Guest contributor Mike Jensen is a self-proclaimed adventure junkie who writes about his travel adventures at The AdvenTourist. Here, he shares his experience visiting Porto, Portugal’s second largest city.
Porto is one of the most popular cities to visit in Europe right now – and for very good reason.
Its stunning Old Town on the picturesque Douro River, complete with six bridges, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And along with amazing Beaux Arts and Baroque churches, palaces and other buildings scattered around the city, Porto also has some of Europe’s best chefs and freshest seafood, caught right off the Portuguese coast.
Add to that the nearly year-round stunning weather and extremely welcoming and friendly locals, and you have a very attractive city that rivals Lisbon in its appeal.
The downside to being so popular is that Porto can at times get too crowded for its own good.
So, is Porto worth visiting?
Short answer? Yes.
The city is still one of the best places to visit in Portugal. And I’ll offer some tips at the end of this post on how to best enjoy Porto, away from the crowds.
Is Porto worth visiting?
7 Top things to do in Porto
Let’s first cover the Porto attractions we hit on our trip.
Be aware that you need a few days to take in all of the best things to do in Porto.
1) Get lost in the Ribeira (Porto Old Town):
The heart of the city is the Ribeira (the Old Town of Porto).
Criss-crossed with narrow cobblestone streets brimming with 18th century townhouses, this historic district covers a huge area on the northern side of the Douro River, winding its way up around various hills.
Many of the Porto sights covered below are found in the Ribeira.
Most people only walk the main streets near the river or alongside the Clérigos Tower. But I definitely recommend just taking any and every side street and seeing where it may lead.
We found countless buildings with ornate facades, great coffee shops and restaurants, as well as a store where we couldn’t resist buying some new coffee mugs!
2) Climb Clérigos Tower:
Perhaps the easiest landmark to spot in the city is the Clérigos Tower.
Built between 1754 and 1763, the tall bell tower is part of the Baroque-style Clerigos Church. It towers above the Old Town on the “hill of the hanged men,” where executed prisoners were buried.
You’ll no doubt pass the tower countless times on your Porto visit. But don’t just walk by. Pop inside too.
First, you can climb the 225 steps to the top of the 250-ft-high tower, taking in a spectacular 36-degree view of the city.
Second, you can tour the House of the Brotherhood (a museum) and its infirmary, where sick priests and other clergy were nursed.
3) Admire São Bento Station:
Located right in the heart of downtown Porto is one of the bigger train stations – São Bento Station.
If you take the train from Lisbon to Porto or leave Porto by train, you may very well end up at this beautiful station. And if not? Peek inside anyway.
Opened in the early 1900s, the Porto train station depicts Portugal’s rich history in a museum-worthy display of azulejo tiles.
When walking around Porto, you’ll be struck by how many of the buildings are covered in magnificent blue and white tiles.
You see these tiles on churches, cafes, even run-of-the-mill apartments… These tile displays are everywhere.
But the most eye-popping work of azulejo art is inside the São Bento train station.
Some 20,000 tin-glazed ceramic tiles cover almost every wall in the foyer – portraying the battles, victories, pilgrimages and royal weddings in Portugal’s past.
Simply enter the train station from the front, camera at the ready, and try to take it all in.
4) Stroll Cais da Ribeira:
If you wind your way down to the riverside in Porto, you’ll eventually reach Cais da Ribeira. The mostly-pedestrian street running along the waterfront is one of the most popular places to visit in Porto – and rightfully so.
This lively riverside promenade is perfect for taking a leisurely stroll along the Douro River.
Soak in the views of the candy-colored houses along the road, the boats moored in the river (some offering Douro cruises), the huge Luis I Bridge above you (covered next) and all the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank.
With its many cafés, bars and restaurants, Cais da Ribeira is also a great spot for lunch, dinner or even just a drink.
Most of the restaurants fill up quite quickly, so be sure to get there early!
5) Cross the Luís I Bridge:
Now that you’ve immersed yourself in the riverside of Porto, you’ll be itching to get up close and personal with that arched bridge that commands your attention.
The double-deck Luis I Bridge (or Dom Luis I Bridge) is a remarkable piece of engineering, designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel – yes, of Eiffel Tower fame. Eiffel’s influence can be seen in the Victorian wrought iron architecture, especially evident if you cross on the lower of the two decks.
At the time it was built (in 1886), the bridge’s 564-foot span made it the longest iron arch in the world.
You can also walk on the upper deck of the bridge, where the local trams run. You’ll get a bird’s eye view of the whole city up there.
If you’re not up for climbing between the two levels, cheat and take the 19th century Funicular dos Guindais up from the Cais da Ribeira end.
