City breaks are the best! Especially when you’ve managed to bag a couple of extra days off work to turn a standard weekend into a holiday that will really make you feel like you’ve been away. Porto is great for this type of trip as its easily navigable (despite the hills) and has enough to keep you interested for four whole days.
The lively restaurant scene and port wine cellars also mean that your trip will include plenty of relaxation time, as well as sightseeing. Oozing charm, Porto will not fail to impress. Read on to find out how to pack as much as possible into a break in this stunning part of Portugal.
Day 1 – Get your bearings
When arriving in a new place the first thing you want to do is have a wander about and get your bearings. Not only this, but you’ll be keen to tick off some of the key sights and settle into your trip to Porto. Start off at the city’s main train station – Sao Bento. While it is an important transport hub, there’s more to see here than just the locomotives. This stunning building was opened to the public in 1916 and contains a beautiful work of art.
It took artist Jorge Colaco 11 years to put all of the intricately decorated tiles in place, which tell the story of Portugal’s history. There are some 20,000 of them and they have been created in a fine tradition of craftsmanship. Azulejo tiles are made in a time-honoured tradition and tin-glazed on ceramic, making them a distinctive part of Portugal’s culture. From key figures in the country’s royalty to the wars it has fought in and advancements in transportation, it is all depicted in the white and blue tiles.
Upon exiting the station, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the cathedral, although you could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of fortress. Its austere façade is the result of many alterations over the years, but the rose window remains an original element, dating back to the 12th century. The cathedral has seen its fair share of history, as it is where Henry the Navigator was baptised and where King John I took the English Princess Philippa of Lancaster as his wife in the 14th century.
While within the cathedral complex, take the time to soak in the scenery and views. The Episcopal Palace isn’t open to the public, but you can enjoy looking at its decadent three-storey façade. Then head to the terrace and look out over old Porto, down to the river and across to Vila Nova de Gaia. Follow your gaze down the steps to the medieval streets of the Ribeira district. This part of the city was inscribed onto the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1996 and is well worth exploring.
The Ribeira is a wonderful environment to stop and have some lunch in. There are numerous cafes and restaurants to choose from, but if you would like to head to a specific spot, then Chez Lapin is hard to beat. Much of its charm comes from the outside terrace overlooking the River Douro, but the food also lives up to the views. The menu contains traditional Portuguese dishes, making it a great introduction to the cuisine, with the baked octopus and cod coming highly recommended.
After lunch, take a walk to the Church of Sao Francisco, which shouldn’t take much more than five minutes. It is widely considered the most stunning monument in Porto and its decoration far outstrips that of the cathedral. It may have been built on the site of a modest church, but the new construction was filled with gilt-edged wood carvings. There is absolutely nothing understated about the Church of Sao Francisco and even though the shining gold that covers every surface of the interior is not to everyone’s taste, it is certainly something to behold.
Once you have taken it all in, return outside and discover some of the other attractions in the area. These include the Palacio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, Mercado Ferreira Borges and Palacio das Artes, where you will find everything from works of sculpture to photography. Also take note of any azulejos you see, as several of the churches in this area are decorated with the traditional tiles.
Return to the riverfront for the evening and enjoy a drink complete with a view that cannot be beaten at Bar Ponte Pensil. It is located right under the Dom Luis I Bridge, which gives you a great opportunity to see this marvellous double decker wrought iron work of art, designed by Teophile Seyrig, who worked alongside Gustav Eiffel. Not far from here you’ll find the historic Restaurante Mercearia, housed within a 400-year-old building. Its seafood is legendary and the setting will provide the perfect end to your day.
Day 2 – Soak up the culture
Take a look at another side of Porto with some of its other attractions. These include the Casa da Musica, which stands out from its location on Rotunda da Boavista due to its modern architecture. It was completed in 1999 and was designed as a purpose-made music space, with everything from concert halls to practice rooms all housed inside. Three orchestras – Orquestra Nacional do Porto, Orquestra Barroca and Remix Ensemble – are all resident at Casa da Musica. A daytime visit is the perfect opportunity to take a guided tour and learn more about it, although you may want to return of an evening and catch a performance.
