We’re going to start this post by saying that Porto is brilliant. It’s too good. We spent five days in and around it this August, and since we got home, we haven’t stopped telling everyone we know that they HAVE to go. We’ve been to (mentally adding up…) 14 countries and 23 cities together. Porto is in the top 5, easily. If you don’t count anywhere within the land of our dreams (Scandinavia), then Porto is firmly in the remaining non-Scandi top 3 (with Sofia, Bulgaria and Kanazawa, Japan, if you’re interested).
This blog is going to be a little highlights reel of our five days in Porto. We did far too much there to cover everything! Also, we’re not going to include eating and drinking in Porto, our day trip to the historical city of Guimarães, or our day in Porto’s neighbouring city, Vila Nova de Gaia. They all deserved their own blog posts.
We arrived in Porto on a warm summer’s evening in August. It was a smooth journey on the metro into the city from Francisco de Sá Carneiro airport (should be hilariously renamed ‘the Airporto’). We stayed in a nice, air-conditioned (very important) apartment, which was central so we could get about easily.
We’d done a lot of research about Porto before going there, most notably on the fantastic O Porto Cool blog (thanks to whoever writes that!) but we weren’t prepared for everything we’d love about it.
Here’s our top 10…
The most striking first impression we had was how incredibly ’tiled’ Porto is. More so even than Lisbon, it seemed. Nearly every building is adorned with beautiful, brightly colourful tiles. Most notable are the glorious azulejo blue and white tiles. Our favourites were on Santa Catarina church near our apartment, but they also feature in the wonderful São Bento train station and the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso.
Also, if you happen to own a blue-and-white tile print dress, like this one from Boohoo, you can wear that around Porto and experience a day in the life of a chameleon. Never before has matching your backdrop been so satisfying.
São Bento train station (below) is absolutely out of this world. Flooded with light from the imposing windows, and tiled floor to ceiling with the most stunning artwork, it’s no wonder that it is always nominated as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. We really liked that it was fully functioning and modern, as well as being pretty and historic. Imagine commuting in/out of that every day!
Porto is a city of vistas. From the top of the Dom Luís I bridge, to the vantage point near the cathedral, you’re spoilt with views of the Douro river and the classic Portuguese terracotta rooftops stretching out before you.
3. Street art
We don’t think, in our vast amount of research before going, we’d read anything about street art in Porto. It’s not the kind of thing we’d look up because we’re just not that cool, but it was everywhere, and all really good. We particularly liked the ‘refugees welcome’ signs all around the centre. Oh, and a giant cat.
4. Free walking tour
We did a free walking tour of Porto on our first full day there. We always find this is the best way to see the main attractions and then you can re-visit the ones you like best in more depth later. This one was particularly good.
We wandered through the main sites, the train station, some churches, Livraria Lello bookshop (nice building but a bit too touristy because it has Harry Potter connections), Maria Pia and Dom Luís I bridges, the cathedral, Ruelas Medievais (ancient cobbled streets) and ended up in Praca da Ribeira, the gorgeous square and world heritage site overlooking the Douro.
5. Beautiful buildings and streets
This is a bit of a vague-sounding highlight, obviously lots of cities have beautiful buildings and streets. But we think the pictures below speak for themselves. The colourful, cobbled side streets. The floral frontages. Lanterns and bunting overhead.
Porto has some of the most impressive architecture and idyllic streets. We spent a lot of time just wandering around taking it all in. It helped that it was very sunny – the place just suited being bathed in sunlight.
6. Botanic gardens
The Jardim Botânico do Porto was the perfect place to spend a sunny day. It’s free and when we went, we were pretty much the only people there, which made it even better! Of particular note was the wonderful blue sea of agapanthus. We’ve never seen so many.
We both work in Manchester, UK. It’s a city of decent modern trams, but Porto’s lovely little old trams make ours look like the biggest, ugliest buses you’ve ever seen. Porto’s trams are historic rather than functional now, and run as a tourist feature, not for the locals to get about on. It was far too hot to cram ourselves into one when we were there, but if you’re in Porto when it’s cooler and less crowded, it isn’t too expensive to have a ride.
8. The beaches
One of the best things about Porto as a city is that it’s coastal, with picturesque beaches a short bus journey from the centre. We went to Praia da Luz in the Foz district and spent a rather windy afternoon walking along the promenade for miles. We stopped for drinks and ice cream at a few of the trendy bars and cafés along the seafront.
Our last day was spent in Serralves, a ‘cultural institution’ in Porto. It encompasses a modern art gallery/museum, a large park, and a fantastic art deco style pink villa. All in one place! It’s sort of like Porto’s answer to a (modern) English country house with parkland, only with a Tate Modern art gallery popped in its grounds too. It was about 10 euro each to get into all of it, which was an absolute bargain.
The park is dotted with interesting sculptures, including this absolute whopper of a trowel…
10. Food and drink
Okay, we said we wouldn’t go into food and drink on this blog post, because it really does warrant a whole blog of its own. But we can’t not mention it when talking about Porto’s highlights. We’ll just pop this one photo in of the filthy-good francesinha. All the food and drink was exceptional, but you’ll have to read our ‘Food and drink in Porto’ post for more.
Five days in Porto: useful information
How to get there
We flew from Manchester airport, which took around two and a half hours. Then when we got there, we got the metro into the city from Francisco de Sá Carneiro airport.
Where to stay
We stayed in a basic, but very clean, air-conditioned apartment on Rue de Santa Catarina, which was very central so we could get about easily.
How to get around
Everything is walkable in the centre, but there are trams that cover further out, including cute historic trams. Getting a train out of São Bento station for a day trip is fantastic.
When to go
We visited in August and the weather was beautiful – not too hot, but warm enough to walk around in summer clothes.