You know that feeling when a spontaneous decision turns into your favourite memory? Or, when taking the road less traveled leads you to an incredible view you never knew existed? If this feeling was a city, that city would be Porto.
Porto is the unexplored gem of Portugal. Competing with the capital, Lisbon, and the ever-popular Algarve coast, it’s often overlooked by visitors. But those who decide to venture out to this northern gem are rewarded for their curiosity.
We didn’t choose Porto, Porto chose us
Initially, my boyfriend and I were guilty of overlooking Porto during the planning phase of our trip to Portugal. The main reason it made it into our itinerary was because our Portuguese friends, whom we met in Cuba a few months prior, lived there. As such, we decided make Porto our first stop in Portugal to get acquainted with this new country by the locals themselves! What better way, right?
Porto surprised us in the best way possible
When we landed in Porto, we had no idea what was waiting for us. This northern city not only had one of the most beautiful cityscapes we have ever seen (our favourite in Portugal), it is also way more walkable than Lisbon and home to some of Portugal’s best delicacies like the Francesinha sandwich and world renowned Port wine.
We were lucky to get to experience the city with our Portuguese friends. They showed us everything from their favourite spots to watch the sunset and go for a swim to the tastiest pastry shops and restaurants you won’t find in your regular guide book. Now, we’re eager to share these places with you!
Four must-do’s in Porto
We only had 2 days in Porto, but our friends made sure those days were jam packed with the best the city has to offer. If you’re in Porto for 2 days or even 2 weeks, here are the 4 things you need to add to your itinerary:
1) Discover Azulejos in the city center
Porto’s city center is a treasure chest of beautiful architecture, cobblestone streets and picturesque corners. But there is one detail that stands out among the others: Azulejos. These painted ceramic tiles come in all sorts of patterns and colours and Porto is home to some of the most beautiful examples in Portugal.
Take a moment to look around and you’ll notice Azulejos decorating the facades of houses and buildings everywhere you go in Porto. Some Azulejos tell the tales of Portugal’s past while others serve a much more functional purpose like temperature control. Whatever their purpose may be, they are incredible pieces of art that make the city sparkle with colour.
If you’re on the hunt for the creme de la creme of Azulejos, here are two must-see tile masterpieces in Porto:
Porto São Bento Train Station
As soon as you walk into Sao Bento train station, you will wish you had arrived to Porto via train. It’s interior walls are an Azulejo masterpiece composed of thousands of ceramic tiles depicting Porto’s distant history. If you’re a visual learner, this is the kind of history lesson you’ll be glad to partake in!
Capela das Almas
A quick walk to the city centre will take you to another Azulejo masterpiece, this time, on the exterior of a church. The outer facade of Capela das Almas is one of the most colourful in Portugal thanks to the beautiful blue Azulejos decorating it’s walls and telling ancient tales to those who stop to admire them.
2) Take a stroll through history in Ribeira
Nested at the banks of the Duoro river, Ribeira is one of Porto’s most scenic neighborhoods and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is characteristic for its narrow medieval streets and colourful Portuguese architecture.
The best way to discover Ribeira is to get lost in its winding streets. Eventually, you will find your way to the riverfront where you can sit down at one of the numerous cafes or restaurants to enjoy the view of the Duoro river over a glass of Port wine.
As you’re satisfying your taste buds you will surely notice another iconic landmark of the Ribeira neighbourhood: the Ponte de D. Luis bridge.
This double-deck metal arch bridge connects Porto to the neighboring city of Vila Nova de Gaia. At first glance it may remind you of another iconic landmark in Paris – the Eiffel Tower – and this is not by accident. The Ponte de D. Luis bridge was designed by Theophile Seyrig, a student of Gustave Eiffel. The teacher’s influence on the student is unmistakable.
Complete your exploration of the Ribeira neighbourhood with a walk across the bridge’s top deck – it’s worth the trek uphill. On the other side you’ll be greeted with the best view of Porto’s spectacular riverside. Don’t forget to bring your camera!
3) Trade cobblestone streets for sandy beaches
The great thing about Porto is its proximity to the Atlantic coast. Once you’ve grown tired of exploring the city, ditch your sneakers, put on a pair of flip flops and take the subway to Matosinhos, a coastal town just 20 minutes from Porto. There you will find a dramatic rocky coastline with a wide selection of golden sand beaches that seem to stretch on forever.
Mark your spot on the beach and enjoy a morning of sun soaking and swimming. If you’re feeling daring, join the surf scene by taking a surf lesson from one of the numerous businesses in the area.
Come noon, pack your towels and go for a stroll down the coastline. The sea breeze will keep you cool while you take in the ever changing scenery of the coast.