6) Ride a bike along the River Douro:
Hankering for a little adventure and perhaps some exercise? Then a bike ride along the Douro River – north to the sandy beaches of Foz and Matosinhos – is just the ticket.
The ride is almost 100% flat, mostly on bike paths, with only a few inconvenient jaunts on the road.
If you love seafood, time your ride so you hit Matosinhos for lunch (about a 7-mile ride). Along with its beach, the small fishing town of Matosinhos is famous for its fish restaurants – not surprising, given how much fishing you see along the coast of Portugal! Many fishing boats pull up right in the Matoshinhos harbor.
Just follow your nose to the string of restaurants lining the main road, where the fish is barbecued outside on open-air grills. Don’t worry about which resto to pick; every one is supposed to be good (and they all looked good to us).
If you’d prefer a guided bicycle tour, this 3-hour private tour includes pedaling through Porto’s city parks, to Foz and Matosinhos, then back past the port wine cellars of Gaia.
7) Take a Porto wine tour:
On the opposite side of the Douro River from Cais de Ribeira (in the Vila Nova de Gaia area) is where all the action is in terms of wine. Or specifically, in the case of Porto at least, port wine!
The grapes used in the local ports are grown upstream from Porto in the Douro River Valley. The processing, aging and shipping then all takes places in various buildings around the hills along the river.
Dozens of cellars offer port tastings and winery tours. We chose one of the oldest and most renowned – Graham’s 1890 Port Lodge.
The family-owned business is further up the hill from many of the other port houses.
It has an incredible view from its balcony – one of the reasons we wanted to go there. It also has a huge collection of bottles in its cool dark cellars, some (covered with mold) dating as far back as the 1800s.
You can choose to do a tour alone, or with a tasting (good port tastes bold and sweet, but not cloyingly sweet). And there are different levels of tastings as well, from classic to vintage and tawny ports, which may be aged up to 30 or 40 years.
A combined tour and tasting takes about two hours.
After, check out the shop. You might want to pick up a bottle of fine port to take home!
More Porto sightseeing
The seven experiences above just scratch the surface of the activities to experience and things to see in Porto. We unfortunately didn’t have time to take in all the Porto highlights. (And sometimes we just didn’t want to stand in long lines and wait to get into other places.)
When you’re planning what to do in Porto on your visit, you might want to also include the following:
Other Porto churches:
The historic Old Town is full of impressive churches, like the Church of São Francisco, Porto Cathedral and Igreja do Carmo. Be aware that some require a bit of walking to get to, so consult Google maps before you head off.
The now-famous Art Nouveau bookshop, Livraria Lello, is usually on most people’s “must see” list.
Livraria Lello also became the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts in her first “Harry Potter” book, back when she lived in Porto and the shop was a quiet bookstore she’d regularly visit. Or so the story goes…
These days, you have to pay for a ticket and line up for anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to visit the bookshop, depending on how early (or late) you go.
If you’re on the Harry Potter trail, you may also want to stop for a cappuccino at the very popular Majestic Café.
In the 1920s, it was the go-to hangout for politicians, writers and intellectuals. Rowling also reportedly penned an early draft of what would become “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” at one of the white marble tables.
The café is indeed a gorgeous Belle Epoque space with marble floors and chandeliers – even a piano too. But as you’d expect, the coffee is more expensive than what you’d get at an “ordinary” café.
So is the Majestic Café worth all the buzz? You decide…
Jardins do Palacio de Cristal:
The Crystal Palace Gardens (or Jardins do Palacio de Cristal) are free botanical gardens, located high on a hill overlooking Porto.
Smell the flowers in the rose garden (and the fragrances in the aromatic plant garden). Watch peacocks strut about. And delight in the sculptures, fountains and views of Porto.
The gardens are also a quiet place to escape to – not many visitors find their way to them.
Best restaurants in Porto
For me, Porto is one of the best places to eat in Europe. Fresh seafood straight from the Atlantic? Chefs who seriously know how to cook? Love it!
We visited a range of restaurants, many based on tips from friends who also run a travel blog. The following are three of our favorite Porto restaurants:
The one that stands out the most for us is Mistu (see TripAdvisor reviews).
Oozing charm, Mistu is a small restaurant in one of those back streets of the historic center I mentioned. And it serves some yummy dishes and desserts, with a hint of Asian, South American and Portuguese flavors.
Try the hump steak and tiger shrimp with cuttlefish risotto.
Dishes are meant to be shared, and it’s worth sampling as big an assortment of food as possible.
This more down-to-earth option is opposite the side entrance to the São Bento Station.
You need to book reservations at Tapabento, even if you come for lunch, as it’s extremely popular and affordable.
