Porto is a city that only reveals itself the most patient people
Porto isn’t exactly warm and welcoming, there is no sense of tourist fanfare on arrival. It gives more of a sense of “well you are here now, so get stuck in and get on with it”. You blend into the working, everyday fabric of the city and I grew to really like that. On arrival, it took up about 24 hours to adjust from small-town Portuguese life to this big, industrial, old-style city. It takes time to warm to Porto I think.
It is a bit more familiar, a bit raw and certainly more authentic than Lisbon, a place it is often compared to. The “put the best foot forward, first impressions count, shiny tourist” vibes of Lisbon are a distant memory here. This city of Porto has over 2000 years of history, laid bare waiting for you to be curious enough to find. It is a city that makes you work a little harder for your reward.
Where to Explore
Wandering aimlessly through the winding streets is the best way to discover those Porto secret places. There is so much to see, the main Baixa (downtown) region, Santa Catarina for shopping, Bonfim for cool neighbourhood vibes, the Ribera and then Villa da Gaia Nova across the water.
- Ribera and Vila Nova Da Gaia
On the first day we headed to see the Sé Cathedral ( Porto Cathedral ). It is one of the city’s oldest monuments and one of the most important local Romanesque monuments. Watch the opening hours though as it was closed twice when we passed.
Head on down the windy steps to the right and drift off into the Ribera district. It is gorgeous to do this in summer as the building provides a little shade and reprive from the blistering mid-day sun. There are lots of great little wine and tapas bars along the way so don’t be afraid to build in a little time to stop and sip. There are so many walking city tours that pass through this area, and I genuinely believe if you want to understand a little of Porto’s coloured history you should book one for your first day. I eavesdropped a little as we passed each group and was fascinated by what I was hearing… tales of love stories, ghosts and kings. As you land at the bottom of the Ribera you find yourself at the waterfront of the Duoro river. There are oodles of restaurants and bars of all styles and standards, something for everyone I guess. Wander, stroll, watch, smell, feel the palpable heart beat of the city right here in front of your very eyes.
We visited the Porto Legends immersive 360º audio-visual 45-minute show in Furnas da Alfândega do Porto which is in the heart of this area. The kids loved it and it really gave you a sense of the history and context of the city. It was excellent and cost €11 ahead.
The World of Discovery is also located just across the road. This is one of the things the kids were really looking forward to, however we got there on a Monday and it was closed. Can you believe it? We just never checked ( and we always do ). We have it on it the list for next time. I think it is ideal for that 5-10-year-old age bracket. It has an interactive touch screen, staff members dressed up, models and then a little boat ride to explore different continents and countries the explorers for Portugal visited.
There is a SEA Life in Porto, however, we gave this a skip as we have done the Oceanario de Lisboa. There is also the Zoo ( Zoo Santo Inácio ) We did not visit on this trip, we did not have enough time and after the Safari in Bodoca, we had ticked that box. In my opinion I would head to the is Parque Biológico de Gaia is a much more authentic visit. To cross over to Vila Nova de Gaia you can take a water taxi for €3.50 or consider crossing the Dom Luis Bridge.
The Dom Luis bridge is a double deck metal arch bridge linking the Ribera to Vila Nova da Gaia. It is spectacular, offering stunning views along the Duoro river. It was designed by Téophile Seyrig who previously worked for Gustave Eiffel. ( yes of the Eiffel Tower fame ) You can walk along the top deck which has 2 pedestrian pathways running on each side and the metro ( stopping at Jardim do Morro), along with an occasional super cool cyclist travels through the middle. The lower deck is used for cars.
When you arrive at the Vila Nova de Gaia side head up the small hill to the lovely Serra do Pilar viewpoint and the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar. Be sure to check opening times before you go. Mass was on when we were there and we waited around but it still did not open.
After this, cross the road, grab an ice cream and chill under the shade of a tree in Jardin de Morro.
