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When I was planning my first trip to Portugal, I knew I wanted to focus on the country’s two major cities: Lisbon and Porto.
Lisbon is Portugal’s capital and largest city; it’s also definitely been “discovered” by mass tourism, and is a popular destination for city breaks within Europe. Go to Lisbon on just about any weekend outside of the winter months, and you’ll be met with thousands of cruise ship passengers and tourists from all around the world.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Lisbon – I definitely did! But it’s very different from Porto.
Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal, and has been an important center for trade (and wine!) for centuries. And while Porto is still a popular destination for tourists, the city only gets only about 1/3 the number of visitors that Lisbon does.
I’m not sure I’d got so far as to say that Porto is overlooked, but I DO think that’s it’s underrated. Several people I talked to said that they enjoyed Porto more than Lisbon, and after visiting myself I can understand why!
An introduction to Porto
In my guide to Lisbon, I mentioned that Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Western Europe. But Porto isn’t all that much “younger.” Porto was mentioned in Roman histories as early as the 4th century, and continued growing through the Middle Ages.
It was an important city during the “Age of Discoveries,” when Porto became one of the most important ship building centers in the world. A century later, it became one of the major ports for the wine trade in Europe – a distinction that it still holds today.
The coolest thing about Porto (for me, at least), is that all these different influences are still visible in the city. You have architectural styles spanning from Medieval to Baroque to Art Nouveau, the wine cellars in Gaia, buildings covered in Portuguese azulejo tiles, plus the Douro River winding through it all.
Porto should definitely make it onto your Portugal itinerary.
What to do with 2 days in Porto
Porto isn’t a huge city; it has a population of just 215,000, and the city center is walkable. You can easily see the highlights in two full days as long as you plan ahead.
There are three major things that I think are the highlights in Porto: architecture, food, and wine. So with those 2 days in Porto, here are all the things you should consider doing:
Things to do in Porto: Admire the architecture
Like I mentioned above, Porto has an interesting mix of architecture. You’ll find everything from Neoclassical buildings and train stations from the 1800s to Romanesque cathedrals to Art Nouveau cafes, plus many other styles in between.
Some of the must-sees (in my opinion) include:
The Ribeira is located along the Douro riverfront in Porto, and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It’s filled with narrow medieval streets and colorful buildings and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.
The highlight of this neighborhood is the Cais da Ribeira, or the waterfront right along the river. This is where much of Porto’s trade used to happen, though today the old warehouses have been transformed into cafes and shops.
Take a stroll here to admire the colorful buildings, and stop at one of the waterfront cafes for a coffee or glass of wine.
Note that the Cais da Ribeira is at the lowest point in Porto, and that you have to walk down some steep hills to get to it. If you don’t want to walk back up those hills, know that there’s a funicular that runs just under the Dom Luis I Bridge. It’s called the Funicular dos Guindais, and costs €2.50 for a one-way ride.
Luís I Bridge
Speaking of that bridge, the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge is visible from Ribeira (and several other points in Porto). Built in 1886, this bridge was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel, which is evident it its grand iron framework.
The bridge has two decks (one for trains and one for road traffic), with pedestrian access to both. I highly recommend walking across on the top deck for some excellent views of Porto.
Across the bridge is Vila Nova de Gaia. Head to the Jardim do Morro or fortress-like Monastery of Serra do Pilar for the best sunset views over the river.
São Bento railway station
Even if you’re not taking any trains to/from Porto, it’s worth popping into the Sao Bento station to admire its entryway. This part of the station is covered in 20,000 hand-painted tiles depicting scenes from Portugal’s history.
Porto has a number of historical churches you can visit. And, unlike in many European cities where all the churches look roughly the same on the inside, the churches in Porto also span several different architectural styles.
Some of the most notable churches in Porto include:
- Sé do Porto – The Porto Cathedral was built over several centuries, meaning it boasts more than one architectural style. Most notable is its Romanesque nave and rose window.
- São Francisco Church – The Baroque-and-Gothic Church of Saint Francis is one you’ll want to enter to truly appreciate. The interior is covered in golden gilt woodwork.
