We’re gonna let you in on 4 little secrets about Porto: first, it’s the second biggest city in Portugal. Second, it’s #1 for wine. Third, it’s umm… it’s uhhh…
we came for the wine… but we left with… we ummm… sorry, what were we talking about?
Porto offers the perfect mix of culture, cuisine and calorie-burning activities. Quite simply: Porto is awesome, but don’t just take our word for it. Take the word of the 426,859 travelers who just voted it the Best European Destination of 2017… for the 3rd time in the last 6 years.
OK, no more math. Just go enjoy Porto!
- Getting There
- Getting Around
- Where to Stay
- Where We Slept
- Dining & Imbibing
- Day 1 – explore Porto by land & by sea
- Day 2 – taste Port in the caves of Gaia
- Day 3 – enjoy the world’s best fish (?!) in Matosinhos
⌲ Planning Your Trip
By plane: Porto’s Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport (OPO) is the 3rd busiest airport in Portugal (behind Lisbon & Faro), and a key intercontinental hub, connecting Europe with both North America & South America. The airport is located about 8 miles (13 km) north of the city center.
By train: located about 2 miles east of the city center, Campanhã station is Porto’s primary railway station, connecting Porto to other national hubs such as Lisbon and Coimbra. At the local level, Campanhã station is connected to the city center by suburban rail, bus and metro (light rail).
São Bento station is Porto’s central station, and is regarded as a landmark in the city center. It’s also the starting point (or ending point) for the scenic Linha do Douro: a 120 mile (190 km) stretch of railroad along the Douro River, which is considered one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe.
By boat: in July 2015, Porto also put its name on the map as a major cruise destination, with the grand opening of the Porto Leixões Cruise Terminal, located in Matosinhos.
Although Porto is very well-connected through a modern network of buses and metros, the best way to explore the city is by foot. From the alleyways of the northern hills to the southern wine cellars, a stroll through Porto often seems like a trip back in time. The city has done a remarkable job of preserving architecture, and this brings a historical charm that is best appreciated while walking & wandering.
travelhelix tip: if possible, avoid driving in Porto! We rented a car, which turned out to be a major inconvenience. In the city center, the streets are narrow, corners are sharp and parking places are nearly impossible to find. Save yourself the hassle, and make use of the bus & light rail systems.
Other modes of transportation in and around the city:
- Bus: the line 500 bus route is considered one of the most scenic public transport routes in Porto, running from the city center along the coast until it ends at the famous seafood market of Matosinhos. A one-way trip from beginning to end takes about 40 minutes.
- Light rail: Porto’s light rail system is a convenient & cost-effective option for moving around the city. The entire network connects 68 stations and is Portugal’s biggest rapid transit system.
- Tram (streetcar): Porto’s first streetcar began operating at the end of the 19th century. Over 120 years later, 3 of these tram lines remain. Although we didn’t get a chance to ride one, we did see the famous Line 1 (Passeio Alegre-Infante) in operation, taking locals & tourists from central Porto north along the coast toward Matosinhos. Next time!
- Water taxi: if you need to cross the Douro River, local water taxis provide a convenient alternative to walking up and over one of the 6 bridges.
Where to Stay
The Douro River separates Porto from Gaia. The two cities essentially function as one, and are connected by 6 bridges which make it easy to cross from one side to the other. Nonetheless, when considering the many options of where to stay in Porto, the first thing you’ll need to decide is: “which side of the river seems like the better fit for me?”
North of the River
Central Porto offers rich history, charming walking streets, squares, parks, museums, palaces & cathedrals. If you like staying in the middle of the action, then find a place north of the river in Porto’s city center.
travelhelix tip: the riverfront Ribeira district – still north of the river but right on the water – may offer a good compromise if you can’t decide between north or south.
South of the River
Vila Nova de Gaia (commonly known simply as Gaia) is the heart and soul of the Port wine industry. If you prefer being as close as possible to the Port cellars, then Gaia is the place for you.
travelhelix tip: if you prefer to “look at” Porto rather than “live in” Porto – search for accommodation that lists “views of Porto” as a feature. If you’re skeptical, ask them to send you pictures of the views you can expect!
insider’s tip: although we did not stay here ourselves, some of D’s family members and friends stayed at The Yeatman Hotel in 2016 and had an incredible experience. Located in the hills of Gaia, this 5-star hotel offers breathtaking views of the Douro River and central Porto beyond it.
