PORTO, PORTUGAL – A COMPLETE TRAVEL GUIDE
Porto may be Portgual’s second largest city but for what it lacks in status it makes up for in authenticity. Porto oozes Portuguese character, colour and charm.
You only have to catch a glimpse of washing drying along the colourful Cais de Ribeira in one of Porto’s most popular tourist areas to realise local life is still very much present in here.
Try getting lost in one of Porto’s cobbled backstreets and you’ll likely stumble across workers enjoying a prato de dia (set lunch menu)in a traditional snack bar. Take yourself for a wander across the famous Dom Luis bridge and you’ll be greeted with the view of dozens of Port cellars all with a rich history to be discovered. Follow the Douro river to the estuary at Foz and you’ll be greeted with wind whipped beaches and a calmer pace of life. Catch a ferry to secret Afurada and enjoy and simple, fresh fish grilled on rickety BBQ’s on the sidewalk. All of these experiences are an indication that Porto has many sides to its story and I encourage you try all of them. Here it the Soi 55 Complete Guide to Porto.
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WHERE IS PORTO?
Porto is based in the the Norte region 3/4 of the way up Portugal. The city of Porto sits on the Douro River just 5km from the coastal area of Foz do Douro. Zoom in and out using the Google Map below to get your bearings.
WHEN TO VISIT PORTO
The best time to visit Porto is in the shoulder seasons (May/June and September) when the weather is pleasant and the city is less busy. The hottest and busiest time to visit Porto is in July and August when temps can reach the 30’s and tourism is at its peak. Winters in Porto are considerably wetter than much of the rest of Portugal and also colder, however you can still experience daytime temperatures of 14-16 degrees. If you are hoping to tie in your trip to Porto with harvest season in Douro Valley you’ll need to visit in September.
FLYING TO PORTO
Porto is surprisingly well connected and the international airport Francisco Sá Carneiro flies direct to over 50 countries. Some of the countries you can fly to direct to Porto from include UK, USA (East Coast), UAE, Finland and Brazil. If you are flying from Lisbon or Faro in Portugal you can sometimes find flights as low as £9 using RyanAir.
Sell the full list of destinations you can fly direct to Porto from here.
My favourite flight booking tool is Skyscanner as you can search over a whole month to find the best prices. I use Skyscanner to book flights to and from Portugal very regularly.
PORTO VIA TRAIN
If you’re coming from another location in Portugal you may want to consider traveling by train. Services from Lisbon, Coimbra, Braga and Algarve are regular and trains are generally very good value. It is cheaper to book tickets in advance (2+ weeks before your intended travel date) but you can also buy direct from the station. Popular routes such as Algarve to Lisbon and Lisbon to Porto do get fully booked during busy periods so I would recommend booking ahead. You can book your tickets using Portugal’s train website Comboios de Portugal which is very easy to use.
Despite its hilly nature Porto is well accessible by foot. If walking between destinations isn’t for you you can use the Metro system or grab an Uber.
Porto’s metro system is a cheap way to explore much of the city but its rechargeable travel card Andante can be a little confusing for first-timers.
When you’re at a ticket machine first you will need to purchase an Andante card (€0.60) and enter the zone you wish to travel to. Central Porto including popular tourist spots are classed as Z2 and the airport is Z4. Next you can choose the number of trips you would like. You’ll get 1 free trip for every 10 purchased. There are plenty of top-up machines in the stations so it is easy to top-up as you go. Alternatively you can get a tour card if you think you’ll will be using the metro a lot. The tour card offers unlimited travel for 24 hours or 72 hours. In my experience I only used the metro to reach the city centre from the airport and a few short trips while there. The important thing to remember is you must tap your Andante card on one of the receivers before each trip; these are in every station and easy to spot. If in doubt watch what other people do.
Uber is popular in Porto and easy to use.
Driving around Porto isn’t for the faint hearted and unless absolutely necessary I would recommend parking out of the city and taking an Uber to your accommodation. There is plenty of free parking in the neighbourhood of Campanha. Although you don’t need a hire car to explore Porto itself the city makes a great starting point for a trip to Douro Valley.
Another card you might want to consider is the Porto Card. This is handy if you have a lot of tourist activities and transport planned while in Porto.
Porto is not short of accommodation options or charming neighbourhoods to stay in. There really is a lot of choice when it comes to where to stay in Porto so here are my picks.
For an authentic experience and the chance of Douro river views stay in the bustling Ribeira district. I have stayed in both of these apartments so can personally recommend them.
This stunning riverside apartment sits just 50m from Dom Luis Bridge and the bars and restaurants of Cais de Ribeira. The apartment features two double bedrooms and a sofa bed with two balconies, kitchen and stunning views over the river.
