Porto, Portugal is one of Europe’s most underrated cities — and home to the world-famous Port wine. Often overlooked in favor of Lisbon, Porto is a hidden gem where visitors can bask in UNESCO Heritage architecture, art, cuisine, shopping and of course, the famous River Douro and the wine culture that runs with it.
Read on to find out the top things you should do and see when visiting Portugal’s second-largest metropolis.
Cross the Ponte Dom Luis I Bridge
This impressive iron structure connects the city of Porto with the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, crossing the Douro River. The bridge was designed by Théophile Seyrig, a prized student of Gustave Eiffel. Crossing the bridge can be done in a variety of ways: on foot and by car at the bottom, and by metro and on foot on the towering top level which offers vertigo-inducing, expansive views over the riverside.
Take the Six Bridges River Cruise
Although the Ponte Don Luis I is the most famous of Porto’s bridges, five other bridges cross the river at various points. Many different tour companies lead 50-minute boat trips along the river cruising under all six bridges. The trip is a great way to orient yourself with the city and river, especially on a warm, sunny day.
If you’re interested in taking a river cruise on the Douro, the Mar Douro tour company offers a memorable private 2-hour excursion down the river on a sailboat. You’ll get to witness most of the major landmarks on the way, and it’s all you can eat and drink BYOB. So be sure to snag a couple bottles of Touriga Nacional beforehand.
Sip a coffee at Cafe Majestic
Cafe Majestic is one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cafes, dating back to 1921, and is known for its glamorous art nouveau decor. Aside from this coffee shop’s regal, gilded interior and delectable pastries, it also happens to be the spot where J.K. Rowling was rumored to have written her masterpiece, Harry Potter. Be sure to schedule an expertly guided food and wine tasting tour through the city when arranging your trip with Bluedragon.
Taste Port Wine in Vila Nova de Gaia
It often rains in Porto and wine tasting is the ideal indoor activity. Starting from the moment you step off the Dom Luis I bridge, Port wineries line the edge of the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. The closer you stay to the bridge, the more expensive the tastings and tours are. As you trek up the hill, the prices slowly lower, and as you weave back, you may even stumble upon free tours and tastings.
While each Port House offers a unique experience, we’ve selected some of our favorites below. We highly recommend making advanced reservations. Alternatively, Porto Walkers offers a locally guided experience to several famous port houses and will arrange everything for you.
Some of our favorite Port Houses include:
Take the Cable Car
One way to avoid the hilly walk in Vila Nova de Gaia is to take the cable car, which also offers panoramic views of the bridge, river and city of Port. Short and sweet, the ride takes just a couple of minutes but is worth it for the views alone.
Bacalhau (codfish) is one of Portugal’s most revered fares, and you should plan to eat it as much as possible when in Porto. You have never-ending options when it comes to preparation, but here at Winetraveler, we like it à Brás (salted), with eggs and potatoes. Try the trendier Restaurant LSD or the more authentic and traditional Cao Que Fuma.
Winetraveler Tip: Keep your ears peeled for Portuguese “Fado.” This classic and historical style of Portuguese music can usually be found at any number of bars, restaurants and even at some of the port houses accompanying your wine tasting (Calem includes a Fado show towards the end of their tour of the facility). It’s an expressive style of musical storytelling, usually involving a singer and one or two string instrumentalists, done in candlelight and table-side.
If you really want an immersive Fado experience, you can schedule an entire concert with up to 10 different Fado performers in the evening with a chance to meet some of them.
Visit Porto’s New World of Wine
Step into 429,050 sq. ft. of incredible Portuguese culture, gastronomy and shopping experiences at the new World of Wine in the Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood. The facility itself offers incredible views of the city from a 360-degree perspective, including the skyline and the Douro River.
“Visitors to WOW have the option to choose from six immersive museum experiences, nine restaurants, bars, cafes, event space, temporary exhibition space, retail outlets, and even a wine school. Wining and dining are top priorities when visiting a city like Porto, and at the World of Wine, travelers have the option to enjoy a juicy steak at a top fine-dining spot, indulge in a chocolate treat, or simply grab a sandwich to-go and explore dozens of additional things to do in the space.”
Stroll the UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The historic city center of Porto is exceptionally beautiful, so plan to get lost in the maze of crumbling churches and squares, colorful homes and intricate tile work. Don’t miss the famous Torre dos Clérigos. Plan to trek up its 225 stairs to see the city from high above. Another worthwhile stop is the São Francisco church — its interior is practically dripping in opulent gold.
Buy a book from the Lello Bookshop
Known as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, the Livaria Lello dates back a century or so, and its magnificent staircase and stained glass windows make the entry fee worth it. If you happen to purchase something, your entry fee is discounted from the prices, so shop away.
Explore the Crystal Palace
Perched atop a hill, the Crystal Palace Gardens are exceptionally breathtaking. Besides the overwhelming number of exotic plants and flowers, manicured gardens and bushes, hanging trees and grand statues, the view of the Douro River and beyond is fantastic. Although the original glass structure no longer stands, the dome which replaced it is an important Porto landmark.
Go to McDonald’s (Just Trust Us)
McDonald’s! What? But trust me on this one and visit Porto’s McDonald’s Imperial, located in the Dos Aliados Square. Don’t bother ordering a Big Mac, though, instead, just look around and soak it all in. Beyond the smells of frying grease, this is known as the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world, retaining the original beauty of the interior when turning what was once the Imperial Café into the world’s most well-known fast food joint. With stained glass windows and chandeliers hanging over the deep fryers and milkshake machines, you’ll see how firsthand how historical and modern living meshes together.
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