What do you know about Porto? The northern capital of Portugal must be one of our favourite destinations ever. It is blessed with a stunning location, great architecture and thriving cultural and music scene. It has gorgeous weather, affordable prices and a great atmosphere, with a rough edge and a lived-in feel. We spent nearly a week in Porto, wandering and wine-tasting, trying local food and spending endless afternoons sitting on the banks of the river Douro.
Before we travelled, we asked some friends for their Porto tips: happy reading!
1) Francesinha – recommended by Marcelo, a bookworm by day and ladykiller at night.
As soon as we got into Porto, we noticed signs in bars and restaurant proudly stating ‘temos francesinha’. Marcelo told us it’s the city’s unofficial specialty, a symbol of Porto’s harbour heritage. Francesinhas come in all shapes and sizes, from hole-in-the-wall restaurants and fancy black-tie affairs, but the bottom line is the same. A white-bread sandwich filled with an array of meats, topped with melted cheese and drowned in a spicyish sauce. We loved francesinha and decided to look for the best in Porto – check our francesinha-themed post to find out more about it!
2) Wine-tasting at Ferreira, recommended by Fernanda, a schoolteacher and part-time fado chanteuse.
No visit to Porto is complete without crossing the Dom Luis bridge into Vila Nova da Gaia for an afternoon of port-tasting from the dozens of cellar doors in the area. We’re big fans of port, and called at five or six cellar doors during our time in the city. Some wineries are really small, others very touristy, some are massive affairs stretching for several blocks. The one we liked best was Ferreira. It is hard to say why; we loved the dark tasting room, the fact that it was really quiet when we visited, giving us the chance to enjoy our vintage port in total peace and quiet. A wonderful break from the busy riverfront that lies just outside its doors.
3) People-watching on the banks of the Douro, recommended by José, a crazy Real Madrid fan (even though he is Portuguese).
Ok, this is hardly a secret. But as José puts it, the river is what makes Porto what it is. And yes, the Ribeira area of town may be chockablock with pavement cafés and bad street performers, but if you spend some time there and delve beneath the surface, you’ll find some wonderful secrets. A tiny shop, sandwiched between two souvenir stalls, selling beer and snacks, where a tiny grandmother put down her embroidery work to serve us. A wonderful maze of staircases and houses with tiled façades, on the way up to the top of Dom Luis bridge. A group of children diving from the top of the super-famous bridge, not for money like the famous divers of Acapulco and Mostar, just for fun.
4) Mercado do Bolhão, recommended by Ana Luiza, who wrote a book in two weeks
For a market lover like me, this was a top tip. Walk away from the Ribeira and head inland towards the hills. Remember Porto is a town where you need strong legs. Once you’ve had enough of that up and down, go and find Mercado do Bolhao just off the main shopping street, Rua Santa Catarina. This market is strangely reminiscent of an early Twentieth-century train station, with wrought iron roofs and steps up and down the various levels. Spend some time browsing the stalls and enjoying the atmosphere, then sit down for a well-earned lunch at one of the fish restaurants in the ground floor, and order some grilled sardines. A wonderful fish lunch set us back about 20€ for the two of us.
5) View Porto from above – recommended by Max, a Game of Thrones junkie
As I said before, Porto is a city of hills and staircases, of narrow streets and crooked alleyways. There are some scenic vistas (such as the sloped square in front of the town hall) but, generally speaking, Porto is best seen from above. Max recommended two viewing spots; one is the Serra do Pilar Monastery, high above the Dom Luis Bridge on the south side of the river, a hard but rewarding climb at sunset (scroll up to the first picture if you don’t trust me). The other is the Torre dos Clerigos, a bell tower in the city centre. They were both great viewpoints, but my favourite was the monastery.
And here’s a couple of bonus tips of random places and things we loved in Porto.