TripGourmets recently spent three days in Porto, Portugals second city on the Atlantic coast. We decided on Porto as a destination due to a tantalising combination of the UNESCO World Heritage city centre, stunning views of giant metal bridges, and the promise of port wine and other local delicacies. Plus, after our last trip to Tallinn, we wanted some sunshine. We were not disappointed. Porto is a city full of delights, from the colourful mish-mash of houses that line the sparkling Rio Douro with its magnificent bridge structures, to the quick humour and cheery disposition of the locals. We found plenty to do during our three days in Porto, and we were so in love with this city by the time we left that a return visit including a Douro river cruise now features highly on our bucket list.
Porto sits at the mouth of the river Douro, and the city itself crawls up the steep banks and sprawls outwards to the wider metropolitan area. Porto is thought to have been continuously inhabited since around 300 BC, and since then it has occupied a strategic position as a commercial port.
In the 14th century Porto was the launching point of a conquest of the Moorish port of Ceuta, in Morocco. This expedition kicked off the Portuguese age of discovery. Around this time, the people of Porto became known as “tripeiros” (“tripe people” or “tripe eaters”) a nickname that survives to this day. It came about because the high-quality meats were shipped out from Porto, leaving only the lower-grade cuts and tripe, for the local people.
During the 18th century, thanks in part to trade and export agreements with the British, Porto established itself as the port wine capital of the world. Many of the port producers from this time still survive in some form today. Later, the 19th century saw construction of some of Porto’s colossal bridges, including the photo-famous Ponte Dom Luís I. In 1996, the historic city centre was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Our top 5 tips for spending three days in Porto
These are the top 5 general recommendations we took from our three days in Porto.
Stay in an AirBnB – ours was fabulous!
Our AirBnB was a beautiful little studio apartment with a massive balcony terrace, on one of the oldest streets in Porto. We quickly discovered that our host Márcia shares our love of travel as well. She was a great host and had lots of tips for us when we arrived.
Use our referral link to get a discount credit for your next AirBnB stay.
Use the Metro to avoid the hills
Porto is set on a hill so walking uphill is unavoidable. Hill walking takes its toll on the calf muscles. We used the Metro at the end of the day to get back up from the river to our AirBnB. It is clean, quick and easy to use.
Get used to stray cats
Like most southern European cities, Porto has its share of stray cats. Most of the Portuguese people we spoke to are fairly tolerant of them. There are a family of them that live on the terrace of Márcia’s AirBnB apartment. We loved them. They are feral so they run away if you get too close, but they were happy to hang around in the sun with us and take the odd kibble.
With the sun, and all the hill walking, we found ourselves dehydrating quickly. Make sure to drink plenty of water when walking around.
Take it slow, enjoy the streets and Insta-perfect photo opportunities
Porto is not a city that moves particularly quickly. Service in restaurants and bars can take ages. Getting around can be slow because of all the hills. However, we quite enjoyed the slow pace. It is more pleasant in the heat, and gives plenty of time to soak up all the small sights and quirks that we would otherwise have missed. Porto has some amazingly decorative buildings, clad variously in tiles, artwork and even flowers. It is a pleasure just to walk around and look.
Our itinerary for three days in Porto
Food tour of Porto
Our first activity on day one of three days in Porto was a food tour. We opted for the “Experience Porto’s Bites and Sites” tour by Urban Adventures. Describing it here in just a few paragraphs doesn’t really do it justice so if you are interested to read more, then hop over to our post about the foodie highlights of Porto. Suffice to say, the tour was a great experience. Urban Adventures always use local guides and our guide Sara was no different. A Porto native, she showed an unabashed love for her home town, as well as a wicked sense of humour. Sara really brought the tour to life for us.
My personal highlight of the tour was the Mercado do Bolhão, which is the central farmers market of Porto. We also visited small local deli shops, bakeries and restaurants and finished up with a port wine tasting in a local wine bar. The tour lasted for around 4 hours in total.
During the afternoon, we did one of our favourite city activities which is just to stroll around the city. We wandered around the side streets and along the river front, marvelling at the scenery and taking endless photographs. And of course stopping for the odd snack or beverage along the way. We also walked across the iconic Ponte Dom Luís I.
About THAT bridge
The Ponte Dom Luís I bridge is the main feature of one of the most photographed views in Porto, possibly even in Portugal. The bridge itself is often thought to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, him. The Tower guy). However, this is not factually correct as Gustave Eiffel actually designed the Ponte Dona Maria, a railway bridge that also crosses the Douro further down, but is now disused. Although Monsieur Eiffel had submitted a design for what became the Ponte Dom Luís I, his initial design was rejected. The project was eventually awarded to Théophile Seyrig, a German engineer who was a devotee of Eiffel. Hence, the design of the bridge was not altogether dissimilar from the Ponte Dona Maria, and easily mistaken for Eiffel’s work.
Construction of the bridge was completed in 1886. It is a double-decker metal arch that carries road and foot traffic on the lower deck, and Metro rail plus foot traffic on the upper deck. The views both of the bridge and from the bridge, especially the upper deck are utterly breathtaking. If you have a good head for heights, then a walk across the bridge is a must-do for any Porto sightseeing itinerary.
Day 2 was forecast to be the warmest of our three days in Porto, so we decided to take a train out of the city and spend a day at the beach. Porto is located right on the Atlantic coast, and it is quick, cheap and easy to find your way to one of the small seaside towns. We decided on Espinho after reading that is has one of the best beaches in the area surrounding Porto.
