This post is also available in: French
May is coming with all its national bank holidays in France. It’s the perfect time to get away and discover a European capital or a new region.
Last year, we’ve spent four days at the Italian lakes. Lago di Como, Lago Maggiore…it was a very relaxing change of scene between small seaside towns and hikes in the mountains.
Extended weekends (3-4 days) are also perfect to visit a European City. With the development of the low cost airline companies, it is so easy to leave all around Europe just for a weekend.
Today, I’m offering you a city escape in Porto for an extended weekend. Yes I hear you coming, Porto is not the capital of Portugal. But it deserves as much as Lisbon to stop there for a few days and discover its charm and culture. Porto’s city centre is registered as a world heritage site of the UNESCO. What are you waiting for ? Pack your bags. EasyJet and Transavia offer many flights from almost any airports in Europe, with very competitive prices.
So what is there to do in Porto for a weekend ?
You will see, my pictures don’t do justice to this beautiful city. We went there in November and spent the first day under the rain. Depressing. The next days were grey and cloudy. Our only sunny day was when we went to Guimaraes as a day trip. But don’t worry, if you go to Portugal during Spring, you will most likely get a superb sunny weather.
Experiences not to be missed
Marvel at the Azulejos : in Porto, the vast majority of churches have their outside facade covered in azulejos. They are tin glazed ceramic tilework (blue colored most of the time) and represent geometric patterns or even sometimes full scenes with people, animals, forests… You cannot walk 100m without encountering azulejos in Porto. Wander around and go on a hunt for the prettiest azulejos fresco.
Do not miss out on the beautiful São Bento train station. Its hall is absolutely exquisite with its azulejos frescos, its mouldings on the ceiling, the discreet stain-glass, its vintage clock and open arches… You should just be fascinated by the place.
Visiting cellars and Port wine tasting : it’s a must-do in Porto. You have to cross the Dom Luis bridge and visit the wine cellars. The vineyards are located some 40 to 100km away from Porto, in the Douro valley, but all producing houses are gathered in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, you have so many options to choose from to taste your Port wine but you may get disappointed. The first wine houses on the main street are the most touristy and least authentic. We visited Taylor’s house, founded in 1692 and we definitely didn’t regret our choice. They told us there, the oldest wine houses of Port wine are the ones located the highest on the hill. So don’t hesitate to walk up the steep streets to find the best Porto. We got to visit the cellars with explanation of the Taylor family’s history and the growing process in the Douro valley. We then tasted 3 different wines: one white and two reds, including one 10-year old Tawny. It was interesting to taste and be able to compare between the various vintages. Savors are totally different.
I also heard only good reviews from Graham’s but they are located at the other end of Vila Nova de Gaia. Under this pouring rain, we didn’t have the courage to walk all the way over there.
The Douro river banks : Whether it be on foot or by boat, on Porto’s side or Vila Nova de Gaia’s, take the time to wander on the Douro riversides and to observe the colored facades of the Ribeira neighborhood. You also get an interesting view from above the Ponte Dom Luis.
The Lello e Irmão bookshop: Its exterior facade stands out from the rest: white color with moulded decorations, paintings and sculpted parts. Once inside the bookshop, it looks like a museum or a historical monument. I loved the inside decoration but I was disappointed with the range of books they had on offer. I’m a book nerd and I can stay for hours in the book section of any shop, so I had big expectations for this bookshop, moreover which inspired JK Rowling for the story of Harry Potter. In the end, we notice that mass tourism has taken over their core business. Today they sell more postcards and Portugal guidebooks than real litterature and pretty old books.
Moreover, photos are not allowed inside and nasty employees watch really closely for law breakers. They are a real sourpuss, it’s a shame, it kinda kills the charm of the place.
To get an idea of the inside decoration, check out the article from French blogger Talons hauts et sac à dos. She managed to catch a few good photos of the place. You will see, it is magnificent.
Ride the tramway to the Ocean : I really wanted to do this experience during our stay in Porto but the weather decided otherwise. However, no excuses for you. You should take the old tramway, vintage style like in San Francisco, up to the ocean shores. It will allow you to refresh and see different landscapes.
Taste the natas and the francesinha : I loved eating the little pastéis de natas (source photo + recipe) during our stay. It’s a kind of custard tart. You can find them from 0,40€, so don’t hold back.
