When planning a visit to Portugal, a typical holidaymaker might consider a visit to the capital city of Lisbon or the sunny resorts of the Algarve. Portugal’s second largest city – Porto – has not yet been targeted as a major tourist destination, despite boasting a beautifully preserved historic centre and picturesque waterfront. The fact that Porto has been able to stay largely under the radar means that the local charm has not yet been lost to floods of tourists or high rise hotels, but this doesn’t mean that the city lacks a vibrant scene. In fact, it has some of the best that Portugal has to offer in terms of restaurants, nightlife and culture. While the centre is fairly small and can be visited in a day or two, there is enough going on to make a return trip worthwhile.
The Historic Centre
As every sight in Porto’s old town is within walking distance of the next, the major attractions can be covered in any order. I started early down by the Douro river and worked my way up, but there’s no single best way to see everything. The Dom Luís I Bridge is an iconic feature of the city, similar to the one designed by Gustave Eiffel a little further upstream, and is built on two levels. After stopping at the Sé do Porto cathedral en route, you can cross the upper section of the bridge to view the city from above, then walk down to the southern bank to scout the Port wine caves.
I then crossed the lower level of the bridge and walked along the Ribeira waterfront, before taking the cobbled backstreets up into the historic centre itself. From there, you can work your way up the hill, visiting anything of interest. The Igreja Monumento de São Francisco church is very close to Ribeira, and after stopping in you can follow Rua de Ferreira Borges up to Rua das Flores – a street lined with shops and cafés that ends in front of the São Bento railway station, inside of which you will find beautiful blue and white tiled walls depicting scenes from Portuguese history.
From the station, a short walk uphill will bring you to the famous tower of the Igreja dos Clérigos. On a clear day, climb up for a view over the city before taking Rua das Carmelitas up past the Livraria do Lello bookshop – an attraction in itself. In fact, the shop has become so popular that they now employ a doorman and charge for entry, but the entry fee can be redeemed against a purchase if you decide to take home a book. Just beyond the bookshop is the Praça de Gomes Teixeira square, marked by the twin churches of Igreja do Carmo and Igreja do Carmelito.
These are just a few of central Porto’s major sights, and it’s easy to stumble upon other, less well-known buildings by simply wandering the streets. Porto has a huge number of igrejas, so if churches are your thing, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
The Douro River
Boat tours on the Douro are available at regular intervals. The most common option is a 50 minute tour to see the bridges upstream, but these are easily reachable on foot. A more interesting option is a longer voyage up into the Douro valley itself, but this needs to be booked in advance with one of the boat companies as the boat typically has to leave early in the morning.
Depending on how much time you have, you might also consider heading down to the mouth of Douro to see the coastline. Tram number 1 departs from outside the São Francisco church every twenty minutes or so and terminates on the north side of the Douro estuary. Head out along the pier to see fishermen catching Atlantic fish and octopus, then follow the beach path north towards the Castelo do Queijo – a 17th century fort looking out over the ocean.
Porto is perhaps best known for Port wine, and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro is home to all of the major wineries. Not all offer tours, although some of these will organise private visits if you ask and get lucky. Cálem, Sandeman, Taylor’s and Graham’s are just a few of those that do offer tours. I ended up going to Offley, where for only €4 you can tour the caves and taste three types of port – White, Tawny, and the Ruby Reserve.
Where to eat
Portuguese padarias (bakeries) rarely disappoint, and Porto is no exception. Most cafés and padarias have a wide selection of baked goods perfect for breakfast or a snack. I found the best ones were on Rua das Flores or Rua de Belomonte, where I ate at Confeitaria São Domingos. If you’re after something savoury, the bolinho de bacalhau (cod fishcake) is always a winner, and the pastel de alheira (Portuguese piglet pie) that I tried here was exceptional.
For those with a sweet tooth, the pastel de nata never disappoints. I’m not a huge fan of custard, but Portuguese nata is nothing like the unappetising gloop served in British cafeterias – it’s actually delicious. Another personal favourite is the bolo de arroz – a tall, sugar-dusted cake that goes well alongside a pastel de nata and a coffee.
For lunch, I have to recommend Lareira – an absolute gem on Rua das Oliveiras which serves a range of meat options in perfectly baked fresh bread, or if you just want the meat you can lose the bread and get a double portion. The alheira and stewed goat fillings are both excellent, and a for a few cents more you can add a fried egg to the mix. Sangría is available on tap for €1.90 a glass, and the sandwiches themselves only cost around €4. If you’re there with a group, the mixed platter offers a good range of local cheeses and cold cuts.
If you’re down by the mouth of the Douro, check out Bar Tolo which offers various petiscos (Portuguese tapas). Slightly more upmarket by Portuguese standards, but this is reflected in the quality of the food.
For dinner, the Comme Ça restaurant comes top of my list. I ended up eating here two nights in a row – once on my own and the second night with friends. In Comme Ça, each dish is made for two people and served straight from the pan with potatoes, mixed vegetables, and a bowl of salad. All of the dishes are set at the same price – €14.50 even if two people are eating. The venison steak and duck were personal favourites. If you’re feeling hungry, the full dish is substantial but certainly manageable.
Bars and Nightlife
I’d read that if you’re travelling solo and want to meet people, you should start your evening at Capela Incomum. A few streets away from the main strip, Capela Incomum is a bar built inside an old chapel and is run by the lovely Rita and Francisca. I went there expecting to meet other travellers or locals, but ended up spending the best part of three hours just chatting to Rita and Francisca at the bar. Don’t worry about letting them refill your glass or pour you a new wine to try – in three hours I only managed to rack up a bill of €6.50, so you can drink freely without worrying about a budget.
In the centre, Candelabro is a great place to get a drink just before dinner. Try the Porto Tónico – white Porto wine mixed with tonic and served over ice, or a Sovina craft beer. You will find a similar vibe in Aduela which is on the corner of Rua das Oliveiras and Rua de Sá de Noronha.
After dinner, or if you’re planning to make a night of it, head down to the main strip and kick off the evening in Casa do Livro – a spacious bar filled with books. Right next door is Fabrik – not as notorious as the London establishment with a similar name, but a great place to get a drink or two before moving on.
The Wall Bar is just one of many places you can end up on the street that runs parallel to Casa do Livro and Fabrik. The DJ plays a historic playlist, beginning with classics from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s before switching over to current favourites at around 2am.
That’s it for this Weekends Away feature article. Keep checking back for more updates about other locations around the globe. If you have visited a country or city where you only spent a few days and would like to write a Weekends Away feature for The Travellers Post, please get in touch – we’re always looking for new contributors!
All images were taken by the author.