Portugal – how did you fly so far beneath the tourism radar for so long? This country may be one of western Europe’s most underappreciated travel destinations. Not receiving nearly as much attention as its European neighbors until just recently, Portugal’s history, castles, architecture, wine and beaches are extraordinary, and it can be a more affordable destination than others. Portugal piqued our interest and our recent visit solidified our suspicion that this destination will quickly become a “must-see” destination for many.
The entire country is only about the size of Indiana, making it possible to experience several cities during a short span of time. We visited Portugal for nine days in early October. We chose October because we prefer to travel during the shoulder season once the crush of summer tourists have departed, yet the warm, sunny weather lingers. We experienced picture perfect days, ranging from the mid to upper 50s Fahrenheit in the morning to the mid to high 70s Fahrenheit by afternoon. Portuguese cities are compact, and we were able to see a lot during any given day. Some locations, like Porto, are perfect for a weekend or a couple days. Sintra can be experienced during a day trip, while Lisbon and the Algarve warrant a few days each to fully appreciate.
These shoes were made for walking! Plan to walk – a lot! Porto, Sintra and Lisbon are built on hills. There is a significant amount of walking up and down steep inclines. In all of these towns, cobblestone streets are the norm. And the sidewalks are all made from beautifully designed stone. Ladies, leave the heels at home. Wear comfortable walking shoes – you will thank me later. I can personally vouch for Jambu shoes. These were cute and extremely comfy. Whatever you choose, choose wisely. We averaged about 15-16K steps per day, and we weren’t being overly aggressive with our walking. We took the Metro, trolley, funiculars, cable cars, taxis, ubers and buses when and where it made sense to get around town. The fact is, there are many areas where you just have to hoof it. But on the bright side, if you’re like me, the massive amount of walking helps justify an abundance of cheese and wine consumption without guilt 😊
Don’t even think about driving in Lisbon, Porto or Sintra. Seriously. It would be a mistake. The streets are twisty, winding, narrow, cobblestone alleys with a lot of one ways and nowhere to park. Lisbon, frankly, is a maze. Even taxis had a hard time navigating the streets in the city. If you plan to rent a car to go to the Algarve (which is recommended over mass transit) or to some of the rural areas of Portugal, pick it up from the main train terminals or airports where you can immediately get on the national roadways to other destinations. Driving within the cities of Porto and Lisbon is extremely challenging and not recommended.
Street Art and Graffiti: It. Is. Everywhere. We were stunned by the excessive amount of graffiti everywhere in Lisbon and Porto. Some of it could be classified as street art (I’ve shared exceptional examples of street art we saw)…but most of it is ugly tagging. We come from Chicago where tagging typically aligns with gang activity. That may not be the case in Portugal as it is reportedly extremely safe… none-the-less it was striking and disappointing to see some of the beauty of the country so detrimentally marred by graffiti. It is our sincere hope that the cities will take action on this soon as it leaves a sour impression when so much else about this country leaves us in awe.
On the menu: It’s all about fish and custard tarts (not served together!) Portugal (at least the coastal cities and towns) is all about seafood. Pork is also on the menu, but there aren’t a lot of other protein options. We aren’t vegetarians, but can imagine Portugal might be a challenging place for those who don’t eat fish or meat. Portugal’s most renowned traditional fish offerings are codfish cakes and sardines on toast. Sea bass, snapper, lobster, shrimp and octopus are also regular items on the menu.
When it comes to breakfast, restaurants that cater to tourists (especially Americans) will offer eggs, but otherwise pastries and tarts are a more traditional menu item. Specifically, Portugal is famous for a custard tart called a pasteis. The most famous, and most delectable we tried was at Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon (more on that in our post on Lisbon).
If you’re considering a visit to Porto, below are some of our recommended sights worth seeing, and where to eat. People who really like to get embedded in local culture will want to stay longer, but we feel confident for most tourists, two days is enough time to experience this city. As for places to stay, we opted for AirBnB and chose a lovely place in Vila Nova de Gaia, about a 5 minute walk to the Ponte D de Luis bridge. Overlooking the river in a quiet location outside the thick of late night festivities, it was perfect for us. When looking for a place to stay, don’t be nervous about staying outside of Porto across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia – it is very walkable to Porto.
PORTO (2 days)
Porto is a juxtaposition between pretty and gritty. Beautiful and run down. It is clear that Porto is experiencing economic hardship. Buildings that were once likely regal estates are crumbing into ruin. Yet there remains extraordinary beauty throughout Porto – and a world of potential and possibility for the future.
