3 DAYS IN // Porto, Portugal (2 and a half really)

Porto is Portugal’s second city. More down to earth than Lisbon. Not as affluent or as spread out, but vibrant, colourful and just as interesting. The Portuguese love of building cities on steep hills is in evidence here as in Lisbon. A big difference from Lisbon is that the River Douro is integral to the everyday life of the modern city. Lisbon’s Tagus River does have a few tourist sites along its banks, but the Douro’s river banks are a major draw for restaurants, tours, entertainers, the port trade and tourists. A bit like London’s Covent Garden with sun, cheap alcohol and better food. There is an abundance of street entertainment and a great vibe. Loved Porto.

We went in June and it was a pleasant 22-24 degrees.  We will be back and spend more time in the city and exploring further up the Douro River.

Porto city view

Magnificent 7 // Porto, Portugal

1. Sample what this city is named after

2. Stroll the Ribeira area

3. Listen and learn with a free city walking tour

4. Join the other Muggles in the Livraria Lello bookshop

5. Bridge the cities

6. Relax on a six bridges cruise

7. Trade in some time to visit the Stock Exchange Palace

Getting there –

We travelled by train from Lisbon. It takes about 3 hours and you get to realise how long Portugal is. We boarded at Santa Apolonia station which is at the end of the blue metro line. The station is old but getting tickets was easy. When you book a ticket you get allocated a seat. We went First Class to Porto (34 Euros each) and second class back, which was around the same fare. It depends on the type of train you take. Our journey to Porto was fine although the air conditioning and lights were intermittent. The train had plenty of clean toilets and a buffet car. In Porto you arrive at Porto’s Comanche station. If your hotel is closer to São Bento station you can take a separate train to São Bento for no extra cost.  If you are in a hotel down by the river, take a taxi for around 8 Euros from Comanche station.  The walk from São Bento with a suitcase in one hand and Google maps in another is tough.

Where we stayed –

Our hotel was the Eurostars Porto Douro. Fabulous, with stunning river views and a small balcony. Breakfast was extra (12 Euros if not booked pre-stay) and worth the money. Would recommend this hotel. A bizarre note is that if you do not put the “please clean my room” door hanger on your door, they won’t!

To eat and drink –

Frankly, none of the restaurants we ate at really stood out.  We had three evening meals; one of them was tucked away in one of the lanes in the Ribeira area which was fine, the second in Gaia after our port wine tour is still a bit of a blur.  The third night was Sunday and lots of restaurants were closed.  We again went to the Ribeira area, and the restaurant’s main room was full so we had to eat in a back room.  No atmosphere, average food, no recommendation other than to be more organised than us and book something in advance.

We did have lunch at Da Terra which is a vegan-friendly restaurant buffet. Most food in Porto ignores vegetables (except potatoes- which Sue informs me are not one of my 5 a day). This place has a wide choice of dishes. I liked the soup, Sue enjoyed the variety. The things we do for love.

Specialities: Cod is common all over Portugal and different versions of bacalhau are in every city.  I love bacalhau and in Porto one recipe was great, the other, with cornbread as a batter, I did not enjoy as much.

There are two standout specialities in Porto.  We did not try either of these but perhaps you will be more adventurous.

Francesinhas are a Porto institution, they are everywhere and were allegedly invented by someone who loved croque monsieur in Paris and devised his own version in Porto when he returned in the 1960s.  It’s basically a sandwich made with bread, ham, sausage, chipolata-like sausage, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries.  Maybe I should have had one after the port wine tour.

Francesinha board

Tripe is also a specialty. This dish, which also comes with beans, sausage, vegetables and herbs, led to the term Tripeiros, becoming a nickname for Porto locals.

There are many other dishes local to Northern Portugal and there are food tours you can take to sample them.  Probably not for vegetarians.

Magnificent 7

Below are the top seven things that we did.  It was a hectic two and a half days. This list is subjective but gives a flavour of some of the things that can be enjoyed in this wonderful city.

1. Sample what this city is named after

Port, Porto, Portugal: there is a strong link between all three! More serious tomes than this one can provide the history. It is fascinating. Nevertheless, Port wine is the star attraction here. The Port lodges are situated in the separate city of Vila Nova de Gaia or Gaia for short, a five-minute walk over the Luiz 1 bridge in Porto. The actual port comes from the Douro valley many miles upriver.  We took the Sandemans tour (27 Euros pp) only because our walking tour guide suggested it. Well, bingo. Brilliant. You meet outside Sandman’s and then are led to a bar up a back street and into a private room. There were nine of us. All females except me and there were three ports to taste: white, tawny and ruby ports as well as plates of cheese and crisps. We were told that we could taste the wines and finish the bottles, so we did! That was three bottles of port for nine of us. I stopped counting after my ninth glass. Interestingly they were not Sandemans, they were Royal Oporto wines and we all loved them. Well, that was the beginning. We then meandered off to Sandemans and were given a tour of the cellars (impressive) followed by two more wines, reserve tawny and white which were Sandemans own, and much stronger at 20% proof. What was fab about this tour was the group. We had two kiwis, two French Canadians, two Germans, an Aussie and us. Great conversations oiled by smooth port. Whether you go to Sandemans or any other port wine house, and there are many, go to one, meet fellow travellers and try not to wake up with a hangover in the morning!

