Our Travel Guide to Porto
The best things we did, our favorite food and drinks, and what to know before you go
The internet has made it easier than ever to find information about a new place before you visit. You can explore a city on an interactive map, take a vicarious tour of landmarks through strangers’ pictures and videos, and find the best places to eat according to both local foodies and aggregated tourist rankings. The problem is, sorting through and synthesizing advice from so many different sources can be overwhelming. It would be a lot more convenient if you could find essential travel tips and curated recommendations for wherever you’re going all in one place!
My wife Lizzie and I recently returned from an amazing two-week honeymoon in Portugal. Partly because we wanted to have well-organized advice on hand for anyone who followed in our traveling footsteps, and partly to help ourselves remember all the amazing things we did, we decided to write a travel guide for each facet of our trip. We started with the greater Lisbon area, then went on to the Açores, but today we’re focusing on Porto.
We are neither travel agents nor experts in Portuguese culture, and make no claims to be the authoritative source on anything herein. But, if I do say so myself, we’re pretty darn good at planning vacations. So consider this the equivalent of what we would tell you if you called us to say you were going to Porto, but in rough essay form. We hope future travelers find this helpful, and almost as importantly, that people who like reading about new places will get some vicarious joy from scrolling through it.
Note: Instead of repeatedly linking to my essay Ten Things I (Re)Learned in Portugal every time I allude to an idea I wrote about there, I’m going to mention it once and say that it helps contextualize many of the thoughts and recommendations below. Please give it a read!
Basics and Logistics
The vibe of Porto is similar to other cosmopolitan European cities, especially Lisbon — ancient history, grand architecture, and vibrant culture packed into winding narrow streets. Yet Porto is smaller, chiller, and less touristy than the capital. We thought it felt like the Philadelphia to Lisbon’s New York, which might be why we liked it so much. But even that overstates its population, as the combination of its municipal area (slightly under 250,000 people) and metropolitan size (1.7 million) is comparable to that of Norfolk or Providence. And like everywhere we went in Portugal, it was a relatively inexpensive place to be in on vacation.
We spent two nights in Porto in the middle of our two-week trip. That was enough to see most of the well-known landmarks and get a feel for the city, but we would have loved to have spent more time there. Lisbon has many more tourist-friendly things to do, but in retrospect we would have rather allocated one or two of our six nights there towards extending our time in Portugal’s second city.
Traveling to and from Porto
If you’re traveling to Porto from the U.S., there’s a good chance you’re flying into Lisbon first. Our international flights in and out of the capital were fairly easy, but do give yourself extra time to go in both directions. Even without checked bags, it took about an hour and a half to deplane and go through customs at Humberto Delgado, and passport-control for the flight home also took longer than I had ever experienced before traveling back to the U.S.
Once you’re in Portugal, getting to and from Porto was a breeze. It was an easy, scenic three-hour train ride from Lisbon, and a painless flight from Porto to Ponta Delgada.
Getting around Porto
When we first arrived in Porto, we took the metro from the main train station to the heart of the city. When we left, we took a cab to the airport. In between, we traversed the city exclusively by walking. There are some steep climbs and cobblestone streets, and it’s not the most-accessible place for the mobility-challenged. But we found the terrain easier than Lisbon, the city is built out to prioritize pedestrians over cars, and if you’re up for a hike it’s a fun place to explore on foot.
If you’re not up for walking, there is a metro, and it seemed easy to call a cab when you need one. For those who prefer ride-share apps, they are available in Porto, but I would strongly suggest that taxis are the more-ethical choice. (I believe this is the case in the U.S. as well, but it is especially so in a country where the new business model has provoked strong national outrage.)
Where we stayed
We stayed in the Ribeira neighborhood and loved it: lively but not too bustling, plenty of sights to see nearby, and within a half-hour’s walk of everywhere else we wanted to go. Lodging in this part of town seemed oriented more around apartment-rentals than hotels, and we got a great deal on a unit on Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira.
