We didn’t do as much in Porto as we probably could have, but it ended up being just fine. We took a good amount of time to just relax, and we ended up seeing pretty much everything we wanted to see. I think the most interesting thing about Porto for me is how aesthetically European it is. It seemed like there was nowhere you could go in the city that didn’t look ultra-European.
Knowing we wanted to spend a little more time in Portugal than Switzerland and because we had a somewhat hard arrival date in our next country, Italy, we planned on 10 days to split between Porto and Lisbon. We were leaning towards staying at Airbnbs since points redemptions didn’t appear to be great vs. how inexpensive some nice Airbnbs were.
One of my flaws is that I always want the best “deal”, which can cloud a more balanced approach to things, and I tend not to realize that I’m forcing a “deal” before it’s too late. We could’ve split the cities at 5 nights a piece, which sounds reasonable, but instead I wanted to take advantage of something that many Airbnb listings offer – a discount for staying a week or more. Of course, 7 nights in one city meant only 3 nights in the other, and due to a misunderstanding of the areas, Porto was chosen for the 7 night chunk. This is not at all to say Porto isn’t worth visiting. Just that, once we really started planning Lisbon, we quickly found out there are generally more things to do and see down there. Like I said, misunderstanding (i.e. poor planning).
Of our 6 full days in Porto, we did nothing but relax at the apartment for 3 of them. In our defense, we had just spent the previous 11 weeks traveling and/or worrying about logistics of either our trip or storing/selling our personal belongings (again, big shout out to all our friends that helped us out with everything). So, it wasn’t hard to convince ourselves to chill out. Thankfully, we did get out to see some cool stuff and eat some good food.
I can’t give you a good explanation why, but somehow neither of us took any pictures of our Airbnb, but here’s a link to it. The apartment was nice and spacious with a kitchen and dining area completely separate from the bedroom and living room area. The location was also great. It was right on one of the main walking streets in Porto, 50 yards from a metro stop, and right next to 2 malls – one with a huge food court and the other with a small supermarket and a farmer’s market. If there was one downside, it was that it didn’t have an AC unit, and it was pretty hot while we were there. They had a fan, but AC would’ve been really nice.
Praia de Leça da Palmiera
This is the only beach we visited the entire time. We are terrible. We made our way up to the Leça da Palmiera beach mainly for its Piscina das Marés – two man-made tidal pools built into rocks on the beach. While it was €4 for half-day admission, they did have locker rooms, showers, and restroom facilities, as well as a reasonably-priced cafe. The pool water does come straight from the Atlantic with no added warmth other than the people in it, so it was chilly. I hopped in for a bit, and it was refreshing considering it was decently warm outside. T opted to stay dry the whole time, though (boooo).
Porto has a riverside district called the Ribiera, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It’s essentially a boardwalk along the Douro river, where you can see boats that were made specifically to ship Port wine, as well as the Don Luigi I bridge designed by the guy that did the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. We explored it for a day and it was a fun, lively area. One of the other “attractions” are the kids/teenagers that jump into the river from the lower part of the bridge. It’s not a crazy high jump – maybe 50 feet – but high enough that it’s fun to watch.
If you want a nice, downhill walk through an old European neighborhood, don’t take a taxi or bus straight there. Get yourself north of the river to somewhere like the Porto Cathedral or the Igreja dos Grilos, then walk down to the river.
Palacio de Cristal
The other other thing we did was watch the sunset at one of the parks in the city. The Palacio de Cristal seems like part fancy garden, part fairground (looks like they hold festivals/markets there), and part regular park with some patches of grass to hang out on. There’s a good section of it that sits up high and overlooks some of the garden with the Ribiera in the background. The other cool thing about the park is that peacocks/peahens just roam around freely.
On our last day, we checked out this tiny, two-story bookstore in downtown Porto. It was built in 1906, but has become such a popular place for a photo-op, mainly for its red, twisted staircase, that they started charging for entrance in 2015. It’s now €5 to get in, but you do get that back as a discount off any book you buy during your visit. My favorite part was seeing the covers/titles of the books that have been translated into Portuguese.
The must-try food items in Porto were franceschina, cachorrinhos, and the local pastel de nata.
Franceschina is a sandwich originally from Porto made of bread, cured ham, cured sausage, fresh sausage, and steak or roast beef, covered in melted cheese and drenched in a thick tomato beer sauce. We has this at a popular restaurant called Gazelas and it was as delicious as it sounds.
A cachorrinho is a toasted hot-dog type of sandwich made with sausage, cheese, seasoned with just a bit of chili pepper or chili sauce, and served in a French-bread bun. We also had this at Gazelas, which is apparently the place that first started making them this way.
Pastel de nata is a egg tart that looks almost like a Chinese egg tart, but the Portuguese version has a crispy and flaky crust and is slightly caramelized to give it almost a creme-brûlée texture. Most places had cinnamon shakers to cinnemotize (that’s a real word, look it up) them to your liking. We both liked that they aren’t as sweet as the Chinese version.
We also tried a tapas-style restaurant called Tascö. Many reviews warned of long waits for dinner if you didn’t have reservations, which we were going to make, but then we just spontaneously decided to go for lunch one day. It worked out that we arrived right when they opened for lunch and we were the only ones there for 15-20 minutes. We had the tomato rice, steak with “3 pepper sauce”, and cod with breading. The tomato rice tasted good, but was almost soupy, and we were not fans of the cod, which wasn’t actually breaded but rather served with a bunch of breading dumped on top of it. The steak, however, was cooked perfectly and the 3 peppers sauce served on top was creamy and delicious. We’d go back just for the steak.
Finally, we ate a ton of….rotisserie chicken. Out first night, we had it at a local restaurant called Pedro dos Frangos, along with an octopus ceviche-like dish, which we later noticed is served almost everywhere in Portugal. The next day, we happened to see some freshly rotisseried chicken available at the deli of a Portuguese supermarket chain called Mini Preço alongside alheira (Portuguese-style savory sausages) and pork ribs. The sausages and ribs were okay, but their chicken was good, juicy (even the white meat), and amazingly cheap. You could get half a chicken with rice and a drink for €3.24 (~$3.80). I think we had their chicken 7-8 times across our 9.5 days in the country.
We took the metro to get anywhere far away, and it was pretty easy to use, especially since they have a metro stop that’s connected to the airport. Their metro system employs reusable cards and a validation system. You put money on a card and tap it on a validation terminal whenever you enter a station. There are no turnstiles or anything like that, so it’s an honor system.
While we didn’t explore a ton, it felt like we got enough of the vibe of Porto to not feel like we missed out. We don’t feel like we need to go back to see more of the city, but wouldn’t have a problem if we ended up going back. It’d be nice spend more time at the Ribiera and visit some of the other beaches in the area.