The small and cozy place serves a variety of local dishes, from foie gras and fish soup to pork cheeks. But for me, the prawns and tuna were the best.
Their desserts are also to-die-for, but hey, I have a sweet tooth, so I’m probably biased.
No trip to Portugal is complete without eating at least a few pasteis de nata. These small sweet tarts are made with flakey pastry and filled with vanilla custard.
It’s best if you get them warm, offered at places dedicated to making only these tasty treats. My favorite in Porto (and Lisbon) is at a place called Manteigaria, which has two shops in town, one right down the street from the Clerigos Tower.
Where to stay in Porto
From boutique and luxury hotels to Airbnbs, there are many inviting places to stay in Porto.
Eurostars das Artes Hotel:
We wish we’d booked this hotel (right opposite our Airbnb). Within walking distance of downtown, the 4-star Eurostars das Artes has 89 rooms with hardwood floors and a clean minimalist look.
Eurostars das Artes
Check rates and availability
If you want to kick things up a notch, both in terms of convenience and luxury, the new PortoBay Flores is the hotel to book. Formerly a 500-year-old palace, this 5-star Porto hotel is located right in the heart of town. It boasts 66 sophisticated rooms, a heated indoor pool and a wellness spa with hammam.
Check rates and availability
There are also dozens of well-located Airbnbs in Porto; many are right in the center too. You just have to book early to get the best ones (something we unfortunately neglected to do).
Best time to visit Porto
In the last five years or so, both Porto and Lisbon have become extremely sought-after places to visit in Europe. They’re both vibrant historic cities with a lot to see and do, and they enjoy beautiful weather for far longer than most other European cities.
The problem is that, like many other much-loved European destinations (hello Venice!), you’re likely to rub shoulders with hordes of other people if you don’t plan wisely.
Avoid July and August. Summers are hot, and these months are the peak tourist season.
And don’t visit on a holiday weekend.
We went on a long weekend in May, when much of Northern Europe was on vacation. Not the best idea! (Despite the crowds, however, we still managed to avoid them most of the time and thoroughly enjoy Porto.)
Porto in spring and fall:
Weather-wise, the best time to visit Porto is late spring (May and early June) and September. But don’t expect to have Porto to yourself, as many other tourists also like to travel these months.
October is a better month than September to avoid the crowds.
Porto in November:
Consider visiting Porto in November.
Expect temps in the mid-50s to mid-70s. Be prepared for rain, but then again, the sun sometimes shines for days in November.
The best part is that the crowds will be gone, hotels are less expensive and the Gothic churches and architecture will look that much more moody if the days happen to be grey.
4 More tips to avoid the Porto crowds
So, aside from avoiding the peaks of summer, school holidays and long weekends in Europe, how else can you avoid the crowds?
1) Explore the Ribeira off-the-beaten-path:
The Praca da Ribeira – the Ribeira’s main riverfront square – is a favorite spot for tourists. Café tables and restaurants are packed most of the time.
But walk a few streets away from the square, up the hillside, and you can lose yourself in picturesque twisty alleys far removed from the hustle and bustle.
2) Visit Livraria Lello early or late in the day:
Is there a best time to visit Livraria Lello to avoid standing in line for ages with the thousands of other people who also want to visit? Yes, sort of.
Like most popular sights, early is always better. If you go before the bookshop opens you should get in quicker than otherwise.
The other time to go is late in the day, just before the bookstore closes. By then, the tour groups and Porto day trippers will have left, and you shouldn’t have to wait very long at all. Who knows, you may (almost) have the bookshop to yourself!
3) Visit other bookstores instead of Livraria Lello:
Here’s a thought. What about skipping Livraria Lello and checking out some of the other great bookstores in Porto instead?
Chamine da Mota:
Home to more than one million books in many different languages (including English), this lovely second-hand bookstore in Porto is catnip for bookworms. You’ll find rare books at Chamine da Mota too, along with a collection of ancient music boxes and typewriters.
Café Candelabro is a bookstore, library, café and wine bar all rolled into one. With a slightly dishevelled feel, it’s cozy and comfortable, and attracts a nice mix of locals and visitors.
Library and bookstore at Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art:
The Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art is one of Europe’s most highly visited contemporary art museums. But you don’t have to go for the art. This Art Deco museum also boasts an extensive fine arts section in its excellent bookshop (plus beautifully manicured gardens to stroll through). A visit makes for a fine half-day outing.
4) Reserve in advance:
Restaurants and tours, including bike rentals, should be done at least a day or two ahead – even weeks, if possible.
This way, even if the city is busy, you can make the most of your visit and not miss out on the highlights.
Enjoy your visit to Porto!
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Photos 8, 13, 40 and 46 Mike Jensen | Hotel photos courtesy the respective hotels