These are the most famous Port House names, Grahams, Crofts, Cálem, Sandeman, Cockburn, Taylor to name a few. We ventured up the back streets a little further towards WOW and found a fabulous port cellar house of a lesser name Quevedo. It is of course, a vine yard from the Duoro Village. I really liked this place and this brand. It has a relaxed but informed vibe. There was no pretentiousness or overly stuffy historical homage to the paid-to-the-product. It was really enjoyable, their location is lovely and the staff we met were excellent and with a 4 port tasting for only €10 I highly recommend it.
- Boat Trip or a Water Taxi
Travelling the Duoro by boat was one of my favourite things to do. Being on the water and seeing the city from this angle was fabulous. The sun shining, lots to see, it makes for a fabulous afternoon.
Zap Duoro founded in 2021 by António Conceição is a personal tour you can take with a group of up to ten people. With Zap Duoro there are many options from cruising the river and exploring the bridges to a really special sunset trip or even consider heading out to the Duroc Valley. You can book for 1, 2, 3, 4 hours and the trip included your guide and host and a welcome drink (Port wine), cheese board and sausages with regional products, sparkling wine and paddle tennis (on tours over 2H). Contactos : email@example.com There are so many other companies who do this too, shop around for sure and make some calls before you go. For a much cheaper alternative and much shorter trip ( about 4 minutes ) you can choose to cross the river “the fastest way across the Duoro” from the Ribera city side to the Villa Nova da Gaia side on the Duoro water taxi boat. It costs about €3.50 for adults and €1 for children age 4-12.
When you are finished admiring the Ribera district skyline view and the river, head for the Telefonica De Gaia and hop in a cable car to take you down to the waterfront. The cable car was €22.50 for a return ticket ( this does not have to be used on the same day, we went back and used it two days later ) or €21.50 for a one way ticket. It was such fun and taking off from the upper deck was super exciting for the kids and we felt like we were launching a rocket into the sky. It gains speed as its leaves the terminal and then drops off the edge into the sky.
Ok, so this was a non-negotiable for our trip. This is a stunning, old-world bookshop with an interesting modern-day connection. A few years ago, a rumour escaped saying that this was THE bookshop that inspired the Hogwarts star case in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books. However, J.K Rowling has debunked this myth saying she never even step foot inside the door. Who knows, regardless of all of this…. we were intrigued. A few top tips: book your tickets in advance online, they were €5 each, and we arrived 30 minutes before our time slot of 11am to secure a space in the very long queue that forms. They keep the time tight with no delays, don’t even think of blagging your way with a missed or delayed time slot or try to get in on the door. They run a tight ship as they have to. It was jam-packed when we were in there, sardines in a tin, packed. We could not get a picture of just ourselves on their stairs, and it was a single-file walking system through the shop. But was it worth it… aah it was. The interior is a mix of art nouveau, art deco and neo-gothic with beautiful paintings. The entire first floor is made of wood. The second floor is made of plaster that has been painted.It was lovely and we choose two gorgeous classic book to buy ( which we redeemed our €5 voucher against ) that we will treasure forever.
Before or after you hit the book shop head to the square close by Praca Gomes Teixeira where you will first find a green fountain filled with bubbles, yes bubble bath bubbles. The girls loved this and played here for ages. After this, you will find two churches right next to each other. If you didn’t know you could assume it was one with 2 entrances ( like some of us). The Igreja do Carmo is on the right hand side is completely covered in a large painting of azulejo tiles. It cost €4.50 to visit this church. The one on the left is the 17th century Carmelitas church which is so impressive to see inside. One of the most interesting things about this site of the two churches is the tiny narrow one metre wide house that exists between the churches. As churches should not be neighbours if you will they had to create the “smallest house in Porto” to sit in between them. Be warned; blink and you will miss it.
World of Wine is a rejuvenated area of Vila Nova da Gaia ( back in from the waterfront ) which celebrates and pays homage to the prestige and the world that Porto once was. So much of Portuguese industry and the port wine cellars all existed here, and a number of years ago a decision was taken to preserve the history of this area and to create a modern, high-end cultural area of the city. It is very beautiful and holds great potential. It was quite the day we visited, and I imagine when it is playing host to cultural events and parties, it really sparkles. A lovely area to walk around and indulge in a fancy lunch and a glass of something cool and gorgeous.