This Duplex apartment is delightfully squished amongst local houses in Ribeira’s maze of backstreets. The high quality apartment features two small double bedrooms, a good kitchen and living area with comfortable sofa.
Also worth mentioning is Vila Nova de Gaia which sits across the river (just a 5 minute walk) from Ribeira. There are plenty of cosy studios and breezy apartments tucked in between the incredible Port Cellars.
I book almost all of my accommodation through Booking.com. It offers the biggest variety or accommodation options in Porto and usually at the best price too. Cities like Lisbon and Porto do get booked up quite quickly in advance especially in the busier season so If you can try and book in advance. Most properties on Booking.com offer a free cancellation period incase you change your mind. I love the search function too….
TYPICAL TOURIST TO DO
Like every other major European city Porto has some extra popular tourist stops that lots of people want to tick off. With the exception of one or two I generally avoid mentioning these types of actives on our guides as there is already a load of information on google. Instead I’ve focused on traditional, local or genuine experiences that are not mentioned as widely. In Porto there are just a few typical tourist attractions that I do want to me mention before moving on to the juicy stuff
TORRE DE CLÉRIGOS – One of the most popular tourist attractions in Porto is Torre de Clérigos and seeing as though I’m a sucker for a good view I’ve featured in this guide. The Baroque church features a 75m tower with a winding staircase. Book your tickets in advance (€5) and arrive at the tower for opening (9am). Unless you are very unlucky you’ll enjoy the views from the top mostly to yourself. I would avoid visiting the tower in the middle of the day.
LIVRARIA LELLO – Apparently Livraria Lello is the World’s oldest library and rumours say it inspired JK Rowling when writing Harry Potter which I have to admit is a cool story. If you are a library fan or a Harry Potter fan then absolutely go and check it out. To be totally honest I was underwhelmed by Livraria Lello. Personally I think there is many more interesting cafes, houses and shops to explore with interesting features including A Vida Portuguesa next door. As always if you do decide to visit Livraria Lello I recommend visiting early or much later in the day so you avoid the busiest of crowds.
PORT TASTING – One thing I certainly wouldn’t skip is taking part in a port tour and tasting. Even if you are not a wine drinker Port wine is a huge part of Porto’s history and the experience is a fun one to experience while you are in the city. You can learn all about the relevance of this type of wine to Portugal and taste some of the different variations. The port cellars are located across the river from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia – just short walk across Dom Luis Bridge. There are dozens of port cellars to consider which can be a little daunting if you only have a short time. I’ve listed and linked a few of my favourites I’ve below.
GRAHAMS – An informative tour including a short film followed by three port tastings. Graham’s Port Lodge also has some of the best views over the Douro River. I took part in this tour and tasting solo and I felt totally comfortable.
SANDEMAN – A fun tour and tasting. The Sandeman cellar tour is led by a fully caped ‘Don’.
QUINTA DO NOVAL – Great if you want to skip the tour and get straight to the tasting. Quinta do Noval offers different selections of Port and Table wine to try and optional chocolates to pair.
FERREIRAS – Also worth mentioning because Ferreiras is the only Porto company that is 100% Portuguese owned. You can choose from several port or table wine tastings.
If you have a trip to the Douro Valley vineyards planned check out our guide on Wine Tasting in Douro Valley.
When I travel I prefer to look for experiences rather than tick boxes. I usually hunt out unique or traditional experiences that will make a trip memorable. Immersing yourself in local and traditional experiences will help you get a real feel for both Porto and the Portuguese way of life. The good news is Porto is not short on experiences!
While I can appreciate the architecture I don’t usually have much of an interest in religious architecture while I’m traveling. However I’m a sucker for art and design and the beautiful Azulejos (hand painted ceramic tiles) that adorn many of the churches in Porto have me head over heels. The Azulejos that can be found on some of Porto’s most famous churches and inside the gorgeous Sao Bento station are typically blue and white but you can find different coloured and patterned versions all over the city. A great way to see the city is walking from each of these churches and looking out for more examples of these beautiful tiles; you’ll soon start to notice Porto is covered in them.
PASTEL DE NATA MAKING
If you’ve been to Portugal it is highly likely you have tried the sweet treat that is Pasteis de nata. The custard tart recipe originated in Belem in Lisbon but the tart has become popular across all of Portugal and sold in every bakery. It is important to note that Pasteis de nata do not keep well and should be enjoyed fresh. What better way to enjoy the typical Portuguese food than by making them yourself. This Air BnB Pastel de Nata Experience made for a super fun afternoon.
