8 Things to Do in Porto, Portugal
Recently, I tacked some time in Porto, set along the River Douro, to the end of a road trip across northern Spain. Keen to end the trip on a high, I chose Portugal’s picturesque second city for its spectacular architecture, rich history and World heritage-listed historical centre, as well as its excellent seafood and of course the port, which originates here.
After spending three sun-soaked days in the city, here are my top eight things to do:
Browse the books at Livraria Lello
Considered among the most beautiful bookshops in the world, the Lello Bookstore is so spectacular it was JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts’ library, and it’s hard not to think of Harry Potter as you wander up and down the vaulted, curving staircases and peruse the thousands of books. Don’t miss the striking stained glass roof, featuring the motto “Decus in Labore” and the intricately plastered ceilings too. Once you’ve taken hundreds of photos and browsed the books (including the entire Harry Potter series), stop off in the café for coffee (or port) and cake.
Sample the port on a port wine tour
Talking of port, you can’t come to Porto without trying its local speciality tipple, port. A fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley, along the banks of Porto’s Douro River, the port here comes in a number of varieties, including dry, semi-dry and white. The best way to try some is to hop across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, where you’ll find a collection of port cellars, all offering tasting tours. I plumped for Taylor’s, where I was given a very informative description of the history of port and how they make it, a tour of the cellar, and then treated to samples of four different varieties in the pretty gardens.
Climb to the top of the Torre dos Clerigos
The Clerics’ Tower is hard to miss, as its 76-metre-high summit can be seen from all over Porto. The tower is attached to the Clerigos Church, built in 1750 in the baroque style, and the city’s tallest building at the time. The tower offers energetic visitors the chance to see the city from above - if they climb the 240 steps to the top, that is. Around 120,000 people per year make the climb, so it’s worth getting there early to be assured of your spot.
Cruise the Rio Douro
However you see the river, be it from a riverside wander, a sunset boat trip or a longer cruise into the countryside, you simply can’t miss the city’s lifeblood water source. But perhaps the very best way to take it in is by crossing the top level of the Ponte de Dom Luis Bridge. From here, you can look out across the water to the bustling riverside cafés of Vila Nova de Gaia, watch the boats passing far below you and, at night, see the city light up in a twinkle of light and activity.
Admire the view from the Jardins do Palacio de Cristal
I wandered down to the Jardins do Palacio de Cristal because it was a hot day, and I thought lazing on the lawns with an ice-cream was a good way to beat the heat. But when I got there, I found a gorgeous botanical garden, complete with topiary and tinkling fountains, as well as the odd peacock. While there’s a lovely little café selling pastel de natas (Portuguese custard tart), by far the best bit of these gardens is the sweeping view across Porto and the Rio Duoro below.
Gaze in wonder at the interior of the Palacio da Bolsa
The Palacio da Bolsa, otherwise known as the Stock Exchange Palace, is a 19th century neoclassical building found right next door to the St Francis Church. While the outside of the palace is all very impressive, it’s the interior that will really take your breath away. Created by a number of different artists, the rooms each have their own theme, including the Assembly Room, the Golden Room and the stand-out highlight, the Arabian Room, adorned in gold and mosaics that sparkle brilliantly in the soft light.
Tuck into a francesinha sandwich
Before I went to Porto, a colleague of mine told me that the one thing I had to do in the city was eat a francesinha. Having never heard of it, I researched before I went, and promptly decided that this ham, sausage and roast meat sandwich, which is smothered in melted cheese and a beer and tomato sauce, was definitely something I needed to try. So, on my first day in Porto, I made a beeline for a local café, and did just that. Rich, cheesy, decadent and oh-so-filling, this was one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.
Sip cappuccinos in Café Majestic
Yup, it’s super touristy, but it’s also a beautiful café, one of the oldest in Porto. Come for the opulent interiors, which appear to have changed little since the 1920s, and the French toast, which comes drizzled in syrup, cinnamon and dried fruit. It was also in Café Majestic that JK Rowling, while working as an English teacher in Porto, began to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone over a coffee or two. Who knows, perhaps you’ll get inspiration for a multimillion selling novel too...