Is Porto worth visiting?
Updated: Aug 25
If you are considering a trip to Portugal, it’s hard to narrow down where to spend your time. In short, visiting Porto is definitely worth it and should be added to your itinerary! As home of port wine and arguably the descendants of swearing sailors, Porto is a unique stop in the country. It’s an easy train or bus from Lisbon. There are so many things to do in Porto, so let’s breakdown some ideas for your trip.
How to get to Porto from Lisbon?
There are several stations in Lisbon that have departing trains and buses to Porto. Make sure you check your journey departure station before booking tickets. The largest train station is Lisboa- Santa Apolonia. There are two big bus terminals - the Oriente Station (Gare Oriente) and Terminal Rodoviário de Sete Rios. Direct buses are about 3.5 hours transit time, whereas the fastest train is only 3 hours. However, most trains and buses will have stops along the way making the journey slightly longer. They don’t typically stop long enough for a bathroom break or snack purchase, so come prepared. Both modes of transportation have toilets on board, as well as Wi-Fi. You can check schedules and the current journey times on Omio, as well as purchase tickets easily. I’d recommend getting to the terminal 20 minutes before your scheduled departure. Platforms or bus slots can sometimes be difficult to track down. Gare Oriente is very large and different bus companies operate in different areas. Generally speaking, bus tickets are cheaper than the train.
Porto also has two main stations for bus and train arrivals – São Bento or Campanhã. São Bento station is more centrally located in Porto’s city center. Both are connected to local transport options, but just pay attention to the arrival station so you can plan the journey to your accommodation.
Once in town, Porto is a very walkable city, and we didn’t use public transportation much. There is an extensive metro and bus system if needed.
Where should I stay in Porto?
If you are only planning to be in Porto for a few days, it’s best to be centrally located. We stayed in a budget friendly efficiency apartment in Bolhão, which is about 20 minutes to the old town (São Nicolau). As Portugal’s second largest city, Porto has almost 2 million inhabitants, but the tourist areas are largely clustered around the Douro River and Luis I Bridge. If you plan to spend the majority of your time tasting Port wine, then you might decide to stay south of the river in the Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood. Otherwise, I would suggest being near Ribeira and Central Baixa.
The Best Things to Do in Porto
Even if you only have a couple of days, you can explore lots of Porto’s rich history. Porto’s winding streets are lined with marvelous foods, spectacular views and iconic azulejos (the blue tiles). This city is the perfect place to get lost and just explore. But there are a few top spots to highlight while you’re here.
Even if you don’t go inside the narrow Romanesque cathedral, the Porto Cathedral offers great views from the square. The architecture is beautiful. Sit on the steps and listen to the busking around you while taking in all the sights around the city, including the river below.
Luis I Bridge
The twin-level bridge opened in 1886 crossing the Douro. You can cross on the lower deck for pedestrians and the tram. After you can board the Funicular dos Guindais to get down to the waterside or get lost on the narrow alleyways and stairs until you come down to the riverside.
Visit the Iconic Magical Bookshop
While I teetered on whether to suggest this stop, I think you can make up your own mind. One of the most famous bookshops in the world and arguably an inspiration for J.K. Rowling, visit the Livraria Lello in its original 1906 location (144 Rua das Carmelitas). You currently have to queue for a ticket/timed entry into the small space. Their website offers online tickets to avoid the first queue. Tickets are €5, but if you purchase a book, you receive the amount off your purchase. During the summer, lines are quite long. I would recommend booking an early entry or going toward closing. It’s a small bookstore, and while the winding staircase is quite impressive, you likely won’t spend longer than 20 minutes inside. Grab your Instagram shot and be on the way. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then perhaps you skip it.
Note: Rowling did spend 2 years in Porto while writing the Harry Potter series, but she claims to never have stepped foot in the bookstore. If you visit, you can decide for yourself if Hogwarts is reminiscent of the grand, curving staircase and stained-glass skylight.
Try your First (and maybe last) Francesinha at Café Santiago
A heart attack waiting to happen, the francesinha is a little terrifying –a triple layer sandwich filled with sausage, chorizo, steak, and ham and then covered in a special sauce with cheese and a fried egg. And served with a pile of fries. I’d recommend splitting one. The famous Café Santiago has many locations in Santa Catarina area – it’s a no-fuss, retro diner, but often has a queue. Grab a beer and wait on the sidewalk or try to time your visit during off-peak eating hours. They have several versions, but the original sandwich will run you about €13.
Wander the Waterfront & the Old Ribeira Neighborhood
One of the oldest areas in the city, the neighborhood is the northern port of the Douro River. Filled with narrow, sometimes steep, streets, the colorful houses, restaurants, and shops will make the hours fly by. The port promenade is marked with picturesque piazzas, and you’ll have a great view of the iconic Luis I Bridge.
Take a Walking Tour
If you’ve read any of my other travel posts, you know I am in love with a good walking tour. A local guide can breathe life into a new city and provide secrets to the local atmosphere. They usually offer hidden gems and our guide in Porto was no exception. Book a free walking tour with OptimusTours on GuruWalk. This 3-hour tour was a great way to learn about the history of the city, visit the fanciest McDonald’s in the world and see the hidden flaws in the São Bento train station.
Day Trip to Douro Valley
If you have a day to spare, I STRONGLY recommend a day trip to Douro Valley to taste the local port wines at various vineyards. We did this full-day tour with three vineyards and lunch. It was by far the highlight of our trip. You have hotel pick-up, get to eat lunch at one of the wineries and have extensive wine tasting at each of the three producers. The breathtaking views of the Douro Valley countryside just add to the charm of the day. There are several tours available that also include a river cruise (it takes out a vineyard stop). While that’s definitely a popular option, we had some in our group that opted for that and wished they’d chosen differently. Each of our wine stops were fabulous and we didn’t miss the short river cruise.
If you don’t have time for a day trip (or just really love port wine) make your way to the south bank of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. Many of the famous port vineyards have set up local cellars with restaurants and tours, including Caves Sandeman and Taylor’s Port. You can stroll along the south bank promenade to find several.
Visit the Fanciest McDonald's in the World
While I'm not suggesting you stop for a Big Mac, the chandelier in this McDonald's is breathtaking. It was originally the Café Imperial, opened in the 1930s. When the big banks left the area, the café was closed. McDonald’s opened in the space in 1995, keeping the Art Deco architecture and the giant bronze eagle. The stained-glass windows are by a local designer. Stop by when you are in the area - Praca de Liberdade.
Explore Porto’s Hipster Scene with Maus Hábitos Restaurant
We randomly found this restaurant and then realized it was such a gem. It’s a little confusing finding the entrance and you scale graffiti-covered stairs to the top. Once you get there, the eclectic space has art, music and exhibitions to keep you entertained for hours. We stopped by for dinner. The restaurant offers yummy pastas, vegetarian options and wood-fired pizzas. Save room for dessert too!
Porto is definitely a spot worth visiting. It’s a quick train ride from Lisbon and can be added to a weeklong trip to Portugal. Explore the port wine countryside, the vibrant nightlife and the port cellars along the Douro. This port city is perfect for explorers, romantic couples and weekend visitors. I recommend spending 2-3 nights in the city to make the most of your experience.
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