If you’re reading this post, you probably speak English, which means you will have no trouble communicating with the locals. At least where were in Porto (admittedly tourist-catering), every single waiter, shopkeeper, and receptionist we talked to spoke English. As in the capital, English largely felt like the default language given how many locals and tourists from other countries also speak it. The difference is that, in Lisbon, we were quickly recognized as tourists even if we didn’t open the conversation with hello I am an American and I want a coffee. But in Porto, walking into a café and saying bom dia was enough for us to be confused with locals. Which was flattering since we generally try not to be obvious tourists, but meant we subsequently had to awkwardly admit that we don’t actually speak Portuguese.
Do and See
For as much we loved our time there, as a mid-sized non-capital city, Porto admittedly isn’t a hotbed of tourist attractions. Still, you’re sure to find cool history, architecture, and culture as you explore its ancient streets, and there are a few local landmarks worth checking out. (Note that, more than any other Portuguese city we went to, it was hard to ascertain exactly when museums are open — in one instance we found two conflicting sets of hours online that both turned out to be wrong — so if there’s a place you particularly want to visit, don’t wait until right before (you think) it closes.)
Iglesia de los Clérigos
This 18th-century Baroque church, visible from just about everywhere we went in Porto, is a three-for-one of tourist attractions. There’s the ornate chapel, where they host a free classical organ concert every day. There’s the museum, featuring exhibits about not just the history of the church but Portuguese architecture and religious iconography. And of course there’s the bell tower, where those who brave the claustrophobic 240-step climb to the top are rewarded with breathtaking views.
Sé do Porto
Another historic church — this one dating back to the 12th century! The cathedral alone is worth a visit, but the real fun is in exploring the cloisters and finding the treasures of history and art in each branching chamber.
Ponte de Dom Luís I
If you’re near the the south side of Porto before dusk, you’ll see masses of people walking across the city’s most famous bridge and camping out on the other side of the Douro River. Why? Because the views of Porto from the parks of neighboring Gaia are breathtaking, especially at sunset.
Palácio da Bolsa
A nearly 200-year-old palace that was once the commercial hub of Porto: the stock exchange, import inspections, and headquarters of the merchants' association. It was well worth the tour, especially to see the breathtaking Arab Room.
Eat and Drink
One thing becomes obvious about Porto even before you get there: it’s a foodie paradise. Most of the foods that Lisbon is known for are prominent here too, with a special emphasis on sandwiches. The city’s signature dish is the francesinha, a saucy behemoth intended as Portugal’s answer to the croque madame. While every café makes their own version, a francesinha generally consists of four different types of meat — including ham and both cured and uncured sausages — sandwiched between slices of bread, topped with melty cheese, smothered with a spiced tomato-beer sauce, and finished with a fried egg. I need an antacid just from writing that sentence, but goddamn if it isn’t delicious. And just like cheesesteak debates here at home, there’s vehement disagreement among locals about who makes the best one.
Do I need to mention that Porto is famous for its wine? The area is home to two different eponymous styles of vinho. Of course there is Port, the sweet, fortified dessert wine that the city is famous for. But there’s also Douro, historically made with mixed varieties of grapes and classified as regionally protected; our server at a tasting proudly reported that their certification as such predates Champagne’s.
Come hungry and plan your trip around going to…
We read dozens of recommendations for where to get a francesinha in Porto, but we had enough time and stomach space to try only two. So while I can’t tell you for sure that Lado B has the best one, I can tell you that it’s hard to imagine one tasting much better than this, and also that a poll of over 15,000 residents a few years ago named it the favorite francesinha near the city center.
The combination of sirloin, ham, and two different sausages meant you got a mountain of meat in each bite. The melty cheese and rich egg yolk were pure decadence. But the real star of the dish was the sauce, which was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Tomato and beer sounds like a strange pairing, but it worked, and resulted in a sauce appropriately full of contradictions: acidic yet savory, rich but bright, full-bodied without overpowering the other ingredients. I couldn’t stop smiling as I ate this sandwich, and I’ve been dreaming about it ever since. [Website]
Ristorante a Regaleira
I get it, most people probably don’t see a dish as over-the-top indulgent as a francesinha and feel compelled to try multiple of them. If you’re eating only one, I’d send you to Labo B instead. But the place that invented francesinhas, Ristorante a Regaleira, is still making them the same way 70 years later, and after one bite you can see why.
