A guide to Porto, Portugal. This small riverside city is famous for its port wine and tiled buildings, and it an easy trip from Lisbon.
Porto is your quintessential small European city. It has colorful buildings, narrow winding streets lined with cafés, castles, historic churches, and plenty of wine. Porto is small, walkable, and heavy on the charm. It is the perfect place to unwind. If you are heading to Portugal, add Porto to your itinerary.
How to get to Porto, Portugal:
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, and it is only 3 hours from Lisbon. You can hop on a bus or train to get there. I arrived in Porto after spending 10 days in Morocco with my Mom and sister (more on that later), and I just wanted to chill out. Porto is the ideal place for this.
Porto is one of those cities where I just wanted to walk around and admire the architecture. Lisbon has some tiled buildings, but Porto has more. It was warm and sunny and I made an afternoon of wandering around stopping at a few of the city’s landmarks.
What to do in Porto, Portugal:
My first order of business was lunch, so I walked over to Ribeira, the bustling street along the Douro River that is lined with cafés. I wanted to eat two things that I they don’t really have in Morocco – cheese and pork. The cafés in Porto all serve “toasts” which are pieces of toast with toppings – basically an open faced sandwich. I also had the most incredible red fruit sangria at Ribeira 50.
Old City Center
Although I could have happily sipped sangria in the sun all day, I figured I should see the city so I walked up to the old city center. Porto is on a steep hill, so instead of walking it, I took a quick tram to the top of the hill.
A friendly local helped me find the bookshop Livraria Lello. This historic shop has become famous for bring a source of inspiration to J.K. Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter. I was curious to see how a bookshop might have helped to inspire some of my favorite novels, and it became clear as soon as I stepped inside.
There are colorful stained glass windows, ornate woodwork, and the centerpiece of the store is a twisting wooden staircase with crimson stairs. The ground floor has a wooden cart that moves on rails (similar to a train) and is used to move books. It is considered one of the most beautiful book stores in the world.
It’s a small shop, and it is a big tourist destination, so it was crowded. To enter you need to stop by the office next door and purchase a ticket for 4 Euros. I went on a Sunday, but it probably would have been best to visit on a weekday.
Rua Santa Catarina for Shopping
Next, I treated myself to some shopping at Rua Santa Catarina. By this time, I had been traveling for 15 days and I needed some clean clothing.
Sunset at Dom Luis Bridge
I took the train over to the Jardim do Morro stop in Gaia to watch the sunset. The station is at the top of the famous Dom Luis Bridge that connects Gaia and Porto and it is perfect place to watch the sunset.
Once the sun had set, I walked across the bridge to Porto and grabbed dinner at a café.
Port Wine Tasting in Gaia
Porto is the home of port wine, and even though it isn’t my favorite style of wine, tasting port in Porto just seemed like the thing to do. I figured it made the most sense to go to Graham’s, so I made an appointment for a tour and tasting. You do need to make an appointment since tours are given in different languages at different times, but there were several openings when I made a day of reservation.
Gaia is the village across the river from Porto, and it is where you will find all of the port wine wineries. Yes, I am confused about why we call the wine “port” if it really comes from Gaia.
Port wine is made from grapes grown in the nearby Douro Valley, an area known for steep rocky hills. The wine is sent to Gaia were it ages. All port wine is made from a blend of grapes, and it is fortified – which means that alcohol is added to the wine to stop the fermentation process. Usually as wine ferments the sugars turn into alcohol. With Port wine, the fermentation process is stopped so that the wine remains sweet. Since alcohol is added to the wine it has a higher percentage of alcohol.
I tasted three different styles of Graham’s Port: ruby port, tawny port, and vintage port. I liked the tawny port the best. Tawny port has a more caramel color and flavor, and it had less of a sticky sweet taste.
When you buy your ticket for the tour at Graham’s you pick which tasting you want to try. If had the Graham’s Tasting which included tastings of each style of port, and it cost 30 Euros. The basic tasting is just 12 Euros.
I learned that when you spring for a more expensive tasting you get to enjoy your tasting in the beautiful library and not in the somewhat sterile tasting room.
After my port tasting I walked down the hill to Gaia’s riverfront. This is where I discovered Mama Maria Gelato. There is something about having gelato in the warm sun after winter has ended. It seems like the proper way to welcome Spring.
Hop on Hop Off Bus
Next I boarded one of Porto’s many hop on hop off tourist buses. I had never been on one of those buses before, but it seemed like a good way to see a lot of the city in a short amount of time, it also gave me the opportunity to see the coast.
Porto has a lot of churches, and some of them look the same. For a while it felt like the bus was driving around in circles, and in one point it definitely was.
My favorite thing to do in Porto was to sip wine and snack on cheese at the cafés in Ribeira. On my second night in Porto I watched the sunset from Wine Quay Café, which is perfectly situated up on the second level of cafés along the river. The tables at the café face the river, making it the ideal place to enjoy the view. They have a great list of Portuguese wines, and a simple menu of cheese, meats, and snacks. They even give guests water guns to keep the seagulls away.
I stayed at the Vincci Porto, which was just a 5-minute tram ride into the center of the city. The hotel seemed to be freshly renovated, had clean, comfortable, and spacious rooms, and it was only $90 a night. There are hotels that are more centrally located, but I liked how quiet it was at Vincci.