Though it has increased in popularity the last few years, Porto is still a highly underrated destination amongst travelers. Located towards the northern end of Portugal, Porto is the country’s second largest city behind Lisbon. If Lisbon is the flashier sibling that gets most of the attention, Porto is the more subtle one basking in old world charm. From the cobbled streets to the titled mosaic walls and the narrow passageways, Porto’s aesthetics are like a century old vintage photo. Compliment the stunning scenery with a deep history and tantalizing cuisine, you’ll have a great European destination. I spent 2 days in Porto and it was ample time to explore and immerse in the city.
“Portugal has got a lot of coastline and a lot of history with the sea. It’s a close relationship, one that’s imprinted deep into the national character — the songs, the poetry, the state of mind.”ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Where I Stayed
I stayed at an Airbnb in the Vitória neighborhood, located in between the Baixa and Ribeira areas. I took the subway into town from the airport and the apartment was only a 10 minute a walk from Trindade station. This was ideal because it was pouring rain that day and I didn’t pack an umbrella. The neighborhood felt very “local” with its narrow streets and mom-and-pop restaurants and shops. The location was very convenient, as I got to everywhere I needed to go in Porto simply by walking. However, Porto’s core isn’t that big so it doesn’t take long to get around by foot.
Where I Ate
Getting off the subway from the airport, I wanted to grab a quick lunch before heading to my Airbnb, but more importantly, my phone was only a few percent away from being totally dead. BOP Café was a popular eatery and luckily a few blocks from the station. Inside, the space reminded me of something you would find in Brooklyn. A lot of natural, vintage wood decor with a thousand vinyl records lining one side of the restaurant. I guess BOP Café was “American” cuisine because the menu had familiar foods like salads, sandwiches, and burgers, with nothing Portuguese at all. Always curious of how burgers taste in different locales, I ordered the cheeseburger, which turned out underwhelming. Outside of stopping by BOP Café for a drink, I would pass on the food.
Porto’s most heralded dish is the francesinha, a generous sized sandwich filled with assorted meats and covered in melted cheese. Supposedly, the key and differentiating element to a great francesinha is the sauce that coats the sandwich. Different eateries tout their sauces as being the best in town, but one of the most popular spots to enjoy a francesinha is Café Santiago, whose recipe is a well-kept family secret. Sitting at the restaurant’s counter, I ordered the behemoth comprised of thick loafed bread, mortadella, sausage, beef steak, ham, cheese, and a fried egg on top. When it came out, it looked like a yellow block of butter (with probably just as much calories). I loosened up my pants and dove in, sipping a Super Block beer to help the digestion. The francesinha was pretty good and obviously super hearty. Avoid eating if you aim to be physically active afterwards.
Another staple dish in Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau, or dried and salted cod. There are 365 ways to cook bacalhau, so if you’re going to name your restaurant after the cherished national dish, you better make it well. I stopped by Bacalhau (the restaurant) for lunch after an active morning strolling around the Ribeira. The eatery is tucked away at the end of a narrow path next to the Douro River, so it’s not really easy to find. But once I arrived, I was highly impressed with its view. It felt refreshing eating next to the river, as a gentle breeze contributed to a relaxing lunch, outside the few moments. had to shoo seagulls away from stealing my food. I ordered a bacalhau soup and bacalhau confit, and both was delicious.
After walking 10+ miles during the day, I needed nourishment to prevent myself from crashing. I was in the Baixa “downtown” area and after a quick Google search, I found myself at Gazela Cachorrinhos da Batalha. The compact restaurant was bustling like a bar at happy hour. A crowd hovered around a u-shaped counter area, as 4 guys in blue polo shirts hurried around serving beers and taking orders. Located near the Sao Bento train station, Gazela is a popular spot for commuters to grab a quick bite and many chomp away at its famous hot dogs. Differing from the “American” hot dog, Gazela hot dog is served pressed in between a bread with melted cheese and sprinkled with butter and a spicy sauce. I actually like this version more than we have back in the US.
Where I Drank
I didn’t venture out much during my short trip to Porto, but I did have one bar on my list. The Royal Cocktail Club was sleek and modern, different from the old world outside. The bar is located on Rua da Galeria de Paris, the city’s main nightlife drag. Rather being than raucous like its neighbors, The Royal Cocktail Club is more loungey with its modern furniture and crafty menu. The drinks were solid and recommended stop to wind down with a drink. Since I was traveling solo, it was satisfying to engage in small talk with someone. Most people in Porto didn’t know English, but my bartender at TRCC was able to carry a simple conversation.
What I Did
For all you bookworms and Harry Potter fanatics, Livraria Lello is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal and has been ranked among the tops in the world. Built in 1881, the bookstore has attracted folks from all over the world to its decadent design and iconic spiral staircase that connects the first and second floors. Livraria Lello is also famous for being an inspiration for the Harry Potter series, as JK Rowling frequented the store when he taught English in Porto. You can find first editions of the Harry Potter books behind a glass case. It gets really crowded with guests, so go early if you don’t want to wait that long, but expect to. A ticket to get in is 5€
Igreja do Carmo
Built between 1756 and 1768, Igreja do Carmo is one of the most notable examples of rococo style architecture. The church is one of the best places to see azulejo tiles, which is featured on many buildings in Porto. Get up close and admire the detailed illustrations.
Stop by this very cool illustration, drawing, books, zines shop and pick up some art from local creatives to bring back from.
Miradouro da Vitoria
For some great views of Ribeira, work your way up to Miradouro da Vitoria, one of the best viewpoints in Porto. Even better, its free compared to other lookout points trying to lure tourists. It’s a not that hard of walk up, but there is an incline. Getting a birds eye view of the river and the orange tiled roofs makes you appreciate the beauty of Porto.
One of the most popular areas of Porto for visitors is the Ribeira district. It spreads along the Douro River and use to be a major hub for trade during the Middle Ages. Ribeira Square was at the center of it all serving as the meeting place for merchants and buyers. In 1491 the buildings around the square were destroyed in a fire, but were rebuilt to become a very picturesque environment where one can grab a great meal, listen to live music and watch the sunset.
Escadas Do Codeçal
The area near the Douro River is like a maze. You’ll find stairs and alleys that lead to who know where, creating an opportunity to wander and discover. It’s also an opportunity to get a good workout in, as the steep steps can stretch upwards. But it’s worth the effort. You’ll see great views, graffiti, and color buildings, really seeing how locals live within this old part of town.
You can’t visit Porto and not indulge in wine. Near Porto is the Douro Valley, which is a hotbed for vineyards and is where Port wine is produced. Once the grapes are smashed, it’s brought to Porto to age and be shipped to wine connoisseurs all over the world. You can visit the many wine lodges around the city, but for a comprehensive yet fun experience, book a tour at Graham’s Port Lodge. Graham’s is one of the renowned producers of Port wine. The tour will walk you through the entire winemaking experience while showing you the thousands of barrels housed at the lodge. Many have been aged for decades. The tour is capped by a tasting and Port wine is pretty delicious. It’s a little sweeter and darker than a typical red, and the tour will teach you the different notes behind its flavor. Plus you can get a little buzz going. The tour ranges from 18.5-24 €, depending on what you want to taste.