The second largest city in Portugal – Porto – has always been a historic mercantile city and till today, is a busy industrial and commercial centre. Located in the north, Porto is not too far from Lisbon – only two and a half hours by train – and yet the two cities are contrasting in many ways. There has been a longstanding rivalry between the two cities that locals from Porto often joke, “In Porto, we work, so Lisbon can spend” 😊
Porto seems to be not only more industrious but also more traditional and yet bohemian. Still, the city is no less charming due to its unique blend of history, temperate climate, landscape and lifestyle, food and of course, port wine. While Lisbon is considered as an exciting city destination holiday in Europe for the past few years, Porto is now giving the capital a run for its money as THE place to travel.
Porto is split into two distinct areas by the Douro River: Ribeira and Vila Nova de Gaia.
The UNESCO World Heritage zone of Ribeira is dotted with ancient houses situated on narrow cobbled streets, restaurants and cafes while the Vila Nova de Gaia district is famed for their port wine cellars and wine tastings. Connecting both sides of the city is the Dom Luis I Bridge across the Douro River.
Previously, visitors could explore Porto’s main attractions within a day or two – wander around the old quarter and Ribeira and cross the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia to sip some port wine. But Porto has transformed from a dull wine town to a vibrant city, hence there are more attractions to explore. I had initially wanted to stay in Porto for two nights but as I read more about the city, I changed my plans from two to four nights. That said, I had only touched the surface of what Porto has to offer.
So, if you are travelling in Porto for the first time and only have a few days in the city, I would like to suggest ten unmissable activities that you can do in this riverside city:
- Stroll along the Ribeira
The Ribeira district is indeed Porto’s focal point – a riverfront of old townhouses which are now converted into restaurants, cafes, shops and galleries. Obviously targeted for tourists and prices here are generally more expensive but it’s really lovely to stroll along the riverside promenade to observe pastel-painted facades of old houses and shops, the majestic arch of Dom Luis I Bridge spanning across the Douro, the barcos rabelos (traditional boats used to ferry port wine down the Douro), ferry boats and yachts bobbing on the river, and a view of the port-wine cellars across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia district.
- Walk across the Dom Luis I Bridge
An iconic symbol for Porto, Dom Luis I Bridge is a twin-level metal arched bridge – the top deck is used by Porto’s light railway and the lower deck is for road traffic and pedestrians.
From the top level of the bridge, you can get down to the waterfront by boarding the Funicular dos Guindais, and if you wish to walk across to Vila Nova de Gaia, you can walk on the lower deck. Just watch out for traffic and tourists stopping mid-way to take photos of Douro River and Ribeira…and local teenage boys jumping off the bridge for fun (and for money, no doubt!).
- Cruise on the Douro River
There are one-hour cruises on the Douro River – these ferries leave from the quayside of the Gaia. The cruise takes you through the six bridges within Porto and the views are really nice.
However, I found the commentaries rather boring as they talked mainly about the engineering aspects of the bridges, and the audio quality was poor. Perhaps I chose the wrong tour company or my head was a little heavy after one too many port wine, lol!
If you have a Porto Card, you will be able to enjoy 10%-15% discount on these cruises.
- Sample some port wine
You can’t come to Porto without having some port wine!
While it is highly recommended that you go to vineyards in the Douro Valley to taste the best of Portuguese wines but if you have limited time, then hop over to the Gaia for wine-tasting tours from a number of wine cellars.
Similarly, look out for Porto Card discounts for wine-tasting tours offered by these cellars.
- Sign up for walking tours
Porto is actually a hilly city, compact enough to walk to many of their main sights. You can explore these sights on your own but if you would like to hear fascinating stories about their history and way of life, then sign up for their numerous walking tours available in the city. I signed up for a free walking tour (Porto Lifestyle Walking Tour) by Porto Walkers – we explored the old quarter and walked up and down zigzagging staircases through narrow cobbled-stone streets.
I love walking tours and I love it even better when it’s free. However, there are times I don’t like them because free tours attract big crowds. And when the crowd is too big (our group was fifteen people), you can’t really hear the guide well if you’re standing at the back. Or for some reason, the guide feels compelled to walk too fast, thus not having enough time to take photos. This is one of the reasons why I sometimes prefer to pay for a walking tour – the group is smaller and the guide is able to manage the a smaller number of guests, accommodate for special requests for photos, etc.
- Sign up for food tours
Porto is one of Europe’s tastiest cities where you can embark on a gastronomy experience by signing up for food tours and cooking classes which introduce you to their local markets, petiscos (small plates) of seafood variety, meat sandwiches, sweets and pastries, and finish off with glasses of wine.
I signed up for the Downtown Food Tour with Taste Porto and our group of seven had fantastic time tasting pastries, sardines, meat sandwiches, cheese, desserts and of course, more wine! Food tasting at six establishments (including a wine house in Bolhão Market) in three and a half hours – I was so full that I didn’t have lunch and dinner that day!
But not to worry about the extra calories consumed from the delicious food and wines in Porto because you will be able to shed them off when walking up and down the hilly streets!
- Admire impressive azulejos at São Bento Railway Station
Beautiful ceramic tiles (azulejos) adorn the facades of many buildings in Portugal from houses to churches and the interiors of palaces. The use of azulejos was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors and had been popular for centuries.
Throughout my time in Portugal I have found the azulejos inside Sao Bento Railway Station of Porto the most impressive piece of artwork that I have ever seen. Over 20,000 tiles cover the walls of the railway station, illustrating the history of Portugal.
Azulejos can also be found on the exterior of churches, so look out for them for great photo shots.
- Revisit the magic of Harry Porter at Livraria Lello
The Livraria Lello bookshop was opened by brothers Jóse and António Lello in 1906 who were part of Portugal’s intellectual groups at that time. The bookshop became a notable meeting place for famous writers and avid readers including J.K Rowling. Legend has it that Rowling was inspired by the interior décor of the bookshop that she incorporated its twisting grand staircase and other characteristics into the Harry Porter series.
The bookshop has become very touristy now, so to avoid the crowds, queue first thing in the morning or an hour before closing time. There is now a €5 entrance fee (I paid €4 last year) which is redeemable against any purchase in the shop. Most of the books are in Portuguese but take your time to browse in the shop and you will find some English books. I bought the ‘The Tales of Beedle The Bard’ 😊
- Visit the Dragão Stadium and FC Porto Museum
This is for die-hard football fans only. FC Porto is the second most successful football club in Portugal, having won their local football league tournaments countless times. Add to that is two Champions League and two UEFA Cups. By the way, I got this information from a football fan.
I’m not a football fan, so I don’t know much about FC Porto which means I didn’t visit the 50,000 Dragão Stadium and the museum, however, I was informed that the site is impressive. The stadium and the museum are just a couple of metro station hops from the city centre.
- Take a day trip tour from Porto
There is so much to see in the northern part of Portugal, thus Porto makes it a convenient base to explore these surrounding areas. You can go on a full-day cruise from Porto to the vineyards of Douro Valley, the birthplace of port wine, and return to the city by train. Or if you are inclined towards history and heritage, make a trip to Guimarães, the birthplace of Portugal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site of the finest medieval architecture and plazas.
This article is also available as a GPS-guided article for your convenience when you travel to Porto. Click here.
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