There’s more than Port in Porto, Portugal! I’m sorry (not sorry) but I can’t help trying to use “port” as many times as possible in a sentence!
But actually, I fell in love with Porto, and no, not just because of all the Port wine I drank. Perched on the Douro river, this colourful and compact city had a vibe that I find hard to explain. People talk about how cool Lisbon is, and yet no one had told me how soulful this smaller version to the north could be. There may be plenty of things to do on the riverside in Lisbon, but Porto won’t disappoint you with awesome things to do either! From the obvious Port wine tasting sessions to the more unusual things to do in Porto, like eating a Francesinha Sandwich (more on that later), you’ll find plenty of things to love about Porto.
Porto doesn’t even really try, in fact, there are areas of the city that are definitely on the run down side, but they just add to its charm. It’s romantic, bohemian, historic and trendy all in one. But this humble city doesn’t force it on you, it’s just there waiting for you to walk it’s winding streets (and hills!) and find it.
It’s is known for being the home of Port wine, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that port wine tasting is the only thing to do in Porto. I was expecting to visit a few Port wine cellars and then relax the rest of the time, but a quick search of the must see things and it became apparent that although Porto is overshadowed by the much bigger Lisbon, it’s brimming with its own history, street art, and appetising food scene.
It was no surprise to me to find out the Porto has been voted as the Best European Destination of 2017.
So what is there is do in Porto (besides Port wine tours and tastings)? Well, I hope you have at least a couple of days because they’ll be packed!
Visit Livraria Lello Bookstore
Livraria Lello is said to be the most beautiful bookstore in the world, which is quite a reputation to live up to! The bookstore was opened by the Lello brothers in 1906, and it’s one of the oldest in Portugal. Upon entering you’ll be immediately struck by the wooden panelling and floor to ceiling bookshelves, and of course, the large curving staircase. The whole bookstore is lit by a stained glass skylight above. It’s at the very least the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever been in!
And did you know the J K Rowling lived in Porto for 2 years, and rumour has it she to frequent Lello’s Bookstore? Some would even say it may have been the original inspiration behind aspects of Harry Potter, in addition to places in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Due to its popularity, it’ll now cost you €5.50 to enter Livraria Lello, and definitely book in advance if you can because the ticket line is often longer than the line into the bookstore. The entry voucher does offer you a discount if you purchase anything instore.
Walk Across Dom Luís I Bridge
Porto is the only city in Europe that has six bridges. Although technically, Vila Nova de Gaia, which is the city across from Porto and where all the Port wine cellars are, has six bridges too! The Maria Pia Bridge in Porto was the last project that Gustav Eiffel worked on before the Eiffel Tower, and his signature style was then also used on the Dom Luís Bridge before he pulled out of the project.
This bridge is pretty unique, int hat trains pass across the straight top of the bridge, and cars across the bottom under the archway. Pedestrians can walk across both levels, and I’d highly recommend the views from the top! Unless you’re a little worried about heights…
Explore Old Town Porto
Ribeira, the old town area of Porto, runs along the Douro river and up the steep hills behind it. It holds World Heritage status and yet it’s full of abandoned and dilapidated buildings. However, this just seems to add the charm of a maze of streets, lined with colourful tiled buildings, wrought iron balconies and washing fluttering in the breeze. You’ll find churches covered in tiles painted with blue and white murals, pop-up stores and plenty of cafes and bakeries.
Sample Portuguese Bakeries
Speaking of bakeries, I thought the ones in Porto outside even those in Lisbon, especially on that side of the river. Trying Portuguese tarts, or Pastel de Nata as they’re known locally is a must, but the bakeries here will full of other delicious treats that I don’t even know the name of! Soft chocolate cookies, cakes, pastries, and savoury options like the famed Portuguese cod fish cakes. Writing this is actually making me sad that I can’t just pop into one of these bakeries right now!
Shop at Bolhão Market
Traditionally a place for farmers to sell their fruit and vegetables, you can now find everything from fishmongers and butchers, to sweet shops and bakeries, plus cafes and tourist wares. It’s located right in the centre of the city, so it’s a perfect place to pop into for a snack and a taste of Port or Douro wine, or to grab some gifts or souvenir. It’s open Monday to Friday from 7am until 5pm, and 7am until 1pm on Saturdays.
Eat a Francesinha Sandwich
The “Little Frenchie” is a not so little sandwich originally made in Porto. It’s made with bread, ham, sausage, and beef covered cheese and drowned in a hot tomato and beer sauce. I think the phrase “heart attack on a plate” may have been invented for this sandwich! It’s said that in the 1960s the croque-monsieur and Portugal had a baby, and called it Francesinha. Now you can even get egg topped Francesinha’s and ones served with a whole plate of chips.
Every eatery has their own style of sauce for the Francesinha, and locals will usually have a favourite place based on that. We tried the recommended Cafe Santiago, and I had the classic Francesinha washed down with a Super Bock beer. I wasn’t sure what I would think of this meat-fest, but it was actually really good! Not an everyday thing mind you, but I wouldn’t say no every now and then! Although you might find the sandwich elsewhere across in Portugal, it’s a must try in its home town of Porto.
Drink coffee at Porto cafes
Porto has some amazing cafes, especially those in the art deco style that make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The Majestic Cafe, full of chandeliers, ornate woodwork and mirrors, often rates as one of the most beautiful in the world. It used to be the home of writers, artists, and politicians, but it fell into disrepair (like much of Porto it seems) until it was revamped in the 1990s.
Visit the Port Wine Cellars
This is the sneaky 8th thing to do that does involve Port…
I actually highly recommend a visit to the Port Wine Cellars! So much that I wrote an entire post on Port wine tasting in Porto which should guide you through the process, and hopefully convince you to give Port a go, even if you think that’s not your thing. Even if you don’t try it, the cellars are in some amazing old buildings that are interesting to see, plus Porto Cruz have a great rooftop bar with beautiful views over Porto.
Where to stay in Porto
During my stay in Porto I had accommodation in both the old town of Porto and across the river by the Port wine cellars. Both were really great options, but I did love the quieter feel of the Vila Nova de Gaia side, the great restaurants, and the views back across the river to Porto by day and night. If I had to recommend one side I’d probably say the Vila Nova de Gaia, the Port Wine cellar side.
Read More: 21 Things to Know Before You Visit Lisbon
So, do you want to visit the best European destination of 2017?
(This post contains affiliate links, as always, all opinions are my own.)
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