A UNESCO World Heritage site, full of colourful buildings, delightful streets, with a great food and wine scene – choose Porto for your next city break.
As well as being a beautiful city offering excellent value for money, Porto is easily accesible. After a short 2 hour 20 minute flight from Dublin, I settled in quickly and was looking forward to exploring this charming city.
Considering Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, it is surprisingly underrated. It was voted Best European Destination this year, but not many people seem to know that. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. I’m sure once the word gets out, it will no longer be €2.50 for a glass of wine along the Ribeira (Porto’s equivalent to Venice’s St Mark’s Square).
Although there are many magnificent churches and landmarks to see, what I loved most about Porto was wandering around its colourful streets.
Porto’s colourful buildings:
On our first morning we woke to blue skies and warm sunshine – the perfect combination to really appreciate this colourful city. The first thing that stuck me was how compact the city was, and within minutes we were crossing the famous Dom Luis bridge.
This offers the picture postcard view of the Ribeira – Porto’s colourful riverside promenade, which is packed with shops, bars and restaurants. We found ourselves stopping constantly to take photos, each one better than the next. We were lucky to have blue skies to help us, but I do believe it must be impossible to take a bad photograph of this view.
While the Ribeira district has an endless display of colourful buildings, these can also be found throughout the city. Many buildings are covered in vibrant azulejos (hand-painted tiles) to give a dramatic look to this old city. Even the metro stations have walls covered in tiles, and many of Porto’s famous churches – Saõ Francisco, Saint Illdefonso and Capela Das Almas, have blue azulejos, Porto is an Instagrammers dream!
Top things to see in Porto:
When we crossed the Dom Luis bridge we arrived in the pretty town of Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro river. An array of Portuguese restaurants greeted us, as well a wide selection of port cellars offering tastings. If you want to try some Port, this is the place to do it.
Guia is also the best place to take a short cable car ride, as well as a river cruise along the Douro river. If the weather is good, the boat trip is a nice way to chill out for an hour, but you can get similar views from the shore. We spent a full morning in Guia before walking back across the bridge to Porto.
The Sé Cathedral is located in the heart of the old town and is definitely worth a visit. Construction started in the 12th century but it wasn’t finished until 1737, the result is many different types of architecture come together for a unique effect.
The Saõ Francisco church was one of my personal favourites. Don’t be put off by the mundane exterior, once you step inside, you find a lavish interior that is completely covered in gold. We were not allowed to take photographs inside but you will have to trust me – don’t miss it! Not only is the church itself magnificent but the catacombs in the basement are worth exploring too.
Another highlight for me was climbing the Clérigos Tower, one of Portugal’s tallest towers. We did have to wait in line for 45 minutes, but the view from the top was worth it. It has a narrow spiral staircase, that felt a little claustrophobic, but the climb itself isn’t too taxing. There are also lots of openings in the wall on the way to the top, which show off the red roofs of Porto in the optimum way.
After visiting most of the highlights on our first day, we chose to relax on day two and just enjoy the city. We decided to take a trip on one of the old trams. This turned out to be a great idea. as we found places we missed on our walk the previous day.
We stopped at the famous Lello Bookshop, considered by many as the most beautiful bookshop in the world. It is here that JK Rowling got the inspiration for Hogwarts, while she was living in Porto. Despite the €4 entrance fee (you can offset this against a book if you buy one) there was a large queue outside.
We also wandered down Rua das Flores which is one of Porto’s prettiest streets. Filled with souvenir shops and quaint cafés, this tall, narrow street is another place to admire Porto’s beautiful architecture. We enjoyed watching the street artists perform and stopped for a bite of lunch on it’s busy square.
Shoppers will love the main street Rua Santa Caterina which is full of famous high street stores, with prices around 20% less than at home. If you fancy a coffee after a few hours at the shops, check out Café Majestic, Porto’s oldest and most famous coffee shop. It is a landmark and is also considered one of Europe’s top historical coffeehouses. Note it closes on Sunday.