Depending on your tastes, you could spend the rest of the morning shopping, as the surrounding area has some great outlets, or head to the Crystal Palace Gardens. This is a wonderful space in which to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the panoramic views. From here you are perfectly located close to the Soares dos Reis National Museum, housed within the Carrancas Palace and full of Portuguese art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The stunning Café Majestic on Rua Santa Catarina should be your destination for lunch. It is one of the oldest cafes in Porto, dating back to the belle epoque period and its decoration certainly reflects such grander times. Legend has it that J K Rowling used to frequent the establishment when living in Porto and it’s easy to believe this to be true when drinking it all in. Tuck into one of the pasta, meat or fish dishes or opt for one of the café’s specials, making sure you leave enough room for a sumptuous dessert.
Work off any indulgence at lunchtime by climbing up the steps of the Clerigos Tower for more wonderful views. It’s a narrow corridor that takes you to the top, so claustrophobics beware, but it’s worth it if you can manage it. For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there’s the Lello & Irmao Bookshop, which once again, looks like something from Harry Potter. With its curvaceous central staircase, ornate stained glass windows and neo-gothic façade, you won’t be able to help but fall in love. Bibliophiles will be in heaven with the walls lined in elegant bookshelves and you can even relax with a cup of coffee on the first floor.
Day 3 – Cross over the river
On your third day it is a good opportunity to take a tour of some of the port wine cellars that the city is famed for. Interestingly, most of them are on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, so take a walk across the stunning Dom Luis I Bridge.
You probably won’t want to go to the wine cellars first thing, as tasting is highly recommended, so explore some of Gaia first. Head to Rue Piedade, just off Avenue de Diogo Leite, which runs along the riverside. From here you can catch a cable car up to a delightful 17th century monastery on the hill. Unusual in its design with a circular cloister, Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar is interesting to visit and affords wonderful views of the river below. Guided tours take place every hour between 10.30am and 12.30pm and 2.30pm and 5.30pm.
Back down near the river, seek out Sweet Douro, a small, traditional restaurant down a narrow alleyway. Here you can line your stomach before heading to the wine cellars, with charcuterie platters and Portuguese tapas on offer. Spend your afternoon making your way around as many port wine producers as you like. They could include some of the big names, such as Graham’s and Sandeman, which still make the delicious beverage on this side of the river. Most of the cellars offer tours to find out more about the process, while tastings in nice surroundings finish it off nicely.
The perfect meal after an afternoon of drinking is the francesinhas. This local dish is incredibly comforting and is made up of wet cured ham and steak put into a sandwich, then topped with melted cheese. The final element is a rich tomato and beer sauce, which is served hot around the main event. Perto do Cais restaurant is well-known locally for making the best francesinhas. Find it on Rua Rei Ramiro, before returning back across the bridge to the Porto side of the river.
Day 4 – Take a river cruise
Use your final day in Porto to explore some of the surrounding countryside in one of the most relaxing modes of transport ever invented – the boat. The River Douro is right at the heart of life in Porto and following it upstream or even downstream is a great way to find out more about the surrounding area and see beautiful landscapes unfold.
There are several ways to cruise the Douro on a day trip, with many companies suggesting a train journey in one direction and boat in the other. A great option is to get the train to Peso da Regua, two hours upriver, where there is an excellent museum explaining all about the region. The journey is wonderful, with the valley opening up and terraced vineyards becoming visible.
When it comes to choosing a lunch spot there are several options. To really push the boat out, go for Castas e Pratos, which is housed within a historic warehouse that once belonged to Portuguese Railways and has been renovated to high modern standards. Expect decadent ingredients served in innovative ways.
For something more traditional, Gato Preso, overlooking the river is a great alternative. Given its location it’s not surprising that the fish and seafood offers are good, with cod and calamari two of the most popular options on the menu.
It is the return leg of your journey that will really be the highlight, as you will take in the vistas of northern Portugal from your river boat. You’ll learn more about the wine industry of the area and sail back into Porto while enjoying stunning views of the city, Vila Nova de Gaia and the crowning glory of the Dom Luis I Bridge.
Finish the evening with a nightcap in one of the bars overlooking the river – port would be the obvious choice!