Where We Slept
We found a fantastic Airbnb in the Vitória district, north of the river. Full of pedestrian-only promenades, walking distance to many of the historical sites, and only a few minutes from the heart of the nightlife scene, this area was perfect for us.
In 15 minutes, we were able to walk from our Airbnb down through the streets of central Porto and arrive at the Dom Luís I Bridge: our gateway to the Port cellars!
Dining & Imbibing
Porto is an absolute gastronomic paradise. During our 3 days in the city, most of our dining decisions (both the restaurants we chose & the dishes we ordered) were selected at random, and every meal turned out to be completely delicious. The best advice we can give: ask a local for their recommendation, or follow our lead and make some impulse decisions!
Dining in Porto: a few recommendations:
- Seafood – Porto is widely regarded as one of the prime seafood destinations in Europe. From sardines to sea bass, swordfish to octopus, you’ll find it all on the menu. For the best seafood in the area (or possibly the world?), even the locals leave the city center to visit nearby Matosinhos.
- Wines – the city of Porto has a lot more in their repertoire than Port wine. On a hot day, a fizzy and refreshing glass of vinho verde (“green wine”) will hit the spot, and on ANY given day, a glass of local Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain) is sure to be a palate-pleaser. This white grape is considered one of the best in a region known for greens & reds.
- Francesinha – the “little Frenchy” may be the most well-known (& notorious) snack food in Porto. This sandwich – which consists of ham, linguiça, sausage, steak, melted cheese and a thick BEER SAUCE (yes, all of those things) – makes a great meal before a long night out. Coincidentally, it also makes for a great meal AFTER a long night out. Who doesn’t love a multi-functional sandwich?!
- Zenith – with the motto “brunch all day, every day” – how can you go wrong? Another unplanned & incredible find, just a few short blocks away from our Airbnb in the Vitória district, right on Praça de Carlos Alberto. We enjoyed eggs benedict served on a bed of sweet potatoes, and a couple of Bloody Mary’s. Sweet tooth in the morning? How about some Oreo pancakes. Definitely check this place out!
- Chocolataria Equador – we can all thank D’s sweet tooth for this impulse decision! The chocolate + Port pairing that we enjoyed here was the perfect dessert to follow a long day of walking and Port tasting. The shop is about a 20-minute walk north of the river, and they also have a Lisbon location.
quick public service announcement: please don’t think we’ve forgotten about Port wine!! We’ve got you covered during DAY 2 of our suggested itinerary 😉
⌲ Suggested Itinerary
DAY 1: EXPLORE PORTO BY LAND & BY SEA
Cruise Under 6 Bridges in the Morning
Porto is the Land of Port, but it is also the land of bridges: 6 bridges, to be exact. There’s no better way to discover all 6 than with a guided boat tour of the Douro River, and this activity is the perfect way to kick off your first day in Porto. As you float down the Douro River in a Rabelo boat – the same boats that transported wine from the vineyards to the cellars, hundreds of years ago – you’ll have the chance to sit back and appreciate your beautiful surroundings, while learning a bit of local history.
If you’re interested in just a quick orientation, book a 50-minute tour. If you’re looking for a longer Douro exploration – or even a private chartered tour – you’ll find those options available as well.
Stroll the Riverfront
The Ribeira district runs along the north side of the Douro River, and is a wonderful area to wander by foot while soaking in some of the local ambience. Along the riverfront, all your senses will be heightened: street performers and musicians alert the ears & eyes; cafés and restaurants arouse the nose & tongue; and local merchants offer various treasures to touch – and possibly take home!
Other Things North of the River
Depending on how long you’ve cruised the river and strolled the streets, it may be time for lunch or an afternoon nap. If you’re still up for activity, here are a couple more things to do, north of the river:
- Funicular dos Guindais – from the nearby Sé do Porto, it’s only a 10-minute walk back down to the Ribeira waterfront. There, board the train car that was originally built to transport Port up into the hills of central Porto. The 3-minute ride costs around 2€, and offers some beautiful views.
