Porto: A City Guide for First-Timers
By Lydia Colman
Portugal’s second city is currently experiencing a magic moment of revitalization.
Ages ago, British merchant ships would gather in Porto’s old harbors to transport the region’s wines back home.
Now, the city’s riverbanks are crowded with cool new bars and cool sidewalk restaurants.
With Romanesque and Gothic buildings, an abundance of places to try the region’s delightful seafood, and an array of nightlife options – Porto is a city for everyone.
Famous for the intense, fortified wine–Port– that leaves its riverside vaults to be transported worldwide, Porto is Portugal’s second city.
Once under the heel, it is currently experiencing a revival and overwhelming visitors’ hearts with its apparent differences between tradition and innovation in everything from food and wine to architecture, culture, and transport.
With a UNESCO World Heritage old center, revamped downtown, and a flourishing arts district, Porto offers attractions for all generations’ culture vultures.
If the art and architecture don’t attract, let the Douro River bring you towards the Ribeira and Vila Nova de Gaia areas for port wine tasting, people watching, and a boat tour of Porto’s six bridges.
This city guide represents what there is to see, do, eat, and suggest the best places to stay to satisfy various budgets.
Essential things to do in Porto
With a history chronicling back to pre-Roman times, Porto has a lot of attractions. Don’t leave without trying these:
Go beyond ruby
Take a tour of one of the port wine basements in Vila Nova de Gaia to discover white, tawny, and even pink gates. Begin to enjoy the difference between various ruby gates and the importance of the aging process.
Climb the highest tower
Porto has plenty of excellent views, but the best is at the top of the Clérigos church tower. The prize for climbing around 200 steps up the city’s tallest building is a 360º view of the town.
Explore a Bookstore
Lello Bookstore is one of the world’s most impressive you’ll immediately realize how it inspired J.K.Rowling while writing her Harry Potter series. You’ll need to pay to get in; it’s that traditional, although the entrance fee is discounted against shopping.
Marvel at Porto’s Decorative Train station
Whether you want to use the São Bento subway station to travel anywhere or not, be sure to jump inside to see the hand-painted ceramic ornaments that illustrate meaningful moments in Portuguese history.
Relax by the River
Once an energetic riverside port area, Porto’s colorful Ribeira district is now overflowing with cafés and eateries. Walk by the river or grab a seat to appreciate the views and watch the world go by with a drink of port tonic.
Four Alternative Porto highlights
If you’d instead escape the crowds, think about these alternative sights:
See history at Casa do Infante.
The concrete granite walls of the past customs house contain a story that dates back to the Roman ages, offering a deep shrewdness into Porto’s past. See how the structure changed over the centuries from a Roman house to a medieval palace, customs home, and royal mint.
See the city from Serra do Pilar Monastery.
The most suitable place for Porto’s views from the other side of the Douro River is Serra’s round church, Pilar Monastery, sat on the hill above Dom Luís I bridge.
Enjoy contemporary art & architecture.
Allow half a day to fully enjoy the modern architecture, Art Deco Palace, and extensive gardens at Serralves, not to mention the constantly evolving art exhibitions.
Cycle to the beach
Rent a bike and pedal by the river around to the fishing and seaside resort town of Foz, passing a couple of fortifications on the way.
Where to stay in Porto
Someplace to wine down: Porto’s best hotel is not in Porto but over the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Wine is a clear theme throughout The Yeatman, an award-winning luxury resort. Even the pond is shaped like a decanter.
For historical charm: Elegance overflows in this beautifully restored palace overlooking the Douro River. Pousada Palácio do Freixo offers the first-class service and exudes historical charm.
For a great location: Another renewed palace, Intercontinental Palácio das Cardosas, is at the very core of Porto’s historic center.
The onsite spa and restaurant make an utterly luxurious base for exploring on foot with the classy interior, onsite hotel, and restaurant.
Where to dine in Porto
Go local: If you’re new to Portuguese cuisine, then tapas, especially those from Tapabento, are a fun way of tasting a range of flavors. Portuguese food from a family-run eatery, Taberna Santo António, is another place to go.
Charming cafés: Porto’s most popular café is the Belle Époque Café Majestic, where servers deliver coffee and cakes in a storybook environment. Less conventional but just as beautiful is the Art Nouveau Confeitaria do Bolhão, which has a broader range of fresh pastries and a ‘menu do dia’ lunchtime alternative.
Gastronome dining: The high stone walls of Paparico form an intimate ambiance to savor Chef Henrique Teixeira’s cultural cuisine and the accompanying wine menu. Alternatively, Rui Paulo’s DOP offers a lighter, more modern setting to enjoy excellent food and top Portuguese wines.
What else to do in Porto?
Satisfy your artistic side at the Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves, a museum that is famous for its minimalist space built by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. Walk out afterward into the Foundation Serralves fields, which contain a giant blade sculpture that looks poised to drop on top of you.
The city at night is a beautiful view – the sight from Cais de Gaia is best, where you can observe the entire city lit up.
If this excites you to beat the Porto nightlife, begin with a laid-back drink at cafe-bookshop Candelabro. Gin-lovers will also appreciate The Gin House, which offers trained bartenders and more than 150 kinds of gin.
Porto Travel Tips
Save your legs: This great city rises from the river banks, so it’s hard to avoid hills altogether. Funicular dos Guindais, positioned behind Dom Luís I bridge, is not only an easy way of tackling them, but it also offers unbelievable views on the quick journey.
Look out for street art: The city committee has long recognized the importance of quality urban art, so you’ll see lots of examples by renowned artists such as Hazel, Costa, and Vhils on walls and even telephone boxes.
When to go to Porto
Porto makes for a lovely city break at any time of year, although winters can be cold, wet, and breezy at times.
Ensure your settlement has heating or air conditioning for hotter months like July and August when temperatures can rise above 30ºC. While there’s always a risk of storm, April to June and September to October are beautiful times to visit in smaller crowds and cozy temperatures. Continuously monitor the weather forecast before packing, and even then, be prepared for four seasons just in one day.
How to get to Porto
The city’s airport holds a growing number of daily worldwide and private flights. There are also flights between Porto and other Portuguese cities such as Lisbon and Faro and the islands of the Azores and Madeira.
A metro line into the city center starts at the airport and takes around 45 minutes. There are shuttle minibusses as well as taxis and Uber. Good motorways, train and carriage connections make it easy to get to the rest of the countryside and Spain.
Lydia Colman is a journalist with tremendous experience in traveling. She wants to encourage people to be curious about the world and find ways to fit more travel into their lifestyle than they already have. She wants others to look at her and say ‘Because of you I didn’t give up’.