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Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Porto

June 23, 2019

Visiting Porto, or even Portugal, this year wasn’t originally part of my plan. I was walking the Camino de Santiago and had thought to head to Madrid for a few days before flying to Amsterdam to meet my mom. And then Champions League happened. Hotel rooms in Madrid skyrocketed and I suddenly had just over 3 days to fill. After about half an hour on Google and Pinterest, I decided on Porto.

Not gonna lie, the only thing I knew about Porto going in was that it’s where port wine comes from. I honestly had no idea what to expect from this northern Portuguese city. I definitely didn’t expect to fall head over heels in love with a city in a few short days, yet that’s exactly what happened.

But you aren’t here to hear about my newfound obsession with this riverside gem. Without further ado, here’s everything you should know before visiting Porto.

Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Porto | Her Life in Ruins
Boats sail along the Douro River beside the Medieval area of Porto

Where to Stay

Porto is becoming more and more popular with tourists (thanks, Ryanair and river cruises!), so there’s no shortage of places to stay. I stayed in the Ribeira, an adorable area with cobblestone streets aside the Douro River with no shortage of places to eat. The Ribeira is in the heart of the historical area, which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The area is super convenient, as you can walk uphill to the major sites in Porto or across the bridge to the port houses in Gaia.

Hostel ($)

I stayed at Bluesock Hostel Porto and it may have just been the best hostel experience of my life. The rooms and bathroom was very clean, the common areas and amenities were great, and it was a young atmosphere without being too “woo party!” – other guests were super respectful of people sleeping, even when coming in super late. Plus, it’s in the Ribeira. Beds start around 20€ per night.

Boutique ($$)

Hostels aren’t for everyone, but neither are luxury hotels; luckily, boutique hotels are on the rise and are scattered throughout Porto! One that I had my eye on, but couldn’t stay at because they fill up fast, was Moov Hotel Porto Centro. Moov Hotel Porto Centro was once a cinema built in 1839; now, it’s a gorgeous hotel in the heart of downtown Porto. Rooms start at 57€ per night.

Luxury ($$$)

If you’re wanting to live your bougiest life, look no farther than the Pestano Vintage Porto Hotel & World Heritage Site. The hotel is situated right on the Douro River and can be seen in basically every postcard featuring Porto’s Ribeira district. They have a fabulous restaurant, bar, and the rooms are literally made from old houses, giving each a unique character. Rooms start at 233€ per night.

What to Eat

I have to start this section off by saying I’m not the biggest fan of Portuguese food. A lot of Portuguese food is very dense, oily, and meat-heavy, which isn’t always my favorite. I wasn’t looking forward to the food in Porto because of this, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there are loads of delicious seafood options around town!

Baked cod in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
Baked cod with vegetables from Barros do Douro

Two specific fish Porto is known for are bacalhau and sardines. Sardine season runs through July and August; this is the only time you can eat fresh sardines – all other months serve ones that had been frozen. Since I visited just before season, I missed out on these little fish. Bacalhau (cod), on the other hand, is available year-round, and is served in nearly every restaurant! I had an amazing baked codfish dish at Barris do Douro in Gaia, but my favorite was the cod a bras I had at Cozinha Cabral near the Palácio da Bolsa. Cod a bras is a traditional way of preparing the fish that involves mixing boiled, skinned cod with fried potatoes, sautéd onions and garlic, and eggs; it really doesn’t look appetizing at all, but my goodness is it delicious!

One dish I heard loads about, but couldn’t eat (thanks, meat allergy!), was the francesinha sandwich. The francesinha sandwich is bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, sausage, and an egg covered in melted cheese and a tomato-beer sauce. It’s a lot and affectionately called a “heart attack on a plate”. Two of my friends tried it, with one loving it and the other hating it; I guess it’s one of those dishes you have to try for yourself.

Of course, Porto is full of fast food staples any American would recognize. One of these is much more special than the others, though. Porto is home to the Most Beautiful McDonald’s in the World. The McDonald’s Imperial sits inside a historical art-deco building from the 1930s. It’s worth going in and taking a peak – I guarantee you’ve never seen another McDonald’s like it.