Compared to Lado B, a Regaleira's version was lighter (though still, you know, one of the heaviest foods you could possibly eat). It was also easier to pick apart and appreciate the high-quality meats on their own terms — including roast pork instead of sirloin, meaning you can get four different cuts of pig in each bite. The wine-forward sauce is why we have it a notch below Lado B: after the prior tomato-beer concoction we had, a Regaleira's sauce tasted more familiar and thus less special. Having said that, it was still absurdly delicious, to the point where I picked my bowl up like a goblet and drank the dregs at the bottom. [Facebook]
Catraio Craft Beer Shop & Bar
When we planned a trip to Porto, we knew we were headed to a special place for fermented beverages. We figured that meant wine, and indeed we had some great ones. But we also found what immediately became one of my favorite beer bars I’ve ever been to: Catraio.
We came to Catraio for its impressive list of rotating draughts (we tried the debut of a new beer) and an amazing selection of bottles and cans from around Portugal and the world. But what really makes this a special bar is its an idyllic rooftop beer garden, an oasis of lush greenery and twinkly string lights in the middle of the ancient city. We loved it so much that we went twice: the first night it was quiet and peaceful, the next night there was a great jazz combo playing a concert in the garden. [Website]
If you can get there, you'll be glad you made time for…
Somewhere at the intersection of a boisterous bar and a chummy lunch counter lies Gazela. It’s known for its hot dogs, which are unlike any frankfurter I'd had before. Each one is a legitimate sausage smothered in cheese, stuffed into a thick roll, and topped with spicy chili oil — which means it goes great with a cold Super Bock. Sit at the bar and chat with the jovial cooks, who might pour themselves a beer while they get one for you. [Website]
Do you like chocolate? If not, our tastes are so different than you shouldn’t be heeding my recommendations anyway. If so, make sure you get an espresso from this combination café and chocolatier. We stopped in for coffee one morning and got the espresso com chocolate: a cup of espresso served with a stick of melting chocolate that seeped into the coffee. You also get a chocolate truffle for good measure. [Website]
Remember those regional wines I mentioned? How would you like to try 12 of them? Head to this cozy bar to feel like you’re doing a tasting in someone’s cellar. Lado offers two different types of flights — one of traditional Douro wines, one of fortified Ports — complete with detailed explanations of the history, wine-making process, and what makes each glass you try special. And since there were two of us, rather than each get the same flight, they encouraged us to order one of each and experience the full range of local vinho. As with the francesinhas, we don’t know for sure that this was the best wine-tasting in a city full of them, but we had a great time. [Website]
Don’t go too far out of your way, but we can vouch for these places if you’re specifically looking for…
A snack near Clérigos
Need some fuel before climbing the historic bell tower? So did we, so we went to Muralhas Olival. We split two pastries: a stromboli-like bread stuffed with chouriço and cheese, and a flaked muffaletta-esque pie also full of chouriço and cheese.
Need something in your stomach after a night (or day) out? Mr. Pizza was the perfect snack on the way home from the bar. We each got a huge slice of chouriço pizza right out of the oven, and while we were certainly predisposed to appreciate it after an evening at Catraio, boy did it hit the spot.
The whole point of going to Portugal is to eat at an Argentinian steakhouse, right? For our dinner at Belos Aires, we got the delicious lombo steak and split sides of bacon-and-carrot rice and egg-and-provolone-topped peppers. This is one place where I would skip dessert — the brownie we shared might have been the least-chocolatey I've ever had — and instead save room for…
European Nutella is legitimately different than what you can get in the U.S., and the Nutella crepe is famous for a reason. Nut’ makes a darn good one.
You can see exactly where all these places are — as well as everywhere else we went that isn’t highlighted here — on our heavily annotated Google Map!
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