This is in the “centre” of the city, or so I felt. You can see the Tower from so many places all over the city, it really is one of the iconic landmarks. To be honest, the city is so sprawling, even after 4 days I still don’t believe we had a real handle on the city. It is sprawling and vast and full of nooks and crannies and surprises at every turn. It feels like 3 cities in 1 sometimes.
The Torre Dos Clérigos stands about about 75m high. You must pay to climb the tower and enter the museum. The stairs are incredibly narrow but the view of the city is wonderful.
Alternatively, instead of climbing it, we returned at 6pm that evening for an amazing immersive audio visual show called Spiritous . It was 30 minutes long and spectacular. You were so engulfed in everything, it was hard to think of anything else for 30minutes. The kids loved it as much as we did. If you book online tickets are €11 or €15 at the door. A top tip is to sit at the back of the Clergies Church as you will spend alot of time looking up at the ceiling. Check to my instagram highlights of Portugal to see a little sample of this.
São Bento Train station is beautiful and stunning and quintessentially Portuguese as there is 20,000 hand-painted azulejo tiles. We did a 360º immersive 45-minute audio visual exhibition called Porto Legends. The kids loved it; it was so interesting, so well-presented and immersive. It allowed us to get a real sense of the history and the relevance of some of the city. One of those key parts was the history of the São Bento. Many do no know about the legend of the ghost who still remains at the train station. The history goes that “ Until the late nineteenth century there was the convent of the Benedictine nuns of Ave Maria, precisely where São Bento train station is nowadays. In 1821, this convent was inhabited by 55 nuns, as well as by 105 members of staff (mostly personal maids).
In 1834 all the religious orders were extinguished in Portugal, by the decree of a man called Joaquim António de Aguiar, also known as the “the monks’ killer”. This famous decree ordered the immediate extinction of all male orders (and, quite naturally, the confiscation of its properties), the prohibition of new nuns to profess their vows and the extinction of the convents after the death of the last nun who lived there. The last nun, however, “only”died in May 1892 (more than 58 years after the extinction of the religious orders in Portugal, let me me remind you of this fact!), paving the way for the construction of São Bento train station. Arrival of the 1st train on the temporary São Bento train station, on the 7th Nov 1896.
The legend says that, in a stubborn but serene way, the ghost of the last nun of the former convent still walks through the corridors of São Bento train station, and that you can hear her prayers in the quietest hours, when the noise is lower. But only the most attentive ears can hear the nun… as Porto is a city that only reveals itself to the most patient souls”.
Beach Life in the City
Porto is not a beach destination. There is a small beach North of the city. We hopped on the metro using our 3 day pass for €15 and headed out about 30 minutes to Praia de Leça de Palmerias. There is a compact but wide beach here with plenty of scope for sunbathing, renting loungers and an abundance of the cutest striped changing huts. There are big strong waves breaking on the beach though and like we experienced in Comporta it is not suitable for swimming at all. A bit of slashing and wave jumping and thats it.
However do not fear, all is not lost. There is a purpose built pool, 2 actually built into the rocks here with a small but adequate man-made beach. It cost €7 approx for a half day. There is a little snack bar here, and they cap the occupancy each day, so if you are going during very high season book your tickets online in advance.
The pool has stunning clear salt water and a beautiful turquoise hue from far away. It was designed by a leading Portuguese architect Siza Vieira. There is a small splash pool for the little ones and then the main pool.It is cold with the average pool temperature being between 12-16℃. This is significantly colder than what you would expect, but the water lovely, so refreshing. The problem for some is that it is windy here. NO matter how sunny and hot, you are on the very edge of the coast with the waves crashing and splashing and you are getting that sea breeze so I think that makes its feel colder that you would expect. It is such an experience though. Too cold for my Donagh, but the girls and I loved it.
