When I told my Portuguese hostel roommate in Amsterdam that I had just had the most incredible experience in Porto, she laughed wryly and said, “I’m not surprised – the Brits love it there”.
She wasn’t wrong. Whilst Lisbon has always been one of the more popular European destinations, Porto has, for years, remained hidden in the shadow of Portugal’s capital city.
However, Porto has finally begun to garner the tourist attention it has deserved for so long. Of course, this is no surprise – with historical architecture, a cafe on every corner and a truly unique art and nightlife scene, there is something for everyone in Porto.
When I paid a visit to Porto, I was lucky enough to experience the city alongside a friend of mine who has lived there for quite a few years. This means that, whilst seeing some of the stunning tourist hotspots, I also got to dip my toe in the more local Portuguese culture and experience some things that I never would have thought to do otherwise.
So, in no particular order, here are ten things that every first-time Porto visitor should try.
10. Visit the Crystal Palace Gardens
If you visit Porto in the summer, the Crystal Palace Gardens are an absolute must-see. A haven of natural wildlife, blossoming flowers and captivating views over the Douro River, the Crystal Palace Gardens are truly idyllic. Wander around and explore the waterways and artistic pavilion, or simply find a spot, bask in the warm weather and relax.
9. Try a Francesinha
When visiting a new country, trying the local cuisine is a must. When in Porto, try ordering a francesinha and give your tastebuds a unique experience.
A francesinha is best described as a more heavy sandwich, made up of two layers of bread with (traditionally) meat in the middle, doused with melted cheese, soaked in a beer and tomato sauce. It is rather tasty, and one of the most filling meals I’ve eaten in a long time, especially when served with the traditional side of french fries.
8. Take a Cable Car Across the Douro River
The Douro River is the Iberian Peninsula’s third longest river, and its port is one of the city of Porto’s main attractions, with thriving bars, cafes and markets lined up along the riverside.
To get a quick, sky-high view of the landscape, try taking a cable car across the Douro River – it only costs €6 and although the journey is short, the views and photo opportunities are unrivalled. If heights aren’t your thing, there are also a range of boat tours and cruises available.
7. Go and see the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art
The Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art is a wonderful experience for art, nature and history lovers alike. Admire the art-deco Serallves Villa, and peruse the unique and captivating authentic artwork displayed within the museum itself.
Top off the visit with a walk around the Serralves Park, or get a better view by taking a wander up above on a treetops adventure.
6. Admire the São Bento Train Station
It might seem unusual to have a train station on a Porto top ten list. However, anyone who has visited Sao Bento can agree that it is a sight to behold.
This twentieth-century train station has walls adorned with thousands of ornate tiles painted by artist Jorge Colaço with an array of captivating images that represent everyday life in Porto. It is a fantastic (and free!) example of Porto’s artistic beauty hidden in plain sight.
5. Drink in Porto Old Town
If you are a fan of exploring the nightlife, drinking in Porto is an exceptional experience. Explore an array of unique bars in the Old Town and, if you are a beer drinker, be sure to try Super Bock, the primary beer in North Portugal.
When it gets late, venture down to Rua dos Mártires da Liberdade and find yourself amongst a hub of local bars and late-night cafes, where locals and tourists alike enjoy humungous cups of sangria on the street and have a chat.
This is a great place to make some friends, or simply enjoy a cheap drink.
4. Spend a Day at the Beach
For beach lovers, Porto is a great place to be. Although you may not find sun, sea and sand right on your doorstep, there are a number of beaches easily reached by a short bus or car journey.
The closest beach to the city centre is probably Leça Beach, Matosinhos, only a short 15-minute bus ride away from the centre of Porto.
However, if Leça Beach is a little too crowded for your taste, try venturing to the idyllic Gondarém Beach in Foz. Only 40 minutes away by car, Gondarém Beach boasts a variety of cafes, bars, miniature rock pools and lagoons.
3. Explore the Ribeira
The Ribeira is one of the most popular places to visit in Porto, and there is no wonder why. Located in the heart of the old town right beside the riverbank, the Ribeira is home to an array of shops, cafes and restaurants.
Browse a variety of independent shops, admire the street art and take in the colourful rows of terraced houses before stopping for a milky meia de leite and a pastel de nata in one of the many coffee shops and enjoy Porto at its finest.
2. Explore Porto’s Wine Cellars
Porto is known for its fine selection and importation of Port wine, and Gaia – Porto’s parallel city, just across the Douro River – is home to the best of the best.
Port wine has never been a particular favourite of mine in all honesty, but I still had a thoroughly excellent time exploring the cellars.
There are plenty of Port-tasting experiences available, but I would personally recommend Taylor’s Port – a 300-year-old cellar steeped in history with panoramic city views from the terrace is difficult to beat.
1. Visit Porto Cathedral
Last but my no means least, any trip to a new city is incomplete without taking a tour of at least one historical landmark (in my opinion, anyway). A staple place to start in Porto is the cathedral, a twelfth-century construction that combined Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles.
Whether you are a history lover or not, it is worth marvelling at this significant church to really immerse yourself in a taste of Porto’s past.
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