Porto, or Oporto, is a city in northern Portugal, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Porto’s 2000-year-old center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, notable for historic buildings of various architectural styles that showcase continuous growth and prosperity over the centuries. Porto’s prime location near sea trade routes ensured that the city’s port was always busy. The region is blessed with a near-perfect climate, never too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. Even in December, when much of Europe is chattering its teeth, the sun still beams its warmth on the Iberian coast. This makes Porto an excellent choice for an autumn or winter break. Just make sure to give yourself enough time to fully enjoy all the city has to offer. I found so many fun things to do in Porto, Portugal that I could have stayed a week! Alas, I had only three days in which to explore. But you better believe I made the most of them!
My first stop was the city’s famed Port wine cellars that are spread along the hillside on the opposite side of the river from the old town. Port is a sweet fortified wine, meaning that brandy has been added during the fermentation process. It is made exclusively in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Historically, the casks of Port were transported down the Douro River to the cellars in Porto, where the wine would be left to slowly age in cool temperatures. There are dozens of cellars in Porto, and many offer tastings and tours. I visited three: Taylor’s, Croft, and Cruz. While I preferred the taste of Taylor’s Port, I thought the service here was lackluster. I had a much more enjoyable experience at Croft thanks to the personable nature of the English-speaking guide. If we’re handing out awards for best view, Cruz is a top contender.
To reach the Port cellars from the old town, you’ll need to cross the Luis I Bridge, either by foot or by tram. I recommend walking so you can admire the breathtaking view of Porto and the Douro River. The distinctive double-decker iron bridge was erected in 1886 by a student of Gustav Eiffel, and named after Dom Luis I, then King of Portugal. If you cross over on the bridge’s upper level, the easiest way down to the cellars is via cable car.
Not sure which cellar you should visit? Conduct your own tasting at the Wine Quay Bar. Tucked along the Ribeira neighborhood with a prime view of the bridge, this is the perfect spot to research Port varietals (Ruby, Tawny, White, LBV, etc.) and brand names. Completely new to Port? This article is a good place to start.
But there’s plenty more to do in Porto than drink alcohol. Bibliophiles and Harry Potter fans will rejoice in Livraria Lello, the beautiful bookshop said to have been J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley. Vintage books like the century-old wooden shelves, while new releases are piled on tables on the floor. The most eye-catching feature, though, is the swirling double staircase dominating the center of the shop. This is an extremely popular tourist destination, so go early or buy tickets online to avoid a lengthy wait. Yes, you must buy a ticket to enter the bookshop, and it will be very crowded inside. It took me 10 minutes and multiple tries to get a photo of the stairs without any people on them. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it.
Many of the city’s other architectural treasures are free to enjoy. Sao Bento Railway Station, Igreja do Carmo, and Church of Saint Ildefonso (among others) are notable for their stunning blue-and-white tile murals. Narrow streets are lined with colorful apartment buildings stacked up like Legos. Decorative Art Nouveau facades add an air of whimsy beside stolid Gothic church spires. Even derelict structures add charm, particularly those covered in street art. Porto’s many attractions are spread across steep hills, but easy to access thanks to efficient tram service. Take a ride in one of the vintage cars and feel yourself transported back to the turn of the 19th century.
Porto’s hillside locale provides no shortage of vantage points, but none is greater than Clerigos Tower. Climbing the 225 steps to the top will reward you with 360-degree views of the sprawling city. I visited in the morning and most of my photos were taken looking towards the sun. The tower stays open until 7pm, so it might be better to visit in the evening when the lighting is better. Take a few moments to admire the large chapel and marble altarpiece of Clerigos Church before starting the trek up.
Lisbon may have a lock on egg tarts, but Porto has the best eclairs. Leitaria da Quinta do Paco is a dairy shop that began dabbling in eclairs around 50 years ago, and the world is better for it. While I was tempted to do a tasting of all eight flavors, I settled on toffee and classic chocolate, both filled with Chantilly cream. If you only have room for one, go for the toffee!
Porto is also apparently known for its sandwiches. Francesinha is the most iconic, dubbed “king of sandwiches” by local aficionados. The francesinha consists of roasted meat between two pieces of thick white bread, topped with cheese and a fried egg, and smothered in a tomato-beer sauce. Trust me, it’s as rich as it sounds!
For a lighter bite, head to Sandes do Porto for some of the tastiest sandwiches in town. The lunchtime set of soup, sandwich, and a drink for €5 is also one of the best bargains. You can find the tiny sandeira down an alley conveniently near Sao Bento station.
If you want to indulge in a more modern version of Portuguese comfort food, I can heartily recommend Cantinho do Avillez. Large scallops came perfectly seared atop a luscious bowl of Portobello risotto. A tender roasted piece of octopus was served with a creamy mash of potatoes, tomatoes, herbs, and cheese. Prawns were prepared the old-fashioned way, with white wine, lemon juice, and cilantro. Some classics simply can’t be improved upon. For the finishing touch, the delectable desserts were expertly paired with glasses of Port.
Have you been to Porto?
What were some of your favorite experiences?