In case port tasting isn’t enough…
Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, is a mercantile hub and the centre of the port wine trade. Its historical nucleus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a number of buildings dating back to medieval times. Even if port isn’t your tipple, there’s plenty to enjoy in this attractive, atmospheric riverside city.
A brief potted history
Porto was originally a small Celtic settlement called Cale at the mouth of the River Douro. In the 4th century, the Romans arrived and developed the port, renaming the settlement “Portus Cale”. The town grew in commercial importance and by the 14th and 15th centuries, was known for shipbuilding as well as for its wine trade.
Over the centuries, the machinations of the various Spanish royal houses, Napoleon and the Hapsburgs saw Portugal swing between union with, and separation from, Spain. Porto emerged as a centre of dissent and revolution. The city rebelled against King Miguel in the civil war during the early 19th century, withstanding an 18-month siege by the king’s army. The ultimate result of this failure was the abdication of Miguel in 1834.
The city’s reputation for civil rights and liberal attitudes attracted a number of illustrious poets, artists and writers after this time. However, the general consensus is that Porto’s golden age was the 18th century, when the burgeoning wine trade brought great wealth to the city. Many of the attractive Baroque and neoclassical buildings date from this time.
The compact historic centre is easy to walk around, although be warned – some parts are quite hilly. Riding the trams makes a pleasant alternative. The following list of attractions is certainly not comprehensive, but encompasses our favourites!
1. The riverside
Porto’s riverside is a lovely place to stroll and soak up the spirit of the city (and I’m not talking about port, yet). The northern side – Cais da Ribeira – is lined with lovely historic houses, apartments and commercial buildings. During our last visit, many of them were undergoing much-needed restoration.
I wouldn’t mind owning a restored apartment in one of these buildings!
The quays are busy with market stalls, craft shops and some lovely restaurants and bars. The weather can be very hot in the summer months, so this is a great place to stop for an alfresco lunch and cool beverage overlooking the River Douro.
The south side, known as Vila Nova de Gaia, is very different. It’s dominated by port wine houses, warehouses, old commercial premises and boatyards. Some of the properties are in a very dilapidated state, which adds to the atmosphere. Strolling along this side of the river, you get a sense of the busy port trade and its historical context.
You’ll see some of the distinctive traditional old boats – rabelos – used for transporting barrels to and from the vineyards in the Douro Valley. Some of them are used for tourist trips today.
3. The bridges
Where there’s a river, there’s usually a bridge – and Porto has some outstanding ones. Best known is the Dom Luiz I Bridge, designed by German architect Téophile Seyrig who was a business partner of Gustave Eiffel.
This engineering marvel was completed in 1886. The lower deck carries road traffic, and the upper span carries line D of the Porto Metro system. There’s also a pedestrian walkway on the top level, which is a great place to catch superb views of the city.
There are 5 other bridges in the city, the oldest of which is the Maria Pia Bridge. This is situated a kilometre to the west of the Dom Luiz I and is very similar in structure and appearance. Originally a railway bridge, it is no longer used but is a much-loved monument of the city.
Also worthy of mention is the Ponte da Arrábida, a modern bridge which carries 6 lanes of traffic. I mention it because, if you feel so inclined, you can do a bridge climb! This takes you 65 metres above the river, where you can enjoy amazing views. The prices ranges from €14 to €17.50 depending on your status and the number of people in your party. Anyone over the age of 12 can participate.
I should stress that I haven’t tried this activity myself, but I wouldn’t mind doing it next time. The folk at Porto Bridge Climb even say that people who suffer from vertigo can do it, because it’s a guided climb and plenty of safety equipment is provided.
4. Crystal Palace gardens
This is another perfect place to chill out on a hot day. The palace itself, which was modelled on the Crystal Palace in London, no longer exists. It was replaced by the dome-shaped Pavilhão Rosa Mota, which hosts exhibitions and concerts. But the beautiful Victorian gardens remain.
You can enjoy the lawns, flowers, shrubs, fountains, lake and the lookout which offers wonderful views of the river and city.
Also in the area is the Quinta da Macieirinha, This former summer home of port wine millionaire António Ferreira Pinto Basto, the house is now part of the Porto city museum. Styled in the fashion of the romantic movement and therefore known as the Museu Romântico, the house has numerous associations with royalty and offers a taste of what life in 1850s was like for the wealthy of Porto.
5. Trains and trams
Porto is blessed with excellent public transport – always a big tick for the slow traveller. We travelled there by train from Caldas da Rainha, arriving at Campanhã station. From there, an easy switch to another line took us on the 4 minute journey to São Bento station, which was nearest to our hotel. A beautiful surprise awaited us when we emerged into the terminus.
The main hall is covered in some 20,000 azulejo tiles, depicting scenes from Portuguese history and rural life. It’s the most stunning building, dating from the early 20th century. There are many other stunning examples of azulejo artistry in Porto, but this is surely the most impressive.