Where to Drink Port

Obviously, you can’t visit Porto without drinking port wine (which gets its name from the city!). Fun fact: port wine isn’t actually made in Porto, and most of the port wine cellars are actually across the river from Porto in Gaia. Thankfully, Gaia (and the port wine cellars) is just a short walk over the Dom Luís I Bridge. I visited 4 port wine cellars while in town and left wishing I had time to visit more! Seeing how each cellar aged, bottled, and marketed the port in different ways was absolutely captivating – and, you know, drinking the port at the end of each tour was a definite plus.

Taylor Fladgate

Tasting Port at Taylor's | Her Life in Ruins
Tasting a Chip Dry and Late Bottled Vintage in the garden at Taylor’s

Taylor Fladgate has been producing port wine since 1692, so it’s safe to say they’re doing something right. Visiting Taylor’s port cellars was truly a treat! You embark on an audio tour that explores begins with a historical overview of the company, including the British involvement with the industry. Then, you enter the cellar and learn about Taylor’s production process while surrounded by barrels of port. You end with a walk through a museum dedicated to the lineage of the company and their modern achievements. Finally, it’s time to try the port!

There are two main areas to taste Taylor’s: an indoor tasting room and outdoor garden. The weather was beautiful, so I went with the garden. The ambiance was incredible, with wrought iron tables, gorgeous plants, and even peacocks wandering the grounds! A waiter will come over and collect your ticket before bringing you two ports: a Chip Dry and a Late Bottled Vintage (what they’re famous for!). You’re given a menu with all sorts of extra pairings for a small charge – naturally, I got some chocolates to pair with the ports.

Taylor’s has several tour options, but I went with the self-guided audio tour since I planned everything super last minute. The audio tour doesn’t require advance reservations or a specific time slot, you just show up and start! The tour is 15€ and includes two port tastings.

Ramos Pinto

The Entrance to Ramos Pinto Port Wine Cellar | Her Life in Ruins
The courtyard at Ramos Pinto

Ramos Pinto Cellar lies under a bright yellow building in Gaia along the Douro River. Adriano Ramos Pinto founded the company in 1880, making it one of the first Portuguese-owned cellars. The brand quickly became famous for their marketing, which centered on naked women (something scandalous at the time). Naked women on their own, naked women with Bacchus, naked women with the pope…if it could be imagined, Ramos Pinto did it! Some people even collected the advertisements, branded knick knacks, and bottles themselves. They’re seriously incredible.

Today, the company invites visitors to explore their museum, see some of the old advertisements, wander through the cellar, and taste three ports: a white, a tawny, and a ruby. Guided tours run from 10AM to 6PM and cost 12€.

Cálem’s

Tastine Porto at Calem's | Her Life in Ruins
Tasting a White and Dry, Late Bottled Vintage, and 10 Year Old Tawny at Cálem’s

Cálem’s Cellar tour is unique because it focuses almost entirely on the port wine itself, rather than the history of the company. Cálem’s was founded in 1859 and has been going strong ever since. It’s not surprising, then, that their tours fill up fast.

All tours at Cálem’s begin in an interactive museum dedicated to the sights, smells, and flavors of their ports. You’re then gathered for a guided tour of the cellar before heading to the tasting room for a guided tasting experience. The guided tasting experience was amazing and really made me understand the taste of the different ports. The number and type of ports you try in the tasting depend on your ticket. I opted for the premium visit, which includes tasting a White and Dry, Late Bottled Vintage, and 10 Year Old Tawny – and they were very generous pours!

I went to Cálem’s first thing in the morning and booked the very last spot in an afternoon English tour, so I really recommend booking in advance! A standard tour with two ports is 13€, while a premium tasting with three wines is 16€. They also offer some special tours that include fado or food pairings!

Porto Cruz

Rooftop port wine tasting at Porto Cruz in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
Tasting port on the rooftop at Porto Cruz

Visiting Porto Cruz was very different from the other port cellars since you’re not actually visiting their cellar! The actual cellar is a bit of a haul to get to, so Porto Cruz set up a space right along the Douro River that truly celebrates their port wine. The space has interactive areas that introduce visitors to the Porto Cruz brand, the Douro Valley, and even innovative temporary exhibitions. They have a professional tasting room, restaurant, and stunning rooftop bar.

