Porto - Essential Itinerary
Lisbon may be Portugal's capital, but Porto is the new darling of the Iberian Peninsula. Located on the north coast on the Atlantic, Portugal's second-largest city (~two million metro population) is getting all the recent accolades. Conde Nast and Forbes have each proclaimed Porto as the 2nd Most Beautiful City in Europe or 7th Best place in the World to Visit.
Retirees, digital nomads, and expats are flocking to Porto. With the city's incredible weather, iconic wines, and stunning architecture, it is easy to understand why. The best way to acquaint yourself with Porto is to simply start walking. Porto is chock full of trendy fountained parks and historic buildings. You will find slices of authentic Portuguese life in little nooks on every street. When you first arrive, we recommend taking this walking tour of the 5 Best Things to Do in Porto for new expats.
Total Walking Distance: 3.7 miles/5.9 km
Total Walking Time: 1 hour
Total Walking Tour Time: 7 hours
What Are Essential Itineraries?
These bite-sized guides focus on the Top Sights to See and Best Things to Do for New Expats.
Written in collaboration with my network of expats and experienced travelers, you get up-to-date first hand knowledge and local tips.
Perfect for short trips, these overviews for visiting a new city are available for download.
"Oenophiles have been in on the secret for years, but creative types have been flocking to Porto lately, thanks to the city's stunning architecture (yes, there are lots of tiles) and public art. "
1) Find the Secret Entrance at the Carmo Convent
The first stop on our self-guided walking tour of Porto is the Carmo Convent. The Carmo convent is one of the most famous attractions in the city. Its meticulously hand-painted tiles covering the exterior are a tourist magnet. On the inside, the church is not as fascinating, as it is not covered in as much gold as most of the churches in Portugal. But, there are lots of secret corridors spread around it and you can explore unbothered.
Built in the 18th century, it is Porto's most beautiful Baroque building and also the biggest. The truth is, at its location, there are two churches - Igreja dos Carmelitas and Carmo Convent. Both of the churches were built almost at the same time. However, as per the law back then, religious buildings should not be next to each other. Thus, a house was built between the two religious buildings.
Nowadays, this house is known as the tiniest house in Portugal. Inside the house, there are lots of unique things to see, like the comically small bedroom, kitchen, and living room. Fascinatingly, until the 1950s, there were still people living in this munchkin home.
There is a secret entrance leading to the interior of the Carmo Convent from directly inside the house. Additionally, the covert passage leads to secret rooms on the second floor. Here, you can witness the wealth of the religious Portuguese people gathered into a couple of rooms. Lastly, there are the church catacombs. It's a little creepy down here, but it is worth seeing more of the iconic with blue tiles.Travel Contribution: Earth o Sea
INSIDER TIP : The Carmo Convent is considered one of top Instagramable spots in Portugal. You can take a lovely photo of the church from Fonte dos Leões, which is a couple of steps away from Carmo Convent.
2) Observe Mass at The Sé Cathedral
You’ll inevitably notice while walking around Porto that the city is chock full of things to do. There is a long list of must-see historical sites, breathtaking viewpoints, and beautiful beaches. I can write an entire article of Best Things To Do in Porto that focused on only great wines and delicious food. But out of hundreds of must-see attractions, the Porto Cathedral (Sé Cathedral) is the one not to miss..
The Sé Cathedral is one of the oldest city monuments. Located on the top of the highest hill in the city, the Cathedral stands tall overlooking the landscape. The original Cathedral was built in the 12th century. Several centuries of renovations followed. Finally, in the 16th century, the building emerged with its current look.
Despite the renovations, the style never strayed from the original Romanesque architecture prevalent in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The massive Cathedral flanked by two square towers reminds me more of a fortress than a church. The interior of the Cathedral was completely renovated in the 18th-century to the Baroque architecture of the period. A silver altar built in the 17th century by the Portuguese artists is the real gem of the Sé Cathedral.
Mass takes place every day at 11 am. The Cathedral is an important place on the pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago. The Portuguese Camino, one of the most popular Camino routes, starts from the Cathedral of Porto. The Cathedral is open for visitors daily. No entrance fee is required.