HIRE A BIKE AND CYCLE TO FOZ DO DOURO
If you like to stay active during travel and/or enjoy exploring further then hiring a bike is a great way to do it. Porto has so many interesting districts to discover by bike including the beaches of Foz do Douro. Just a 5km flat ride from Porto is this relaxed, windswept stretch of coast – perfect for when you need a breath of fresh air away from the city. Pick up a bike (electric or standard) from Tricla and set off on a mini adventure for the day. Also worth checking by bike out is Matosinhos and Afurada.
FRESH FISH LUNCH IN MATOSINHOS
If fresh fish on on your to-do list in Porto (if not they why not?!) then make some time to visit the fishing port of Matosinhos for a taste of Porto. Matosinhos certainly isn’t a secret but the fish here is some of the freshest you’ll experience in Portugal and delicious seafood dishes are easily found. Scroll down to the ‘Where To Eat’ section to see our favourite.
COCKTAILS WITH A VIEW
A unique view of Porto and Dom Luis bridge can be found from the amazing Porto Cruz Lounge. Based on the 4th floor this rooftop bar and terrace serves up Port wine cocktails (yes its a thing) such as pink port, orange and chilli (yes its delicious).
They are a little hard to pin down via e-mail but Porto Cruz also offers Port cocktail making experiences. You’ll learn how to make to very drinkable port cocktails and probably finish off a bottle while you do it. The space has great views of the river and the cocktail class would make a great couple or group activity.
FRANCESINHA AT O GOLFINOS
Another foodie tick box whilst in Porto is the belly-busting Francesinha. This mammoth sandwich is Portugal’s answer to the French Croque Monsiuer. The sandwich includes three types of meat (typically some type of sausage and steak or roast meat) topped with cheese and served on a bed of chips. What makes the Francesinha so special though is the rich, slightly spicy beer gravy addition. Each restaurant has its own recipe which is guarded carefully. Do your research before you arrive so you are guaranteed a traditional version of Porto’s famous sandwich. I tried out the local-filled O’Golfinos and was not disappointed.
Possibly Porto’s best kept secret is the fishing village of Afurada. If you want to experience traditional Portuguese life and eat like a local spend the afternoon in sleepy Afurada. Take a look at the communal washing hut for a glimpse at a bizarre tradition and then nibble sardines straight from one of the many street side BBQ’s. Afurada is located about 4km west of the port cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia or a short ferry hop from Ouro on Porto side.
MERCADO DE BOLHÃO
The emblematic Mercado de Bolhão is one of the most famous markets not only in Porto but in Portugal too. The market originated in 1893 when the land was bough by the local council but the actual building wasn’t constructed until 1914. A century on and Bolhão has managed to hold on to customers despite the ever growing number of super market chains now available in Porto. At the moment the original market is undergoing renovations and is expected to re-open in July 2020 and the sellers have moved to a temporary space. Although the market space is less charming than its predecessor the quality of the produce is exactly the same and even if you visit before the original building is completed I urge you to shop for some local produce here.
FINDING HIDDEN CAFES, RESTAURANTS + BARS
Without a doubt one of my favourite things to do when I visit a new city is explore different neighbour hoods in search of local hangouts. Arm yourself with a bit of basic language (see the bottom of this guide) and make conversation with the locals. I always like to seek out a restaurant not featured in any guides.
The sheer amount of wonderful food and drink in Porto deserves its own blog post which I’m currently working on but in the meantime here is an eclectic list of a few foodie experiences. I have personally visited and recommend each of the restaurants and bars below. I spend an incredible amount of time and pride in making sure our travel guides feature a mix of both popular, local and secret bars and restaurants so you can make the most out of your trip to Porto.
Located on the first level up on the beautiful Cais de Ribeira. Riberia 50 is one of my favourite tapas style restaurants I’ve visited in Porto. This small restaurant has some inside tables but the only spot you’ll want is one of the tables looking out over the Douro. Expect a top notch range of tapas style dishes and a very reasonable price considering its location. If you can nab a table at Ribeira 50 at sunset you’ll be in for a treat.
This tiny hidden restaurant in Vitória is a cosy and unique experience. Porta 4 only has 4 tables so booking in advance is essential. The small tapas style menu is carefully chosen and decidedly tasty. The intimate setting at Porta 4 makes it perfect for couples. Vegetarian options available.
Have you ever dined in a wine cave? Well this is exactly what a meal at Wine Box feels like. The cosy corner restaurant has an extensive wine list and delivers a satisfying range of small and large plates to try. You’ll get handed an interactive menu where you can create your own personal order. If you have a specific type of wine you’re looking for its likely they have something to suit your palette here.
Adega Bodega is a lovely afternoon spot with a view towards the stunning Igreja do Carmo. Chill out, enjoy a cheese board and a glass of port…you’re in Porto after all.