Reservations are required for the tasting room and cost varies based on what you’re trying. I was lucky enough to try four ports (a white, rose, tawny, and ruby) in the tasting room as part of a port tour I went on. It’s an experience I’d really recommend!

I loved the Porto Cruz rooftop so much that I went twice during my visit. You can grab a glass of Porto Cruz port for a few euros, try a specialty port cocktail, or grab more traditional cocktails while taking in incredible views of Porto over the Douro River. The roof is open from 3PM-7PM.

Douro Valley Day Trip

Something I really wanted to do, but couldn’t because it was nearly impossible to book fairly last minute, was a day trip to the Douro Valley. The Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, has been producing wine for 2,000ish years and is now the heart of port production. Port wine can’t actually be called “port” unless it was made in the Douro Valley.

You can book a Douro Valley day trip through the major tour companies throughout town, but I’ve heard especially great things about the day trips offered through AirBnb Experiences! Book as soon as possible if the Douro Valley is somewhere you think you’d like to visit. Of course, you can always extend your vacation a few days and stay in the Douro Valley, as well.

Where to Wander

The Fonte dos Leões in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
The Fonte dos Leões in the heart of Porto

Porto is legitimately one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever been to. Buildings covered in bright colored paint or tiled masterpieces, churches with gold-foil covered interiors, business buildings built like palaces, and charming old-school trolleys make visitors feel like they’ve walked right in to a novel.

I spent my first morning wandering around town and very quickly realized that you’re always walking uphill in Porto. Seriously, you’re thinking “I’ll be walking downhill soon”, and then nope, still up. Always up. It makes no logical sense, but it happens. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes!

Speaking of walking: spend some time getting lost in the older parts of town. People have lived along the Douro River since before medieval times, with many old buildings mingled in with more modern ones. Plus, many of the buildings have facades completely covered in hand-painted tiles that you can spend hours marveling over. You might even spot some telephone boxes gifted from the UK scattered around town!

Where to Visit

While walking will give you a great perspective of the city, you’re probably going to want to go in and explore a few places. Amazingly, the interiors of some of the buildings are just as extravagant as their exteriors.

Livraria Lello

Livraria Lello in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
The underside of the red staircase in Livraria Lello

Livraria Lello might just be one of the most famous bookstores in the world. The stunning red-spiral staircase, busts of famous authors lining the bookcases, stained-glass skylight, and rare books are sure to dazzle any book lover. Many know Livraria Lello, though, because of the connection it has to many Portuguese authors and even a British one who you may have heard of: JK Rowling.

Rumor has it that JK Rowling started brainstorming the Harry Potter series while working as an English teacher in Porto. She used to drink coffee upstairs and there are loads of similarities between this bookstore and descriptions of places in the Wizarding World. Livraria Lello has taken this and run with it! They have a dedicated Harry Potter room in back of the first floor and have signed first editions of several of the books on display upstairs. I was geeking out!

Bookcases in Livraria Lello | Her Life in Ruins
Busts of famous authors line the bookcases in Livraria Lello.

Since the bookstore is pretty famous, it is crowded! I went fairly early in the day and still had to queue to buy a ticket, queue to enter the store, and fight crowds inside. The waiting and crowds were worth it, though, as Livraria Lello is truly the most gorgeous bookstore I’ve ever visited (and I’ve visited many, many bookstores).

You have to buy a ticket to enter the bookstore. Tickets are 5€ and can be bought online or in a shop on the corner just past the bookstore – there are signs, you can’t miss it. Don’t get in the main queue for the store without a ticket. If you buy a book in the store, you can use your ticket to get 5€ off your purchase. Win-win!

Palácio da Bolsa

The Arabian Room in the Palácio da Bolsa in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
The Arabian Room in the Palácio da Bolsa

Surprisingly, the Palácio da Bolsa isn’t a home for royals, but the home of the Portuguese stock exchange. It’s the grandest building I explored in Porto, which is really saying something since nearly all the buildings are pretty grand. Every square inch of the Palácio da Bolsa is covered in crazy cool details. The glass dome roof, wood covered court room, ceiling frescoes, and more make this building a can’t miss. I’d go back just to get another look at the Arabian Room, an ornately decorated reception hall that actually took my breath away.

