Porto, Portugal’s second largest and most romantic city. It is all about the port wine cellars, Azulejos, and the food. If you are travelling with Harry Potter fans, you can’t miss the Harry Potter Bookshop!
There are so many ways to explore this city; by foot, on the river, trams, cable car, or a walk across the top of the Pont de Dom Luis I. We recommend a walking tour that incorporates as many forms of transport as possible, to see Porto’s terracotta rooftops, pastel coloured buildings and azulejos from every angle. Stopping off for fortifying Port or Pastel de Nata whenever necessary. We’ve put together a one day walking tour, suggested itinerary for Porto. As well as a couple of extra ideas to fill day two.
Porto is busy but it was still manageable to drive in from our campsite, we found a convenient car park near the Church, Igreja de Sao Francisco, to start exploring on foot each day.
From there we walked past the Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique, these gardens have a large monument dedicated to Prince Henry the Navigator.
Heading down to the waterfront, the cafes on Cais da Ribeira are the perfect place to stop for the first Pastel de Nata of the day. From this riverfront promenade you can people watch, and enjoy views of the various craft navigating the Rio Douro, (River Douro).
Save a Euro or two for the street performers and buskers that add to the atmosphere, some are exceptionally talented and others good fun for the kids. Across the Douro you can see the neighbourhood of Vila Nova de Gaia with its port wine cellars on the hills and the busy waterfront esplanade. This is where you are heading next, but first…
Pastel de Nata, Portuguese Custard Tarts
I averaged at least two of these delicious treats a day in Porto and Lisbon. After all the best are only available in Portugal and some of its former colonies. I’ve had them before in Macau. The perfect Pastel de Nata has flaky golden pastry, creamy custard with a hint of delicate cinnamon flavour, and an ever so slightly bitter, caramelised top. They should only cost 80cents to a Euro but tourist prices seemed to mean they were often more like 2 Euros each.
Pont de Dom Luis 1
To get to Vila Nova de Gaia the best way is to cross the Ponte de Dom Luis 1. If this eye-catching bridge reminds you of a famous tower that is probably because it was completed by a student and former partner of Gustave Eiffel.
Unless you fear heights, (and if so you should probably stick to the lower deck), the upper deck needs to be crossed at least once for stunning views and a different perspective on Porto.
The upper deck is reserved for trams and pedestrians, the lower deck is cars and pedestrians. From Cais da Ribeira walk along the riverfront until you get to the bottom level of the bridge. Across the road you will see steps leading to the streets above. It is quite a climb but well worth it.
Take your time walking across the top, you will be with lots of locals and tourists alike all enjoying the views and taking pictures. Just watch you don’t step in front of a tram while trying to take that all-important Instagram shot.
Once you are off the bridge at the Vila Nova de Gaia side there is a pretty little park, Jardim de Morro where you could have a picnic. There is nice children’s playground here too.
Now you can either walk down to the Waterfront Esplanade or you can take the teleferico.
Teleferico de Gaia
We took the cable car because who doesn’t love a good cable car? It is a short ride of around 5 minutes. You can choose a one way or a return ticket. We chose return, but given the short trip and that the views are similar to those from the bridge, a one way would have been enough. If you are on a budget, you could skip the cable car without missing too much. Our return family ticket came with a voucher for free port tasting at one of the cellars. The cable car brings you back down to the river level, along the Waterfront Esplanade. From here you can easily walk to the port cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. Outside the cable car station you will also find the entrance to the Mercado Municipal de Gaia. The Municipal Market.
Mercado Municipal de Gaia
This covered market had a great selection of small food stalls as well as produce markets. Here you can buy small bites for lunch, tapa like dishes, pastel de nata, cocktails made with port and the local beer. You can also buy fruit and vegetables, ham, cheeses and breads. The covered market is filled with communal tables all the way up the middle, so you just find somewhere to sit and order from the different stalls depending on your taste. We ate here twice and took home some fruit and olives for later.
If you prefer to eat in a restaurant there are plenty along the waterfront esplanade. Some of them offer their own port tastings of their house ports. They line up a huge row of glasses from white to rose and ruby to tawny ports.
Port tasting at Vila Nova de Gaia
Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia
The two big British names Taylor’s and Graham’s are here. Both with guided tours, museums and tastings. The big attraction is visits to their cellars to see the barrels stacked to the ceiling. We chose Taylor’s for our visit. They have a self-guided audio tour, it was a bit long winded! But the cellars were impressive and the giant barrels of port amazing. The tasting takes place in their pretty garden terrace. Kids are given ‘tastings’ of grape juice and cookies to make it a bit more special for them. If that fails to excite them, the resident peacocks provide a lot of entertainment.
We visited another cellar that had free tastings included with our cable car tickets. They had some display boards and barrels but there was not as much to see as the likes of Taylor’s. I think it is good to do one visit to a big-name cellar. This way you can see some big cellars, lots of barrels and learn about the port making process. Then if you want to try more port, visit some of the smaller cellars where you can purchase tastings for a nominal fee.
If you’ve visited the Douro Valley (and you really should) then you’ll have already tasted some port, visited wineries and cellars. This will add depth and context to your visits in Porto. Depending on how big of a port fan you are, or if like us you are travelling with kids, you might feel that a couple of cellars is enough in a short visit.
