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Inside: The colorful city of Porto Portugal is one of Europe’s most charming destinations. From the best things to do, to why it beats Lisbon, here’s your ultimate guide.
Yes, an early summer European adventure has become an annual staple these past few years.
This year, the destination is Portugal!
It’s Dave’s first visit to Portugal and my second, technically. I visited years ago, on Round the World #3. But I barely scratched the surface of this beautifully diverse country by devoting my time solely to the cosmopolitan city of Lisbon.
Obviously, there is so much more to see!
This time, we’ll spread our Portuguese wings and venture north, south, and offshore with visits to Porto, the Algarve region, and the Azores. And with just 10-days to spare, every moment counts.
We are also on a tight budget for this one, due to a recent boat purchase. So for this trip, I’m putting my travel rewards skills to the test to keep our costs down. Spoiler alert: I nailed it, more on that in this post!
We begin our adventure in Portugal’s second city, Porto.
With its colorfully-tiled old town, golden rooftops and relaxed vibe, a visit to Porto is an absolute must on any trip to Portugal.
What is Porto known for?
Hands down, the city of Porto is most famous around the world for its legendary port wines.
But it’s also well known for stunning Baroque architecture and the distinct azulejos tiles adorning many of the city’s historic buildings and monuments. Overlooking the River Douro, Porto’s flagstone-lined historic center, Ribeira, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Which is nicer, Lisbon or Porto?
Don’t get me wrong, Lisbon is a gorgeous city to visit.
But for my money, Porto holds a distinct edge in charm over it’s flashier big sister. I’ll dive deeper into that statement in a moment. But, for now, if you only have enough time to include either Lisbon or Porto on your Portugal itinerary, I’d choose Porto.
FAQs about Porto Portugal
Before I dive into why Porto tops Lisbon (in my humble opinion) and all the fabulous things to see, do, and most importantly drink around town, let’s cover some basics.
Where is Porto?
Considered Portugal’s “capital of the north,” Porto occupies a serene location along the Douro River estuary. It’s about 3 hours north of Lisbon and just over an hour from the Spanish border.
What’s the best way to get to Porto?
Flights – While there are regular, quick and easy 1-hour flights from Lisbon, direct options are limited outside Europe. However, most major European cities (Paris, Geneva, London, Munich, etc.) do have direct flight service into Porto’s modern Francisco Sa Carneiro Airport (OPO).
Tip: There’s also direct service from Porto to Ponte Delgada in the Azores which is, conveniently, where we’re headed next!
From the airport, the ride to Bolhão Station in the heart of the city center takes about 30 minutes. Purchase a “4 zones” ticket at the machine.
Train – If you’re already in Lisbon, the train is a great way to get to Porto. Trains depart for Porto more than a dozen times daily and the journey takes from 3 to 3.5 hours depending on which train you choose.
Drive – You can also choose to drive to Porto from Lisbon but it’s the least preferred option. Unless, of course, you want to make a road trip out of it and take in a few stops along the way. Then by all means go for it!
Just keep in mind that you do NOT need a car once you arrive in Porto so I recommend returning it at the airport and taking the train into town.
What’s the best time of year to visit?
As with most of the continent, summer is the best time of year to visit Porto. The months of May to September often reward visitors with sunny skies and warm temperatures.
Another feather in Porto’s cap? With its northerly location, Porto can be far more comfortable than Lisbon in the peak summer months of July and August. But conversely, it also cools quite a bit faster than Lisbon as winter approaches.
During our May visit, we enjoyed cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the low 80’s.
How many days in Porto is enough?
Three to four days in Porto is ideal. But thanks to its compact size, you can easily see the highlights with two full days. If you’re a big fan of port wine and hope to visit several of the port wine houses, I’d budget a minimum of three days.
The best places to stay in Porto
In Porto, a hotel in the heart of the city center is best for maximizing your time – especially when that time is short (like our two days).
