Before we start, I feel I should acknowledge the current situation the world finds itself in; clearly, not very many people are going to be doing any travelling anytime soon, and this not intended as a suggestion that anyone does. Instead, it’s an account of my own trip there at the end of last year, a chance for me to remember and document. If it’s somewhere that you’d also like to go, I hope that when all of this is done you get that chance ♥
For somewhere that I would claim to have wanted to go to for ‘ages’, Porto is somewhere I had very little actual knowledge of before arriving. I didn’t know what there was to do, I didn’t know that those blue tiles everyone puts on Instagram are in fact a building there, and I didn’t even know that it was famous for Port. What I had instead were lots of romantic notions of myself elegantly floating along pretty streets in a large collection of white dresses, set to a backdrop of colourful buildings and sun sparkling on the water.
I know – it certainly sounds like there’s something to unpick there, but this is a blog post on Porto and not a deep dive into my mind, so let’s stick with my actual experience in Portugal’s second city for now.
And my experience of Porto was that there are lots of pretty streets, and colourful buildings, and when the weather is right the sun really does hit the Rio Douro and sparkle. There’s also loads of good food, art in abundance, a touch of edginess, and plenty of laid back charm.
You’ll be surprised to hear that I did not suddenly develop the ability to float, that I don’t have 100 different white dresses and also that I’m not a particularly elegant person, so only half of my original ideas about my time in Porto were correct, but I loved this city nonetheless.
In terms of filling your time there, there’s plenty to see and do, but we didn’t even scratch the surface (I’ve just seen that there’s a place called ‘Castle of the Cheese’, for example, and am immediately interested). Here’s how and where we spent our three nights in the city.
Where we stayed
I say this about almost every Airbnb we ever stay in, but this is one of my favourite Airbnbs we’ve ever stayed in, and I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why. The interior was certainly appealing; almost 70s in style, with rich wooden panelling, distinctive furniture and animal print wallpaper. A little balcony through double doors off the living room made an ideal spot to drink cans of we’re-not-sure-what from the local shop (I love buying unfamiliar fizzy drinks, beers and crisps from supermarkets abroad) and the sun warmed the rooms through the windows in the early evening.
The area – close to Campo 24 de Agosto station – wasn’t right in the heart of the action was but just a short walk (past antique shops, bars and restaurants and a park) away from the historic centre. It still felt very much part of the city and had real character of it’s own, as well as cool cafes and independent businesses. Definitely a neighbourhood I’d recommend if you aren’t fussed about the tourist hotspots being on your doorstep and prefer somewhere with an authentic, residential feel.
What we did
We managed to get around a decent amount of the city in the two and a half days we had, but never felt overly rushed, mostly because a lot of what we did was walked. Walked and walked until we could walk no more, and then ate or drank something (we found some really good food in Porto) and walked a bit further. This is a city just made for wandering, although the metro is very good too – here are a few of the specifics, some we made a beeline for and others that we happened upon uplanned.
Cais da Ribeira |Of course we were planning to make sure we visited the Porto of the postcards – the riverfront promenade of colourful stacked houses – but in the end no planning was actually required, we just wandered out in what we knew was the vague direction of the centre on our first trip out of the Airbnb and ended up right by Ponte de Dom Luis (the landmark bridge that you see in the photos). It’s lively, vibrant and utterly charming.
Blue tiled churches | Porto has more than its fair share of blue tiled buildings and all are utterly stunning. Se Catedral (Porto Cathedral) has them running along the cloister walls and Igreja do Carmo’s vast side has them all over, but for me Capela Das Almas (Chapel of Souls) steals the show. This was my favourite not only for its stunning exterior but also for the way it sat nonchalant at the end of a row of high street shops, amongst things like New Balance and Rituals – a real modern fairytale.
Vila Nova de Gaia | Across the river Douro from Porto’s historic centre sits Gaia, a separate city. It’s famous for port and is where you’ll find many wine cellars that you can take a tour of or taste the wares in, but it’s also just a cool place to spend a bit of time. There are metro stops there but we just walked over the bridge and hopped on the cable car (€6 one way) for yet more views, then pottered about along the river front and back up the hill.
Livraria Lello | Well, I wasn’t going to be bypassing a famous bookshop with Harry Potter links, no matter how tourist-crammed it was, was I? The Lello Bookstore is rumoured to have been one of JK Rowling’s inspirations for Harry Potter, something which you can really feel when you’re there, and it is stunning. Entry is by pre-purchased ticket, which you can do online or at the ticket office down the road (not at the shop itself) and is €5, which is then redeemable against purchases. Beautiful though it is, it’s not the most pleasant experience ever – the queue can be long and there’s a lot of shuffling – but I wouldn’t have missed it.
A walk on the beach | Given that we knew we’d be plunged into the depths of British Autumn/Winter when we returned home, it didn’t seem right to leave our last taste of proper sun without some beach time. The town of Matosinhos is connected to Porto on the Metro and has its very own expanse of golden sand and crashing waves, so that’s where we headed to get our fix. It’s also the home of something called She Changes (The Anemone), a large sculpture honouring the country’s fishermen.
Museu Serralves | Absolutely one of my favourite things we did in Porto, Museu Serralves comprises gardens, a house of cinema, an amazing (pink!) Art Deco villa and several other things. The gardens are beautiful and peaceful and the villa is just a joy. I can find contemporary art quite intimidating sometimes but the collection here is engaging, fun and well worth the time going inside for as well as admiring the outside.
Rua de Miguel Bombarda | While wandering on our second day we ended up in something of a trendy feeling district (okay grandma), and on reading about it afterwards I realised that this street is actually a ‘thing’. Rua de Miguel Bombarda is a vibrant art street with a whole host of galleries, cafes, exhibitions, secondhand stores and plenty of street art – I’d definitely spend more time here eating and browsing next time.
Sao Bento Station | This is literally just a train station, except that it’s not, because whose local train station looks like this?! I quite like train stations anyway – there’s something interesting about places where everyone is in transit – but this one is nothing short of magnificent, with high ceilings and yet more beautiful blue tiles. It sounds so silly and commonplace, but its just lovely, and is definitely worth a few minutes to admire, even if you have no plans to take a train at all.
Porto, it was a pleasure, and one I hope I’ll be able to repeat one day.