Ultimate City Guide to Porto, Portugal
Traveling to Portugal is gaining popularity for a reason, and Porto is a charming riverside town with a ton of interesting things to do in the spring—including learning the intricacies of port wine on a wine tasting, then heading into the nearby Douro Valley on a day trip! Dive into the essential things to see, do, and eat when visiting beautiful Porto.
Known as Portugal’s “second city,” Porto is not the little sister of Lisbon—she’s all grown up. With Portugal growing exponentially as a European travel hotspot in the last ten years or so, a rising number of savvy travelers are experiencing the amazing sights, food, and mellow vibe of this once-sleepy Iberian nation. Porto is the perfect bite of coastal charm, capturing the ancient vibes of Moorish architecture and vast underground cellars stocked full of honeyed port wine, old bookstores with towering stories of yellowing pages, and winding back alleys begging one to get lost a spell. Family-friendly, affordable, and refreshing, with plenty of things to do, Porto waits quietly to enchant.
When to Visit
Porto’s high season is late spring through summer in the Northern Hemisphere, starting in May and hitting peak insanity in July and August. Smart visitors will opt for March-April or earliest fall, before winter’s dismal cold and gray skies roll in, but after the beach-going crowd has jetted back home. Summers can be quite hot, and not entirely pleasant in a city where walking is one’s main form of transportation. Read up on how to be dressed right for every season, and pack smart with tulip-patterned cubes that will fit your sunshine-y spirit.
Not to be Missed Things to Do
It’s impossible to speak of Porto without mentioning the fortified wine that is its namesake. While ruby-hued port is the dessert wine of choice for all of Portugal, in Porto you can find the rarer, sweeter tawny and white varietals. They have an undeniably dulcet richness, but watch out—port is stronger than other wines, and will go straight to your head if you don’t drink in moderation!
The Livraria Lello (Lello Library) is a holy grail destination for fans of the Harry Potter book series. Author J. K. Rowling taught English in Porto in the early 1990s, and it’s said that this soaring repository of aging books was the original inspo for Hogwarts’ Great Hall.
Know Gustav Eiffel, the architect behind a little tower in Paris? His life’s other great masterwork is right in town—the double-decker Ponte Dom Luis bridge, an iconic display of masterful ironwork. The bottom span is for cars, and the top span has tracks for the Metro and dual pedestrian lanes—shoulder you daypack for an afternoon on the other side of the river and then admire a stunning view of the Douro River below.
Natural Wonders to Explore
The majestic, shimmering Douro River runs alongside Porto. Daily or weekly cruises run the length of the river, boating you into the magnificently scenic Douro wine country. Pack your bag for this adventure and then sit back and relax—the countryside landscapes you pass will take your breath away. Depart from Cais de Gaia, and watch the steeply terraced vineyards and olive orchards roll by as you breath in the bracing, fresh breeze.
What to Eat
Interesting fact: Citizens of Porto are playfully called “tripe-eaters” while Lisboans are “little lettuces.” This hearkens back to the stereotype that Porto is more working-class and humble than the high-fashion capital city. And while Porto is plenty glamorous these days, it’s true that the residents do like tripe, the unpretentious stomach lining of sheep or cows. Tripas à moda do Porto contains cow’s foot, pig’s ear, white beans and, of course, tripe—and you should absolutely get over your squeamishness and try it.
A quirk about dining out in Porto: Before you order, waiters will solicitously bring out bread and appetizers without you asking. Be careful, however—you will be expected to pay for these delights whether or not you asked. Popular starters include gizzards, charcuterie, mussels, octopus, and multiple types of bread. All are delicious, and part of the reason that Porto is taking on something of a “foodie haven” reputation.
Other delicacies of the Douro region include cinnamon-covered pineapple, olive oil so good that you can coat just about anything in it, and surprising recipes made from canned fish - a lowbrow staple that’s making a comeback in even the most styling Porto kitchens.
Have you booked your flight to this surprisingly affordable, unforgettable destination yet? Let us tell you why Portugal is one of the hottest 2020 destinations, or just go find out for yourself!
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By Shannon O’Donnell on March 20, 2020
Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term
traveler who has
been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast
Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and
along the way, winning
numerous awards for her work advocating for developing communities.