When it comes to European city breaks, Porto is somewhat of an overlooked gem.
With a population of a quarter of a million – that’s half the size of my home city, Edinburgh – the city sits near Portuguese North-West coast, and is often overshadowed by its bigger, sprawling sibling, Lisbon, which is three hours away by train.
It may be wee in stature, but don’t let its scale fool you. As the old proverb goes, “good things come in small packages”…something I continue to defend, given that I am always about six inches away from being able to reach the top shelves of my own kitchen cupboards…
Porto is a treasure trove for culture-seekers. With its cobbled Old Town, impressive bridges, pretty tiled buildings and sun-dappled river, the place screams colour. It’s also a foodie’s dream, with gorgeous hole-in-the-wall restaurants sprinkled across the city, bustling markets and more pastel de natas than you can shake a stick at. And that’s before we even get in to its wine industry….
Sound appealing? Darn tooting, it does!
I’ve put together a 3 day guide to making the most out of a weekend in Porto. As always, I’m open to suggestions, so if you’ve been and loved the city as much as I did, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below.
Day One – A whistlestop tour of the city’s Old Town
“Day one is all about getting your bearings, so I’d recommend taking in a cross-section of some of the city’s cultural gems. Let’s begin our tour north of the river… “
Soak up the vibes at Mercado do Bolhão
Still feeling a little sleepy from the flight over? There’s nothing better to waken the senses than the sounds and smells of a busy market place!
Operating since 1914, it’s hard to imagine a more authentic Portuguese shopping experience than a trip to the Bolhão Market. Spread over several floors, with wonderful-smelling food stalls a’plenty and handmade goods calling out for a place on your mantelpiece, you could easily lose a morning here if you’re not careful.
Do a spot of pie-pilfering at Natas D’Ouro
This gorgeous pastry shop is just a few minutes’ stroll from the Bolhão markets, which is just far too convenient if all that shopping has got you in need of a mid-morning snack. Thankfully, they also make some of the finest pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) Porto has to offer.
Visit the beautiful Carmo Church
Once you’ve dusted down those telltale pastry flakes, I’d recommend taking a short stroll over to Carmo Church, which sits in the heart of a trendy downtown part of the city, where daydrinks spill out onto grassy squares and the vintage trams trundle on by at a leisurely pace.
This gorgeous Baroque building is actually made up of two churches – The Carmo and Carmelitas – interlinked by ancient townhouses and a former convent. Outside, you’ll find the churches decorated in beautiful azulejos, which is the Portuguese artform of telling a story through hand-painted tiles. Inside is a medley of stunning woodwork and stained glass.
“Time to delve into the intellectual heart of Porto, with a stroll through the university district.”
Feel inspired by Livraria Lello
Hands down; this has to be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world! Although its doors first opened in 1881, this bijou store has grown in popularity over the last twenty years due a certain literary link… Eagle-eyed Harry Potter fans might recognise the iconic criss-crossing staircases; that’s because they are said to be the inspiration for the magical moving stairs that characterise Hogwarts castle!
Author J. K. Rowling spent part of her career teaching at the nearby university, and was said to be so enamoured by the beauty of the Lello bookshop (as well as the students’ robes) that she used it as the basis for the castle’s interior. Whether you’re a fan of the HP books or not, there is something undeniably magic about the shop, with its floor-to-ceiling displays, lantern-lit vibes and wooden nooks and crannies.
The only problem? The secret is well and truly out. The shop can only accommodate a certain number of customers in at any one time, so there’s a ticketing system in place. To bag your place in the queue, pop along to the visitor shop a few doors up and purchase your entry ticket for 5 euros; while that might sound a little steep, the ticket can actually be used as a voucher towards purchases inside, so it works out well for everyone involved!
But is it worth the fuss? It certainly gets a big old magical thumbs up from me!
Climb the Clergios Tower
Standing at an imposing 76 metres tall, the Clergios Tower is one of the tallest and most recognisable buildings in Porto. The Baroque church is beautiful to look at from the ground, but is definitely best enjoyed from the summit, where the views across the city are pretty epic.
