Pastel coloured houses stacked up like lego on the hilly riverside, fisherman out in their boats trying to bring in the catch of the day, the melancholic sounds of Fado music playing from the windy street corners, the memorizing art and beauty of azulejos on historical buildings and homes, and smell of fresh Portuguese tarts from cafes on every corner you turn. Welcome to Porto.
My husband, Marc, and I landed in Porto to kick-off our nine-day European vacation to Portugal and spent the first 3 glorious days in this beautiful old town. “Why Portugal?” many asked. For a few reasons, really. We love Europe and have been lucky to have travelled to a few places already (Italy, Spain, Croatia together and England and France on my own). I have heard Portugal is seriously under-rated (and after just getting back, do I ever have to agree!). We love sea-side villages and fresh seafood cooked to perfection, culture, history and acclaimed architecture, just to name a few other reasons we were drawn in. We’d never been to Portugal and it seemed like a great place to go for a 9-day adventure.
Three days was the perfect amount of time to explore Porto, but if you have the time, you should definitely consider staying longer. We had a busy three days there but I loved it so much, I wanted to capture some of the highlights to share with you. If you have not considered travelling to Portugal, I highly recommend moving it up on your bucket list!!
AirBnB Accommodations & How To Get Around
We decided to book in at an AirBnB for our stay after using AirBnB on our last trip to Europe last because we had such a great experience with it. It is such a great way to experience local accommodations and get authentic insider advice and guides to a city you are exploring. Here is the AirBnB we stayed at while in Porto:
It was in the BEST location, had a ridiculously comfortable bed and was central to absolutely everything! Though a bit hilly, Porto is a very walkable city so if you like staying active and don’t mind the walking, you can see and do almost everything by foot. Just don’t forget to bring comfy shoes to help you navigate through uneven cobblestone streets (I’m all for cute shoes, but sometimes comfort wins)!
If you want to give yourself a bit of a break, you can also get a metro pass (they have 1-day or multiple day passes available) which is good for all transit systems in Porto (metro, bus, tram). When we landed in Porto, we took the metro from the airport to the city center and found we didn’t need to use it much after this.
Map of Porto
To establish some bearings and to help you gain a sense of where things are in Porto, here is the map of Porto we used to navigate our trip. We somehow got lucky and received free maps at the airport so I would recommend searching there before you go buying one.
You can use this to help reference some of the highlights of our trip as well as help you plan your own!
What to See & Do in Porto – Our Highlights
Rather than giving you a run-down of how we spent every waking moment of each day, I think it’s better to share the “must-do’s” and favorite things to see and do from our time in Porto. These are our personal favorites in order to help you plan in case you need to prioritize:
This library is quite possibly the most beautiful building and library I have even laid my eyes on. It might have something to do with it being a source of inspiration for JK Rowling as she crafted the Harry Potter series while she was living in Porto, or, maybe it’s just the magical architecture and interior details that have me gushing. We could have spent all day in this library and I would have been just fine with that. It is not to be missed and a place to definitely linger a little longer in.
Note: there is a (4€) entrance fee that can be discounted on a purchase made from the bookstore (should you decide to buy something).
Palacio de Bolsa
Built in the 19th century, this is Porto’s Stock Exchange Palace and historical building which honours past and present money merchants. Hop on a guided tour around the neoclassical building that escorts you through one gorgeous room after the next. Significant rooms include the glass-domed Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations), main courtroom and Salão Árabe (Arabian Hall) showcasing heavy Moorish influenced designs and gilded décor with 18K gold. The wall and ceiling mouldings, carved intricate wood furniture and array of parquetry flooring make you jump back in time and are pretty spectacular to experience.
Igreja de Sao Francisco
This building may not seem like much from the outside, but as they say, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. It’s the most prominent Gothic monument in Porto and holds the most amazing and breathtaking display of baroque finery one will ever see. This gem makes it as one of my top 3 favorite churches in Europe next to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican, Italy (renaissance and baroque fusion architecture) and the Sagrada da Familia in Barcelona, Spain (gothic and art nouveau style). Pictures of the inside are not allowed but if you Google images of this church, you can sneak a peak of the jaw-dropping interior I am speaking about.
Also not to be missed is the Manuline-style chapel of St. John the Baptist, church museum which holds a collection of sacred art and the eery catacombs where many important figures were one buried.
It is a must see for architecture, history and interior design buffs! If you only decide to see only one church in Porto, make it this one.
Tip: This cathedral and the Palacio de Bolsa are right next to each other. Double them up in one day and see them both!
Sao Bento Station
Known as the main train and metro station in Porto, it’s adorned in intricate azulejos – hand painted tin-glazed ceramic Portugese and Spanish tile – that tell a story of Porto’s history and important people.
Some dating back to the 13th century, Azulejos are everywhere in Portugal and are deeply ingrained in their culture. They first appeared when the Moors invaded the lands that now belong to Spain and Portugal. You see them mainly on exterior public buildings, homes, churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, subway and railway stations, as they were used to cover up large blank areas of blank wall from the Gothic period.
They are also used in interior decoration and are traditionally seen predominantly in blues and whites and sometimes yellows and green colour palettes. These tile displays are true pieces of art with rich history and add to the vibrancy and appeal to Portugal. Need to find a way to incorporate these patterns and hues into my own home so I can have a little bit of Portugal with me all the time!