If money is no object, opt for the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas. Located in a renovated 18th-century palace, this hotel is in the center of the historic district, just 650 feet from the iconic Clérigos Tower.
It’s also a 2-minute walk from the beautiful São Bento metro station (renowned for its incredible blue-and-white tiled interior).
For a slightly more affordable option, try the Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel. Its location, just a few minute’s walk from the Intercontinental, means it also has easy access to the historic center and nearby metro station. Rooms are cozy, yet spacious, and some even include a classic bathtub.
On a Budget
For those on a budget, Porto also has a lot of apartment options, which is what we chose. We selected the Oporto Stories Apartments and it was terrific. Unfortunately, as of 2022, it’s no longer available for booking.
However, another excellent budget apartment option with a terrace boasting awesome city views is the Morar Apartments Porto. Tip: Book the 1-bedroom apartment for the best city views.
Another great budget hotel option in Porto is the Selina Porto. Centrally located, this is one of Porto’s most popular hotels for backpackers as it’s a well-known hostel. However, for budget-conscious luxury travelers (like me!) they also have private guest rooms with their own baths.
A colleague of mine (not traveling on a budget, just looking for a deal) stayed here in August 2022 and adored it. Especially the Bohemian vibes at the outdoor gathering area each evening.
5 Reasons Porto is Portugal’s Best City to Visit
Okay, now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get down to it!
I’ve made the bold statement that Porto is BETTER than Lisbon for visitors and the time has come to back it up. But first, a simple disclaimer. I am by no means saying you shouldn’t visit Lisbon. The Portuguese capital is a brilliant city to explore!
I just happen to prefer Porto and I’ll tell you why.
1. Porto is compact & easy to explore
When it comes right down to it, this is probably the single best reason I favor Porto over Lisbon.
Lovely Lisbon is your traditional grand, cosmopolitan European city. And with that generous title comes a sprawling footprint. It’s a lot of ground to cover if you want to see all the city’s best sights. No problem if you have all the time in the world. But challenging if you’re short on time.
Alternately, Porto’s more intimate layout allows visitors to appreciate all of the city’s best attractions with nary a need for public transportation.
Is Porto a walkable city?
Yes, Porto’s quaint old town and compact city center are easily walkable. In fact, Porto is a terrific walking city.
Just be ready for some stairs. Porto has a lot of hills.
2. Dazzling Architecture
It’s fair to say that neither city disappoints when it comes to gorgeous architecture. But Porto’s cozy Ribeira district holds the “charm edge” over Lisbon’s expansive old town.
And for real star power, there’s no better example of Porto’s unique architectural flair than its most spectacular bridge.
Porto’s famous bridge – the Dom Luís I Bridge
Pretty much any photo of Porto includes this distinctive span that bridges the gap over the Douro River and dominates the city’s skyline.
In 1879, Gustave Eiffel first presented a design for a single deck bridge over the Douro. But the project was later awarded to one of his disciples, Theophile Seyrig, who proposed a double-deck, arched design.
Completed in 1886, the Dom Luís I Bridge connects the historic center of Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia (home to the port wine cellars).
For more than a century, the bridge carried road traffic on both levels. Today, the upper level is restricted to pedestrian traffic and tramcars, while the lower level is for cars. (Pedestrians can cross on either level and the views are uniquely spectacular from both).
For another terrific view of the city, climb the 240 steps up the narrow stairways of the Clérigos Tower.
Tip: To save a walk up the hill after a stroll along the waterfront, take the cable car at the base of the Dom Luís I Bridge. It’s a million-dollar view for just a €2.50 ticket price.
The Ribeira Porto district
Lining the Douro River, rows of traditional neoclassical buildings comprise Porto’s historic old town known as the Ribeira district. The Ribeira is the true heart of the city with bustling riverfront cafes, restaurants, and shops.
The building facades are a sight unto themselves, each one adorned with brilliant glazed, ceramic tiles called azulejos.
