Portugal hides in a tiny corner of the huge continent of Europe. It's the quiet little brother to loud, boisterous countries like England and Germany.
But here's the rub: those countries and their oft-mentioned capitals are mega-expensive. If you want to get the most bang for your travel buck, you will need to venture further afield. This, friends, is the best reason to visit smaller, lesser-known places like Portugal, and lesser-traveled cities like Porto.
Why visit Porto Portugal?
When we heard that a travel conference would be held in Porto, we couldn't resist attending. Portugal had intrigued us for ages.
Porto, on the other hand, was so unknown to us that we had to search for it online.
It turns out that the country’s second largest city is a three-hour train ride up the coast from Lisbon. Sometimes called Oporto, it lies at the mouth of the mighty Douro River in northern Portugal, as ready as ever to ship its namesake port to the rest of the world.
Special thanks to Visit Portugal for wisely beginning our conference with a tour of Porto.
I am embarrassed to admit that I had wondered why anyone would want to visit Porto. I had pictured it as a smaller clone of Lisbon, with trams and tiled houses. I imagined a slew of run-down port warehouses along a dirty river, but I was so wrong.
First of all, those warehouses aren't in Porto; they lie across the pretty Douro River in the town of Gaia. And they are anything but run down.
Secondly, Porto has a different vibe to Lisbon, even though it also has its share of narrow, historical streets, steep slopes and picturesque buildings.
Later, when Dan and I explored the town on our own, we regretted not having planned a longer stay. Frankly, there's enough to do and see to keep anyone busy for quite a while.
1. The easy transportation.
Porto was named European Cultural Capital (2001) and it has a thoroughly modern public transportation system. Skip the subway and bus and take a tram. Much more fun. Or cross the river in a gondola; they have those, too.
2. The low prices.
Portugal is one of the cheapest vacation spots anywhere in Europe.
Better yet, Porto is one of the cheapest places in Portugal. Look at these prices!
3. The museums and galleries.
From a tram museum to world-class contemporary art, Porto has many museums and galleries.
You name it, you can probably find a museum for it. There's even a museum dedicated to the history of the Portuguese association football club.
But don't despair if you're not a fan of museums. There are plenty of other things you can do in Porto as well.
4. The Douro River.
A cruise up the river is not to be missed, and based on our experience you'll see Porto in a new way.
We were fortunate to be invited on a cruise to an event upriver. The party was held at a beautiful historic pousada on the river, and we were able to stay long enough to watch night descend over Porto.
Watching Porto's lights twinkle on is a magical experience.
5. The delicious port.
Seriously, how can you go to Porto and not try the port? Or here's an even better idea: Visit a port wine cellar for a tasting. Many are free, so why not make a day of it?
Or two days. After we got home, we found a cheap 2-day combo ticket that we'd have loved to buy. For less than $30 per person, it not only includes a port wine cellar tour, you also get access to 2 hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tours and a Douro river cruise.
6. The fabulous wines.
Because of its unique soil, the Douro Valley is renowned worldwide for its wines. Look for an opportunity to take a tour and sample northern Portugal's exquisite wines.
Be sure to try Vinho Verde (green wine); it's produced nowhere else in the world.
Tip: You can do a day trip from Porto, taking in the landscapes of the Douro Valley. Taste port wines, table wines and olive oil, enjoy a traditional Portuguese lunch and take a ride along the Douro River on a Rabelo boat. FIND OUT MORE HERE.
7. The good eats.
Even nondrinkers will find Porto a foodie paradise, and you could easily spend days trying all the excellent restaurants in Porto or taking one of the excellent food tours on offer.
There's also a lot to be said for serendipity. You could do what we did and wander the side streets until your nose pulls you into a small, local restaurant to try something new and unfamiliar.
Tips for choosing a restaurant when traveling
We rarely mention “where to eat” on As We Saw It. Tastes and budgets differ, places come and go, cooks change. But that doesn't mean you can't find a delicious meal while traveling.
Here are the things we look for:
- a busy restaurant — which means repeat customers
- a handwritten menu — which means the menu changes frequently, according to what's in season
- a menu in the local language — if they serve locals, their recipes will be authentic, not adapted to suit tourists.
- a restaurant on the side street — if tourists rarely go there, they don't charge tourist prices.
Right after stuffing ourselves at lunch in Porto, we immediately succumbed to one of the tempting pastry shops we passed. It just smelled too good to pass up.
8. Lello Bookstore.
If you're a J.K. Rowling fan, this is the bookstore for you, because they say it was an inspiration for her Harry Potter books. If you're not, you'll still find it one of the prettiest, quaintest book shops you'll ever see.
But if you go in just to look, be warned. They don't appreciate the gawkers and insist you don't take any photos. Better to buy a coffee or a book (they have both) and pity them as they endlessly repeat “no pictures, please.”
9. The wonderful buildings.
Who wouldn't be charmed by tiled homes and buildings? Heck, even Porto's railway station and churches are tiled!
And there's a new shopping mall being built near that bookstore, with plenty of cafés and more than enough shops to poke around in …
10. It's pedestrian friendly.
Porto is so walkable that you won't realize how far you've gone until you decide to head home. Its sidewalks are wide, traffic is easy, and there are plenty of parks and shopping areas just begging for a stroll.
And then there are all those narrow, tiled pedestrian walkways that practically call you to come and explore….
Our time in Porto was too short; there is so much more to see. Not to mention it's a wonderful jumping-off point for touring northern Portugal's unique wine region, which, by the way, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I suspect that we have only begun to discover all the reasons to visit Porto.
Where to stay in Porto
We stayed at the Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa, which was close to where our conference was being held.
However, if you'd like to have a uniquely Portuguese experience, you have to stay in a Portuguese pousada. Each hotel is one-of-a-kind and absolutely top-notch. If you'd like you can stay at Pestana Palácio do Freixo, a pousada & national monument in Porto.
Guided tours of the Douro region
We'd be remiss if we didn't offer you some options for guided tours.
Get Your Guide offers a lot of good options for day trips around the Douro region and Porto city tours. FIND THEM HERE.