Porto is one of Portugal’s most sensational destinations and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is a short 2-hour flight from the UK, making it one of Europe’s best city breaks destinations. Built on the Douro River banks, it is the second-largest city after Lisbon and is the world’s leading centre for Port wine production. The historic Port wine cellars of the region line the banks of Vila Nova de Gaia.
With my trusted travel companion (and wine aficionado!) Clare, we set off with our 3-night itinerary to discover Porto and find out what this part of Northern Portugal could offer us as a weekend escape, apart from Port wine, of course.
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Livraria Lello – Porto’s famous book shop
JK Rowling may have gained inspiration after living in the city and spending time in Porto’s beautiful bookstore, Livraria Lello. So Harry Potter fans will be delighted to find this gem in Porto. Not only is it a magnet to Harry Potter Fans, but it is one of the most photographed places in Porto.
You must buy a ticket from the shop on the corner to gain admittance. The queues during the day can be lengthy. However, the best time to visit Livraria Lello is 30 minutes before closing time. We arrived and walked straight in. The entrance ticket is redeemable against any purchase you make in the store. You can also exchange it for a small pamphlet about the bookstore and its connection with Harry Potter. Staff are available to help you if you can’t find it.
The first thing you notice is the ornate sweeping stairway, albeit traffic-clogged with people trying to get that perfect photograph on the stairs (me included!). The stained ceiling glass and lamps are breathtaking, as is the private room at the back states “No Entry – Rare Books” I wonder what priceless items lie behind the facade.
The store is smaller than one may expect. Still, there is no time limit to how long you can spend in there, so after the obligatory photos have been taken, spend a moment or two browsing the bookshelves and admire the small details of the interior.
Avenue de Aliados
After a stop for coffee and pastel de nata, the Portuguese local custard tart, we wandered to Porto’s central boulevard, “Avenue de Aliados”. It is flanked by ornate buildings in various styles housing mainly hotels and banks and translates as “Avenue of the Allies”, referring to the 14th-century treaty between Portugal and the United Kingdom. The oldest alliance in the world is the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty which is still in force.
The Avenue is also home to an unusual claim to fame. The Cafe Imperial, once an iconic Portuguese coffee shop back in the 1930s, is now a branch of McDonald’s bearing the title of “the most beautiful in the world”.
It features decadent period chandeliers and art deco stained glass alongside the usual McDonalds styling. It feels entirely out of place in its surroundings but worth a look if you are feeling curious.
How to Get Around Porto
From the central square of Avenue de Aliados, we jumped aboard the Hop On Hop Off Porto bus. There was hardly any informative commentary to tell us about the stops the bus was making but instead, we had to endure repetitive music through our earpieces. In my experience, this may have been one of the worst I have been on around the world. My advice is to give it a miss and go for a wander yourself or try a different tour bus operator.
Igreja de São Francisco
Heading towards the Port, we visited the Igreja de São Francisco, the Church of St Francis, one of Porto’s most prominent monuments and a Unesco world heritage site. In 1245, it was established by the Franciscan Order as a small convent church but in later years extensively developed. A ticket gives you entry to the Church and a museum housing the Monument church, catacombs and artworks.
Go down to the Catacombs, and you will find the resting places of the Franciscan monks and members of Porto’s wealthiest families. If you are a fan of the macabre, take a look through the glass floor. Thousands of human bones lie beneath it, which were originally from the surrounding overcrowded cemeteries.
In the adjoining main church, the prediction is that over 300 kilos of gold dust decorate the interior. The opulence was too extravagant for many, considering the poverty that surrounded the area, resulting in closure for several years. Photos are prohibited from being taken inside, so a visit is a must to experience the grandeur on offer.
Porto’s Trendy Ribeira District
The Ribeira district is the oldest part of the city, where pastel-coloured buildings share the best spot in Porto with narrow cobbled streets, gradually making their way down to the banks of the Douro.
It is a vibrant neighbourhood with busy bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops jostling for space along the portside. Street entertainers are everywhere competing for your attention. Ribeira is the best place in Porto to people-watch, enjoy a Portuguese traditional dish and a glass of port.
Dom Luis l Bridge Porto
The historic centre of Porto is dominated by Dom Luis I Bridge, built by a student of Gustave Eiffel, and an imposing view spanning the River Douro. It is sometimes referred to as the Gustave Eiffel Porto and is one of the most famous bridges in Europe. The bridge links Ribeira and Vila Nova de Gaia, the side of the river where the best port wine cellars are based.
Dom Luis l double-decked bridge allows pedestrians to cross on the upper deck and regular traffic to pass on the bottom. The bottom floor also has narrow footpaths on either side for pedestrians. You can hop aboard a boat that will take you on a 45-minute cruise of the six Porto bridges giving a brief insight into each one.
Have your camera ready to capture some scenic photos as you sail along the Douro Valley.
After wandering along the river, we headed back up the steep cobbled streets to visit Porto Cathedral. Also known as Sé do Porto Catedral, it is the most famous and the oldest landmark in Porto’s cultural city. Built at the highest point in Porto, It seemed to take us forever to find, even though our google maps told us we were heading in the right direction.
We finally arrived at the Cathedral square and enjoyed far-reaching views over the city and the river. There is a column here that was the location used to hang the criminals of Porto. At least their last view was a good one. The interior of the Cathedral is very commanding, with a predominantly Baroque interior.