São Bento railway station
We made our way to the main railway station – São Bento station. Walking into the station, I was really not prepared for one of the most visually amazing station entrance halls I have ever seen. The walls are covered in more than 20,000 azulejo tiles depicting various scenes of battles, conquests and countrysides. Azulejo tiles are the Arabic-influenced blue and white decorative ceramic tiles characteristic of Porto and the Iberian peninsula in general. Even if you don’t plan to take a train, if you are visiting Porto then just walk into the main entrance of the São Bento station, and you likely won’t be the only tourist visiting purely for a photo.
We took the train out to Espinho which took around 40 minutes. Espinho is a very small seaside town that holds two specific attractions, the beach and the casino. We weren’t there for the blackjack though. The sea is very rough to swim in around some parts. In one area, there is a large man-made breakwater that creates an area that is more pleasant for swimming. The beach was refreshingly low on tourists.
There is a nice walk along the beach to a protected nature reserve area. The beach is lined with cafes and beach bars so you can stop along the way if you wish. There is not a lot to do in Espinho except the beach. Nevertheless, we had a very happy afternoon strolling around, eating ice cream and generally being quite lazy in the sunshine.
This was probably our busiest day of all the three days in Porto. We had to get up early, as we were intending to visit one of the most popular attractions in Porto. Through much questioning and online research about the best time to visit, we learned that Muggles need to arrive early and queue.
Livraria Lello – the “Harry Potter” bookshop
The Livraria Lello has been called one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. It has been in its current location since 1906. However, once JK Rowling revealed that it was one of her inspirations for the Harry Potter books, the place exploded in popularity. Over recent years, the entrance rules have changed several times in order to keep up with the aggressive demands of ever-more tourists trying to squeeze through the doors in order to photograph the beautiful interior with its forked staircase. Suffice to say, most don’t purchase a book.
At May 2017, it costs €4 to enter the Livraria Lello. You can pre-pay online like we did. Or you can queue for a ticket at the bookshop about five doors along. Even if you pre-pay, go into that bookshop anyway and use their free lockers for your bags. If you try and enter Lello with bags, they won’t admit you and you will lose your precious first place in the queue, like we did.
Word of caution
I do try not to write negatively on this blog. The Livraria Lello is undeniably a gorgeous and inspirational building. And I am one of those people who gets a thrill out of bookshops and libraries, especially old ones. But I am sorry to write that visiting the Livraria Lello is not really a pleasant experience. The shop is crowded with people, everyone jostling to get photos that show the place not crowded with people. It’s all tutting and elbows. If you count yourself as a die-hard Potter fan, then go for a visit. Otherwise, you will only miss out on a photo of a bunch of people you never met standing in a place you were trying to photograph without them in it.
The Clerigos Tower is part of the Igreja dos Clérigos, (Clerigos Church), a Baroque church. It was built for the Brotherhood of the Clergy (Clérigos) by Nicolau Nasoni, an 18th century Italian architect who left a prolific body of work across northern Portugal. We climbed 240 steps to reach the top of the 75m high tower. The panoramic views are some of the best over the city, and the Atlantic ocean is also visible from the top.
Six Bridges River Cruise
After a bite of lunch, we took one of the Six Bridges River Cruises. There are various vendors for this along the waterfront. We chose one, chose the sail time and turned up at the appointed hour. The cruise is short, it only takes around 40 minutes. There are fantastic views of Porto and the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side. There is a multi-lingual commentary that describes the bridges and their construction, and gives some brief information about the main sites passing by. The cruise we did was €15 each. It was a nice enough way to while away an hour. However if I were to go back I would be tempted to try one of the day tours that sails up river to the vineyards.
There is so much more to do and see in the Douro valley that it would be easy to spend some days there exploring more widely. You can read more here about Things to do in Douro Wine Country from friends and fellow bloggers Linda and David at Retired and Travelling.
Grahams Port Wine Lodge
Our last trip of our three days in Porto was to Grahams Port Wine lodge. All of the port wine lodges can be found around the same area – Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side of the Douro. It is easy enough to walk over the Ponte Dom Luís I bridge and the famous port wine lodges are lined up along the riverfront – Sandemans being one of the most imposing. Grahams is a short walk uphill. You must have a reservation to do a tour. Tours are available throughout the day in multiple languages.
As ever, in search of the photo ops, we chose Grahams because at the top of the hill, it has the best views over the valley. Also, it has the claim of being the only remaining British port company independently owned by a single family, with a heritage extending back to 1820. You can read about our tour experience in more detail in our post about the foodie highlights of Porto. But suffice to say that we discovered a love of port wine up there on that hill. The locals enjoy a tipple of white port together with tonic, which is a gem of a discovery that we made. Along with the more disappointing discovery that white port is extremely hard to come by in Basel!
We would really recommend a visit to a port wine lodge as an essential part of a visit to Porto. You get a deeper appreciation of how the history and culture of the entire area is inextricably linked to the port wine industry.
From the Vila Nova de Gaia, we took the gondola up to the top of the hill. From the gondola, we had final spectacular views of the best sights from our three days in Porto. The Ponte Dom Luís I, Vila Nova de Gaia, the UNESCO city centre and the magnificent Douro. We left our hearts in Porto, and we will certainly be back.
Three days in Porto was the perfect length for an initial city experience. However, after the first taste, we are eager to soak up more of this part of the world. Top of the list is the vineyards of the Douro valley. Our new bucket list item is this River Cruise along the Douro – port wine paradise will once again be ours!
If you enjoyed this article, then you may also enjoy our other blog post about the foodie highlights of Porto – click here to read.
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