These vibrant tiles date back to the Moors of the 13th century but came into their own in the 16th century after Portugal’s King Manuel I brought the idea of tiling buildings back from Seville.
Porto’s Azulejo tiles
The delicately painted azulejo tiles were originally used to cover up large, blank walls during the Gothic period. Over time, Portuguese artisans used them on floors, ceilings, and both inside and outside of homes, churches, shops, etc.
Initially found only in blue and white patterns, the designs ultimately expanded to include a variety of lively colors and patterns incorporating reds, yellows, greens, and more.
Safety Tip: The building facades are so beautiful throughout Porto that it’s often hard to watch where you’re walking on the winding cobbled streets!
3. Two words: Port Wine
For true connoisseurs, it’s the lone reason to add Porto to your Bucket List. But for others (like us!), it’s just a delicious side benefit.
Regardless, when you find yourself in the region where port wine was created, it would be rude not to indulge. So that’s exactly how we begin our tour of Porto.
When in “Rome” – a little Port wine tasting
Just across the Dom Luis I Bridge from the Ribeira is the Gaia side of town. Most of the port wine cellars are located here in this relaxed riverfront neighborhood. Gaia is also knowns for its gorgeous views back across the river to old town Porto and the Ribeira.
Our apartment host recommended three port houses and, of those, we chose to visit A.A. Calem.
We purchase tickets for €12 (2 samples) and €15 (3 samples) and are escorted into their interactive port museum with fun things like a sniffing wall. Can you guess the various scents found in port wine? (Hint: it covers everything from chocolate to apricot).
Next, a brief tour to learn how port is made, and then finally, we end in the tasting room to sample several varieties for ourselves.
My 2-sample ticket and Dave’s 3-sample ticket work out perfectly. The samples are all different so we’re able to enjoy five very different ports between us.
Truth be told, I didn’t think I liked port. As it turns out, I just wasn’t drinking the right kind. On our tour, I’m pleased to discover quite a few that I really enjoy.
But wait…Porto has delicious food, too!
Porto has an abundance of dining options and you’ll certainly never want for a good meal here. Seafood restaurants line the Ribeira riverside and quiet cafés can be found around every corner.
But you can’t leave town without trying the local specialty known as the “francesinha.” So after our port tasting, we head straight for a riverfront café to give it a try.
This meat-stuffed sandwich is part croque monsieur, part Italian hoagie. Filled with ham, steak and sausage, the sandwich is covered with melted cheese and then topped with a warm tomato sauce and usually a fried egg (recipes vary around town).
It’s more than a handful – in fact, you’ll definitely need a knife and fork for this one. Find it on the menu at pretty much any café or restaurant in town.
(I thought it was pretty delicious but Dave’s opinion is slightly less enthusiastic. Regardless, it’s worth a try while you’re in town!)
4. More of Porto’s best things to do
On this point, I’ll concede that Lisbon definitely boasts more sights and attractions than Porto. But hopefully, by now, I’m starting to sway you. And you’ll join me in thinking that’s just another nod to Porto’s superior, relaxed charm.
But other than those I’ve already mentioned above, there are a few more sights worth a visit.
The Harry Potter stop – Livraria Lello
Often regarded as the world’s most beautiful bookshop, Livraria Lello is definitely one of the world’s most visited. Especially by Harry Potter fans.
I confess we added this stop to our itinerary for the reason most visitors do – its Harry Potter folklore. Dave is an unabashed Potterhead and, whenever we travel, all possible Potter-related activities are always on the table.
JK Rowling called Porto home for two years and wrote the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone during her residence. Rumor has it the book’s famous Diagon Alley bookshop “Flourish & Blotts” is based on Livraria Lello.
And you can certainly feel the influence as you walk up the shop’s pretzel-like twisting mahogany staircase surrounded by books stacked from floor to ceiling.
How to visit Livraria Lello
You’ll need a ticket to enter which can be purchased at the shop on the corner of the same street (€5.50 which will be deducted from the purchase price of any book). We didn’t buy any books but we loved walking up and down the staircase and soaking in the atmosphere of this lovely shop.