Vila Nova de Gaia to Cais da Ribeira
From Vila Nova de Gaia you can either walk back along the esplanade, or take the cable car return. If you go on the cable car you’ll be at the top of the bridge. If you walk along the esplanade you can walk back over the lower level of the bridge to Cais da Ribeira.
A final option is to take one of the water taxis across the river. We wanted to do this one day but we waited an age for a boat to arrive and finally concluded it would be quicker and cheaper to walk. We spent the money on gelato instead!
Douro River Cruises Porto
We’ve already been on a Rabelo in the Douro valley so we didn’t do another boat trip. But if we hadn’t then I would have tried one of the tourist boat cruises on the Douro River in Porto. A river cruise is always a good way to get a new perspective on a city. To travel while getting away from the crowds for a while, can be a refreshing break in Europe’s peak summer, tourist season. There is the water taxi option, just a short, cheap trip, to cross the river. There are also one-hour cruises as well as dinner cruises etc. If you haven’t been to Douro and have time to spare you can do full day trips up the river to the vineyards.
See Get Your Guide for a full list of tours and day trips available from Porto.
The above walking tour itinerary can be done in an easy and relaxed day. If you are a fast mover or only have one day you could pack a few more things in. In a second day there are a few more ‘must sees’.
For our second day in Porto we started by heading in a different direction to Livraria Lello..
Livraria Lello (AKA The Harry Potter Bookshop)
This bookshop (that is so much more than a bookshop) is housed in the most stunning neo-Gothic building, built in 1906. Described as the most beautiful bookshop in the world. Look out for the stunning twisted staircase that appears to float, and the carved ceilings that look like wood but are in fact plaster.
Livraria Lello is a hugely popular attraction, you need to enter the shop just along the street to buy tickets first, (or purchase in advance online). Check your bag into a locker. Then take your tickets and queue to enter the book shop. Your 5 Euro tickets can be redeemed against a book purchase, so if you are there to buy a book, the visit itself won’t cost any extra.
Why the Harry Potter Bookshop?
For many people the reason to visit Livraria Lello is because it is said that building’s staircase was the inspiration for the staircase in the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling worked as an English teacher in Porto while writing part of Harry Potter. We saw many Harry Potter fans when we were there. It comes as no surprise then that there are plenty of Harry Potter books for sale! In a number of European languages.
Livraria Lello is much more than inspiration for Harry Potter and has been around much longer. It has a fantastic selection of books in a variety of languages. There is a small but inspiring English language travel section and a good children’s selection. We purchased a great children’s science book to help us out with worldschool. I got a new novel and found a book each for L and S’s birthdays, which they will celebrate during our Europe camping trip. But, if it is the promise of Harry Potter that will get your kids to walk and queue to get there, then you should have no shame in calling it the ‘Harry Potter Bookshop’ like I did!
If you have no interest in Harry Potter, you still shouldn’t hesitate to visit Livraria Lello. It is how you imagine a perfect and magical bookshop should be. Lined floor to ceiling with books, a grand staircase, stained glass, and intricate carved details everywhere you look.
Even the purchasing experience is lovely with friendly staff and beautiful paper bags to carry your books home in.
Be warned though… the crowds are crushing, despite security limiting numbers at the door. It is a miracle we manged to find any books in the craziness. At the shop on the corner, with the ticket sales and bag lockers, there is a good variety of Harry Potter merchandise for sale. But I must say it seemed horrendously expensive to me. Nothing Harry Potter is cheap but these were silly prices!
From Livraria Lello it is a short walk to the Sao Bento train station
Sao Bento Train Station
If you arrive into Porto by train you’ll visit here anyway, but if not, you should make sure to stop by for a look. Lonely Planet calls it ‘one of the world’s most beautiful train stations’ and I would have to agree. It is also one of the best places in Porto to see azulejo. Azulejo are hand painted tile designs, unique to Portugal and especially prevalent in Porto. Some are simple, some are highly patterned and decorative. The blue and white painted scenes are particularly spectacular. The scenes in the Sao Bento station are historic scenes of Portugal. There are over 20,000 painted tiles.
Bonus, this is a completely free stop, just walk in and enjoy looking.
I love this concept of decorating buildings with tiles. Even the drive to our campsite showed ordinary buildings with colourful tiled decoration.
From the train station we headed back down to the river to explore the waterfront and visit the market again for lunch and port tastings at one of the waterfront esplanade bars.
There is lots more to do in Porto. We really enjoyed 2 days in the city, It has been one of our favourite destinations so far. It is also a good location as a base for day trips around Northern Portugal.
Accommodation in Porto
We stayed at an Orbitur campsite and I wouldn’t recommend it. In fact the overall standard of Portugal’s campsites was poor with one exception. The fantastic Yelloh Village in the Algarve.
Check out Agoda for accommodation options in Porto.
Up next a post about our very wet day trip to Braga and the famous weekly Braga market, one of the largest markets in Europe. As well as some other destinations within a couple of hours of Porto that we visited as we headed south. Aveiro, Coimbra Roman Ruins and Figuera da Foz.
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