There’s an academic air about the coastal city. The University of Porto—one of the top architecture schools in the world—resides in the epicenter of town, adding a youthful beat, and giving you a glimpse at the city’s taste level. It seems like one big historic Ivy League campus, nestled above the river Douro and next to Portugal’s fertile wine valley. Its cliff-side domiciles beg for photos; its cozy pubs and bars attract crowds of outdoor minglers happy to strike up a conversation; its art scene matches Lisbon’s, or even surpasses it; and you can subsist entirely on regional foods and drinks if you want.
Familiarize yourself with these: francesinha (a meat-stacked egg-and-cheese sandwich that’s soaked in a tomato-and-beer broth); alheira (minced meat sausage); bolinas de bacalhau (cod fritters); and of course a Porto tonic (cocktail of Port wine + tonic).
I hope you’ll give the city more than a couple days, allowing enough time to experience its many dimensions. Here’s an itinerary of what to do, where to stay, where to eat, and how to get there.
How to Get to Porto
For one, Porto and Lisbon aren’t all that far apart (it’s a small country after all). You can get between the two on the CP train (Comboios de Portugal), which takes roughly 3 hours.
However, it’s also easy to fly directly to Porto via TAP Airline’s stopover program. In spring 2019, TAP is changing its twice-weekly direct flights from Newark to a daily, year-round service. If your final stop is one of 10 EU cities (and counting, depending on when you read this) you can plop into Porto for up to five days at no additional airfare cost.) Those cities, as of publishing: Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, Zurich, Geneva, Luxembourg, and Funchal (which is on the Portuguese island Madeira, aka Cristiano Ronaldo’s home, and a really incredible vacation spot).
Where to Stay in Porto
Infante Sagres: If I could make a list of hotels that left me awestruck, this one would sit high on it. The attention to detail at the 5-star Infante Sagres—both in design and hospitality—is really noteworthy. Every note is right, from stained-glass staircases to carved wood details, Claus Porto amenities to a secluded sundeck pool. The luxury hotel, which was opened in 1951, is as central as you can be in Porto, and they just finished a huge renovation that brought light, color, and vibrancy back to the property. This overhaul also introduced the city to The Vogue Café (yes, that Vogue), which matches the hotel in taste, quality, and ambiance. Come for cocktails, coffee, or a meal as fresh as the Porto breeze. You won’t soon forget the rooms at Infante Sagres, either, pairing wooden furniture with soft-tone textiles, as well as a few pops of color to grab the eye. It’s the kind of hotel you look forward to retiring to at the end of the day, since it’ll play as much in your memory as the travels themselves.
Hotel Teatro: Hotel Teatro is very different from Infante Sagres in execution, but equally as warm and well-curated. That’s probably because it’s a 4-star design hotel. It’s the kind of place you settle into like a blanket—what with its deeper, moodier details. Teatro opened in 2010 on the site of the former Baquet Theater (hence its name, which means ‘theater’), and its design is a nod to this historic predecessor. With billowy curtains, big bed-framing mirrors, and a restaurant, Palco, that follows suit with Portuguese culinary artistry, Teatro syncs brilliantly with Porto’s pulse, making it an obvious abode for your weekend affair.
What to Do in Porto
Port wine cellars in Gaia: All those Port wines that make Porto famous are technically across the river in another town called Gaia. But don’t worry: It’s all accessible by foot or taxi, since it feels like one city. Arrange a cellar tour or tasting at any of them, though I’d suggest Taylor’s, Ferreira, and Graham’s.
Douro Valley day trip: As if the Port wines weren’t enough, you’re also at the bed of the Douro Valley, and a day trip down the river (drinking all the while) or driving to the vineyards (drinking responsibly all the while) is a most-excellent way to pass the time. If you prefer to float, try the ever-reliable DouroAzul. If you want to rent a car and self-navigate, then Quinta do Bomfim, Quinta do Tedo, Quinta da Pacheca are all good benchmarks. If you want a tour guide by land (and an hour-long boat cruise in the mix), then Living Tours is a good route to go.
Hit the Praias: Porto’s beaches aren’t its main selling point, but it’s lined with praias. If you want to soak up some sun on a lounger, head to Praia Matosinhos (technically its own town), since it’s got the longest stretch of uninterrupted sand. Other scenic beaches, though more rocky, include Praias Carneiro, Ingleses, Molhe, da Luz, or Castelo do Queijo. You’ll find cafes and boardwalks lining the shore, so it’s worth a visit for that west-facing Atlantic sunset. You can also walk out to the southwest tip of Porto, too, to the Felguiras Lighthouse.