A visit to Portugal wouldn’t be complete without trying the local specialty: francesinha. It’s like a toasted sandwich with ham, sausage and beef, entirely covered with melted cheese and a fried egg on top. Can’t be more carnivore and filling. Men should appreciate this specialty.
Typical cultural visits
The Sé cathedral and visit of the cloister : Porto’s cathedral is a beautiful and impressive building. The visit of the cloister costs 3€. It is such a lovely place. The walls are covered in azulejos under vaulted arches. On the upper terrace, we find two entire walls covered in azulejos frescos which expand to dozens of metres long. You will also visit two chapels in which you can appreciate the kinda kitsch style of azulejos coupled with golden wooden mouldings. The style is very eclectic where several style eras meet. There’s also a treasure chamber and armoury. In the end, that’s a full and varied visit for the cathedral.
Igreja Sao Francisco + Palácio da Bolsa: 3,50€ for the San Francisco church, the catacombs and the museum. The Routard book (equivalent to the Rough Guides) describes the inside of the church like an orgy of sculpted wood soaking in gold, a vegetal explosion invading the walls, the arches, the pillars, up to the ceiling. This sentence is very representative of what it is and that makes the visit worth it. We are used to seing metal covered in gold but when it comes to moulded wood it’s different. It makes the whole place very hectic but it’s out of the ordinary so you will like it. Especially because you will continue your visit with the catacombs. It’s quite creepy because we literally have to walk on tombs. There’s only a wooden board with a number that separates us from the dead body below. The walls are covered with whitewashed gravestones with the name of the deceased person and a skull on top of each column. An off the wall atmosphere.
The Palácio da Bolsa is just next door. Entrance costs 7€. We didn’t visit it but the Salão Arabe is a must-see.
Torre dos Clerigos : It costs 2€ to go all the way up there and there are over 200 steps. At the top, enjoy the stunning view on Porto’s roofs, on Vila Nova de Gaia and its wine houses. You can also see a small very graphic park, the Jardim das Oliveiras. It is an original configuration : the below part is made of a shopping arcade whereas the park was built on the upper part, on the roof. Crossing this gallery will lead you directly to the Lello Bookshop which will transpot you to the world of Harry Potter.
Museu romántico, Museu Soares dos Reis… Porto accounts for several museums and parks where to chill.
I am now letting you discover this city by yourselves, get lost in the streets… The historical center is very small, everything can be done on foot. But the streets are paved and very steep so no heels and watch out for your calves. You are about to burn hundreds of calories.
All in all, it is really worth to spend a few days in this city. It’s historical, it’s cultural and it’s pretty and you enjoy sunny southern weather. Moreover, as a European citizen, everything will seem cheaper to you. We ate for two in a restaurant for 12€. A maxi best off menu at McDonalds costs only 4€ and pastries start at 0,90€. A return trip by train cost us 6,50€, it’s a lot cheaper than what we can find in other European countries. So please yourself, Porto will give it back to you.
Where to sleep ?
We booked a room at the Grande Hotel do Porto, located in the main shopping street Rua Santa Caterina, just opposite the famous Majestic Café. It’s the oldest and most luxurious hotel of the city. Luxury hotel, yes, but affordable prices. We payed only 46€/night for two, breakfast included. And what a breakfast… !!! A buffet like I had never seen before. Sweet or salty, everything is home-made, the choice is impressive. The common rooms are sublime with a beautiful baroque decoration. Service was impeccable. Our room was simple but very clean, a correct size and a mini-bar.
All of this for 46€/night only! In France you only get a single room at Ibis Budget, and breakfast is composed of individual portions of Nutella and jams.
Where to eat ?
That’s the problem, I found Porto lacked some good independent restaurants. For this reason, I won’t give you any reference. We find a lot of family-owned pastelerias-bar-tea house, but nothing exceptional.
If you have a great restaurant to recommend in Porto, do not hesitate to share in the comments.
All the places mentionned in this post can be found on the map :
Do you want to discover this special city now ? Ready to go hunting for the prettiest azulejos fresco ? If you have visited Porto during the warm days, which is the best park to chill and enjoy a good ice cream ? Do you have a good restaurant to recommend ?
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“In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.”
by Рeter Ustinov.