Portugal has seen a huge boom in tourism the last few years and that’s partly thanks to the city of Porto. The northern city has fast become a beloved city break destination in Europe, due to its bohemian culture, scenic cityscape and famous port wine. Since it’s become so popular, you’ll have no problem finding a horde of articles and blog posts showing you what there is to see and do in Porto. So, instead I’ve decided to share some Porto tips that I think will help enhance your visit to this lively city.
Explore Both Sides of the River
Without doubt the most important landmark in all of Porto is the Douro River that flows through it. This means the city is divided in a sense, with the city centre on the north side and the city of Vila Nova de Gaia to the south. Yes, technically these are two different cities, but in essence they will feel like just one. That’s not to say they feel the same, as each side of the river has its own strengths and atmosphere.
Compared to the bustle of Porto, Gaia has a more calm atmosphere to it, especially as you steadily descend to the waterfront on the Teleferico de Gaia cable car. As for waterfront views, I much prefer the one from Gaia as you get to look across as the city stacks on top of itself. Down on the Gaia waterfront you also have access to all of the port wine warehouses, so you can sample all of the local drops.
With the way the city is divided, a visit to Porto will seem incomplete if you only stay on one side. Best of all, crossing between the two likely means walking along the mighty Dom Luis I Bridge, a marvel of engineering.
Geek Out Over Public Transport
It may seem strange, but one of the things that seems to enchant visitors to Portugal is its public transport. Much like in Lisbon, you’ll find plenty of visitors heading into train stations momentarily or taking trams to nowhere. Probably easier to understand are the train stations, once you set foot inside yourself. One look at the tiled interior of Sao Bente Train Station and you too will be smitten.
The love of trams however is a little harder to explain. Yes, Porto is home to historic trams, like its southern counterpart Lisbon. There are three tram lines that run through the city featuring vintage trolley cars. If I was to pick a line, I’d recommend the No. 1 as it takes you along the riverfront out to the beach at Figueira da Foz.
Taste the Northern Cuisine
One of the things that tends to enchant visitors to Portugal is the food. No matter where you go, you’ll find pastel de nata, the delicious egg tarts, as well various bacalhau or codfish dishes. There’s also the deliciously unhealthy bifana, small burger-like rolls filled with fried pork or beef. And yet, even in a small country like Portugal though, there’s plenty of regional cuisine to savour.
As the largest city in the northern region, Porto is a convenient place to try some regional dishes. By far the most noticeable dish in the north is francesinha. This heavy dish starts with a sandwich packed with assorted meats potentially including ham, sausage and roast meat, which is then covered in cheese. The sandwich is then drowned in a gravy-like beer sauce, sometimes with a fried egg on top and smothered with chips. Yes, heavy. It’s said to be quite the hangover cure and I’m not surprised.
Another common sight in the north and in Porto as well are churrasqueiras, basically Portuguese barbecue joints. Among the various fried meats you can find at these simple establishments, the fried chicken or frango assado always stood out to me. Oh and lets not forget the wine that the city and region are now famous for. While port wine gets all the buzz, you can also find some fantastic green wines from the nearby Douro to quench your thirst.
Find a Different Viewpoint
Given Porto’s location on the banks of a river and its hilly nature, you won’t struggle to find viewpoints there. Probably the most typical, yet awesome vantage point is the view across the rooftops of the city from the Cathedral. Another common point is from the tower of the Clerigos Church, letting you look out in all directions.
Problem is, both are wildly popular and for the church tower, come with an entry fee and a queue. For those looking for an alternative or simply yet another angle, my pick would be Miradouro da Vitoria. In what can be most favourably described as an empty lot, you’ll find one of the more offbeat vantage points. From this viewpoint, you look out over the rooftops of Porto to the Cathedral and Dom Luis I Bridge.
If this doesn’t convince you that Porto has a stunning skyline, nowhere will.
Get Out on the Douro
I mentioned how important the Douro is earlier so it only makes sense that you try to appreciate it up close. There are a number of ways to do this but probably the most straightforward is to take a Six Bridge River Cruise up and down the river. Setting off from the Ribeira waterfront near the city centre, this cruise will take you past the six different but still mighty bridges that link up Porto.
An alternative however, is to head up-stream and out of Porto. The Douro River winds its way a fair way inland and into wine country. Among vineyard terraces surrounding the town of Pinhao, you can take a leisurely cruise along the Douro in a traditional rabelo boat. If you’re looking to get out of the city for a day then this is the perfect chance.
The Perfect Sunset Spot
There’s a reason that some of my favourite photos of last year came from Porto. That reason is watching the sunset over the city. Porto is perfectly situated so that you are able to clearly watch the sun set over the river and city to magical effect. The most popular spot for this it seems is on the Dom Luis I Bridge on the Vila Nova de Gaia end.
However, I think there’s a better one. Situated up above the bridge is the grand Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar monastery. It’s quite a noticeable spot and yet if you head up there in the evening, it’s quieter than the bridge below. Not only do you have a higher vantage point, but you can also get shots with the bridge in it if you want.
The Other Perfect Sunset Spot
This may be the most important of all my Porto tips. Of the various Porto beaches, like the city beach Figueira da Foz, my favourite has to be at Miramar. This lesser known beach destination lies just south of the city centre, only a few train stations out of town. What makes this beach so perfect, besides the relatively few people, is its wide dunes and the moving Chapel of Senhor da Pedra.
Lying on some rocks by the water’s edge, this chapel is a sight to behold. It may surprise you to hear me say that the history of the chapel isn’t really important. One look of it positioned among the beckoning sands and you’ll understand why this spot is so great. And while it’s pretty enough during the day, the place becomes desperately magical at sunset. I can’t think of anything more bewitching or romantic than watching the sky change colour over the chapel and sands of Miramar.
If you’ve been before, what Porto tips do you think people need to know? Which of these Porto tips do you find the most useful? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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