Eating In Porto
My food recommendations for Porto or not like any other place we have visited and I have noted. Our eating here was different. Porto took us by surprise, we spent 12 hours a day on the go for 3 days, and our eating was more erratic, not in a bad way, just not as we had expected.
The places I am going to note all came to us, almost by chance and they all became so much more about the experience than the food, but they were about the food too. These places we ate may be unconventional to most and not suit some at all and that’s ok. They have firmly become a huge part of our experience and memories of real Porto, and for that, I am very grateful.
There are gorgeous places in Porto, modern, chic, and glam. I had them on my list, and I didn’t manage to get to any of the gorgeous places that were nice and a bit fancy. The reality was as above we explored so many little streets and nooks and crannies that we found ourselves wandering off the beaten track and taking pit stops little and often in the most unexpected place. What I will tell you about the fancy fine dining style places is that they do exist they really do, but you have to seek them out. Use your cop on, avoid all the tourist squares and heavily sponsored bars and restaurants with the gaudy alcohol brand umbrellas and chairs outside. Use your eyes, sense the place, watch who is eating there, look at the plates as you walk by, head off the main streets and into the quieter neighbourhoods.
Two of our most iconic eating experiences included DAMA and the other was the Mercado Bom Success.
DAMA was an experience like no other. It was authentic and genuine and immersive and engaging and unescapable in the best possible way. We were greeted by the wife of the team who owns and run this “grand-mere” style restaurant. All the tables outside in the little square were full, but she gave us respite inside, in a narrow little restaurant that by day is an artisan-style, gourmet deli.
To give you a little context, we have been up since 7 am, checked out of our place in Coimbre, travelled to Aveiro and had an amazing day there, hopped back in our car and travelled all up the motorway to Porto to return our car rental before they close at 5pm. We then got them to shuttle us to the airport; we got our 3-day metro pass, hopped on the metro to 24 Auguste Street. We got off, hauled ourselves up the stairs and two adults 3 kids, 1 20kg bag, 5 10 kg bags and 5 backpacks and a 12-minute walk later, we arrived at our Air BnB apartment. It was a rooftop loft apartment on the 4th floor of an old building with no elevator. It was hot and stuffy; we were tired and hungry. We showered, got ready and headed out for a bite, anything to be honest, on a busy Saturday night. We stopped into 3 lovely calves along the way who checked on our non-existent reservation, and then, well, headed off again a little forlorn and a little more weary each time.
When we finally reached Dama Pé de Cabra… upon sitting down, this fabulous lady told us her husband would be over to explain the menu. We kind of felt we had it sussed and decided to order lots of starters and mains to share. Still, the owner, who is so incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about his food and restaurant, guided us through each and every item on the menu, which is heavily inspired by local traditions and seasonal ingredients.
We had such appetites at this stage and feared we may have ordered too much, but no, we actually ordered more. Lets me tell you, we have the best petingas ( sardines ) on toast in all of Portugal Emilia adored them, the were served on toast, topped with a little black fish roe and a chilli sauce. We also ordered lupins ( small yellow legumes which are similar to a cross between a dried fava bean, a nut and a chickpea ) and bread. Let me tell you about the bread; oh my word, we are still talking about the bread. A carrot bread, pumpkin bread and a walnut bread. Bread served warmed off the grill or out the oven with melted butter over the top and these delicious artisan preserves and jams served with them. We inhaled them and ordered another for the table to share. We also had a local and artisan meats and cheese board. For mains, we shared an Alheira ( a smoked style sausage mainly made with poultry, bread, olive oil, garlic and hot peppers) and this was served with a chickpea and kale mash and a slow-cooked pork stew which Isabella adored and …..
We had vino Verde, another local white by the glass, which was delicious, and the kids had an insane homemade lemonade which came with ice cubes made from mint and cinnamon sticks; genius.
Although we were full, we succumbed to dessert, a wedge of homemade chocolate cake and a very interested, surprise, surprise egg custard-based dessert. It was not for me, if I am honest, but interesting. It was like very fine angel hair pasta cooked in an egg custard and sprinkled with cinnamon. We then got a handwritten bill for €94 and a plate of nostalgic sweets your grandmother would have given you, which went in my bag and sustained us two days later when we were hot and hungry after walking miles.
