Porto is sometimes called Portugal’s “second city,” referring to it being second in both size and importance to the capital, Lisbon. But when it comes to exploration for a traveler, Porto is second to none. While it may not have the historic significance or cultural hubs of its larger cousin to the south, Porto is worthy of being a destination unto itself, and at the very least, a side trip from Lisbon.
From wandering through the wide streets of Porto’s old town center and the narrow alleys of the Ribeira district, to sipping port in Vila Nova de Gaia, to learning about Henry the Navigator and King Charles Albert of Sardinia, Porto has something to offer for everyone, and your time here will be both pleasant and educational.
Porto is best explored on foot, utilizing their metro system to get from your hotel or Airbnb to the center of town, and from there exploring the streets as a pedestrian, though the hills can prove a bit of a challenge. Down, however, is easier than up, so we will begin our day at the Praça da Liberdade, in the old city. From here, the magnificence of Porto’s architecture unfolds, as 18th and 19th century stone facades greet you in pretty much every direction. This wide boulevard runs from city hall (a spectacular building) south to our next stop, the Sao Bento train station. This is also a good area to have a morning espresso and a pastry. (Note: most guides suggest the Majestic cafe for coffee and pastry. I found it to be, while pretty, out of the way and horribly expensive. Skip it. You can do better on basically any side street.)
From the outside, Sao Bento looks like the sort of train station a fascist or communist government would build. It is square and dull. Inside, however, you will fight off tourists to take photos of the most stunning example of Portugal’s famed tile artwork that I have ever seen. From the front steps, you’ll see Porto’s large cathedral, and we will make our way there.
The interior of Sao Bento station is magnificent. This is all tile!
The cathedral itself is fine, but from here, you’ll find various steps and alleys heading downward toward the Douro River. Take one of them. As long as your path heads down, you’ll end up by the river, having wandered through the Ribeira district. Alleys like this are what truly makes Europe special to me. Overhanging balconies, interesting sights and smells around each bend, and wandering cats and dogs will greet you in what has become a fairly gentrified area, as evidenced by the numerous cafes and shops. And the views are just incredible. Take your time to explore.
A narrow alley of stairs in Ribeira overlooking the Douro
Having reached the Douro, you’ll see Porto’s famous Luis I Bridge to your left. Go right. Just up a narrow street from the river is the Casa del Infante. Formerly a customs house, this museum marks the spot where Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. Henry was one of the primary proponents of Portuguese exploration, funding many of the voyages of those early times, primarily to the Azores and West Africa. These early explorers not only mapped some of these areas, but effectively mapped out the trade winds that later explorers would use to cross the Atlantic and return to Europe. Inside the museum, you’ll find some excellent exhibits on Portugal’s expeditions and colonies. (Note: with a Porto card, the museum is free to enter. You can get a Porto card at any of the visitor centers in town.) Across the street is a statue of Henry in the middle of the park.
Henry points to distant shores.
Make your way back to the river and cross the bridge by foot. You are now in Vila Nova de Gaia, the center of the port trade. There are numerous wineries lining the river, and even more restaurants for lunch with the view of Porto staring at us across the Douro. You can’t really go wrong with any of the wineries, but I chose to tour Ferreira because it is one of the oldest, and in the off-season, 30% off with my Porto card. (Most are at least a 10% discount.) Regardless of whether or not you are a big drinker – I am not – this is still a cultural experience well worth having. You can read all about my port tasting experience here.
The view from Vila Nova de Gaia
Port. Iconic and a must-do here in Porto!
Done with our port, we face the daunting task of negotiating our way back up the hill. Fortunately, Porto provides those like us, sated with food and wine and not in the mood to climb, with an alternative. Take the aerial tram. Yes, it’s overpriced for a ten minute ride. But it’s smooth, and the view from the top is oh so worth it!
The Luis I Bridge from the top of the aerial tram
From here, if you aren’t too tired, it’s about a half hour walk to the Museo Romantico, another free entry with our Porto card. This lovely home is where King Charles Albert of Sardinia retired when he abdicated his throne in March of 1849; he would die here only four months later. Charles Albert had dreams of unifying Italy under his rule, and his war with Venice brought him into conflict with the Austrian Empire, a conflict in which he was soundly defeated. So he abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, who actually did end up uniting Italy and becoming its first king. The house is lovely, with period furniture and artwork as befitting a king, as well as history lessons for those of us – like me – who didn’t know this story prior to our visit.
The most famous portrait of Charles Albert hangs in the Museo Romantico.
Regardless of what you do, Porto is a wonderful place to visit, for a day, or a week, or even longer. But if you only have a day or two, I hope this itinerary will help you experience some of the best the city has to offer!
Thank you to Visit Porto and North for outfitting me with a Porto card to allow me to have these experiences and share them with all of you.
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