Known for its tile-clad churches, Port wine, a river that has shaped the city’s character, and a now-famous bookstore, Porto simply has a knack for revealing itself in truly unexpected ways.
POSTED BY PINKY
This city may be smaller and more compact than Portugal’s capital, Lisbon – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it probably is possible to rush through it in one day if you really had to. But that would be a shame.
I think one should allot at least 2 full days in Porto. And that’s the bare minimum. More if you’re travelling with someone.
And the best way to see Porto is on foot.
Another great option, however, would be the Hop on/Hop off bus that takes you beyond the old city center, across the River Douro to the Port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.
I got the 48-hour ticket on the Yellow Hop on/Hop off bus with 2 routes (Historical and Castle) that also included a 50-minute Boat Tour on the River Douro (passing 6 bridges) and a 50-minute Wine Cellar Tour – all for only 28€!
When planning your day, it’s always a good idea to check the schedule of the boat departures online and confirm this with either the Yellow Bus ticket sellers or, when taking the Historical route, go down Stop #5 (Ribeira) and check with the Yellow City Cruises counter by the dock.
The Wine Cellar Tours are given in several languages, so I suggest also checking the schedule of the tours conducted in your preferred language.
The only thing that I pre-purchased online weeks before my visit was the 4€-ticket to Livraria Lello, the bookstore now famous as J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the library in the Harry Potter books. Famous or not, it is a lovely bookstore (albeit small) and worthy of a visit if you have the time.
The cost of entry will be deducted from your bill should you buy anything from the store. They also prioritise entry for those who purchased their tickets online over those who bought on the spot. So best to book online.
Better yet, choose the first slot for the day if you want to see the bookstore as it opens (meaning, expect less people). In my case, it was the 10:30am slot.
That way, you also have the rest of your day to enjoy the city.
Where to Stay
As it was my first visit to Porto and I had only a couple of days to see the city, I needed a place that was as centrally-located as possible. The idea being to spend more time actually doing the things I wanted to do rather than trying to get between places.
A central location usually comes at a premium, however, specially for hotels. So as much as I wanted to stay at the Intercontinental, I instead found a lovely Airbnb studio just a few steps away from it, with a nice view of Largo dos Loíos.
You really can’t get any more central than that. To the north, south, west and east of it are the city’s main points of interest – all within walking distance.
And it’s right off Porto’s main square, Praça da Liberdade, and Avenida dos Aliados, where all the stops are for trams as well as regular and hop-on/hop-off buses.
And here I met Luís…
Luís was my Airbnb host, who also happens to be a “Superhost” – and for good reason.
Apart from orienting me about his lovely apartment and giving a fine introduction to his beloved city (for which he later on sent me a long list of his personal recommendations), he also suggested I listen to modern fado stars, Ana Moura and Mariza.
Luís, a Porto native, wide traveller, and math teacher, used to give tours in one of the top Port wine cellars in Vila Gaia. So he explained to me what I needed to know about Port wine, exactly what you’d hear on a tour save what could arguably be the fun part: the wine tasting.
This somehow took the pressure off me to take a Port cellar tour. And besides, I figured the wine tasting bit I could very well do on my own while dining at restaurants. Which I did.
And this was how I met Alain*…
I got to Porto on a Sunday, which terribly limited my dining options. I had a list of places I wanted to try but failed to make a reservation prior to my arrival in the city, and so they were either fully booked or closed.
One of the places on my list was a place called Tapabento (Rua da Madeira 222; closed Mondays). It was a short walk from my studio so I took my chances.
And guess what? They were open! But there was a long line and I could see people being turned away. So when I got to the lady at the door, well, naturally I did the only thing one must do given the situation: beg.
I begged her to take me in. Classic. I was dining alone and could eat quickly, I assured her. Okay, desperate.
And God bless her, she did take pity on me and told me I had one hour until the next reservation at a table, which at that moment I would happen to have to share with another person.
From the entryway, she pointed at the table in question and to the light-haired, young man occupying it, then with a reassuring smile said, “He’s a nice guy.”
Must be a regular, I thought. And he did look harmless and, well, reminded me of my son. So why not, right?
The nice man agreed to share his table with me and I took my seat directly across him.
As it turned out, Alain was not a college student but was actually a 47-year-old (whuut?!) French expat working in the IT field. Originally from Paris and married with two young children, he was working on his family’s move to Porto and couldn’t wait to have them over.
I asked him how it was like living as a foreigner in Porto. Alain said he’d experienced nothing but warmth and kindness from the people. So much more than in Portugal’s capital city (ouch). Granted, some of them seemed a little reserved or shy at first, but this changed pretty quickly and they soon began treating him as if he were an old friend.
In fact, he was in the same position as I was lining up outside the restaurant – no reservation with nowhere else to go. But since he’s dined there a few times, they knew him and let him in.
And so, it’s thanks to Alain, the nice lady who allowed me in, and all the friendly staff of Tapabento, that I had a great meal in one of the best places to eat in Porto.
Then I met Daniel*…
After a whirlwind couple of days trying to experience as much as I could of a city that I have, at this point, undeniably and certifiably fallen in love with, my all-too-short visit was coming to an end. I had a bus to catch and so called for an Uber car to take me to the terminal.
Feeling slightly bummed about leaving Porto, I saw my ride approaching, and on the driver’s seat noticed a dark-haired young man who reminded me of my other son (a recurring theme, yes?). Then out came a nicely-put-together Daniel to help me with my bags.
24 years old, Daniel was originally from Portugal’s Açores or Azores (accent on the “A”) region. I told him I’d never met anyone from the Azores before.
He mentioned having worked in the hotel industry but also enjoyed driving for Uber because it, too, allowed him to meet people from everywhere.
He talked a little bit about his home back in the Azores, then about the people of Porto, how much more warm and welcoming it is here compared to those in the capital (another recurring theme), and how much he really loved living here.
But alas, we had finally reached the bus terminal. Daniel and I said our goodbyes, and my visit to Porto had officially come to an end.
My Porto Story
As I look back on this trip and recall the many stories surrounding Porto, most of them customary spiel for tourists like us to get to know the city, the more I realise that it’s stories like those shared by Luís, Alain, and Daniel – my encounters with them and other locals – that are at the heart of what has now become my own unique story about Porto.
These are the tales that make a city real to passing visitors like me. A simple yet generous gift to the harried traveller. A connection. A chance encounter with the power to enrich someone’s journey.
All one needs to do is pause, breathe, and open up to the possibilities…
* To protect their privacy, real names were not used.