It is truly an experience and our only regret is we did not get back for breakfast with “hand-squeezed orange juice for the table, local scrambled egg and the toasted bread”; that BREAD!!!
If you find yourself on the outskirts of the Bomfin district, stop a moment in the garden and head into DAMA. It is certainly a culinary experience none of us will forget.
Now talk about polar opposites! You cannot get more different. Mercado Bom Success was built in the 1950s as a typical produce market but then, over time began to go into the rack and ruin a little. It was rejuvenated in 2013 and is now located with a 4-star hotel, boutique shopping mall, and these small, almost pop up style food stall restaurants. I think you could say it was a disastrous over-commercialised effort at a food destination, but I don’t know, something clicked for us.
We had been on the road for almost three weeks travelling from Lisbon and Comporta all the way up to Porto, and had eaten so many authentic dishes and we had compromised so many times to try to please us all this just worked.
It is not like a food hall in a big shopping centre; there are no chain brands in here but instead small restaurants, for the most part doing food really well for a really reasonable price. I think you have to choose where you eat wisely here so my personal recommendations are Tacos and Tequila, Chocolate Rosa for ALL the cakes, Buondi coffee, Cremosi for ice cream and crepes, Da Terra for vegetarian, DOGG was hotdogs, Lado B for a vegetarian Franchensini, LEITARIA QUINTA DO PAÇO for a €10 box which includes your classic slightly spicy slow cooked pulled pork and cheese crusty bap, crisps and a glass of cava or beer.
Ris8tto was really busy at lunchtime for risottos and Shibui Sushi had some of the best tempura prawns and crispy salmon sushi I have had. Tra La Pasta Fresca was serving huge portions at lunch to the hungry local workforce, but it wasn’t for me. Mariscaria is the place to head for seafood. Live, whole crab prepared and dressed served amidst a seafood platter overflowing with prawns, oysters on the half shell, scallops, winkles and very generous glasses of local chilled white wine all for €18.95.
The evening we visited, there was a Bruce Springsteen tribute band playing which drew a large after work and local family crowd. Again this would not usually be my thing, but it worked for us.
I started with a glass of gorgeous rose cava with my veal, shrimp and crispy chicken tacos; we shared some Uber-thin and crispy pizzas, the wild mushroom and truffle cream was delicious. The kids moved on to gourmet hot dogs topped with crispy homemade crisps/chips for €5.25 each and I had a hand-curated sushi platter. Meats and cheese platters were shared along with cheese croquette-style balls and pulled pork sandwiches. Hands dived in, bites were shared and tasted, oohs and aah flowed… we were so content and happy at the moment. I think the freedom of each of use getting to visit our own little restaurant and choose just what we wanted in the moment added to the enjoyment of the experience.
For context it is very reasonable. A good taco for €4.50, a pizza for €8.50, a sushi platter for €9, a massive slice of cake for €3.50, a coffee for €1.80, a cava for €3.50, a wine for €4.50 and a nice sangria for €5 it is incredibly good value for what you get. Is it the most authentic artisan food experience you will have in Porto? Lord no, is it the best? No I don’t think so but it was great and perfect, and I would go back in a heartbeat.
On my next visit to Porto, I hope to visit Saudade Restaurant & Cocktail, the food looks incredible and interior is very chic. Another stop on my list will be Incontro Caffè & Bistrot, an Italian hidden gem along the windy cobble Ribera streets serving delicious wine and tapas.
Porto, you took us by surprise. Upon arrival, all hot, sweaty, hungry and weary I don’t think I had the energy for you but you grew on us. Three days was enough but not really enough. It is a good city for kids but I would also love to go back and explore more on my own too. You have to work hard to reap the rewards of Porto. You can go and do the usual for sure but the real treasure is buried deep in this city. You have to put in the leg work and the hours, and is it worth it; yes I certainly think so.