Completed in the 16th century, this Roman Catholic church is one of the city’s oldest monuments. Built in the highest part of the city, in the Batalha neighborhood, this imposing structure looks more like a fortress than a church.
The cathedral’s cloister (which does have a small entrance fee) dates back to the fourteenth century and features bible scenes depicted with painted tiles.
Located on Via Catarina, the Café Majestic is one of Porto’s oldest and most popular cafes. In fact, during our stay, there is a constant line outside every time we pass by.
Opened in 1921, this lavish coffee shop charms visitors with varnished woods, velvety benches, crystal chandeliers, and marble floors from the Belle Époque period. It’s one of Porto’s most popular architectural landmarks and a magnet for artists and writers.
Stop by for a coffee and you might just find some inspiration of your own!
5. Porto’s Best Beaches
At this point, you might be wondering…does Porto have beaches?
Indeed it does. And a few pretty spectacular ones at that. To explore some of Porto’s best beaches, it’s easiest to rent a car for the day (again, I suggest avoiding downtown driving if you can).
Here are a few great beaches to visit near Porto:
Praia de Miramar
Known for its calm turquoise waters and golden sand, this beach is located in Vila Nova de Gaia near one of Portugal’s oldest golf courses. There are plenty of facilities here including a beach bar, umbrellas, and toilets.
Praia de Leca da Palmeira
Located in Matosinhos, the strong waves here make this one a surfer’s favorite. It’s also one of the most famous beaches in the area due to its man-made area of natural pools. For swimming, it’s best to stick with the pools since the ocean here is really only suitable for surfers.
Foz do Douro
Beloved for its gardens, bike rides, and romantic sunset strolls, this scenic Atlantic seafront area is the easiest to reach from town, just 15-20 minutes by bus or tram, no car required.
With oceanfront cafes and a string of unspoiled beaches, Foz do Douro is one of Porto’s most popular places to unwind.
Rumor has it, it’s also home to some pretty epic sunsets.
The best day trips from Porto
With only two full days to explore Porto, we had to prioritize seeing the city over exploring its lovely surrounding area.
But alas, I suppose it’s always nice to leave something for the next visit. That way you just have to come back, right?
If you have more time, there’s plenty to see and do. Here are just a few of the best day trips from Porto:
Home to Portugal’s first cathedral (constructed in 1089), the historic city of Braga is considered the religious heart of the country. The ancient city is best known for the impressive Baroque stairway ascending to the Bom Jesus do Monte cathedral.
Braga is an easy day trip from Porto thanks to direct and frequent train service between the two. The journey takes approximately an hour, depending on the train.
Often called the “Venice of Portugal,” Aveiro’s picturesque canals capture all the spirit of Italy’s floating city without the tourist crowds. Colorful boats called Moliceiros ply the canals of this traditional fisherman’s district lined with ornate religious buildings and Art Nouveau homes.
Like Braga, the train is the best way to get there with regular train services from Porto. The journey takes as little as 40 minutes from the city center.
The Douro River Valley
A wine tour to the Douro River Valley, where port wine is produced, is a must for any lover of this decadent nectar. Even though our guide at A.A. Calem described the weather conditions in the valley as “9 months of winter and 3 months of hell” it’s still one of the most popular day trips from Porto.
And apparently, those challenging weather conditions are ideal for port wine grapes. Who knew?
Wrapping up a fabulous stay in Porto
With just two full days, we manage to conquer a substantial amount of Porto’s best sights. Yet we still have time to stroll the flagstone streets and simply savor the city’s unique architecture and warmth.
Porto truly is traditional Portugal at its best, without the crowds, traffic, and sprawl of Lisbon.
It’s the perfect place to begin our Portuguese journey and I hope we’ll someday get to return to tackle those sights that we missed. And sip a little more port from a beautiful terrace.
Next stop, the Azores!