… And if you do, try a chilled white port wine and tonic as in a G &T size.  Very restorative.


2. Stroll the Ribeira area

This is part of the Historic Centre of Porto, down by the river. The narrow, cobbled streets of Ribeira are dotted with small bars and restaurants serving classic Portuguese fare like grilled sardines and bacalhau. Beside the Douro River, Praça da Ribeira square is lined with colourful 18th-century townhouses and beautiful buildings such as the neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace).  It is busy all day with eateries, bars, stalls selling everything cork or tile related and is the place to go for any type of river activity. At night it is buzzing and frankly, it is unmissable in your Porto experience.

Ribeira waterfront
Ribeira waterfront

3. Listen and learn with a free city walking tour

We took the first tour of the day at 1000 (Sandemans). We are glad we did as the day was cool to start with and got very hot near the end. Our guide was Catherine, a resident originally from Wellington, NZ. Probably the best Sandeman’s guide we have ever had in any city due to her involving everyone in the tour and her wry sense of humour. Learned a lot, saw most of the city sites, and got recommendations for places to eat and things to do.

View of Porto from Gaia

4. Join the other Muggles in the Livraria Lello bookshop

This self-styled “most beautiful bookshop in the world” is unique. I do not know of another bookshop that you have to go to a separate store, pay 5 Euros a person and then go and queue up in a line for 30 minutes plus just to enter. Your entrance price is then deducted from any purchases you make in the shop. So what’s the big deal? Apparently JK Rowling (who lived and worked in Porto for a few years and allegedly did start writing the first Harry Potter book in Porto) modelled the bookshop In Diagon Alley on the Livaraia Lello. It certainly has a cool double helix staircase and beautiful stained-glass window, but who knows if it is true or not?

The shop is packed, cameras are everywhere and some people do not understand the concept of taking other people into account. On our visit a Chinese couple monopolised the stairs while they took untold shots, presumably to get the right one for their Instagram feed. But they were annoying. Also, the selection of English language books was interesting. Nothing from the top 20 fiction list at WH Smith’s.

We loved the fact that you had to pay to get into a bookshop and it encouraged all visitors to buy a book. It is entirely possible that some of them will read the book they bought too. Highly recommended.

Livaraia Lello, the self-styled “most beautiful bookshop in the world”.

5. Bridge the cities

Porto is one side of the river, Gaia is the other. There are many bridges connecting the two, but the big daddy is the King Luiz 1 bridge. I cannot recommend highly enough walking the top level from one side to the other. The views are fabulous and an added bonus is that it is free!

King Luiz bridge
King Luiz 1 bridge

6. Relax on a six bridges cruise

If you go on Tripadvisor you will find a lot of reviews bemoaning the fact that the commentary was in Portuguese only. It never fails to amaze me as to how unaware some people are. There are a number of available cruises from the Ribeira area. Firstly, ask if there is a commentary in your language. Secondly, turn the dial located on the seatback. It is always set to Portuguese, but hey presto, turn the dial to 2 and you get English. I think there were nine available languages on the boat we took. The cruise itself is OK. We’ve been on lots of these types of cruises in city centres. It was pleasant (as was the Lisbon equivalent). You hear a load of facts that are interesting, of which you promptly forget 95%. But for 50 minutes as a general visual guide to where stuff is, it was, well, pleasant.

View of three of the six bridges

7. Trade in some time to visit the Stock Exchange Palace

Stock Exchange Palace. This is neither a palace or a stock exchange. It is a municipal building that once housed the Porto stock exchange and is used for a variety of purposes. You have to go on a guided tour and they fill up quickly. The rooms are rich in history and our guide did a good job of explaining who generally uses each of the rooms and the history attached to them. The final room is spectacular. An Alhambra-esque, Moorish room heavily decorated with gold leaf. Beautiful.

stocketmarket palace2
Palacio da Bolsa

Of Note:

São Bento railway station – If you travel through or pass by take a break and go into the ticketing hall and look at the tiles.  They are magnificent and each frieze depicts a story.

São Bento railway station
São Bento railway station

Prepare for a workout – Porto can be described as one of the world’s slowest rollercoasters as the lanes meander up and down all over the place. If you go to or from the river to the centre of Porto up the hill, be prepared for a workout. You will definitely appreciate the air conditioning when you get to your hotel!

Funicular – This operates from the bottom of the King Luiz bridge and if it is hot and/or you are feeling tired it is worth the few euros it costs to get up the hill.  We used it once at the end of a busy day.

Cable car From the top deck of the King Luiz bridge in Gaia there is a short cable car ride to the banks of the Douro.  It’s OK, but the views are no better than what you get from crossing the bridge on foot.


Lessons Learnt

  • Porto is built on a hill.  Some of the roads and lanes are very steep.  Take appropriate footwear.
  • If you are a vegetarian or vegan look up places to eat before you get there.
  • Spend more than 2 and a half days in the city.
  • Pace yourself at the Port wine caverns.  It’s strong stuff.

Fun Fact

The São João Festival in Porto takes place on the night of the 23rd of June each year, Apparently one of the more recent traditions is to hit other partygoers over the head with a plastic hammer.  Guess that’s another variation on getting hammered at a festival!


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