When I booked my flight to Porto, I never expected to fall in love with the city. I knew no Portuguese, would totally be on my own again, and had no clue how to get around. However, it was the best week and a half of my summer.
A week and a half?! Yep, you read that right. I like to travel slow, at least a week in cities, but even a week and a half seemed a bit daunting for me. However, there are things that happened that wouldn’t have if I had just come and gone. It was almost as if I became part of the hostel. I made new friends and watched them move on. I began to recognize the locals at coffee shops, and they began to recognize me. I found a favorite restaurant and discovered some of the best sushi in town. The hostel staff all knew me by name. I dozed in city parks during the warm afternoons. My bed wasn’t just a mess of toiletries and dirty clothes; every shirt was folded nicely in the bedside cubby, my towel hung, and my flip flops tucked under the bed. I even did laundry in a laundromat.
In fact, my booking in Porto was a mistake. I was supposed to head south and spend more time in Lisbon than Porto, but mixed up the cities. And suddenly, it was a mistake that had me wishing for even more time as I got on the train at São Bento.
1. Try all of the pastries
I had over a week in Porto, no expectations, and a craving for everything sweet. What else was I supposed to do?
Every morning I would wake up, walk to the same cafe, order two different pastries and a café com leite (café au lait, café con leche – whichever langauge suits your fancy). My personal favorites ended up being the typical pastel de nata and the sugary bola de berlim.
I’d always recommend bringing a hostel buddy, as that means you can try four different pastries without feeling totally guilty about gorging yourself on delicious, candied carbs. I may not be totally financially savvy yet, but I make sure to always budget for pastries, good coffee, and, for some reason, the metro ride back to the airport.
2. Walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge
Enjoy the breathtaking views of the city port from a birds eye. Careful though! The metro runs both ways over the pedestrian bridge. The Dom Luís is beautiful from all angles, and it’s an easy (and free) way to make it across the river. I’d recommend walking both levels.
3. Ride a cable car
For only 5 euros you can get a one-way ticket up or down the famous cable car. There’s about four to six people per cable car, so the odds of riding with strangers is pretty high if you’re flying solo. However, it’s a great way to meet people. We rode down with a wonderfully friendly German man and his son. Sit by the door on the way down for the closest views of the old city.
4. Spend an afternoon at a port tasting
When we bought our cable car tickets, we received a coupon for a free port tasting. You can also book official port tasting tours through the wineries directly.
There are three types of Port: ruby, tawny, and white. The darker the port, the sweeter it is. Port in Porto is amazingly cheap, so why not try all of them while you’re there?
5. Hit up the clubs on Conde de Vizela and Cândido dos Reis
There are two main roads where you can find seemingly every club and bar in town. People mill in the streets, puffing cigarettes and drinking beer (you can drink public). Bars in Porto stay open late and the clubs stay open even later. There’s a mix of music, from Brazilian R&B to 80s American pop. If your hostel hosts a pub crawl, you can bet that you’ll end up on these streets. Some of the clubs even have hidden dance floors, DJs, and bars in their basement. You better be ready to dance the night away!
*Cigarette culture is very popular in Portugal. Many clubs allow smoking inside venus.
6. Visit Livraria Lello
This bookshop was once a common stomping ground for J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, as she frequently visited while living in Porto herself. She once stated in an interview that Livraria Lello influenced the appearance of Hogwarts, and it’s breathtakingly clear why this bookshop stuck with her.
There’s a 5 euro entrance fee, but it is deducted from any book you buy in the store. Most of the books are in Portuguese, of course, beautifully bound, and overpriced. However, I came away with a stunnning pocket book of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories; the pages are dipped gold and the Livraria Lello stamp adorns the first page.
Give yourself some time to visit this bookshop. Even if you arrive early, you’ll be undoubtedly waiting in line. I tried for about three days to get in, but was unwilling to wait in a queue that snaked down four blocks. I’d recommend going around three in the afternoon, when everyone will be settling and relaxing before dinner. Me and a hostel friend happened to be walking by on our way back from city the river and saw that the line was two blocks instead of four, so it was then or never.
However, make sure to buy your entrance tickets at the separate bookstore on the corner. Luckily, we hadn’t been waiting in line for too long before we figured out that you can’t buy tickets at the door. My friend waited in line while I bought the tickets (which was another long line). However, I had no problem paying the small entrance fee (not everything can be free, sadly). In addition to it being inspiration for Harry Potter, it’s also a beautiful Porto landmark and should definitely be on any bookworm’s bucket list.
7. Watch the sunset from the top of Fountain of the Virtues
Grab some friends, grab a beer, and sit back. This was an impromptu night with impromptu friends I had met on the hostel patio about an hour prior. The sun was setting and one of them had heard from a local of an amazing spot to watch the sunset. And he wasn’t wrong.
Make sure to go early enough to get a comfy spot on the grass.
8. Bask in the glory of Portuguese tile
Porto is a city of beauty, not just in cotton candy skies and friendly people. The architecture and buildings are art in themselves. Popular places to see famous tiles include Igrea do Carmo, a church across from the university, and Porto São Bento, the main train station downtown.
9. Take the metro to neighboring towns
Buy a ticket and see where you end up. Or, if you don’t have data, search for a smaller beach town close to the city. There are lots of wonderfully beautiful places outside Porto limits.
10. Stop by the world’s fanciest McDonalds
Seriously. McDonald’s Imperial has been named the fanciest McDonalds in the world. With stain glass windows, chandeliers, and a giant iron eagle guarding the front doors, it’s easy to see why.
11. Have a(n overpriced) coffee at Majestic Café
Majestic Café has been named one of the Top 10 most beautiful cafes in the world (Porto seems to have a common theme). It dates back to 1921 and is fully furnished with oak and marble tables, wood paneling, a bar that dates back before World War I, plush booths, a grand piano, and deteriorating mercury glass walls. The staff wear white coats and there’s a quaint patio in the back with a fountain.
While it is expensive, the Majestic Café is a must for anyone searching for some inspiration. Just make sure to stay for a while so you get your 5 euros worth of your cafe au lait.
12. Rent a moped
There’s no better way to see Porto than by moped. They dart through cars, go down cobblestone paths, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of the wind on your face. Or, if you’re like me and don’t know how to drive one just yet, find yourself an official (or unofficial) tour guide.
Travel luck struck me when I was in Porto (perhaps because I ended up staying so long) and I met someone. With my Portuguese friend, I was able to explore the city from the perspective of someone who had grown up there. We went all over the city, over each and every bridge, to hidden beaches, and I felt like Lizzie McGuire on her trip to Rome, riding down the colorful streets of Porto on the back of a moped.
Also, don’t forget to wear a helmet. It’s against the law if you don’t!
While my travel list is long, Porto is a city that I can’t wait to return to someday. Go out and discover it for yourself to see why.
Until next time,