lost in Porto’s unfathomably ancient old town? Experience it all with my tips on the most essential things to do, see, eat and drink in the charmingly well-worn Portuguese metropolis of Porto.
When I think back on my time in Porto, or ‘Oporto’ as it’s known in English, I’m filled with a soothing sense of warmth. Like a golden embrace from the sun. An explosion of colour dripping slowly over my mind’s eye.
Porto is the grandpa of destinations, a place that encourages you to slow down, to enjoy everything it has to offer without moderation, at an unhurried pace. Porto is stylish in an unshowy way. A classic that keeps getting better with age, without any desire or need to change.
It’s revered for its medieval riverside living, for its perfectly-imperfect streets. And its port wine industry is celebrated around the world.
And although this old crooner is often overshadowed by his older brethren Lisbon, there’s no doubt that it’s Porto that’s the real star in this part of the world, and one of the most interesting cities in Europe.
Pour yourself a tall one, put your feet up, and take your own sweet time… This is Porto, and we’re in no hurry.
Amble Leisurely Through Porto’s Ribeira Neighbourhood (Old Town)
Perched atop grassy hillsides that look out over the Douro River, the city of Porto boasts some 2,000 years of cultural and historical heritage.
In fact, it’s so old that the burnt-mustard and spearmint-blue historic centre, known as the Ribeira, is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Whether you’re into architecture from the Baroque, Neoclassical or Belle Epoque periods, sites like the Torre dos Clérigos, Palácio da Bolsa and Sé do Porto are sure to take your breath away.
And if like me you ancient lumps of stone that’s been polished pebble-smooth by centuries of footfall or battered by the sun relentlessly for centuries… well, you’re in luck.
Ease Your Mind on Porto’s Bridge Over Bubbling Waters
Though there are six mighty bridges spanning the Douro River, Porto’s most iconic is the Dom Luis I Bridge.
This colossal two-level feat of engineering was designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1877 (yes, of Paris fame) to connect the old Ribeira district to the Vila Nova de Gaia area.
When it opened in 1886, it was the longest of its type in the world.
Need more bridges in your life? Nicknamed the ‘City of Bridges’ Porto is the only city in Europe with six bridges – take this great river cruise to see them all.
Other arcing beauties include the 270 m concrete Ponte da Arrabida (which you can climb), and the 280 metre Ponte do Infante, which to this day is the largest single span concrete bridge on earth.
Indulge Like There’s No Tomorrow
With plenty of signature dishes to nibble your way through, and sticky old dive bars and hipster restaurants on every corner, Porto’s thriving food scene is by itself a good enough reason to visit this Portuguese paradise.
I always try to do a food tour when I’m exploring a new city and culture, and highly recommend doing one of these during your time in Porto.
Start with the city’s robust signature dish, ‘francesinha’, a devilishly decadent meat feast of cured ham, smoked sausage and steak slathered with unctuous melted cheese and a rich tomato and port salsa.
You’ll need a lie down after this, but that’s what life’s all about here in Porto, so don’t let that hold you back.
Where to eat the best francesinha in Porto: With its chintzy neon lights, formica tables and plastic chairs, the family-run Cafe Santiago looks like the sort of place you might pop into to inhale a strong coffee on your lunch break, but their chunky francesinhas are the stuff of legend. Bufete Fase is another francesinha specialist of a similar ilk.
Fancy something more modern? Porto’s dining scene is progressive too, with a slew of celebrity chefs like José Avillez, who are elevating classic Portuguese cuisine with molecular gastronomy techniques and earning more than their fair share of Michelin-stars along the way. If you’re lucky enough to get a table at Cantinho do Avillez, you can taste it for yourself.
Tip Back a Few Bottles of the Local Port Wine
If the city of Porto is famous one thing above all else, it’s the production of its ruby red and seductively sweet liquid gold: port. Even today, it’s still easy to imagine the city’s thriving port industry with the river Douro at its heart, in constant flux, a flood of commerce.
I didn’t have time, but I’d definitely recommend taking a tour on one of the rabelo cargo boats for a journey back in time. These little timber ships were used for centuries to transport barrels of port from the riverside wineries, down the river and onto the bigger ships that would then transport them to the rest of the world.
