If you just want a printable, bullet list of recommendations, click here: GoGoGordon Guide to Porto2
Scroll down for stories, pictures and tips from our two trips to Porto:
The website, http://www.europeanbestdestinations.com crowns a “Best” destination each year based on hundreds of thousands of user votes. While I’m the first to say a “best” destination does not exist, it does say something when Porto won the 2017 award by a record margin and has won the prestigious, top spot in the rankings 3 of the last 6 years.
There must be something to this place.
If you ask either of us, we’ll both tell you Porto is in our top 5, and is one of only 3 places in Europe we planned a trip back to because we just didn’t get enough time there during our first vacation.
As I write this, I’m planning this next trip to Porto, so none of that trip will be represented here. While I’m sure we’ll do a few of our favorite experiences from last time, we’re thrilled to be going back with an opportunity to check off a few of the restaurants, attractions, and activities we didn’t get to do last time.
One thing we didn’t think twice about, was our hotel. The very moment we decided to go back to Porto I booked our room at the Yeatman Hotel.
While the Superior Room at the Yeatman breaks a few of our rules, meaning it’s carpeted and a little traditional looking, at least in pictures, there is something about that room that just feels luxurious, comfortable, and exclusive. I know, the pictures say otherwise, but I’m telling you it’s a wonderful room. Of course, the room doesn’t have to be anything special, because the magic of The Yeatman is that every room has a large balcony overlooking one of the most stunning and picturesque cityscapes anywhere in the world. It is iconic, it is expansive, it is colorful, and it is even more beautiful in person than I can describe. I woke up each morning and say on the balcony having coffee as the sun slowly came up, taking pictures between sips.
Sorry, you might be ready for me to move on from The Yeatman, but I’m not done yet. I haven’t gotten to their breakfast – one of the best we’ve had at any hotel in our travels.
Even their 5:00am breakfast they brought to our room so we could catch our early flight out of Porto was impressive:
Sold on the Yeatman yet? In case you’re still debating, let me add that they have a 2 Michelin Star restaurant onsite and a world class spa with that one-of-a-kind view.
Perhaps the only argument you could make against The Yeatman is that it’s on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the River, meaning a bit of a walk to get over to the central part of Porto. To me, it was a positive as it’s on the quiet side and on the side with all of the port tasting rooms.
The Intercontinental in Central Porto is has one of the best review scores I’ve ever seen on most of the travel websites, including TripAdvisor, so I have no doubt it’s also fabulous if you want to stay more central. For us, the few negative reviews that do exist out there around the Intercontinental are because the noise from the street, as it is located right on the main square, and we are very sensitive to outside street noise.
One final hotel you should take a look at is the Pestana Palacio do Freixo. All you have to do is see the pictures and you’ll see why I’m recommending it. However, take note of the location a little outside of town, and note that many of the rooms aren’t in the main castle, so if you want that castle experience be careful what room you book.
WHAT TO DO IN PORTO:
Anyone researching attractions in Porto will quickly learn of the overwhelming abundance of churches that just have to be seen. Every city in Europe has some kind of cathedral, church, monastery, basilica, etc., that amazes, and we love to visit them, even taking the occasional tour to learn about the history. While some of them almost run together in our memory, you don’t have to worry about mixing up any of the ones in Porto with any others in your memory bank. While most have the unique, iconic blue tiles on the outside, some in such abundance that their outside décor steals the show, in most cases, it’s the absurdly ornate, over-the-top, gilded, masterful woodwork and design inside that make these churches so utterly spectacular and memorable.
Sorry for the poor picture of the Church of Sao Francisco, but they don’t allow photos inside so I had to hold my iPhone by my leg and try to get a few pictures. In our opinion, if you only have time for one, see this one, it was our favorite!
BE SURE TO HIKE UP TO MOSTEIRO DA SERRA DO PILAR!!! GREAT SPOT FOR A SUNSET – OR SUNRISE IF YOU’RE AN EARLY RISER!!
No other churches in Europe look like this on the inside, they are breathtaking. Be sure to visit a couple. TripAdvisor has numerous pictures of all of them if you want to look around and see which ones look most interesting to you.
