Experience the enchantment of Porto, Portugal.
Explore the beauty and charm of this small port town north of Lisbon.
Looking to escape the wonderful chaos of modern European cities and experience the charm of a smaller coastal town? Porto, Portugal is arguably one of the best hidden gems of Europe, offering the coziness and quiet beauty of a fishing port that echoes the romance and enchantment of centuries past. The three days I spent in this oasis were unlike any other and felt like a journey into another world, where a mix of nature’s beauty and delightful architecture catered to a slower, more relaxed style of life.
Located north of Lisbon, Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities and boasts a collection of impressive architecture, a bustling nightlife, incredible food and infamous wine. I spent a weekend in this quaint oasis and indulged in it all.
To begin your first day in Porto, a hearty breakfast is a must. The Traveller Caffe is a great spot to get your fill of eggs, smoothies and juices. Right off the main shopping strip, Rua Santa Caterina, this café offers a full breakfast menu, a selection of uniquely flavored espresso drinks (I recommend the Milky Way Cappuccino), and a friendly staff that understands English. There’s also terrace seating if you want to soak up the sun while enjoying your meal. The service is great, the prices are reasonable, and the café caters to travelers and locals alike.
Walk five minutes from downtown Porto to hit some of the top tourist spots before the later crowds arrive. Duck inside the Libraria Lello, an old library whose walls are lined high with shelves upon shelves of dusty classics. Climb the old, wooden spiral staircase and peruse the upper floor. The design and architecture of the bookstore make it unlike any other, and the whole building is just as magical as the fiction novels sold within.
Just a few paces from Lello is the Torre Dos Clérigos, an old baroque bell tower that’s open to climb during the day. A 3 euro ticket gets you access to the museum inside, as well as the observation deck at the top. The panoramic view of the city is worth the climb.
To truly explore every facet of Porto life, I highly recommend taking a walking tour during your trip. Free tours are offered daily by Pancho Tours and last for 2.5 hours. Starting at the city center, you will get the chance to explore all the neighborhoods and sights Porto has to offer, and each guide has their own personal story to tell. You will meander through São Bento Station, duck through the market stalls in the Mercado Bolhao, wander through the cobbled streets of the old district and even scale the medieval wall that once surrounded Porto. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes! Free tours are what you make of them, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and request to stop at specific sites to take photos.
By now you’ve worked up an appetite walking the length of the entire city. Double back to the Mercado Bolhao and peruse the stalls for something delectable. The Mercado Bolhao is an open air, authentic fish and food market. While locals buy fresh, raw meat and seafood here, there are also small restaurants where you can get authentic, ready to eat meals. Porto boasts some of the best seafood in Europe; don’t be intimidated away by the smell or live catches still flopping around in salty buckets! You can also browse a selection of local wines and cheeses to try. A trip to the Mercado is not complete without a stop at a baker’s stall to try some of Portugal’s world famous pastries. “Nata”, a custard tart wrapped in a piecrust, is my personal favorite. The Mercado Bolhao is the perfect place to taste real Portuguese cuisine prepared by locals.
Stuffed from your lap around the Mercado, it’s time to take a break and relax. There’s no better place in Porto to sip tea in lavish luxury than the Majestic Café. Surrounded by carved wood, china and chandeliers, you’ll feel like royalty while sipping a delicious (while albeit overpriced) cup of espresso. It’s rumored that J.K. Rowling, author of the renowned Harry Potter series, sat in this very café and wrote during her time living in Porto. Perhaps you too will be inspired by the beautiful and elegance of the Majestic Café.
While the sun is still high in the city, walk down by the Riviera, the stretch of buildings that border the Duoro river. There you can shop for clothes from local vendors, enjoy live music and take in the majestic and impressive architecture of the Luís I Bridge. With a design reminiscent of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the bridge is certainly a landmark that characterizes this precious city. Cross the bridge on foot to reach the other side of the Duoro, where you’ll be greeted with rows upon rows of wineries and cellars housing the best wine Europe has to offer. Many of the wineries offer tastings and trying a glass of Porto’s port is a must. Don’t forget that port has a higher alcohol content than regular wine! Basking in the sun by the river with a glass of wine in your hand…what could be better?
Once you’ve had your fill of sun and sauce, cross back over the bridge to find dinner along the Riviera. If you’re looking for something hearty and Portuguese, you must try a Francesinha sandwich. A combination of meats, cheese, sauce and bread, the Francesinha is a dish that is traditionally shared among friends and eaten slowly. Eat under a tent while the sun sets on the Duoro.
Porto offers some of the best nightlife I’ve seen in Europe. I was shocked at the outpouring of people that crowded the streets outside bars and clubs into the early morning. There are many bars to choose from depending on your mood, and the combination of good music, good wine and good people will only add to the already amazing day you’ve spent in this wonderful city.