- Clérigos Church – This Baroque church is most well known for its bell tower, the 249-foot Torre dos Clérigos. You can climb the bell tower for great views out over Porto, though note that you’ll have to ascend more than 200 steps first.
- Igreja do Carmo – This Baroque-style church is striking because of the painted tiles on its exterior. It’s also interesting because it’s connected to the Igreja dos Carmelitas.
Palacio da Bolsa
The Neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa was built in the 19th century to be the seat of Porto’s Commercial Association. It’s name translates to Stock Exchange Palace – but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a boring financial building.
The Stock Exchange Palace really is built like a palace, and is so much more impressive on the inside.
To visit, you have to book a spot on a tour (€10), and I recommend going as early in the day as you can. They offer tours in multiple languages, but the language a tour is offered in is based on the first person who books.
Highlights inside the Palacio da Bolsa include the glass-domed Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations), and the Arab Room, which is decorated in a lavish Moorish Revival style.
One spot that I was determined to visit in Porto was Livraria Lello, one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal. The bookshop, dating back to the late 1800s, has become famous in recent years thanks to Instagram and a tenuous tie to the Harry Potter series.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling lived and worked in Porto in the early 1990s, and rumor has it that she got some inspiration from the city. Livraria Lello, with its striking red staircase and Art Nouveau/Art Deco designs, is said to have potentially inspired the Hogwarts library and the Diagon Alley shop Flourish and Blotts.
Loose as this tie is, the bookshop has been drawing Harry Potter fans for years, and Instagram has only added to its fame. Which means this shop is ALWAYS super busy.
If you want any chance of enjoying your visit, my tip is to arrive before the bookshop opens. You have to purchase a ticket (€5) in order to enter from a shop on the corner of Rua das Carmelitas at Armazéns do Castelo. This shop opens about 15 minutes before Livraria Lello, so if you get in line early you have a chance of being one of the first people in the book store.
I was the second person inside the shop on the morning I visited, which allowed me to get a few photos of an empty shop. Within 20 minutes, it was jam packed with people.
Some other cool architectural spots worth mentioning in Porto include the Cafe Majestic (an Art Nouveau cafe – though a coffee here is more expensive than it needs to be), the Casa da Música (home to the national orchestra), and Casa de Serralves (an Art Deco villa that’s now part of the Serralves Museum).
If you’re into bridges and want to see more of them, I’d also recommend a 6 Bridges Cruise up the Douro River (though note that these scenic cruises usually don’t include a guide).
Things to do in Porto: Eat everything
I feel like Portuguese food isn’t as celebrated and recognized as it should be. Long story short: Portugal has some amazing food. And nearly every major city has its own specialties.
Porto’s famous dishes
In Porto, some specialties include the Francesinha (a monster of a sandwich with ham, sausage, and steak covered with melted cheese and a gooey egg), Tripas à Moda do Porto (a tripe stew served with beans and rice), and dishes made with Bacalhau (dried codfish).
I had a Francesinha at Lado B, but other recommended spots include Cafe Santiago, O Golfinho, and O Afonso.
Go on a food tour
For the other dishes (plus several more), I recommend taking a food tour in Porto. I went on a “Vintage Food Tour” with Taste Porto Food Tours, which is a 3.5-hour journey through Porto’s evolving food scene.
The tour includes tastings of everything from coffee to canned fish to a bifana (pork) sandwich, and ends with a thorough Port wine tasting.
I love going on food tours in cities with interesting food histories, and Porto is definitely a great place to try one.
Note: Most food tours in Porto normally include a visit to the Mercado do Bolhão, too, but the market is closed for renovations until at least summer 2020.
Top Porto restaurants
Other central Porto restaurants you might want to check out include:
- Cafe Santiago – For a Francesinha sandwich.
- DOP – A fine dining spot by Rui Paula.
- Bacalhau – A spot along the Douro River that serves up lots of bacalhau dishes.
- Tascö – A great choice for traditional petiscos, or small plates.
- Tapabento – This small spot behind the Sao Bento railway station is always busy and serves up delicious Portuguese dishes.
- Gastronomic at The Yeatman – The only restaurant in Porto with two Michelin stars. If you can’t get a table here, The Yeatman hotel is still a place worth visiting. Go for a glass of wine at sunset.