Vila Nova de Gaia
Know for it’s port wine estates and cellars, you must cross the double-deck arched Dom Luis I bridge across the Douro river to this southern city to enjoy a different view of Porto and of course, indulge in some port wine (from which Porto got it’s name from)!
You could certainly spend the whole day jumping from one port wine cellar to the next, but we chose one to visit and enjoy. We hiked up a bit of a hill to get there, but the tour and the view at Taylor’s Port Cellar were both worth the walk up-hill.
The audio-tour takes you through an hour long visit through the cellar to learn about the history of Taylor’s (one of the oldest family-run port wine companies in the Douro region) and the detailed process of making port wine. Of course, it was followed by a lovely tasting of their aged port to end the day gazing over the terracotta rooftops and the Douro river below. A perfect way to spend an afternoon just before heading back to the riverside for dinner.
Mercado do Bolhao
A trip to the city is never complete without a stop at a local market. I always find this to be a genuinely cultural experience in itself as you get to see what typical local food is like and interact with the hard-working and friendly people who live there day-to-day. This is the market to go to, as it is just far enough away from the city center with a few less tourists.
Mostly a food and flower market, they also had some souvenir stands selling fish and chicken paraphernalia, pottery and table linens. This is a good spot to pick up some fresh snacks and a few souvenirs as the prices appeared to be cheaper than the towns in the city center and the Ribeiria district.
Go ahead and step outside your comfort zone and try something local to Porto here!
Rated as one of the top 10 most beautiful cafes in the world, lies the Art Nouveau grandeur and “belle opoque” of Café Majestic. It dates back to the early 1920’s and used to be a meeting point of the elite in the city to discuss topics and ideas over a cup of coffee or glass of absinthe.
The façade is beautiful but open the doors and step inside this café and you feel transported back in time with it’s ornate interior details featuring carved wood, mirrors and chandeliers. If you close your eyes for just a moment, you can almost hear the sounds, stories and conspiracies of the era that took place at those very same tables. It really is pure magic.
I would recommend going for a drink and skip the food as it is extremely pricey – it’s geared for tourism and really is a tourist trap for it’s food prices. Grab a bite of food in another cool spot on Rue Santa Catarina and then head over to Café Majestic for a drink. Get there early to avoid lines and long wait times for a table. Either way, this café is worth the trip to walk by and see.
Torre dos Clerigos & Se Cathedral
The pope of Portugal had sadly passed away during our time in Portugal and as a sign of respect and mourning, these two places were closed to the public. It seemed to be a very sad time for the local community and there was much bustle and media around the Cathedral when we went to visit.
Both of these buildings alone are beautiful to see, so it is worth passing by even if you don’t decide to go in. Se Cathedral is located up on a high hill that overlooks Porto and the Douro river and it’s a beautiful lookout spot for some great photos of the city.
Good to Know
- Ogrigado (m)/Obrigada (f) – means “hello” in Portugese
- Francesinha – a layered meat sandwich covered with cheese and beer sauce is only available in Porto. It was not Celiac friendly so I did not try one, but I would encourage others to give it a try!
- Miradouros – city lookout points – good for pictures and spectacular views
- Pousada – historical buildings, palaces, castles, convents and monasteries that have been converted into luxury accommodations around Portugal. Makes for a really unique and cultural accommodation experience!
Best Restaurant We Visited
Type of food: Traditional Portugese
We had some hit and miss experiences with Portugese food while in Portugal overall, but this was by far the most memorable meal of our time in Porto. As some of you may know, I have Celiac Disease so although I have never had a tough time travelling within Europe yet, it still has it’s challenges. I’m going to touch on eating gluten free in Portugal in a later blog post as I feel it’s important to spread the word about these things in hopes it helps others in travelling to other places a bit easier.
This restaurant is located on the south side of the Douro river in Ville de Gaia, and was well worth the walk across the bridge.
Starter: We shared a cheese and meat board that was too die for and all gluten free! It included four different cheese from various places around Portugal mixed with cured Spanish and Portuguese cured meats and nuts. We paired this with local port wine and beer.
Main course: I had grilled cod with potatoes and steamed vegetables and Marc had a mouth-watering and fragrant seafood risotto medley. It was served in what seemed to be a bottomless cauldron (no complaints here!). We still dream about this dinner – it was flavourful and oh, so yummy!
Eating tip: It wasn’t until our last day in Porto, that we found out that the better restaurants in Porto are actually on the south-side of the river in Ville de Gaia. Some of the best food and Port wine was there and we only wish we found this out sooner!
If You Have More Time Consider…
- Take a cooking class or go on a walking food tour
- Bike tour to the local beach
- Port wine cellar hop for a whole day
- Visit the Casa de Musica
- Go on a scavenger hunt in search for street art and graffiti of local artist’s work
- Shopping on Rue Flores and Rue Santa Catarina
To much of my surprise, Portugal was an incredibly romantic country that it quickly stole my heart and left me wanting more. The charm of the people, the language, the food, the artistry and the wine wrapped me up and left me in total awe and relaxation. I will definitely be back to this country one day.
Have you been to Porto? What did you love? Please comment below on anything I might have missed or other neat places people might want to check out while touring Porto. There was so much more to see and do here than I had expected.
Our next stops were to Sintra and Lisbon which I will highlight in another blog post. Each place deserves it’s own accolades (you will soon understand why), which is far too much to cover in one post alone. Looking forward to sharing more about the beauty of these two other magical Portugese cities with you my friends.
Happy trip planning and travels…