To me Porto felt like home from the first moment. There is something about this city – indefinable in the beginning, but clear to the mind at the end of my stay. It has a unique beauty that puts a spell on its visitors and it is no surprise that so many of them end up staying there permanently or at least seriously consider it. I spent a year in this wonderful city and even though I left a while ago, I would never decline a chance to go back.
Porto lies by the ocean and stretches along the banks of the river Douro. The town is built around the water like an amphi theatre, which means hills and cobble stones. That might sound a bit of challenging on heels, but the view from the higher spots will compensate for the effort. The historical centre with its narrow lanes, churches covered in traditional blue tiles and adorable colourful houses with tiny balconies is declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Beyond that Porto is a city that forces you to leave the map aside and just get lost around the barrios.
With so much to see and explore it gets quite hard to choose favourites, but what if you only have a weekend to spend? To help you decide, here are my top things to do in Porto.
City Centre – For the city trippers
A good starting point for the day are the remarkable buildings in the city centre such as the train station Sao Bento with its impressive exterior and unique interior. Its walls are covered in tiles depicting the history of Portugal allowing for a quick history lesson even while waiting on the train. Only a mere five-minute walk from the station sits the Clerigos Tower. Climbing its stairs is rewarded with an amazing view over Porto City.
Close to the tower you will find one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, Livraria Lello e Irmao. Grab a book and enjoy your coffee. It is said that this fairy-tale bookshop was J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Harry Potter and I can not find any reason to disagree with that.
Another must-see location nearby is Avenida de Alliagos, the central square of Porto. It is not only the political centre as the city hall is located here, but also the beating heart of all kinds of public festivities. Whenever there is a holiday or festival or the Porto football team has won an important game all the Tripeiros (Porto residents) gather here to celebrate.
Ribeira – The barrio for lovers
After exploring the centre it is time for a pleasant stroll by the river. Start walking downhill towards Ribeira until you reach the bridge Ponte de Dom Luis. Designed after the ideas of Théophile Seyrig, a student of Gustave Eiffel it is easy to spot the similarities with the renowned tower in Paris. Cross the bridge to Villa Nova de Gaia and its infamous wine cellars, but be careful with the sweet but strong Porto wine – it could turn the trip into one blurry memory. To explore this area from above the cable car Funicular dos Guindais offers a slightly different experience. It connects Ribiera with the neighborhood Batalha. Although the journey is short the views from the top are quite stunning.
A little extra tip: Ribeira promenade at night-time is the most romantic walk in town.
Bombarda – The barrio for the art lovers
This neighborhood is Porto’s hot spot for contemporary art galleries. The streets bustle with artsy folk, trendy bars and cool hang-outs. One of my favorite places is the cafe Rota do Cha. Their tucked away garden is a perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea or refreshing lemonade and take in the atmosphere of the area. They also do the yummiest bread-style hot cookie with homemade jam.
Special Secrets – For the foodies
When in culinary need do it like the Tripeiros and visit the central market Mercado do Bolhao either for basic groceries or ready-made snacks. Confeteria do Bolhao does incredible desserts and sandwiches. Make sure to try their torrada, which is basically just toasted bread with butter, but the fresh ingredients and the beautiful setting turn it into much more than that!
Situated in the city centre just on the shopping mile Santa Catarina lies Porto’s oldest cafe Cafe Majestic. Their specialty is the most traditional food in Porto: francesinha, a sandwich with ham, spicy sausage or beef which is served with melted cheese and a tomato-beer sauce. It is heavenly.
Buildings not to be missed – For architecture fans
For a bit of architecture the Serralves museum stands as a proud example of art deco. Its selling point however is the walk in its garden and the library. The stroll through the interesting contemporary collection inside is topped off by the search for the gigantic shovel outside. Casa de Musica will dazzle both architecture lovers and music fans as it combines innovative design with spectacular acoustics. From there make your way towards the district of Foz with a multitude of ocean-front bars, cafés, clubs and restaurants.
Porto by night
Porto is a fantastic city for party animals. For a nice low-budget start of the night tour the locals meet at the University Square, Praça dos Leoes. The most popular bars are next to Clerigos Tower, for example Plano B or Galerias de Paris. Pitch is a nice pop club and if you are a rock music enthusiast you can try Tendinha dos Clerigos. But be warned: the nightlife in Porto only starts after midnight and lasts till dawn, so be prepared and save your energy!
Although food, nightlife and sightseeing are plenty in Porto the city remains an under-discovered gem in Europe. It is time to change that. Despite the serious economic problems Portugal is currently facing, being there as a tourist is a great experience. People are friendly, most of them speak English quite well and if you are lost they will grab your hand and show you the way. Porto waits for you.
Guest post by Ilektra Apostolopoulou who has spent a year in Porto. She now lives in Switzerland and writes about fashion and travel here on her blog.