- Harry Potter’s Library – that’s right folks, Livraria Lello is right here in Porto, and has been since 1881. Geek out a little, buy a book, or do both; the choice is yours…
DAY 2: TASTE PORT IN THE CAVES OF GAIA
A trip to Porto couldn’t be complete without a visit to the Port wine cellars in Gaia, on the south side of the Douro River. These cellars (known locally as “caves”) have been home to the Port wine-making process for hundreds of years. Pay them a visit, and the caves may become your new favorite “home away from home.”
getting there: if you’re staying north of the river, you’ll need to cross to the south side. Depending on where you’re coming from, the walk may be anywhere from 10-30 minutes. The Dom Luís I bridge is the most direct path to take you into the heart of the Gaia wine caves. Crossing the river is also possible by water taxi.
There are countless Port wine caves to choose from in Gaia. Nearly all of them will offer tastings. Many of them also offer guided tours. Some are big name brands. Others are boutique labels you’ve certainly never heard of.
Our advice: try both. An off-the-beaten-path exploration down a Gaia side-street may turn into an unforgettable Port tasting experience…
… in fact, that was exactly our experience!
Our Off-the-Beaten-Path Port Cave: Augusto’s
This family-owned brand takes pride in their limited-batch production. Only 25k – 30k bottles of Augusto’s Port are produced each year. With volumes at that level, you won’t find this brand at your local wine shop – wherever you live. A true “quality over quantity” story, and a great business case to support the idea that bigger is not necessarily better. They’re small. They’re happy. And they make some incredible Port wine!
During our 90-minute visit, we split a tasting flight and received a crash-course in Port from one of the friendly & knowledgeable sommeliers. In the end, we took home a 1996 vintage as a gift for D’s Port-loving Mom ♥. They only had 19 bottles left of that particular vintage, and D got to choose the bottle, which made our Augusto’s experience that much more special & memorable!
travelhelix tip: if you prefer to wait until Duty Free on your way out of Portugal to buy your Port, that won’t work with Augusto’s. If you visit their cave, do yourself a favor and buy a bottle (or 3). It’s quite possible you won’t see this brand again until your next trip to Porto!
Our “Big Name Brand” Port Cave: Kopke
The Gaia riverfront is home to a few of the much larger caves that house the biggest, globally-recognized brands (such as Dow, Graham & Taylor). We decided to try a big name brand we had never heard of, and soon found ourselves at Kopke.
Founded in 1638 by a German family that visited Porto, Kopke is the oldest brand of Port in the world. We enjoyed a very nice tasting flight which included:
- 5 Port wines
- 8 chocolates
- 8 crackers
- 1 sleeping chair
If you still have the energy…
Take the Gaia Cable Car up to the “Miradouro da Serra do Pilar” for an incredible panorama view of Gaia, Porto and the majestic Douro River running between them.
Finally, if you’re staying north of the river like we did, say goodbye to Gaia, and stroll back across the Dom Luís I bridge for an afternoon nap.
DAY 3: TAKE A DAY TRIP TO MATOSINHOS
Porto’s oceanfront neighbor to the northwest – Matosinhos – is known throughout Portugal as a prime seafood destination. To the locals however, the fish here is more than just “great” – it’s the best in the world. If you’re visiting Porto, set aside a day and add this charming fishing village to your itinerary.
getting there: the two city centers of Porto and Matosinhos are less than 5 miles (8 km) apart and are closely connected through a network of buses and metros. We took the bus, and strongly recommend it. Taxi is always an option, but if you’re traveling on a budget, the bus or metro are the way to go.
Our Matosinhos experience was spent at Casa Serrão. The seafood rice was amazing, and the crème brûlée was cooked on an outdoor grill. What more could you ask for?!
Check out our Matosinhos travel guide to get the full breakdown on how best to plan an action-packed day in Matosinhos. In the meantime, here are a few of our favorite photos, for inspiration:
MORE THAN 3 DAYS IN PORTO? WELL, KEEP EATING & DRINKING!
If you want to spend more than 3 days in the Porto region, consider a local food tour, or venture out into the country for a full-day river tour.
As for the two of us, our time in Porto has come to an end, and its time to make the 3-hour drive to Lisbon.
Thank you, Porto – you were delightful & delicious!!!