Again, there are at least 10 churches worth seeing. Whether you’re a fan of history, religion, architecture, art, or design, or even somehow none of the above, these structures will amaze you.
Another must do is to climb the Clerigos Tower. This is the striking tower that adds so much to the already breathtaking Porto skyline. It pulls double duty as the main tower to climb in Porto. Basically every city in Europe has some church or tower where you can wind your way up a tight-quarters staircase to find the best view of the city. In this case, I wouldn’t say the view is as good as from Vila Nova, but as you can see, it’s amazing.
In addition to these marvels, Porto is also known for the striking Ponte Luis Bridge. The bridge is remarkably photogenic, and adds a true “wow” factor to the Porto skyline, but to fully experience everything this bridge has to offer, you have to walk across it.
Looking at any picture of Porto, it’s easy to see the bridge and say, wow, that’s big, but you have no idea. You have to walk across this bridge to fully appreciate its scale and the perspective it gives you of both Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.
Another member of the Mount Rushmore of Porto Tourism is the River Douro. For centuries, barrels of port and wine have been shipped along this river to its home in the infinite rows of warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, but now it’s one tour boat after another. Our research helped us identify the boat cruise we wanted: 1 hour, not crowded, departing from the Vila Nova de Gaia side, and on an authentic Rabelo Boat. The key was taking the first sailing available, at10am in the morning, and our planning worked perfectly as we were two of only about 12 people on the boat. As you’ll see if you Google some other images, many of these boats get crazy crowded. Not ours…
So, continuing my Mount Rushmore analogy, you might be curious what the fourth pillar of Porto tourism is (Douro cruise, the Bridge, and the Churches being the first three)… That’s an easy one… the freakin’ PORT WINE!!
We did a tour at the Taylor Fladgate Winery, and we highly recommend it. There are numerous guides explaining the different venues on the Vila Nova de Gaia side, but you can’t go wrong with Croft, Taylor, Sandeman (down closer to the water if you don’t want to walk up the hill) or Graham (even further away from the water if you want a spectacular view and to get away from the crowds).
Our only regret was we discovered the wonders of Port wine on our final day, and only got to visit one winery. That was one of the driving forces behind booking our return trip.
If you’re not a fan of Port (we can’t be friends), there are other places offering more traditional wine options. Portugal only exports about 10% of the wine it makes, so being in Porto gives you a great opportunity to try wines from Portugal (Douro, Dao, and other regions) that you’ll never find in the US.
One of the best wine tasting experiences we’ve ever had was at Touriga Vinhos de Portugal. It’s small, locally-owned, tiny slice of heaven. We highly recommend it!
The Wine Quay bar is, simply, perfect. You have a wonderful view, great wine tasting options, and wonderful food options. We started inside, but realized we could move just outside the door, and we enjoyed some live street guitar while we sipped our wine and watched the boats sail by us. This…is…vacation…
While we highly recommend both of the wine bars above, Porto is also absurdly rich in wine bars with great atmosphere, wonderfully knowledgeable service, and a wide selection of wine you won’t find anywhere in the US. The link to the guide at the top of the page will give you a few other good names to consider.
Okay, so Porto has unparalleled vistas, architectural marvels, streets out of a movie set, world-class wine, and the Douro at its disposal…but how about the food?
What I loved about Porto was that there were a number of local food favorites that I’d never tried before, that were delicious. Guidebooks will tell you about the Tripe obsession and lamprey eel traditional breakfast, but ignore that, it’s very easy to eat in Porto and not feel like you’re on an episode of “Fear Factor”.
One of our better meals was at the restaurant at the Hotel Teatro. We went for lunch and somehow managed to be the only people there – strike that “somehow”, it was because we try to eat lunch at noon and no one else there does. Our waiter was excellent and gave us perhaps the best advice we received on the entire trip – “order the guava lava cake”.