Porto is most famous for its traditional blue tiles and its Port wines, or “generous wine” as the locals of Douro Valley refer to it. Porto is located on the Douro river that is spanned by several bridges – two of them were made by Eiffel and his protege with striking similarities to the architecture of the tower in France.
Across the river from Porto (a short 5-minute walk across the bridge from Porto) is Vila Nova de Gaia. This is where you will find the port wine caves and cellars.
Our top recommendations for Porto:
Port tasting. If you buy a ticket for a boat ride, or cable car, you’ll likely be given coupons for free port tastings. These are great for a quick stop into various cellars to try different varieties.
The cellars and caves are only open until 6 p.m. so plan your excursion to Vila Nova de Gaia earlier in the day. In addition to Tawny and Ruby ports which are exported regularly to the US, you can experience Rose Port and White Port which are a much rarer find in the U.S.
Taylors winery has a lovely, relaxing rose garden where you can tuck away and enjoy good wine, cheese, bread and olives.
Right on the river in Vila Nova de Gaia Porto Cruz has a lively rooftop deck, but of all the places we visited in Porto we found the customer service experience at this establishment the least desirable. On the wine menu throughout Portugal is green wine (Vinho Verde). This refers to “young wine.” It looks like white, but isn’t overly sweet like some whites can be.
Rabelo boats and river cruises. Rabelo boats line the rivers in Porto. These traditional boats were used to transport wine from the Duoro Valley down to Vila Nova de Gaia where they were stored and marketed. If you have more than a couple days in Porto, consider taking a day trip on a boat cruise to the Douro Valley wineries. If you only have a couple days in Porto like we did, we recommend a mini boat cruise. This 50-minute ride takes you up and down the river under the multiple bridges for a cool breeze and a terrific view of Porto from the water. You can purchase port on board and sip as you ride. The boat cruise is about 12-15 € per person depending upon what seller you buy from.
Beautiful blue tiles! Porto has some of the best examples of traditional blue tiles in the country (from our experience). The most pristine and extraordinary examples can be seen inside the Sao Bento train station and on the Chapel of Souls. Many chapels are adorned with these tiles including Igreja das Carmelitas and Igreja Saint Ildefonso. Some are in better shape than others.
Liveria Lello Bookstore. If you are a fan of JK Rowlings or Harry Potter, this might be a “must see” on your list. When Rowlings lived in Porto, and reportedly started penning the series, this bookstore served as an inspiration. It is easy to see why that might be the case with its extraordinary Gothic features, carved wooden spiral staircase and stained glass ceiling. It is worth seeing, but you should expect to wait in a long line and to be shuffled through the bookstore along with hundreds of other tourists. We arrived right at opening, on a Monday, in the tourism shoulder season and there was still a line down the block. It is one of the most popular things for tourists to see in Porto. The whole experience can be had in about 15 minutes, and costs 5€ to enter. If you purchase a book, the ticket price is applied toward the purchase. Remember to purchase your ticket before you get in line and note that you can’t bring backpacks inside. Leave them behind or pay to store them in a locker.
Eating in Porto: If you sit down for a drink and a meal you may expect to pay about 3-6€ for a glass of port or wine. While you can order a glass of wine, purchasing a bottle is much more common and expected. Bottles of wine can, on average, be purchased at restaurants for 7 – 15€ (something that is unheard of in the U.S.).
There are plenty of restaurants (aimed at tourists) along the river in Riberia and Vila Nova de Gaia. These can be great for a glass of wine and something to nibble on. But any local will tell you – go elsewhere for a good meal. Even the salespeople for these restaurants were honest, to a fault, encouraging us to eat elsewhere if we wanted fresh, good seafood. The honesty of the local people was refreshing.
The locals encouraged us to have dinner in O Pescador, a fishermens’ village about a five-minute drive away from downtown Porto for the freshest seafood (at local prices). We took an Uber and found a humble establishment and we weren’t disappointed. The server was friendly, the fish was fresh, portions were generous, and the cost was meager (our entire meal was about 40€ which included a serving of sea bass, grilled codfish, roasted potatoes, bread, olives, and a bottle of wine)
Cable Cars and Funiculars. Give your legs a break and consider getting up and down the hills of Gaia and Porto using the cable cars or elevator/funiculars. These are a fun ride and kids are sure to enjoy it. One way on the cable car is 6€ (round trip is 9€). The elevator was 2.5€ per ride.
Overall, Porto is a delightful, colorful, walkable city that is well worth a couple days if you travel to Portugal. It’s smaller than Lisbon, with arguably a bit more charm. It is distinct and unique, and we recommend a visit.