Lisbon may be the Portuguese capital, but Porto is certainly giving the city a run for its money.
In recent years, Porto has transformed from a merchant’s town into a tourist mecca. On three separate occasions, travellers have voted Porto the Best European Destination, most recently in 2017. And it’s not hard to see how the city has charmed so many people.
It sounds like a cliché, but Porto really does have it all. There’s enough history, architecture, gastronomy and culture to seduce even the most seasoned traveller. But, best of all, the city is compact enough to experience in just one long weekend.
So, if you have three days to spare in Porto, this is how I’d advise you to enjoy them.
The River Douro is the life source of Porto. Connecting the city to lush valleys in the east and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the waterway has helped the town flourish into a major trading hub over the centuries.
It’s not surprising then, that Porto appears to rise out of the tributary, somehow gripping the near-vertical riverbank as it grows. With this in mind, the Douro and its surrounding neighbourhoods is an ideal to place to start to get a feel for the city.
One of the best places to start your first day explorations is at Porto Cathedral. Although not technically on the riverside, it’s a great place to get a sense of the layout of the city. The church is worth a peep inside, but the real action is out on the square. The views from here are sensational and reveal the undulating nature of the landscape below.
The Cathedral also provides the perfect starting point from which to explore Ribeira. Porto’s romantic old town is a labyrinth of lazily winding cobbled streets that interweave downwards before spitting enraptured tourists out on the banks of the Douro.
For a winsome vantage point over the epic waterway, consider stopping off at Guindalense Football Club. The sports society come social club is completely ran by volunteers and offers reasonably priced refreshments as well as one of the best vistas in Porto.
Once fully reinvigorated, make your way down to the riverside to soak up the atmosphere. Street entertainers usually line the Cais da Ribeira, making it the ideal place to sit and watch the world go by for a while.
Of course, the main attraction on the river is the mighty Dom Luís I Bridge. Since its completion in 1886, the double-decker bridge has established itself as an icon of Porto. You can cross the construction on both levels. However, the top undoubtedly offers the best panorama.
After traversing the near 400-metre span of the bridge, you’ll find yourself in Villa Nova de Gaia. Gaia is home to the majority of the city’s port cellars. Modern Porto was practically built on its most famous export. So, a visit to these climes can’t be considered complete without sampling the eponymous fortified wine. Almost all the cellars offer tours, but we visited Cockburn’s and I couldn’t fault the experience at all.
Now that your appetite has been thoroughly wetted, why not pay a visit to the 360º Terrace Lounge? The stylish rooftop bar serves tasty cocktails and overlooks the river, bridge and Porto on the other side of the river.
With Porto’s charming riverside ticked off your list, it’s time to explore further afield.
If I was you, I would start Day Two with a stop at São Francisco. This beautiful baroque church is one of Porto’s most pretty and is famed for its intricate wooden interior. It costs €5 to enter. But this fee does include entry into an accompanying museum and catacombs as well.
Outside the church you will find the stop for Line One. This vintage tram ride takes commuters out to Foz – Porto’s glamorous yet quaint neighbourhood-by-the sea. The ride itself is a scenic one, following the Douro as it makes its final journey to the Atlantic Ocean.
After exploring Foz, take the bus back towards town to Serralves. Even if modern art isn’t your thing, you’re bound to find something you enjoy either in the gallery or its extensive grounds. Not only does the modern art museum host some of the most exciting talent in Portugal, it’s also home to an eccentric pink villa, a park and a farm.
Once you’ve had your artistic fill, take the 203 bus to Casa de Musica in Boavista. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the iconic building. However, there’s no denying it’s one of the city’s architectural gems.
Also in Boavista, you’ll find Lupin, which is (in my humble opinion) the best vegan restaurant Porto has to offer. But you can read more about that in my vegan Porto blog later.
On day three, get up bright and early and head straight for Livraria Lello. This beautiful book shop is one of Porto’s most visited attractions. As a result, it’s advisable to get there early in order to beat the crowds. You can pay online beforehand or queue at a kiosk when you arrive for your ticket.
The reason for the store’s popularity is its association with a certain wizarding franchise. Rumour has it Harry Potter author JK Rowling took her inspiration for Howarts from this historic shop. She did live in Porto for some time, teaching English. So, there’s a chance it could be true.
Upon leaving Livraria Lello, head left and follow the road down. This will lead you to Clérigos Church and its famous tower. If you want, you can ascend to the top for an alternative view of the city. However, we never braved the climb.
If you continue along the same road (Rue dos Clérigos) for a few moments, you’ll come to Liberdade Square on your left-hand side. This is the city’s main plaza and boasts some of Porto’s most impressive buildings.
Further down dos Clérigos you will arrive at São Bento station. The train terminus is, in my opinion, one of the unmissable sights in Porto. The building is best known for its elaborate vestibule. Covered in 20,000 hand painted tiles, the breathtaking hall is certainly a sight to behold.
Once you’ve put your eyes back in your head, it’s time to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and reflect on your trip. To do this, I’d head back to Liberdade Square. From here, you can take the 501 bus to Matosinhos. Porto’s seaside city is home to some trendy bars and sweeping beaches. It’s also the place I watched the most amazing pink sunset. After all, what better way to see your break off than in a fit of warming colour?
Obviously, you can tailor this itinerary to meet your needs. This is simply the way I’d plan my trip if I was to do it again. If you do follow any of it I hope you like it. And, more importantly, I hope you leave Porto as in love with the city as I am.