The Palácio da Bolsa is a functioning business and the only way to see the inside is through a guided tour. Tours are offered in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, take around an hour, and cost 10€. I recommend booking your spot in advance because they tend to fill up.

São Bento Railway Station

Tiled art at São Bento Railway Station in Porto | Her Life in Ruins
One of the tile covered walls at São Bento

The Portuguese are experts at making public spaces gorgeous, and the São Bento Railway Station is no exception. São Bento was designed by José Marques da Silva, a man who went on to design some of the most well-known buildings in Porto.

Over 20,000 hand-painted tiles that tell the history of Portuguese leaders, transportation, and industry line the interior of São Bento. It’s unbelievably pretty! Da Silva apparently got so caught up in creating the stunning interior that he forgot to design an integral part of any train station: a ticket office.

São Bento is a functioning train station and tourist hot-spot. If you’re wanting to get an unobstructed view of the tiles, I suggest going very early in the morning! I went just after 10AM and the space was already slammed with people.

Where to Watch a Sunset

Sunset Views in Porto from Hotel Dom Henrique | Her Life in Ruins
Views from the rooftop bar at Hotel Dom Henrique Downtown

I’m a sucker for a good sunset and try to watch at least one in every city I visit. I’d heard that the Torre dos Clérigos was a great place to see the sunset, but was immediately turned off by the crowd of tourists and 200+ stair climb to the top. Thankfully, we’d been told of a secret spot with some of the best views in town: the 17° Bar at Hotel Dom Henrique Downtown. We decided to give it a try and weren’t disappointed! The outdoor rooftop area wasn’t very crowded and we were able to get breathtaking views of the sun setting over the city and ocean.

The Foz do Douro Lighthouse near Porto | Her Life in Ruins
The Foz do Douro Lighthouse before sunset

Later in the week, I decided to visit the Foz do Douro Lighthouse. I was enjoying lounging in the sun on the beach so much that I stayed all the way through sunset! Getting to Foz was an experience in itself, as I took the Linha 1 historical trolley! I hopped on at the beginning of the line in the Ribeira and rode it all the way to the end at the beach. The tram stops running around 7PM, so I Ubered back after sunset. You can buy a one-way ticket onboard for about 3€. Bear in mind the trams can get pretty crowded, so check the schedule and show up a few minutes early.

Where to Party

There is no shortage of things to do in Porto at night – there’s seriously a bar on every corner. I had two really great nights out in Porto and one that was totally strange.

Let’s start with the strange, as it was very much my fault. You see, I did the hostel recommended pub crawl. The leaders spend about 40% of the time trying to recruit more people to the crawl. We spent the other 60% of the crawl outside total dives and in clubs where we were the only patrons. I would have probably enjoyed it if I was like 20, but I’m a bit over the whole college drinking scene (which this crawl definitely was).

The other two nights, thankfully, were much more my scene. See, there are fewer things in life I enjoy more than a good cocktail, and we stumbled upon two great cocktail bars in Porto. First up was Bonaparte Downtown, which had such a cool vibe: dark interior with tons of wood, lots of eclectic portraits and knick knacks on the walls, and a cocktail menu and tap list with something for everyone! They even had a great selection of bourbons (something that made my homesick heart very, very happy).

The next night, we headed to The Gin House, which specializes in all things gin and tonic. In fact, they have over 300 gins in house – it’s seriously insane! If you’re looking for something more than just gin, they have a fantastic craft gin and tonic menu that has a G&T for every taste. The drinks are huge, so we each ordered something different so we could try 6 between our little group. I got a gin and tonic with rose petals and cucumber that was insanely delicious. Another favorite was the jalapeño gin and tonic that one of my friends ordered; it had a bit of heat to it that made it seriously unique and delicious.

Final Thoughts

View of Porto's Ribeira from Gaia | Her Life in Ruins
The view of the Ribeira from across the river in Gaia

Porto is a truly special city that I feel is wholly underrated. The history, architecture, and incredible views make it a can’t miss for anyone looking for a phenomenal getaway. What are you hoping to do most in Porto? Let me know in the comments below!

xoxo,

KB

Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Porto, Portugal | Her Life in RuinsEverything You Need to Know Before Visiting Porto, Portugal | Her Life in Ruins

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