Where to drink port in Port: Head over to the Vila Nova de Gaia area on ‘the other side of the river’ (you’ll know what I mean when you get there) and you’ll discover countless oak-scented warehouses nuzzled up next to each other along the riverbank (so they didn’t have to carry the barrels too far to get them onto the boats).
Big names in the local port tasting tours include Cockburns, Taylor’s and Sandeman, although I can personally vouch for the tour at Ferreira cellars, where you can sample many different types of port and learn about how they are produced.
Tip: If you can’t decide which one to visit then you’ll be pleased to hear of this excellent tasting tour, which visits no less than three of the historic warehouses and includes ten tastings.
Feast Your Eyes on Some Serious Art
From the technicolor street art that adorns the city’s phone boxes and medieval walls to the world-class art galleries, Porto is a kaleidoscope of colour.
Where to enjoy art in Porto: Stroll down the cosmopolitan Rua De Miguel Bombarda for instant immersion into Porto’s contemporary arts scene. And if you’re interested in modern architecture then you won’t want to miss the spaced-aged Casa da Música concert hall.
Traverse the Hillside Lookouts and Gardens
Porto’s hills are alive with the scents and sounds of nature, with regal gardens like the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal that are filled with blossom and captivating “miradouros” (lookouts) offering sweeping views over the glowing river below.
For postcard-worthy views of the bleached-mustard and spearmint-blue old town, head to the Sé Cathedral terrace and take in the views with a glass or two of something… refreshing.
Need to see the sea? Ride the rickety old tram to Foz do Douro and enjoy the Atlantic-salted coastal path walk to Matosinhos, where you can watch surfers carve and seagulls swoop among the waves.
Read or Write a Book at the World’s Most Famous Bookstore
Before she became a billionaire author, J.K.Rowling lived in Porto and worked as an English teacher. In fact, Rowling started writing the Philosopher’s Stone at the gilded 1920s-style Café Majestic, and if you visit the Livraria Lello bookstore, you’ll see the very place that inspired the otherworldly Flourish and Blotts bookshop.
If you’re a bit of mega fan, or travelling with little ones, you’ll love the ‘Harry Potter’s Inspiration’ tour, which visits the cafe and bookshop, as well as a number of other locations including ‘Gryffindor’ fountain and the store where Hogwarts’ school uniforms are sold.
Make it Happen
Best Time to Visit Porto in Portugal
I would argue that the best time to go to Porto is in spring (April and May) or in early autumn (September and October). The weather will still be pretty good (although Porto is known for being a little bit temperamental so you’ll want a a light rain coat just in case), and you’ll also find better deal on flights and accommodation. As with most of Europe, summer is the busiest time of year to be in Porto and runs from June to August. This is the hottest and driest time of year, but it’s also the most expensive time to travel.
Where to Stay in Porto in Portugal
Ultimately you will want to stay in or within strolling distance of Porto’s Riberia area (old town).
Best apartments in Porto, Portugal: We stayed in a cosy old apartment right in the heart of Porto’s Ribera area. The area is protected as a UNESCO site, so there are way more options for apartments here than hotels. This element of competition means standards are high, and you can often snag a good deal. You can find a seriously impressive of holiday apartments in Porto here.
Best hostels in Porto, Portugal: Located right in Porto’s old town, Passenger Hostel is easily one of the coolest and most stylish “posh-tels” I’ve ever seen. Bluesock Hostels Porto is another fantastic option right in the heart of Porto.
Best 4* hotels in Porto, Portugal: The 4* Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel is a seriously romantic and charming property – pretty much the perfect hotel. The 4* Eurostars Porto Centro is a more contemporary option that definitely ticks all the right boxes.
Best 5* hotels in Porto, Portugal: If you’re looking for a double dose of luxury then you’ll definitely want to consider the 5* InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas, which is housed in a stunning 18th century palace. The 5* Pestana Porto – A Brasileira is another elegant option housed a beautifully renovated heritage building.
Are you going to Porto? Or have you already been? Please leave a comment below and tell me all about it!