Zenith is the ultimate brunch restaurant in Porto. A superb menu with the likes of famous pancakes, açai bowls and eggs Benedict plus a buzzy vibe. If you’re the kind of person that loves a Aperol Spritz with your avocado toast this is your place as Zenith also have a great cocktail menu. Veggie and Vegan options available. Book in advance.
Your pick of some of the freshest fish Porto and in fact Portugal has to offer can be found in Matosinhos. I loved the local experience at Dish Fish restaurant. Dining on the rooftop meters away from the fishing Port felt so authentic. Make sure you pair your fish with a bottle of vino verde – a light and refreshing Portuguese wine.
Just outside Sandeman Port cellars is a large terrace and bar that offers a relaxed vibe. Try a famous Port cocktail or ay drink of your choice paired with some nibbles.
This lively corner bar is a popular hangout spot for Porto’s young crowd. In Porto for the weekend? Head to Aduela for pre-dinner drinks. They also do a good selection or sharing plates.
Café do Cais
Right on the river edge Café do Cais offers up a swanky alfresco area to enjoy sunset or post dinner drinks. Sipping Port whilst admiring the twinkling lights of the Port cellars over at Gaia is a great way to end the day.
Taberna Santa António
My pick of local bars is this gem on the corner close to Porta 4 restaurant. Taberna Santa António is a typical Portuguese snack bar with indoor seating and outdoor benches. Grab a cerveza and drink with the locals.
I’m a big coffee fan and speciality coffee shops are some of the first thing I look for when I research my next trip. Portugal is not known for good speciality coffee and outside of the main cities its almost impossible to find. Luckily Porto has been on the speciality coffee scene for a while now and there are some brilliant spots to add to your itinerary.
Based alongside the dozens of port cellars in Vila nova de Gaia 7G is a top spot for breakfast and of course, decent coffee.
My favourite spot in Porto for a good coffee. The guys that run Combi have a real passion for coffee and it shows. Combi also has a coffee van that is parked up somewhere around the city. You can find out where here.
Moustache has two floors and outdoor seating so plenty of space to grab a table which can be tricky to find in Porto. They also serve up a whole host of yummy dishes and great coffee of course.
With travel becoming more accessible than ever before more of us are jumping on cheap flights and sharing our experiences with the world. Unfortunately the growth of social media has put pressure on us to travel a certain way. I’ll be writing a post on this soon but in the meantime I just want to point out the importance of planning your trip for you and not for social media. Remember that quote comparison is the thief of joy? The same applies for travel.
If religious architecture is your thing then go tick off those beautiful church boxes, if you are a foodie at heart hunt down those secret local restaurants, if you love photography go and find the perfect vistas to capture the moment. Give yourself time to get to know the destination you’re traveling to, do and see what interests you not whats popular at this moment. Enjoy being in the moment (even if it isn’t picture perfect) and you’ll leave with the best memories.
Of course if there is a super popular tourist attraction you don’t want to miss then you should absolutely include that in your itinerary too but don’t feel like you should see something because everyone else has seen it or because Culture Trip says you should. Aim to arrive at top tiered attractions early and you will almost always be able to enjoy them with less people around. Use our guides to help plan your itinerary and then give yourself freedom to go with the flow when you arrive.
MONEY: Although some bar, restaurants and shops do take card many of the smaller, local places do not so it is wise to carry cash on you. There are plenty of ATM’s around the city. Look for local bank ATM’s rather than currency exchange ATM;s and you’ll save money. Or even better get a prepaid travel card.
I always travel with Revolut. Revolut is a free prepaid card and app that you can hold and transfer multiple currencies on. You can use the contactless Revolut card abroad and at home with no exchange fees whatsoever. Simply top up using the app and transfer between currencies whenever you like. You can also transfer money to friends with Revolut in one tap; super handy when you need to split the bill. I have been using Revolut since we moved to Portugal three years ago and I have saved hundreds of £’s compared to using my UK bank account. There is no set-up fee or running costs (it is completely free) and you will also receive a free card when you sign up below. I’ve also written up a post on the Best Travel Money Card if you want to read more about Revolut.
TIME ZONE: GMT+0 (same as UK)
LANGUAGE: European Portuguese
Porto is a popular destination for British holidaymakers (and many other nationalities) so the lots of restaurants, cafes and bars speak good English. However, most Portuguese will appreciate you making a small effort when it comes to learning their language so even if it is a simple bom dia (good morning!) you should try you best while you are visiting beautiful Portugal.
Here is some very basic phrases and words to start with…
Do you speak English?
I speak a little Portuguese
Eu falo/a um pouco de Português
Chicken with piri piri Frango piri piri
Water sparkling/still Agua com gas/sem gas
Red wine Vinho tinto
White wine Vinho branco
Green wine Vinho verde
Do you have? Você tem?
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