Within the last five years, tourism in Portugal has absolutely exploded. The country is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, investing its new tourism dollars back into the infrastructure, renovating and restoring the architecture that has long been ignored. Portugal is full of European charm and a growing food scene and, all the while, is still affordable to visit. Often when travelers talk of Portugal, they immediately focus on Lisbon, but there’s another city that’s equally worth your time.
Porto is a coastal city located along the Duoro River in northern Portugal. Known as the birthplace of port wine, Porto is the second largest yet far less traveled Portuguese city with an interesting history and much to offer. In an attempt to sum up everything that’s great about this sleeper hit, I’ve narrowed down 5 reasons to visit Porto. Once you go, I’m sure you’ll be able to add in some of your own reasons as well.
1. All the Port Wine
Let’s just start here. Prior to my travels to Porto, I knew almost nothing about port wine. I’d tasted tawny port before and always thought of it as an expensive after dinner drink, and now I am an expert. Just kidding – but I have expanded my knowledge of this particular variety of wine significantly because of my visit.
Port wine is made from grapes grown in the Duoro Valley. Though a trip to the valley isn’t too far, each vineyard has conveniently set up a tasting room along the bank of Gaia, a small village located directly across the river from Porto. A quick walk across the Luis I Bridge leads you to all the port wine you could ever want. Wineries and tasting rooms stretch for over a mile along the riverbank and for several blocks deeper into the village of Gaia as well. It would be extremely difficult to tasting them all but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
I spent one afternoon in Gaia, stopping in at Sandeman for a tour and tasting followed by some time admiring the views from Porto Cruz’s rooftop bar. In a attempt to sample as many different port wines as possible, I tried the white, ruby, and tawny with several variations within including reserved and vintage. I was surprised by the difference in taste between them and found myself particularly enjoying the tawny 10 and 20 year vintage wines.
What was even more surprising though was, once in Lisbon, it was difficult to find a lot of port wine options like this again. When asked why there were so few ports on the menu, one bartender said you had to go to Porto for port wine. Huh? It’s a regional wine for the country and you don’t really have much on offer? Strange. So, spend some time in Porto if for no other reason than to try all the port wine.
2. Easy to Navigate / Walking Friendly
Much to my boyfriend’s dismay, walking is one of my favorite things to do when I travel. I love “getting lost” in a new city, walking along the streets from one end to another and I can do this for hours. I’ve realized that I tend to plan trips, not vacations. On a trip, I want to see and do it all whereas vacations, in my mind at least, are meant to be relaxing on a beach somewhere. I probably should squeeze some vacations in every now and again, too.
Either way, I got my steps in while exploring Porto and found it to be a walking-friendly city. Something I always do when I travel is find a free walking tour to join at the start of my trip. Walking tours give me a good lay of the land, an opportunity to learn more about the city and its history, a local’s perspective, and a chance to meet fellow travelers. It’s the ideal way to start exploring a city. For Porto, I joined Porto Walker’s classic walking tour, a three-hour jaunt through the city. Porto is a relatively small city with the river bank at one end making it easy to navigate. The walking tour set me up for the rest of my time there. Highly recommend.
3. Rich History
Education in the United States includes a superficial dive into the brave European explorers who introduced our country, and several others, to the rest of the world. Their names ring familiar in our minds but the average American can’t tell you much about these explorers beyond that. As I prepared for my trip to Portugal, one explorer I expected to hear about was Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who was the first European to reach India by sea. Embarrassingly, there really wasn’t too much I knew about Portugal’s history beyond that. However, through the walking tour, I learned significantly more about Portugal and Porto’s rich history as told through the eyes of the people who live there, Vasco da Gama not included.
Porto is a city with deep ties to the sea. Situated along the Duoro River, the locals tell tales of how, in the days of exploration, the women were often left alone for months at a time, ever wondering if their men would return. In an effort to lift their spirits, they painted the buildings in bright colors, a detail that makes photos of Porto identifiable still today.
Another part of life along the river is the frequent flooding that the city has endured. Buildings closest to the riverbanks have lines etched into them marking each of the major floods over the last 100 years. This unfortunate consequence has impacted the local community in many ways, including forcing many locals to abandon their homes and move further inland.
One noticeable architectural detail in Porto is the abundance of churches. There seems to be a church in every square and all within close proximity of one another. According to the history lesson from our guide, the frequency of churches was intentional. The tour guide shared a story about a king and a bishop at odds regarding what building should be at the center of the main square. The bishop argued for the church but when the king took power, he began knocking churches down and placed a building of the same size and shape directly in front of the main church of the square, perfectly blocking it from view. The building remains there today and the architectural battle explains the incredible size of the main square. Oh, and he added a statue of himself for good measure, too. Check mate!
4. Undergoing a Revitalization
With an increasing amount of money pouring in from tourism, the city has begun to reinvest in its architecture. Porto has many abandoned buildings as a result of locals heading further inland and now many of them are being restored. It’s challenging to take a photo of the skyline without capturing at least one crane in the shot. Several historic buildings, once neglected, are now at the center of the revitalization planning. Restoring these beautiful buildings will likely help continue to draw in visitors and preserve the city’s rich history for generations to come.
In addition to the building work, you’ll also find several unique spaces in Porto with rooftop bars offering killer views and parks serving up more than well manicured gardens. One bar in particular, Base, was a favorite of mine. Base is a little difficult to find, as it sits on a park space above the ground level buildings, but is worth your time. This outdoor bar has plenty of comfortable seating options with a super laid back vibe, DJ spinning tunes, and great views of the city. Perfect for a sunny day.
5. Beautiful Azulejo Tiles
To be fair, azulejo tiles can be found throughout Portugal, but I’m going to highlight them as one of the many reasons to enjoy Porto. I loved these! Each ceramic tile is hand painted and fired in an oven, like pottery, and used throughout the city both as interior and exterior decor. Blue is the traditional color but you can find these tiles displayed along the walls of buildings in many different colors and designs. Two major factories still operate today, continuing to create tiles the traditional way.
This beautiful artwork has become iconic for the country and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways including tile making classes, tile souvenirs, and a tile museum in Lisbon. However, should you choose to skip all of these tourist-focused tile options, you’ll still see your fair share of azulejo tiles walking around. The Sao Bento train station is the most iconic in Porto, with azulejos designed to retell Porto’s history, but it seems as though every church and at least one building per block also uses azulejos in their design. They are truly amazing works of art!
Have I convinced you yet? The city less traveled is one that should not be missed! A visit to Porto is one that you will cherish forever. Happy travels!