I wasn’t sure I’d even like it, but Porto knows just how to win you over.
All the best things to do in Porto on a weekend break and how to get the most of two and a half days in this lovely Portuguese city.
I have a soft spot for a multi-centre holiday. As someone who works full time and has only 25 days of annual leave, I try to pack as much into those precious days as I possibly can. And as someone who’s tight (I blame my 75% Yorkshire blood) I like how the price of a train ticket to another destination can often work out cheaper than the return flight from the place I flew in from.
I’d seen the pictures of Porto. That lovely bridge, the bright coloured buildings tumbling down the river bank. But I’d also looked for our AirBnB on streetview and been slightly horrified by all the abandoned buildings and the graffiti, and read dark warnings on Tripadvisor about a bad area near the Cathedral. My Google history for the weeks before we left shows how nervous I was.
I needn’t have been worried at all. There are definitely parts of Porto where the vibe is more abandoned than happening, but for the most part the city feels like it’s on the up, and we were glad that we’d had the chance to visit before it gets too tourist-shiny. A case in point: on our first day we wandered into the grounds of an abandoned house high above the Douro river. It was early evening and I’m not entirely sure I would have wanted to be there after dark, but the view was incredible and it was perfectly safe.
All over Porto you’ll see things like this – something beautiful right next to something that looks like its about to fall down. That’s part of its charm, but for every building that looks abandoned, there’s another with renovation work going on and another that’s fully revamped and now houses an artisan chocolate shop or high class restaurant.
The building housing our AirBnB was one of the renovated ones. On gorgeous Rua das Flores (which still had its share of derelict buildings), it was perfectly located for both the historic riverside and the more modern city up the hill. Our apartment was a studio with a little garden terrace and a mezzanine bunk bed arrangement. All small but perfectly formed.
On our first day we arrived in Porto by train from Lisbon at around 3pm, checked into our apartment, dumped our bags and headed back out. We were pleasantly surprised at how small Porto is – I’d expected to be using the Metro and buses to get around but almost all the sights are within easy walking distance of each other.
First on the list was the Livraria Lello bookshop. This amazing little shop has been selling books since 1906 but these days its main claim to fame is that J.K. Rowling is reputed to have been inspired by it while living in Porto in the 1990s. So many people want to visit the original “Hogwarts library” that you now have to pay a small fee and queue to get in – it’s absolutely worth it though. It’s only little inside, and very crowded with Potterphiles, but very beautiful, particularly the gorgeous curvy staircase up to the galleried first floor.
Next we went down to the river, passing Clérigos Tower, gorgeous typical Porto townhouses and the old Mercado Ferreira Borges on the way on the 10 minute walk.
The Ribeira riverfront area is without a doubt the most touristy area of Porto, which isn’t really surprising with such a knockout view of the famous Luís I Bridge. At night there’s another attraction, the light of the Port wine cellars across the river in Vila Nova da Gaia.
The next day we took a boat trip to see the “six bridges” – from the starting point at Ribeira, the trip took us upriver a little so we went under the old railway bridge, then out towards the sea. It was lovely to be on the river and see the bridges up close.
After the boat trip we walked over the lower level of the Luís I Bridge to Vila Nova da Gaia and its Port wine lodges. As we crossed there was a young lad diving off the bridge to a half shocked, half delighted crowd.
Lots of the Port wine lodges offer guided tours but knowing nothing about Port and being a bit intimidated by the whole idea, we opted for the self-guided tour at Taylors. We climbed up a steep but quiet hill past other lodges to the Taylors entrance, paid for our tickets and picked up the audio tour. One of the first stops and by far the most interesting was one of the warehouses where port is aged in massive barrels, piled high in every direction. It smelt really lovely – old, woody, winey, a tiny bit damp but in a nice way.
The roofs at the Port wine lodges are ventilated so some of the alcohol evaporates, a portion known as the Angel’s share. We found out about lots of lovely superstitions and rituals involved in the making of the Port wine, particularly the ritual songs which are sung while the grapes are being trodden by vineyard workers.
At the end of the tour we got to try two Ports, one white (which I had no idea even existed before the tour) and one more like the Christmas standard Port.
After the tour and as the sun started to set we’d hoped to take some photos of the Ribiera side of the river but the weather had other ideas. We were caught in a massive rainstorm and rushed back to the shelter of our apartment.
On our third day we bought hop on hop off bus tickets and enjoyed the ride past Porto’s more far-flung attractions, including the modern Casa de Música to the Serralves estate. We’d seen in one of the leaflets left by our AirBnB host that there was an Autumn Festival going on and that entry to the gardens and art gallery were free, so we went for a look. It was lovely and a bit strange for us as people from the North of England to be wandering around a garden, celebrating Autumn in shorts and t-shirt (it’s more raincoats and jumpers at home) but the atmosphere was really lovely. The house itself is just gorgeous, a pink Art Deco pile of loveliness and made it instantly to dream house status.
We got back on the bus and carried on to the coast at Foz, where the Douro river meets the Atlantic. It was very windy and the sea was rough, but the harbour walls and lighthouses were so beautiful as the waves crashed against them.
We’d also heard that there was a hipster market with live music going on in the nearby park. The Pink Market was quite small but interesting with lots of handmade jewellery and clothing and the park was really lovely.
After we left the market we walked part of the way back into town along the wide riverfront walkway and enjoyed looking at the boats in the harbour.
As a vegetarian, getting something proper to eat in the evening can be a bit of a challenge in Portugal, and most nights we ended up with pizza. Seeking out something a bit more exciting/healthy after a week-long pizza diet we ended up just round the corner from our apartment at daTerra vegetarian restaurant and buffet. On weekdays the restaurant has a buffet lunch and a menu in the evening, but at weekends it’s a buffet in the evening as well and is great value at around 10 euros per person with lots of choice for vegans as well, and everything we tried tasted delicious.
Later that night we walked past the Cathedral and onto the top deck of the Dom Luís I Bridge. It’s a bit surprising but the top deck is shared between pedestrians and the Metro line, so be careful! The bridge shakes a little when a train goes over so isn’t the best for anyone who’s scared of heights but the views are awesome.
After a nervous run-up we had an awesome time in Porto – it’s so different to Lisbon and has a completely different feel about it; so laid back and romantic and I can see us coming back, maybe to travel up the Douro valley and see the vineyards we heard so much about.
Do you have any tips for a return trip to Porto?
We stayed at: An AirBnB studio apartment on Rua das Flores in the middle of the historic centre
We saw: Beautiful bridges, gorgeous buildings, a bookshop which inspired Harry Potter
We ate: vegetarian all you can eat buffet at DaTerra
We drank: Port wine