Coming to Portugal, there are three main areas you’re likely going to explore. You’ll probably fly into Lisbon and maybe explore one of the beach towns in the Algarves, but our favorite city in Portugal was definitely Porto in the northern third of the country. It’s laid back lifestyle, picturesque views, and never-ending supply of wine made sure we had an amazing time.
Porto is about a 3 hour train ride from Lisbon. We bought our tickets at the Oriente train station for €31.90/each. You can also fly or rent a car. I really liked using the Rome2Rio App to help with transportation planning and the Comboios Portugal website to pre-purchase cheaper tickets. More on that in a later blog post.
Three days, give or take, is plenty of time to see the city and take a much encouraged day trip. Any more than that and you can really relax and take your time delving into the niche activities. Nonetheless, here are our top 10 things to do in Porto:
10) Take A Picnic To The Jardins Do Palácio De Cristal
The Crystal Palace Gardens are a magical place to bring a small meat and cheese spread and a bottle of wine. Sitting atop a hill, it’s a little bit of a hike to the top if you find yourself at the bottom like we did. Once you’re there, you’ll find a beautiful path around flowering shrubs and trees and free-roaming peacocks. Continue along the path and you’ll find never-ending views of the river and the city. Entrance is free and it is open 8am – 7pm.
9) Visit The Centro Português De Fotografia
Close to the University, the Photography Museum was converted from an old prison in 1997 and houses several floors of exhibits. The ground floor is on rotation and really holds on to the aesthetic of its original building. We happened to be there during a display of Roger Ballen’s unique look at the mind and how we are prisoners of it – a fitting display for the environment. The upper floors showcase photos based on style and a rather large collection of cameras dating from the earliest models to today’s newest technologies. Entrance is free and it is open 10am – 6pm on Tuesday – Friday and 3pm – 7pm on the weekends.
8) Buy A Book From Livraria Lello Bookstore
Most famous for being an inspiration to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this bookstore is beautiful on the inside and out. The centerpiece staircase spirals up to the second floor and gives visitors a great shot while they pick out their next read. The bookstore is small and a lot of it is filled with Harry Potter books, children books, and very tiny versions of classic literature, but you can find some newer selections if you’re patient enough. Entrance is €6 at the door (€5 if you purchase a ticket online), but you get that taken off your book purchase if you do get one. Livraria Lello is open 9:30am – 7pm, but I recommend coming in the afternoon as that is when the crowd dies down. There’s a line already formed before they open.
7) See All Of The Mosaic Art
As you stroll around the city, you’ll find beautiful blue ceramic tile decorating churches, homes, and train stations. These azulejo tile really showcase the Arabic influence on the Iberian Peninsula, which combined with its Roman ties provides a super interesting and unique history. While they decorated backsplashes, sidewalks, and pillars along our path, our first big mosaic piece was in the São Bento train station, from which we arrived in Porto. There is an influence from the Moorish art idea of horror vacui, or fear of empty space, meaning you can find these gorgeous azulejos just about everywhere.
6) Witness The Street ARt
While not as historical as the aforementioned tile work, you can find super cool pieces of graffiti and street art decorating every corner of the city. A lot of it is just signature tags, but there are a number of thought-provoking pieces that are just as interesting as the traditional mediums.
5) Enjoy Dinner By The River
You will find yourself walking down the hills of Porto towards the water, where you’ll find a beautiful view, talented buskers singing some nostalgic, early-2000s hits, and great food. Portuguese food is pretty tame in terms of how it is prepared, but there’s something to be said for its simplicity. You really get to taste the flavor of the ingredient, be it fish or vegetable. It reminds me a lot of how Michael Booth describes the Japanese approach to preserving the natural qualities of the food in his book Super Sushi Ramen Express (albeit, they seek to reach perfection.) The river, the bridge, and the town of Gaia across the water provide an incredible backdrop to a night out with a significant other. There are plenty of options; just note that most places close after lunch and don’t reopen until around 7pm.
4) Ride The Cable Car At Sunset
Normally, I avoid most of the tourist-trap style attractions, but some of them are around for a reason – they’re fun. After walking along the water in Vila Nova de Gaia, past the innumerable wine cellars, we found ourselves at the bottom of the cable car… umm… cables? The ride is short, maybe 4-5 minutes, but you get a great view of Porto and a little background music from the rooftop bars below you. Plus you save the walk back to the bridge and up the stairs. Price is €6/each adult.
3) Walk Across the Dom Luís I Bridge
There are several bridges that cross over the Douro River, but the iconic Dom Luís I bridge is the one you’ll likely use as it is the most accessible from the downtown area you’ll likely be in. You can walk on the sidewalk on the bottom section that also transports cars along for easy movement between the two sides, or you can hike up to the top of the bridge and get the awe-inspiring view from the top, which is restricted to just pedestrians and metro trains. One the Gaia side, you can stop by the Monestary of Serra do Pilar or the Jardim do Morro for a great sunset view of Porto, before strolling back across the bridge.
2) Eat All Of The Pastéis De Nata
How this didn’t reach the number 1 slot is beyond me. Our favorite thing do in the morning was to head across the street from our Airbnb and pick up a 4-pack of pastéis and a café com leite for our breakfast from Castros for ~€6. These egg custard pastries are flakey and gooey and warm and delicious. Plus, you can sprinkle a little packet of cinnamon on top for extra satisfaction. You’ll find shops all over the city that sell them, so grab a pair from different spots until you find your favorite. They’re usually about €1/each.
1) Head Out To The Douro Valley For A Wine Tour
So, this may be odd, but our number one thing to do in Porto is actually to get out of Porto. We spent an entire day heading east, deep into the Douro River Valley to explore different quintas, or wine estates, and learning about Port and Douro wines. While you can rent a car and go at your own pace, we were super satisfied with our tour guide who took care of all of the logistics and gave us plenty of history, fed us, and let us indulge in plenty of good-tasting drinks.
Interested in the Douro Valley Wine Tour? Read my post about it here.
I really hope this list can provide at least a little bit of help for when you find yourself in Porto. It’s a charming city that definitely deserves a visit. Obrigado for reading and enjoy Portugal!