Tucked back off of the Atlantic Ocean, creeping up the hills on either side of the Douro River, Porto is pure, unfiltered magic. Here, the warm, lighthearted air of a sunny beach town blends with the dark, brooding aura of a medieval catholic city to create a pensive, playful and deeply authentic vibe. Colorful, sun-bleached buildings donning tiles in lively blue, yellow and floral patterns line plazas and cobblestone streets. Narrow, mossy lanes, witness to skulking cats and the occasional chicken, wind downhill from the cathedral Sao de Porto to the river edge. Stone buildings, overgrown with ivy, cheerfully crumble back into the hillside from whence they came. Happy couples stroll across the river bridge, holdings hands and gazing towards the vast Atlantic sprawling out from the mouth of the Douro. The smells of baking Bolhao, sweet nata and fresh earth mingle with the salty sea air. All elements combine to imbue the city with a candid, unostentatious enchantment.
Porto is a truly original city with an unrivaled atmosphere and easygoing, upbeat population, making it the perfect weekend getaway or stopover on any trip to southern Europe. Following are recommendations from a hip, local Portuguese on the best places to explore, eat, sleep and drink in Porto.
If you’re travelling to Porto with a friend, boyfriend/girlfriend or family members, the Casa dos Loios is the perfect place to stay. Casa dos Lois is a boutique hotel situated on a lively street brimming with cafes, bars and shops. The guesthouse itself is beautiful, offering winding staircases, homey yet trendy décor and luxurious rooms with palatial crown molding, chandeliers, high ceilings and velvet drapes. The house is perfectly located walking distance between the historic Ribeira waterfront and Porto center and a three-minute walk from the train and metro stations. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful and, best of all, the rooms are an amazing deal, making it possible for the budget traveler to have an indulgent hotel experience (not to mention the price includes a fantastic breakfast). Traveling solo, check out the Bluesock Hostel Porto for great location and distinctly Porto vibe.
Ribeira Waterfront: this is the area of Porto typically shown in pictures. Beautiful outdoor cafes and restaurants line the riverwalk, offering amazing views over the river and the classic, picturesque pastel colored buildings (Note: this is a great place to grab coffee or drinks however avoid eating here as restaurants are touristy and overpriced).
Sao de Porto: the classic old cathedral of Porto. The building is a truly stunning stone structure on a hilltop and offers views over the entire city. I recommend talking the path up to the cathedral from the Ribeira Waterfront, which leads you through narrow, winding walking streets and gives you a taste of authentic, old-world Porto. In addition, shell out the extra three Euros to enter the adjoining cloisters which house awe inspiring centuries old blue and white tile mosaics.
Lello Bookshop: the bookshop that inspired J.K. Rowling to write the Harry Potter series. This is a must/see for any Harry Potter fan. The moment you enter the bookshop a wooden, central winding staircase gives you an immediate understanding of J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts.
Mercado de Bolhao: Porto’s old central market. This is market is a giant two story maze of stalls and shops selling flowers, fish, port wine and everything in between. The market is hundreds of years old and is in mild disrepair, giving it a delightfully mysterious enchanted mood.
Porto is brimming with amazing food. Seafood is a quintessential part of Porto cuisine due to its location on the Atlantic coast so make sure you try the bacaloa, Porto’s signature fish. While exploring the Ribeira waterfront, I had an amazing lunch at Adega Sao Nicolau. Generally, I would not recommend eating at the restaurants in the Ribeira district because it’s quite touristy and overpriced, however, Sao Nicolau was recommended to me by a local and is definitely a locals spot. It combines the beauty of the Ribeira waterfront with the ambiance (and prices) of a classic Portuguese restaurant. The food was absolutely spectacular, with a host of flaky, fresh fish, grilled potatoes with herbs and perfectly cooked veggies, all dripping in rich Mediterranean olive oil.
While in Porto, you MUST go for a port tasting and try the port and tonic, Porto’s version of the gin and tonic. I was skeptical of the idea at first, however after the first sip all doubt were washed away. The cocktail was served with a hearty sprig of mint and was refreshing and had a wonderfully unique flavor. You can get a port and tonic almost anywhere, however recommended bars are:
Taberna Aduela: Head to Taberna Aduela for a super local, hip student vibe. The drinks are cheap but very well made, the music is good and the atmosphere is young and lively!
Ferreira: Walk over the spectacular Ponte Dom Luis bridge to the Douro side of the river for a port tasting at Ferreira. Ferreira is the only port company in Porto that has been owned by a Portuguese family since it’s inception. The ground are beautiful and they provide a great intro to port for people who are not familiar with how its made or how to taste.
Photos: Alex Baker-Brown
What’s your favorite thing to do in Porto? Share with us in the comments.