It’s no secret that Porto, Portugal is our most favorite city in Europe. Well, at least of the cities we’ve actually visited. We think of the city as our home-away-from-home and we spend as much time as we can in Porto. So when a friend asked for a few suggestions (aside from the obvious tourist sites) for spending time in the city, I pulled together a list of our favorite insider tips. Then I thought, why not share the adventure? So, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
How to Navigate the City
Let me start by explaining how best to navigate the city. It may not seem like it, at first glance, but despite the steep hills, Porto is a very walk-able city. Our biggest joke is that we can find our way to anywhere in the city but with a couple of exceptions, we can’t tell you the name of a single street. Thank the stars for GPS.
If walking is not your ideal, taxis are aplenty so that’s never a problem although I don’t think we’ve ever actually taken a taxi in the city. The city bus system is also widely used. The city’s Metro system is clean, efficient and user friendly. It doesn’t traverse the entire city, but it definitely gets one to most anywhere one needs/wants to go; including getting to/from the airport and crossing the Dom Luis Bridge to Gaia.
The best advice I can offer, as I said, is to just get out there and start walking. There is so much to experience on just about every block of the city. You can’t explore all of the nooks, crannies and alleyways from a moving vehicle. Besides, the steep hills on which Porto is built will give you a great work out and a good excuse for enjoying all of the great dining options in the city. Explore the different neighborhoods, eat where the locals eat and shop where they shop. Yes, you should venture down to the waterfront and take it all in, but the busyness of the waterfront and the row of eateries, is the tourist version of the city, not the authentic heart of the city.
Ride the Porto Metro
Most often we’ll walk anywhere we need or want to go, but sometimes we’ll hop on the metro. It runs both underground and above ground. If you’re going to spend a few days or longer, in the city, we suggest the purchase of the Andante Card which is rechargeable and gives individual riders unlimited rides for 24 hours on Metro and some of the local trains. There are six lines and prices are based on zones. The trains are painted the same color as the line making it super easy.
You can purchase the cards at Andante shops and at some Metro stations, or you can buy them at Pay Shops around the city, i.e. newspaper, magazine shops. Then just load trips on the cards at a Metro station. Remember, one card per person is the rule. To learn more detailed information about the Porto Metro system, read our post featured on WaveJourney.com
Ride the Hop On/Off Bus
To introduce yourself to the city, we highly encourage a tour on the Hop On/Off Bus. The one day pass is quite reasonably priced at approximately €14 or $16. The ride will last about two hours and there are 33 stops along the way. Stay on the bus for the duration of the entire route as it will give you a good feel for the lay out of the city and the ride will take you out to the coast. So many visitors to the city never leave the city core and they miss so much. After riding the entire route, you can then use your pass to hop on and off. I promise you won’t be disappointed and it’s pretty interesting (and a little hair raising) to see how the buses maneuver through the narrow busy streets.
Walk Across the Dom Luis Bridge
Let your feet lead the way and walk across the Dom Luis Bridge. While it is not for the faint of heart, I have gotten used to it and can now cross without trembling. Walking across the top of the bridge is one scary experience that I have only managed to do once and I have no desire to ever do it again. But, if you cross across the bottom level, you land right in Gaia, which is home to the Port wine lodges. And, if you happen to visit in summer, you’ll find teenage boys passing the hat and then jumping in to the Duoro River to the delight, and slight horror, of the tourists.
Taste Port Wine
Tasting Port Wine is synonymous with spending time in Porto. I’m fairly certain there is an unwritten rule somewhere on the topic. However, it can be a bit overwhelming to see the number of lodges that line the riverfront of Gaia. As a suggestion for tasting the best, we offer our favorites. They are Burmester, Kopke, and Calem. While they all offer personable and knowledgeable tours, we think the Calem tour is the most interactive for those who are not overly familiar with the intricacies of port wine. To read more: Meet the Locals: Andreia at Sogevinus
Walk from Matosinhos to Porto
Speaking of walking… a fantastic way to spend a lovely clear day in Porto is to ride the Metro to Matosinhos and then walk back to Porto, approximately 4 1/2 miles, along the coast. It’s a comfortable easy walk and the views are the best. I promise you’ll love it. If you don’t want to walk the full distance, there are bus stops along the way, just catch the #500 bus. To read more: How to Walk from Matosinhos to Porto
Shop With the Locals
We have two favorite shops in Porto. Well, actually we have several favorites, including the fabric store that I cannot resist, but I’m thinking that’s not as exciting for most folks. The classic Bolhao Market is an icon of the city but at the time of this writing, the market is undergoing a two-year renovation rebuild. We’re looking forward to shopping at the market once it is completed, but I think we’ll always miss the old crumbly slightly smelly market where we first met The Olive Lady.
Two must stop shops when in Porto are Casa Natal and Garrafeira do Carmo. I can’t say enough about both stores. The staffs are cordial and helpful and both stores offer authentic Portuguese shopping. While Garrafeira do Carmo offers wine, wine and more wine, Casa Natal not only offers wine but also a wonderful selection of tasty treats.
Eat Natas & Eclairs
Everyone who travels to Portugal, but especially Lisbon and Porto, will talk about eating natas. What exactly is a nata you ask? A nata is a cup of fabulous custard filling in a flaky buttery baked cup of goodness. When we first traveled to Porto I sampled a couple from different bakeries and did not at all see what the fuss was about. Then, we happened upon Fabrica de Nata on Santa Catarina Street in Porto and I understood the passion. Don’t bother eating natas anywhere other than Fabrica. Don’t waste your time because Fabrica has, by far, the best natas in the city. They are light, luscious and most often you can get them warm out of the oven, and with a dusting of powdered sugar, they’ll leave you swooning.
Once you’ve eaten more than your share of natas, the next best thing in goodness is the eclairs at Leitaria da Quinta do Paco – the sweetest side of Porto since 1920. Our lovely friend, Helena, introduced us to Leitaria and our first thought was, how did we not find this little shop of sweetness on our own? Thank goodness Helena took us. The shop makes their own cream and butter, and are well-known among the locals for having the best of the best. See, this is where having to walk the steep hills pays off. Just sayin…
Sit Back & Relax
By far, one of the best things to do in Porto is to just sit back, relax and watch the world pass by. There’s no better place to do so than at Costa Coffee. We first discovered Costa while in Prague so no, it’s not “authentic” so-to-speak but it’s as popular with the locals as it is with the tourists. Located directly across the street from Clerigos Tower, Costa offers a laid back atmosphere with sofas and comfy chairs. We have a couple of favorite spots inside Costa where we have been known to sit for hours as we sip mugs of coffee and hot chocolate and watch the world pass by.
Embrace the Experience
The second best piece of advice I can offer is when it’s your time to visit Porto look beyond the obvious to find the heart of the city. Let your feet do the walking, taste some port, see a few sites and eat
some a lot of fantastic food, but most importantly just sit back, relax and embrace the experience of being in Porto. It’s all kinds of wonderful.