Along the way you’ll be spoiled with a wide selection of cafes and restaurants to choose from.
Eventually you will make your way to the boardwalk’s end where another adventure awaits you – a scenic tram ride back to Porto!
To get on the tram, a little patience is needed as there will surely be a line-up, but it’s worth the 20-30 minute wait. After all, you haven’t really been to Portugal if you haven’t ridden on a tram! The wait is part of the authentic experience. Once you’re on, take a seat and enjoy the view as you follow the Duoro River back to Porto.
Unfortunately, our tram ride didn’t quite turn out as we had hoped… Excited, we boarded the tram after a 30 minute wait only to come to a sudden halt after less than 5 minutes!
It turns out, somebody thought the tram tracks made for a great place to park. Disappointed, we had to get off and complete the journey via Uber. I was happy to take advantage of the saturation and grab a quick snap with the tram 🙂
We hope you have better luck!
4) Watch a sunset… or two
At the end of the day, do as the locals do and take the time to enjoy the view of the sun setting over Porto. Here are two miradouros, or look-outs, where you’ll find a spectacular view of the sunset:
Our two favourite memories from Porto involve sitting on a ledge, sipping a Super Bock and watching the sun set over the city while listening to the soft murmur of people around us. There is something so peaceful about taking the time to slow down and enjoy this daily spectacle that Mother Nature puts on. No matter where I am in the word, it never fails to amaze me.
Here are two miradouros, or look-outs, where you’ll find a spectacular view of the sunset:
Passeio das Virtudes
This miraduoro is one you likely won’t find in your travel guidebook as it’s mostly known to locals, and that’s the best part! You’ll find people of all ages gathered here at the end of the day to enjoy the view while chatting with friends and neighbors. It’s the perfect spot to experience an ordinary evening in Porto with an extraordinary view.
Miradouro da Serra do Pilar
If you’re looking for the spot to watch the sunset in Porto, this miraduoro is the one for you. It showcases a spectacular view of the sun setting over Porto’s iconic neighborhood, Ribeira.
Grab a seat…
Cuddle up to your best friend…
And enjoy the show.
Feeling hungry? Try these Portuguese delicacies
You’re going to need a lot of fuel to cover all this ground! To keep your belly happy and your legs walking, give these Portuguese delicacies a try:
If you’re on a hunt for a centrally located cafe to enjoy the art of people-watching while nibbling on a local pastry and sipping a cup of coffee, we recommend Confeitaria Imperio.
While there is nothing particularly “fancy” about this cafe in terms of its looks, you will find a wide selection of fresh local pastries at half the price compared to the more touristy cafes in the area that often have long lineups and less than fresh food.
The Francesinha sandwich
Every Portuguese local will tell you, Porto is the ONLY place where you can eat an authentic Francesinha. But even in Porto, not all Francesinha are made the same. For the real deal that a local would approve of, head over to Restaurante Verso. and prepare yourself for six layers of meat and cheese bathing in a pool of tomato soup. You may want to bring your stretchy pants!
Pastel de Nata
Once you’ve digested your Francesinhas, a day in Porto is not complete without the national go-to dessert: pastel de nata. This traditional Portuguese dessert is made from a crispy pastry cup filled with sweet egg-based custard.
Everyone has their own preferred way of eating one – some eat it scorching hot, some patiently wait until it has cooled down to the optimal temperature, and some claim that it cannot be eaten without a sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Whatever your preferred method of enjoying this Portuguese favourite, everyone can agree that there is one place in Porto that makes the best pastel de nata: Manteigaria.
Also known as the Fabrica de Nata, in Manteigaria you can entertain yourself with watching how pastel de nata are made while waiting for yours to reach its optimal temperature. Once you’ve tried this Portuguese delicacy, you’ll be a fan for life!
Slow Roasted Pork Sandwiches
Last but definitely not least, if you’re feeling hungry before or after a night out on the town, make a stop at Taxca on Rua da Picaria – a small but lively restaurant in the heart of the city center where you should try one last Portuguese delicacy: the slow roasted pork sandwich. There are a few variations to choose from. Which ever you go with, you really can’t go wrong!
Do you know what perfectly complements all of the above delicacies? A bottle of Super Bock, a beer that is unique to Portugal’s northern region. To discover different variation of this Porto favourite and even pour your own glass, head over to Mercado Beira Rio and indulge in their “Beer Experience” program. Cheers! Or as they say in Portugal, saúde!
With that said, if you’re planning on visiting Portugal for the first time or you’re a seasoned veteran of this beautiful country, make sure you include Porto in your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed and neither will your stomach!
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