Tour Foz: Porto’s fresh seafood makes its first stop in the city’s fisherman neighborhood, Foz, just off the southwest coast of the city. You can meander after your walk along the beach, looking out for its many great restaurants, like Ichiban for sushi, Cafeína for fancy Portuguese-French-Italian fusion, Portarossa for Italian, or Restaurante Popular da Foz for authentic Portuguese seafare. Also, bookmark Mercado da Foz do Douro, the local fisherman’s market.
Museu de Serralves — Serralves Foundation: You can spend hours here, tucked into an oasis of culture and reprieve. Serralves is a contemporary art museum, and its property rivals Versailles. Bring a book, a lover, and leave your stress at the gate.
A literal Mira-Douro: You might know the Spanish word “mirador”, meaning “lookout”. And in Portuguese it’s “miradouro”, which is so appropriate in Porto, given that the city is rife with views of the Douro River. The best of them is from Serra do Pilar, the monastery that towers above the Gaia coastline and the Dom Luís I Bridge. Also add to your Google map the Miradouro da Vitoria atop Porto (which adds some red rooftops to the mix), and the Miradouro Ignez (west of the center in Porto—less photogenic but just as charming). You can also grab a ride up the Gaia Cable Car for a quick but quaint view of the Porto riverfront.
Casa da Música: You can tour this geometric marvel and concert house—just book ahead for their daily English tours, at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.—or you can (and should!) check their concert schedule to see what’s showing while you’re in town.
Livraria Lello: You know this small, grandiose bookstore as the place that inspired JK Rowling for Harry Potter. Now, there’s a line out the door for tourists who want to photograph the space. It’s a bit gimmicky, to be honest, and the elegance of the place is lost on the Instagram crowd. But, if you’re in the market for a book, your entrance fee can be applied toward your purchase.
Take ye to Church: Whether churches are your thing or not, don’t miss the baroque, gilded Igreja do Carmo, with its blue-tiled exterior (depicting the Brown Scapular imposition…which you knew, right?). It’s built right beside the equally impressive baroque- and rococo-style Igreja dos Carmelitas. Other notable churches around the center include the also-blue-tiled, also-baroque Igreja do Santo Ildefonso, the gothic-on-the-outside, baroque-on-the-inside Igreja do São Francisco (and an UNESCO World Heritage Site at that), the bell-towered-and-baroque Igreja dos Clérigos, and the 400-year old romanesque cathedral itself, AKA Sé do Porto.
Claus Porto: Whether you’re a grooming nerd or not, the homegrown soap makers Claus Porto make the most skin-friendly, wonderfully scented products, in equally astonishing packaging. It’s the perfect place to get a gift for your friends back home, or to stock up and impress your own houseguests.
Where to Eat and Drink in Porto
Cafeína: This is your perfect excuse to hit the coast for a sunset, followed by a fancy seafood dinner. (It’s Portuguese fare, with elements of Italian and French cuisine.)
Café Candelabro: The perfect place to mingle with Porto’s happy-hour or late-night crowd. Get a Porto tonic, and sit outside for some quality people-watching time. (It’s also great for a coffee, or to peruse their book selection.)
Café Vitória: A delicious multi-level eatery straight from an Edward Hopper painting.
Aduela Taberna Bar: This feels so quintessentially Porto: There’s usually a flooding of locals drinking beers and chatting in the street in front of this cozy tavern. End any of your nights here for some cozy European-living vibes.
Miss’Opo: Where Porto’s cool crowd eats prawns, cous cous, and more—all in modern, well-presented flair. Sometimes, you’ll even get a DJ serenade.
Vogue Café: Inside Infante Sagres, the Vogue Café is the place to see and be seen, especially with a flavorful cocktail in hand.
Café Santiago: You cannot leave Porto without having an aforementioned francesinha, a smothered sandwich that’s soaked in a broth of tomato and beer. Café Santiago makes one of the best ones. Bring some Pepcid, and check it off the list.
Flor dos Congregados: Another mustdevour sandwich in Porto is the terylene, a slow-roasted pork sandwich (cooked for some 24 hours, to make the meat extra tender). Flor dos Congregados is the best spot to try it.
Fish Fixe: Get your seafood with a view of the Douro, facing Gaia. There are a ton of seafood restaurants lining the waterfront, but most are touristy, overpriced, and subpar. The agreed upon best is Fish Fixe, tucked back near the top of the grade with an expansive view of the waterfront.
Capa na Baiza: Another great spot for a francesinha, or for anything fried.