Travel Contribution: Stingy Nomads
INSIDER TIP : When locals talk about the "Se", they don't just mean the Cathedral. In local-speak, "Se" also applies to the surrounding center. Stunning views of the "Se", the historical heart of Porto, are another reason to visit the Cathedral.
3) Walk Across the Dom Luís I Bridge
Next on your Porto walking tour is the must-see Dom Luís I bridge. The bridge spans the Douro River and connects downtown Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. Vila Nova de Gaia is famous for its port wine cellars and tastings. But even if port wine is not your thing, you should take the time to walk across the bridge anyway. The views from here are spectacular!
The double-decker design reserves the top-deck for pedestrians and the lower deck for automobiles. A tram track runs alongside the pedestrian walkway. Keep a watch out for trams while you're walking and taking photos.
Many people believe that Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) built the bridge. These people are mistaken. He built a very similar bridge called the Maria Pia bridge, which is just one kilometer downriver. One of Eiffel's apprentices, who had worked with him on the Maria Pia bridge, later went on to design the Dom Luís I bridge.
On your way back across to the Porto side, you'll be welcomed by a great example of street art, AN.FI.TRI.ÃO by Frederico Draw. It's honestly better than any of the artwork you'll see in Porto's many museums.
Travel Contribution: The Nomadic Vegan
INSIDER TIP : Another hidden gem to check out while you're in Vila Nova de Gaia is a work of street art by Bordalo II called Half Rabbit. It's a giant rabbit made out of trash, as a reminder of the wastefulness of our consumerist society.
Perfect for first time visitors, this Things To Do In Porto guide is available for download.
4) Snack on a Chocolate, Cheese, and Wine Tasting Flight
With a few miles of walking under your belt, it's time for treats. In Porto treats go better with wine. The city's most famous export is its synonymous port wine. Port is a European Protected Designation of Origin product. Like champagne in France or scotch in Scotland, only Porto can produce Port.
Port is created by mixing a small quantity of distilled spirit (typically brandy) with wine produced in the ancient vineyards of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Alto Douro Valley. To find out where else has made this exclusive list, check out this roundup of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal.
Getting to taste some of this port should be an essential part of any trip to Porto. Countless port producers clustered together in the center of the city on the south side of the River Douro. All are keen to offer tastings to help shill their product. Tastings are not free, some producers will discount the cost from any bottles purchased. Tastings can range from single glasses right up to a whole wine tasting flight. These tasting experiences are your chance to try out the more exclusive vintages.
The excellent Càlem winery sits right on the riverbank, with outdoor tables to enjoy the view. Their port selections present a surprising variety of colors, styles, and flavors. To be honest, there wasn't a single one I didn't think was delicious.
You can take a cellar tour to gain insight into the history and production methods of Port wine. A Food and Wine Pairing with delicious cheeses, dark chocolate, and 3 of Calem's perfectly paired wines is $40/ €35.
Travel Contribution: Children of Wanderlust
5) End the Day with a Sunset Cruise Down the Douro River
You've done enough walking for the day. The walking part of this tour is over. For this last bit, you get to sit and enjoy another glass of wine, while floating down the river.
If you are anything like me, the idea of a sightseeing river cruise gives me tourist allergies (I'm looking at you, Ljubljana). But the best view of this picture-perfect city is from a boat deck drifting down the Douro river. Plus, sunsets in Porto are Instagram magic.
Most tours average 2.5 to 3 hours and start at $80 per person. It's a bit pricey, but still, one of the Best Things to Do in Porto. You will gain a better appreciation of the Porto vibe by cruising past the cafes, neighborhoods, and restaurants along the river's edge.
The good skippers give you a history and background of Porto, while you sail past the city's monuments. From the water, you'll see where you walked across the Dom Luís I Bridge, the Serra do Pilar Monastery, and some of the most esteemed wineries in Porto (including Calem, where you just enjoyed a tasting).
Watching the sun dip and the city lights twinkle on, while you glide down the river, a glass of wine in hand is bliss. A sunset cruise is one of those must-do things in Porto when you first arrive here. But you will want to re-experienced the cruise every time a friend or family member comes to visit. They are that awesome.
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