I knew very little about Porto before my visit there in October with Visit Porto and North. My plans were to spend time working and visiting friends in Madrid for a week, a city I’m familiar with and very fond of. However, I found myself searching flights late at night on Kayak one evening, as you do, and found the roundtrip price of €40 to Porto was too good to pass up. I spend so much time in Spain, it’s only right (and about time!) that I visit its next door neighbor. Spoiler, it was the best €40 I’ve ever spent!
A quick Google search of Porto will present you with these colorful images of a charming coastal city. I looked at every single one of those before my trip and, therefore, had a very clear image in my head of what I expected Porto to look like. However, I quickly learned that photos will never do Porto justice.
Behind Lisbon, Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, although a population of less than 300,000 makes it feel much smaller than you’d expect, and in a good way! It’s an extremely walkable city but if you get tired of the hills (and there are many hills!), the trams and buses are a convenient way to get around. I was excited to learn that Porto is one of the oldest European cities, with the first evidence of settlers dating back to the 8th century B.C. It is no surprise then that the entire city is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But enough of the history lesson, I know what you’re really here for. I’m here to share the most important information a person can need when visiting Porto: where to sleep, eat, and explore. Let’s go!
WHERE TO SLEEP:
Now I didn’t test the theory, but I’d bet good money that the Carrís Ribeira Porto Hotel is quite literally a stone’s throw away from the waterfront. Like most 4-star hotels, Carris Ribeira offers an elegant, yet cozy atmosphere with friendly staff, a huge breakfast buffet, and impeccably clean and comfortable rooms, with most offering city or river views! UNLIKE most 4-star hotels, room prices start at around 100 euros on weekends, but drop much, MUCH lower during the off season and mid-week. The lowest rate I’ve found so far is for 60 euros in January. For a 4-star hotel. In the city center. In Western Europe. Welcome to Portugal!
I was lucky enough to get a room with city views and despite my room facing right onto a main street in the old quarter of Porto, the double-pane windows blocked out the street noise entirely which I was very grateful for. I also enjoyed the rain shower and all of the modern amenities provided, but I was most excited about the free and fast wifi which worked in my room and throughout the hotel. It’s the little things, okay? You’d actually be shocked by how many hotels still don’t provide free wifi! First world problems, I know.
Overall, my stay at the Carrís Ribeira Hotel was everything I needed and more with an unbeatable location, unique style, incredible service, and comfortable rooms. On Bon Voyage Lauren, affordable luxury is always my aim and this hotel really hit the nail on the head. I’d love to return for a longer stay in the future!
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:
Thanks to this wonderful view of the Dom Luís I Bridge, my first meal in Porto was a memorable one! The food was equally as impressive too. You’ll find D.Tonho, a lovely waterfront restaurant, right along the Douro River. This is a hidden gem amongst several restaurants in the area who strictly cater to tourists, serving average food at steep prices!
We hungrily ordered bread, three appetizers to split, an entree of perfectly cooked sea bass, and leite creme for dessert which is similar to crème brûlée. This delicious feast came to just under 25 euros per person, which in my opinion, isn’t bad for a 3-course meal with river views! I mentioned this in a previous post, but North Portugal is extremely affordable and if you enjoy seafood, order it as often as you can here. I was never disappointed!
Another affordable, fine dining option in Porto is the incredibly cool DOP Restaurant. DOP is located in the Palace of Arts, a building from the 14th century, in the historic city center. You will be able to taste a signature cuisine based on the traditional Portuguese flavors that chef Rui Paula recreates. From the impeccable service to the beautiful presentation, there’s no denying that this is a fancy place.
My favorite dishes were the beef carpaccio, cod with potatoes, and a very traditional Portuguese dish of goat and rice. I don’t consider myself a very adventurous eater (something I need to change in 2016!), so this was quite out there for me. But the goat was by far my favorite dish, and something I’m so happy I tried. When in Porto, right?! I’d highly recommend going for lunch and taking advantage of their 3-course set meal for 20 euros.
There’s no shortage of tasty and affordable meals to be found in Porto. I realize that not every sit-down meal has to cost 20+ euros. These are simply my favorite “treat yourself” meals while you’re in the city. The quality of the food and atmosphere in both restaurants are very high, but you won’t break the bank.
However, I did promise my favorite places to eat and DRINK, and a trip to Porto wouldn’t be complete without tasting some Port! Escape the old city center for an afternoon, and head across the river where you’ll find Sandeman Port Wine Cellars. The House of Sandeman was founded in London in 1790 by George Sandeman, a young Scotsman, and has grown to be one of the most prestigious Porto Wine brands in the world. Acquired by the founder in 1811, the Sandeman Cellars have been used for more than 200 years to age Sandeman’s best Port Wines.
There’s a small museum you can tour before your visit to the cellars, which I really enjoyed. I found it interesting that Sandeman were the first to advertise their Port, in the form of print advertisements and television commercials. The Sandeman Don, created in 1928, is the iconic and mysterious black silhouette who wears a stylish Portuguese student’s cape and wide-brimmed Spanish hat. Guided tours, with a tasting at the end, start at 13 euros. The guides are excellent and the cellars hold so much history, it’s really worth a visit!
WHERE TO EXPLORE:
Assuming you want to do more than sleep, eat, and drink in Porto (and if not, I’m not judging ;)), let me share a few of my favorite places to visit in this beautiful city.
The famous Lello Bookstore tops almost every list of what to see in Porto, and for very good reason. Just look at this place! Yes, it’s almost always filled with tourists so try and visit right when it opens. And yes, most of these tourists are Harry Potter fans who debate whether or not this inspired J.K. Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts. She did live in Porto for 10 years before writing the books and would drink coffee upstairs in the cafe, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide!
Harry Potter fan or not, this is an absolutely stunning independent bookstore which would interest any reader. Just yesterday, January 13th, marked the 110th anniversary of the shop. Thanks to Visit Porto and North, I was extremely lucky to visit a few minutes before the doors opened at 10:00 AM. The owner and a small film crew from Germany were the only other people inside. My inner book nerd totally freaked out, and it’s definitely something I’ll remember for quite awhile!
One of my favorite things about Porto are the number of beautiful churches you’ll find, of all shapes and sizes, scattered throughout the city. Some are worth admiring from the outside thanks to those beautiful blue, ceramic tiles, while others have incredibly lavish altars inside to gaze at. Whether you’re religious or not, each of these churches are historical and architectural marvels that any tourist can appreciate.
If you only have time to visit one, and it’s a nice day outside, I’d definitely recommend seeing the Porto Cathedral. Completed in 1200, this is the oldest and most prominent church in Porto, and although it doesn’t have those classic blue tiles, it still deserves to be admired! While it’s unique inside and out, I must admit my favorite aspect is the terrace in front of the cathedral. This is why I mentioned visiting on a nice day, because you’ll be able to enjoy some of the best panoramic views of Porto!
If you’re craving some modern architecture after visiting all of these churches, a visit to the Casa da Música is a must. Designed to look like a meteor crashed landed, the building blew me away both inside and out. This modern and imposing structure was designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 1999 and completed in 2005. A guided tour costs 6 euros and is worth every cent! In an hour, you’ll visit the main auditorium, several unique rooms used for rehearsals and teaching, as well as panoramic balconies.
I was only in Porto for 24 hours, but everything I included in this city guide is completely manageable, without feeling rushed! Compared to other popular cities in Europe, Porto isn’t very large which makes it perfect for a weekend visit.
Have you visited Porto or anywhere in Northern Portugal before? If not, where would you like to explore? I’d love to know in the comments below!