From São Bento you can also connect to the excellent metro system. It has 6 lines serving outlying neighbourhoods, the airport and the hospital. We took the metro to the airport after our visit and found it to be modern, smooth and efficient. Visitors can get andante tour passes which give 24 hour or 72 hour access to the system for €7 or €15 respectively.
Another gem for public transport fans are the vintage trams. The history of the tram system goes back as far as the late 19th century. Although it has been scaled back significantly in modern times, 3 routes remain: the 1, the 18 and the 22. The 18 runs by the tram museum – worth a visit if you are interested in finding out more about the history of the network.
6. Livraria lello
This enchanting Porto institution styles itself as ‘the most beautiful bookshop in the world’ – with good reason. It’s not large, but over 100 years of history are contained in its stained glass windows, gleaming wood panels, ornate gallery and spectacular carved wooden staircase.
Rumours of a connection with JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series have since been disputed, but the story has done the shop’s fame no harm!
Naturally, most of the books are in Portuguese although there is a small English language collection.
Being world-famous, the store is very popular and does get crowded so a queuing system is implemented at busy times. You can buy a ‘skip the queue’ ticket from the shop’s website for €5 (refundable if you buy a book) – and quite honestly, it’s worth it. But if crowds are not your thing, then a visit here might not be for you.
Should you give it a miss, you can still listen to their ‘author of the month’ sessions on their Facebook page! – some of which are in English.
7. Port tasting
Last but not least, is Porto’s most famous export and what the city is still most renowned for. Although the port itself is not made in the city but in the Douro Valley quintas or estates, where the grapes are grown. This region is the second oldest protected wine region in the world. In the old days, barrels of port were shipped down the river Douro to the port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, where they were stored before onward packing and transport to buyers.
Today you can visit the famous name port houses- such as Sandeman, Ferreira, Croft and Graham’s – and taste their delicious sweet, tawny and dry white ports. Single quinta ports are considered the best, but some of the more affordable blends are pretty good too! Some of the houses offer guided tours that give a deeper insight into their history and processes.
You can either wander around Vila Nova de Gaia yourself and drop in – or join a group tour. Some of the port houses, like Taylor’s, have lovely gardens and highly-regarded restaurants (booking essential).
For more information, see our separate post on port wine tasting. Safe to say that it’s one of the most enjoyable things to do in Porto if you enjoy fortified wine.
I’ve written a fair bit about wine – but when it comes to food, quite honestly there’s not a lot to write home about. This may be a controversial opinion, but Portuguese cuisine is not a world-beater. Even some of the items of most popular renown are over-rated in my opinion – such as the tasteless custard tarts pasteis de nata.
Porto’s signature dish is – wait for it – tripe stew! Other local specialities include sausages and hot sandwiches called francesinhas which resemble the French croque monsieurs. None of which excite me particularly. But we did enjoy some very tasty traditional grilled fresh sardines with salad in one of the riverside restaurants in Vila Nova de Gaia. And we had a wonderful meal at the Astoria restaurant in our hotel (see next section).
Where to stay in porto
Porto has a wide range of hotels and holiday rentals to suit all budgets. Some of them are located in former palaces and historic buildings, not all of which have lifts. marketing – disclosure page for further information on how this si earns revenue through affiliate marketing and advertising.
Following a tip-off, we stayed at the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas.* Being a historic building – a renovated 18th century palace – and only 2 minutes’ walk from São Bento station, we thought it would suit us perfectly.
It’s certainly an impressive building in a good central location. But we wouldn’t stay there again. Our room overlooked the very noisy Praça da Liberdade, which had buskers playing loud rock music all afternoon and evening! Service was also indifferent at times. At the time of writing this post – October 2022 – there are construction works going on outside the hotel.
In fairness, the hotel had its good points. Dinner at the Astoria restaurant was exceptionally good. Afterwards we enjoyed a great night in Cardosas Bar, where we were treated to live Bossa Nova music. Nevertheless, you can enjoy these without being resident. Next time we visit Porto, we quite fancy trying the PortoBay Flores.*
One factor to bear in mind when choosing your hotel is that Porto is a rather hilly city. So if you don’t want to walk up a steep hill to your accommodation, make sure to research the location of the hotels you like the look of!
When to visit
Despite its proximity to the Atlantic ocean, Porto gets very hot in summer. We recommend spring and autumn as ideal times to visit. Being in the north west of the Iberian peninsula, the city does get a decent amount of rainfall, rather like its northern Spanish neighbours in Galicia. November is the wettest month.
Porto is a fascinating city and a real surprise. We love Lisbon and didn’t expect to enjoy Porto as much as we did. The riverside is a delight, the cobbled lanes and picturesque squares feel very authentic – and transport is excellent. And although you can go wine tasting in Lisbon, port tasting in Porto is rather special!
While Porto inevitably has some very busy and touristy areas, you don’t have to stray far to find poverty. We once wandered down one of the many narrow alleyways en route from our hotel to the Cais da Ribeira, and found ourselves in one of the poorer immigrant quarters. Children in the street yelled to each other that tourists were approaching! Although we felt uncomfortable rather than threatened, we made a hasty exit.
In summary, we highly recommend Porto as a perfect short break destination.
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