Another memorable meal came at Tapabento Bar and Restaurant. Porto has two restaurants named Tapabento – the other one is called Tapabento Trindade. If you get them confused, it’s not that big of a deal as both are rated top 10 restaurants in Porto. Again, we ate at the former, as it was a little better located for us close to the Sao Bento train station. The Sao Bento train station is a tourist attraction in Porto, as the blue tile throughout is beautiful. We recommend swinging by the train station and then stopping by Tapabento Bar and Restaurant for a great meal. What I love about Tapabento is it’s the kind of place from the outside that you’d walk right by if you aren’t “in the know”, as it’s non-descript and right outside the train station. Once you enter, you realize you’ve made a good decision as your eyes make their way around the adorably renovated café and spot the always promising black board of fresh daily specials. Our lunch was fresh, had great options in terms of trying popular local dishes, had a nice wine list, and was a total bargain. We HIGHLY recommend the Bacalhau and, if they have it, the white chocolate soup for dessert – it was luxurious.
If you find yourself on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river – probably as a result of a port tasting – and need to find a place to eat, there are several great options right on the water. We chose the Taberninha Do Manuel, partly because of the nice tables overlooking the Douro and partly because of pictures we saw of the food. Order their sausage, they bring it to the table on fire and by the time the fire works its way out you’ve got a nice char on some delicious sausage. This is also a great place to try a francisinha…especially if you’ve walked most of the day and feel like you’ve built-up a bit of a calorie buffer. If you click on the Porto Guide link at the top of the page, you’ll see a number of foods worth trying in Porto, and my thoughts on the infamous francisinha sandwich.
If you need a place to eat on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, you won’t do any better than Taberninha Do Manuel. On our second trip to Porto, we had one of our best meals there. We highly recommend you chose this restaurant if you want to try Bacalhau, francisinha, or sangria.
While I wouldn’t recommend having a meal there, it’s also worth making your way to the famous Café Majestic for a cup of coffee and to soak in the wonderful, original Art Nouveaux décor.
My guess is at this point you’ve already put Porto on your travel list, but (you might not have realized) I haven’t even included any pictures of the streets. In addition to everything else already covered in this guide, Porto is a street rambler’s dream. While not the fairy tale Europe or gothic Europe so prevalent throughout other countries, and admittedly many of Porto’s buildings could do with a good power washing or refurbishment, the hills, colors, tiles, winding cobblestones, and buildings give Central Porto a fairy tale feeling all it’s own. Kind of Pirates of the Caribbean meets Goonies meets Zorro.
If you’re interested in finding this beautiful stained glass balcony, it’s off of Rua do Outeirinho close to the 1872 River House and Bacalhau restaurant.
What a difference a good power washing can make!
One of my favorite streets in Porto – Rue de Mouzinho da Silveira. We’d definitely recommend you find this street and enjoy the magnificently renovated buildings.
While, admittedly, it’s a bit touristy, and against our tendency to walk, there is a cable car that takes you from the top of the Bridge to the boardwalk and restaurant area in Vila Nova de Gaia. Not only will this save you some energy as the hill is steep and significant, but it offers some of, you guessed it, the best views of the Porto skyline. Especially if you didn’t stay at the Yeatman – which has a similar perspective from its outside café and some of the rooms – taking the Via Nova de Gaia cable car will give you the birds eye, panoramic view of Porto you see in the magazines.
The pinnacle of the mish-mash of colorful buildings and aging charm and the center of the tourist area is the Ribeira District. It’s both captivating and photogenic whether you’re standing in the middle of the main square or gazing at it from across the Douro. You can feel the history here, and it feels authentic. There is no better spot to sip a glass of wine, try some local meat and cheese, and try your best to soak it into your memory. While most tourist areas don’t have a lot of quality food or drink options, this area has a least a half dozen great wine bars and places perfect for a great vacation moment.
Porto has a great personality. I loved that we could be sitting at a somewhat fancy wine bar, next to both a hole in the wall restaurants and fine dining options, and right below us was basically some type of community living room where locals and in-the-know tourists relaxed and enjoyed the day.
One last picture from Porto that I love. It’s just fun to me that these boats are still here, that they are still in use, and how much they add to the historic and magical vibe of this incredible city.
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