Get your history fix at Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis
Here’s a fun fact for you; the oldest public museum in Portugal is also housed in the country’s oldest palace! Naturally, the building makes for a pretty swanky home to some of the country’s most significant antiques and artworks. It’s well worth a breezy stroll through, particularly during the warmest part of the day, when the air conditioning can provide some welcome relief!
Take a late afternoon stroll through the Jardins do Palacio de Cristal
This stunning botanical garden is one of Porto’s best-loved escapes and the perfect place to muse over the day’s findings so far. The park is designed in mosaic-form, and is made up of pretty wee gardens that open up little by little as you wander, revealing hidden fountains, sculptures and paths lined with cypress and olive trees. It also has one of the best panoramas of the city!
“As the sun lowers behind the Duoro, it’s time to head down into the thick of the action with a stroll through one of the city’s most colourful neighbourhoods.”
Stroll the cobbled backstreets of Ribeira
Ribeira is one of the oldest parts of Porto, and is characterised by its colourful 18th Century townhouses which line the harbour and overlook the narrow, cobbled streets. It’s a real hubbub of energy; the type of place where strings of laundry hang over the closes while wine bars sit alongside pottery stores and grand doorways give way to secret courtyard bars. The perfect place to stop for a pre-dinner tipple.
Enjoy some tapas along the Cais da Ribeira
Fancy dinner with a view? You’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot than the banks of the river itself. With the impressive Dom Louis I bridge looking on and the distant signs of the port cellars illuminating the horizon, Cais da Ribeira is the perfect place to settle in for your evening meal. You won’t be short on options either, with most riverside restaurants serving tapas platters and freshly-caught seafood. Take your time choosing your restaurant, as part of the fun here is being able to stroll lazily by and peruse the tempting menus as the sound of street musicians trickles through the air. Be sure to choose yourself a table facing the street, as this is prime territory for a spot of people watching!
Day Two – Port, Port, Port!
“Let’s make Day 2 all about exploring the city’s cellars… “
It’d be criminal to visit Porto without learning about its wine production. Portugal is famed for its Port wine, and contrary to popular belief the wine was not named after the country, but the city of Porto itself!
Porto sits at the mouth of the River Duoro, around 100 miles along from the Duoro Valley, where the grapes specific to the wine’s flavours are grown. Once fortified, Port wine would have originally been transported in barrels by traditional Rabello boat to the city’s harbour and beyond, playing an important role in Porto’s maritime trade.
You’ll find wine cellars and visitor centres all throughout the city of Porto, so what better excuse to spend your second day in town becoming connoisseurs in the field? You are on holiday, after all…
Fuel up with brunch at Zenith
It’s hard to think of a better place to line the stomach than Zenith. Achieving a very likeable mashup between a New York breakfast bar and European cocktail club, this the place to get breakfast in Porto. With its exposed brick walls, chunky coffee cups and open kitchen, there’s definitely a hipster vibe to the place and often a queue to get in. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Take a guided tour at Graham’s Port
The Graham’s family were one of the first to start making Port wine, investing in land in the Duoro valley back in 1890. Their visitor centre is a cracking place to start, perched high atop the city in the beautiful Vila Nova de Gaia. They offer excellent guided tours of their working cellar, which houses over 2000 oak casks, as well as some staggeringly expansive vintage bottles housed in the owners’ private cellar. Their knowledgeable guides will talk you through the origins of Port, from the Duoro valley to the city itself, before showing you round the cellars and finishing in the beautiful tasting room. We opted for a Classic Tasting experience at 20 euros, which let us sample three wines; the Six Grapes, an LBV and a 10 year old Tawny.
If the wine doesn’t catch your fancy the setting definitely will!
Go cellar-hopping along the riverfront
A short walk down the hill will take you down to the opposite side of the Duoro River, and this is where things get really fun!
Most of the major port houses have a cellar along the waterfront, and whether you fancy taking part in one of the tours or just want to browse the visitor shop and finish off with a tipple in the sun outside, this is prime territory for a pub crawl with a twist.
Be sure to check out Calem, Quinta do Nova and Sandeman, with their infamous ‘Don’.