After visiting three churches, a cathedral and walking the length and breadth of Porto, we decided we better do something a bit more child friendly – I omitted to mention that this was a family break!
We opted for the interactive Museum of Discoveries. I had read great reviews on TripAdvisor so in we went. We met the most enthusiastic host who was dressed as Vasco de Gamma, and was delighted to show us the highlights. The kids learned all about the places Portugal discovered and it was great to see them impressed by its history.
The museum also has a boat trip inside, similar to a theme park ride (although very slow) which Luke (10) and Alex (7) enjoyed, but it is probably more suited to younger kids.
Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the beach town of Matosinhos, which is only 15 minutes drive from Porto. I am told the seafood is incredible and unbelievably cheap here. Typically I found myself wishing I had another day. A day trip to the Douro Valley to see the wine lands would have been the perfect combination to a great city break to Porto – I guess I’ll just have to come back to do this another time !
TOP TIP: Porto is quite hilly with lots of steps, make sure you wear appropriate footwear. However I wouldn’t let this put you off visiting Porto. There are tuk tuks and trams a plenty, and taxis, like most things in Porto are very reasonably priced.
Where to eat in Porto
Our flight arrived in the evening time so after a quick check-in we opted to dine somewhere close to our hotel. The concierge recommended La Ricotta – a Portuguese restaurant with an Italian influence.
The food and the service here were superb – it was a wonderful first impression of Porto’s food scene. My prawn risotto was delicious, and the kids were delighted with their pasta.
Porto is renowned for being a top city break for foodies. With a wide array of Portuguese fish restaurants and tapas bars, as well as some fine dining options – there are four restaurants with Michelin stars, the value and choice here is hard to beat.
Every meal we had was delicious and we found it great value too. A glass of wine is €2.50 in most bars and restaurants, and you can get a set dinner menu for €10. I did find their famous Francesinha (little Frenchie) a little underwhelming! This is a sandwich of fillet steak, chorizo and ham covered with cheese and a spicy sauce, and served with chips. For me it was something that I would fancy at 3am after a night out, rather than over lunch, but each to their own!
What I loved about dining in Porto was the variety on offer. As well as top class food at low prices, there is a great choice of dining options to suit all tastes. There are modern brasseries, as well as family style Portuguese restaurants, and the al fresco options on the Ribeira offer stunning sunset views along the Duoro River.
One of our favourite meals was in a small tapas bar, Tababento. This was recommended to me by a few people and has excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. Don’t let the location (beside the train station), the exterior, and even the interior put you off – they are not exactly inviting! The service and the food was impeccable! Everything we had was delicious but the fois gras toastie (€13) and the wild tuna tataki (€12) stole the show. For anyone visiting Porto – you must go here!
TOP TIP: We tried to go to Tapabento for the first two nights of our trip and it was fully booked. In fact many restaurants we tried were full, so I would recommend pre-booking any recommended restaurants before you go.
Where to stay in Porto:
We stayed in the NH Collection Porto Batalha hotel, an excellent four-star hotel that was once an 18th century palace. Like most NH Collection Hotels, it combined modern decor in a historic building beautifully. Complete with a stunning red-painted facade and stone walls in the lobby, it has retained many of the buildings original features.
There is a small indoor pool and a spa offering a wide selection of treatments. Rooms are modern and spacious and if possible, try to get a room on the 4th floor which offer city views from the balcony. Read my review on the NH Collection Porto Batalha here.
TOP TIP: If bringing kids on a city break, try to book a hotel with a pool. It is a nice reward for kids at the end of a long day sightseeing.
Of all the city breaks I have taken in the last few years, Porto has surprised me the most. I hope you enjoyed my Porto travel guide and that you choose Porto for your next city break. I am sure you will fall in love with this colourful city and its mouthwatering cuisine!