The entrance to the cloisters is through a door inside the Cathedral. The sanctuary dates back to the 14th century and is decorated with blue and white tiles depicting biblical scenes.
The blue and white tiles are representative of Porto and the Portuguese heritage, with the Cathedral being one of the best places to spot azulejo tiles in Porto. I enjoyed the serenity that I felt by enjoying the beauty of its architecture.
From November to March, the Porto cathedral opening hours are from 9 am until 12:30 pm (The cloister closes at 12:15), and in the afternoon, it opens at 2:30 pm and closes at 6 pm (The cloister closes at 5:30).
From April to October, it opens from 9 am to 12:30 pm and again from 2:30 but until 7 pm this time (The cloister until 6:30 pm)
The Porto cathedral mass times are:
- Mass at Porto cathedral during the weekdays is at 11:00
- Mass on Sunday is at 11:00
An Evening Enjoying Wine in a Church
That evening we ate the best tapas in Porto at Tapas and Friends, in fact, it was so good we returned on another evening. We discovered a wine bar tucked down one of Porto’s cobbled streets called Cappella Incomum in a tiny converted chapel complete with alter, a quirky find offering an array of wines.
Other Ideas for Eating Out in Porto
We decided to head to Aveiro, which I had read was the “Venice of Portugal”, and jumped on a train from Sao Bento railway station to take the hour journey from Porto to Aveiro. The traditional blue and white “azulejo” picture tiles depicting battles and rural life adorn Porto’s main station walls. And even if you aren’t planning on catching a train, still pay a visit to this beautiful train station.
When we arrived, we headed along the main promenade of the Aveiro district to reach the canals and explore things to do in Aveiro. I want to say I was excited, but the sad fact is it was underwhelming. Traditional painted boats lining the canal were offering 45-minute trips. They looked beautiful, but we were told by disembarking passengers that there was nothing picturesque to see on the journey, just industrial and urban landscapes.
After recharging with coffee at one of the Aveiro hotels along the canalside, we opted for a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride. As we had made an effort to get here we felt we should look around at Aveiro’s monuments but after being shown a couple of churches, the salt flats and the local college we had seen everything.
All the research I had done sold this place as a destination that must be visited, but I would disagree, so unless you desire a train journey and a canal ride, which is most definitely not like Venice, then I would say stay in Porto. It is, however, your trip, and you may personally find Aveiro delightful.
Porto Wine Tour
One of the “must-do” things to do in Porto is a port tasting tour of the cellars ranging from well-known Taylor Port to local cellars. We joined a port tasting tour with Porto Walkers.
Our tour would take us to 3 port houses with seven tastings. Headed up by Alex, a Porto local guide, our group consisted of around 20 people from different countries. Alex was full of information on the origins of port wine and had a cheeky sense of humour. We discovered that wine could only be classed as port when produced in the Duoro Valley, around an hour’s drive away; therefore, this is the only place in the world that produces port wine.
Vila Nova de Gaia
The port-wine houses are in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite banks of the river to Porto. Alex told us the history of this side of Porto and introduced us to some of Porto’s street art which is becoming more popular around the city.
The first port wine stop was at a traditional small producer, where we sampled one tasting. Our second stop was at a historic wine cellar, where we sampled two tastings. The final stop was at my favourite Porto Cruz, where we sampled four tastings at a professional tasting room. We discovered different types of port wine from a red port, pink port and even a white port – who would have guessed!
We finished off at their rooftop bar, which had fabulous views across the river to Porto. After learning so much during the tour, I now feel justified to drink port at any time of the year, not just at Christmas, which was my usual British tradition, and I have discovered a bottle of pink port which goes particularly well in a cocktail or two!
While you are in this area, why not check out the street art that is all around. In particular, the oversized rabbit by the wine cellars made from recycled trash is a nod to saving the environment.
Best Porto Wine Tours
The beauty of travel is the people you encounter on your journey, and after meeting new acquaintances during the tastings, we decided to join together for a meal. We headed towards the restaurant, O Afonso, that our tour guide had recommended.
We all opted for the local traditional Portuguese dish of a Francesinha sandwich made with bread, meats, melted cheese and tomato and beer sauce. Francesinha could probably induce a heart attack but still must be tried when in Porto. Of course, there are many other Portuguese foods that should be tried – from soups, seafood and meats to delicious Portuguese sweet desserts.
My honest opinion of Porto
What month did I travel? March
How was the weather? It was a mixture of sun and cloud.
Would I recommend my Porto hotel? No. It was a disappointment. Part of the EXE Hotel group, it had no in-room tea/coffee making facilities and no extra bedding for warmth. Provision of complimentary water was not in the room, and the bathroom smelt of the drains.
Would I recommend 3 days in Porto? If you haven’t experienced much of Europe, try it out, but it wouldn’t be at the top of my list. I enjoyed the port cellars’ uniqueness, and I feel that this is the main reason you would visit. The array of magnificent churches and historic buildings in Porto are similar to those in most European cities. I just found it lacked something that I can’t quite put my finger on.
I would, however, recommend visiting Porto as part of a 2-week Portugal Travel Itinerary which could also include beautiful Portuguese cities like Lisbon and Faro. This would give you the chance to compare and choose your favourite city in Portugal.