Tuck into hunger-busting Francesinha
By this stage, you’ll probably be needing something to soak up all that vino. Meals don’t come much more substantial than a Francesinha, one of the country’s staple treats (/national treasures). Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s something undeniably filthy about this savoury creation, which is essentially a Portuguese sandwich, filled with roasted meat, cheese and cooked in a tomato & beer sauce.
Take a sightseeing boat trip along the Duoro
Learn more about the history of the river from the water itself with a cruise on a traditional Rabello boat. Pass under the city’s six iconic bridges and follow in the footsteps of the wine merchants who would have made daily pilgrimages from the Duoro Valley back in the day.
Take in the view from Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar
This former monastery is one of the city’s most iconic buildings, and overlooks the Dom Luis I Bridge below. You can reach the building by foot or by cable car, and it’s a fab spot to head to if you fancy seeing the city from a different viewpoint.
Wat the sun set from the Dom Luis I Bridge
One of the city’s most defining features, the Dom Luis I was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Name sounding familiar? Something to do with a well-known tower in Paris, perhaps?
Whichever you angle you look at it from, this is a seriously impressive bridge, and making the crossing over is an absolute must, especially as the sun lowers over the city and the colours from Ribeira sprinkle across the water below.
Experience fine dining at its best at Cantinho do Avillez
There’s a lot to love about this place. With a menu created by renowned chef Jose Avillez, Cantinho do Avillez takes diners on a spin through the very best of modern Portuguese cuisine, and the quality of both the food and the service are seriously impressive. We went on recommendations from friends, and it’s safe to say the restaurant did not disappoint.
Day Three – Delve into the Duoro Valley
“Ok, so you’ve had an insight into where Port is stored and sold; now it’s time to see where it’s produced! Just two hours away by train, it’s super-easy to head into the Duoro Valley. It just so happens that it’s also exceptionally beautiful.
My advice? Head along to a market nice and early, pick yourself up a picnic for the journey, and find a way to work this incredible journey into your itinerary.”
Enjoy some tile-oggling at Sao Bento Train Station
Even if you’re not heading on to pastures new, don’t miss out on the opportunity to check out what must surely be one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe. The exterior gives little away, but once you step inside the main hall you’ll be greeted by 20,00 hand-painted tiles, depicting the history of the country. It’s pretty special.
Take a scenic train ride to the village of Pinhao
This gorgeous wee village sits right on the heart of a pretty bend in the River Duoro, and is surrounded by the lush vineyards which provide the grapes specific to the Port flavour. The town itself doesn’t have too much to offer in the way of shops, but its location is just stunning, and it makes for a lovely place to base yourself while exploring the wine region for a day. The train ride alone, with the sweeping valleys and patterned fields of vines, will fly by in a blur.
Grab lunch with a river view
Pinhao has several gorgeous restaurants to choose from, but I’d recommend heading straight down to the waterfront to bag yourself a table at the lovely Veladouro, whose terrace is the perfect spot for an ice-cold glass of white port and tonic (yes, it’s a thing!).
Indulge in a spot of wine tasting
Where better to sample the goods than straight from the source? You’ll find several of the key players in the Port-making scene here in town, but I’d recommend heading up the hill slightly to the lovely Quinta da Foz. This quaint, tucked-away cellar has a really chilled vibe to it, and they’re more than happy to let you take things at your own pace as you try out the various wines on offer and enjoy the views of the river down below.
Take a river cruise in a traditional Rabello boat
Well it’d be rude not to, wouldn’t it?
“Back into town for ‘The Last Supper’, so to speak…”
Enjoy a final dinner at the beautiful Café Majestic
Cafe Majestic has often been referred to as one of the oldest and most beautiful cafes in the world, and it’s easy to see why. Step through the doors and you’ll be greeted by an old world splendor that’ll leave you swooning. Decorated in an ornate Belle Epoque-era style, the cafe is wonderfully opulent yet still retains a lovely relaxed and rustic vibe that keep it from feeling too high-brow. It’s a wonderful place to spend your final evening. You can lament the end of your holiday as you tuck into a Portuguese cheese board. Win win!