For most of these restaurants, you’ll definitely want to make reservations in advance. I lucked out and managed to score a spot at the bar at Tapabento without a reservation one evening, but don’t count on that happening!
Things to do in Porto: Drink all the wine
Lastly, we can’t talk about Porto without talking about port wine! Port is, in simplest terms, a sweet fortified wine. But just like a bottle of Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from a specific region of France, port carries a similar appellation – it can only be called port wine if it comes from Portugal’s Douro Valley.
The name “Port” was given to this wine in the 17th century by other Europeans who were shipping the wine from Porto. But Port wine comes exclusively from the Douro Valley, where they grow the grapes in steep terraced vineyards.
Things are still done quite traditionally in the Douro, right down to several wineries still manually stamping their grapes each harvest season.
Because Porto is still a major shipping point of port wine, AND because there are so many port lodges (cellars) in Vila Nova de Gaia, tasting port is another must-do in Porto.
Port wine tasting in Porto
Port wine comes in several styles, including white, red, tawny, and even rosé. In order to try as many as possible, I recommend spending at least a few hours cellar-hopping in Gaia.
Walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge and hit up a couple of these popular lodges for both tastings and tours:
- Cálem – Possibly the most famous and most-visited port cellars.
- Taylor’s – Offers self-guided tours and tastings, and is very popular with visitors.
- Sandeman – Probably the most “touristy” option, but still a good one if you don’t know much about the port business.
- Graham’s – Offers tours plus a bar with an excellent view.
- Ferreira – Family-owned since 1751.
- Noval – Easy to go in and do a tasting (they don’t offer tours).
OR you could book a half-day port wine tour in order to discover this tradition alongside a guide who can answer all your questions about it. This port tour includes visits to 3 cellars and 7 different wine tastings.
(Just note that there’s no way to visit them all – there are dozens of cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia!)
A sample 2-day itinerary for Porto
I’ve given you lots of suggestions of what you can see and do with two days in Porto, but in case you (like me) sometimes need help planning everything out, here’s how I’d recommend planning your trip in order to make the most of those two days:
Morning – Explore downtown Porto on foot. Visit some of the city’s churches, as well as the Sao Bento train station.
Late morning – Walk down to Ribeira and have lunch/a drink on the riverfront.
Afternoon – Take a cruise on the Douro River. (Book a cruise here; they run hourly.)
Evening – Take a Porto food tour (you’ll get enough tastings for this to count as dinner).
Morning – Get in line for Livraria Lello before it opens, and spend some time in this beautiful bookshop.
Late morning – Tour the Palacio do Bolsa.
Afternoon – Cross over the Luis I Bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia and visit some port wine lodges.
Evening – Catch the sunset over Porto from Jardim do Morro or the Monastery of Serra do Pilar.
Where to stay in Porto
Portugal is a pretty affordable place to visit – and Porto is even more affordable than Lisbon.
My advice is to stay in the city center so you can reach the major Porto attractions on foot (though Ubers are plentiful throughout Portugal, and are very, very cheap).
Where I stayed
I stayed at Pestana Porto – A Brasileira, a luxury hotel in a historic building in the heart of Porto. This hotel is the newest of the Pestana properties in Porto, and is already one of the top-rated hotels in the city. I thought it was pretty affordable and unpretentious for a 5-star hotel (though, admittedly I visited in early March, which meant off-season prices).
Along with a tasty buffet breakfast and scented floors (yes, each floor has a specific scent as you exit the elevator), every room at Pestana Porto – A Brasileira also comes with an internet-equipped smartphone that guests can use for free while they’re in Porto. I’ve never seen that in any other hotel.
Other hotels in Porto
Since I did so much research and read so many reviews before my own trip, here are some other Porto hotels to consider for different budgets:
For a mid-range budget:
- Hotel Infante Sagres – An elegant luxury hotel in the city center that just underwent extensive restoration/renovation in 2018.
- The Artist Porto Hotel – This hotel is staffed by students from the Porto School of Hotel Management and Tourism, which I think is pretty cool!
- Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel – Centrally located in the historic center of Porto.
Is Porto a place you’d like to visit?
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