Porto has long been a hot destination for wine lovers — it’s the go-to place to find the best of that sweet, tasty port wine. But this city by the sea has more to offer than vinho. Porto (or Oporto, as it’s sometimes called) is an attractive European mini-metropolis on Portugal’s northwestern coast where travelers can get their fill of culture and the outdoors. Travelers can visit the city’s wealth of museums, admire its varied architecture and, of course, hit the beach.
The city earns its nickname Cidade das Pontes, or “City of Bridges,” from the six arches spanning the Rio Douro (Douro River), which runs along Porto’s southern edge. Views of the Douro River are best enjoyed from the Dom Luís I Bridge, the most iconic of Porto’s six structures. From here you can get a sense of Porto’s unique charm, from its colorful UNESCO World Heritage historic district to the north to the neighboring town of Vila Nova de Gaia just south, where you’ll find the region’s infamous wineries. You could spend a long weekend or a week here strolling the city, discovering the contemporary art in the Serralves Foundation complex and appreciating the history behind Porto’s old churches like the Sé and Igreja de São Francisco. No matter what you choose to see and do in this captivating city, you’ll leave with an appreciation of Porto’s diverse offerings, some great photos and, hopefully, a bottle or two of its best wine.
Culture & Customs
Porto has long been known for its production of wine. The Douro Valley region’s unique landscape of mountains and valleys paired with a warm, dry climate makes the soil here challenging but unique. The harvest process is similar to that in other wine regions, but here, they add some grape brandy during the fermentation process and then transfer the mixture to casks for aging. The result is a sweet (typically red) port, which is consumed with (or sometimes as) dessert.
Aside from its famous wine roots, the city is experiencing a tourist boom thanks to its newer museums and its historic center’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Culture hounds have their hands full with everything from art and architecture to history and religious sites. Plus the city appeals to leisurely folk with its abundance of activities and sights on land and sea like biking, boating and swimming.
The people of Porto are warm and hospitable, often greeting locals and visitors alike with a hearty bom dia, boa tarde or boa noite (good morning, good afternoon or good evening). Portuguese is the language spoken in Porto, so you’ll hear words like por favor (please), obrigado (thank you) and de nada (you’re welcome) — which are also good to know for yourself. Try your best to learn some Portuguese phrases before you arrive as English is not as widely spoken in Porto as in Lisbon.
The official currency in Porto is the euro. Since the euro to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates, be sure to check what the current exchange rate is before you go. Most major credit cards are widely accepted throughout the city, though some restaurants or small cafes will only accept cash so make sure you always have enough on hand. An appropriate tip for a meal is 5 to 10 percent at a restaurant, and tips for taxi rides are usually 10 percent or just rounded to the nearest €5 EUR.
What to Eat
Porto’s local cuisine features lots of seafood (because of its seat along the Atlantic Ocean) accompanied by lots of wine. Traditional dishes in Porto range from the Francesinha (a toasted meat, cheese and beer-based gravy sandwich served with fries) to tripas à modo do Porto (tripe cooked with white beans, sausage and vegetables). You can find appetizing tripe dishes at most restaurants, but travelers say Café Santiago (just southeast of Mercado Bolhão) and Caves Da Cerveja (along the riverbanks of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia) serve up some of the best Francesinhas. Cod (or bacalhau) is also a popular main dish in Porto — a common saying is that there are more than 365 ways to cook cod. It can be served with potatoes and chick peas (bacalhau com batata e grão), with scrambled eggs, potatoes and olives (bacalhau á Brás), or boiled with tomatoes and garlic (bacalhau á portuguesa), among other variations.
The city’s namesake sweet dessert wine, port, is especially popular in the region, so be sure to sample some. Meanwhile, visitors with a sweet tooth should try the pastries, gelato or reqeijão com doce de abóbora (a ricotta pie-like dessert with pumpkin jam) at any of the bakeries.
Overall, some popular restaurants that get rave reviews from travelers for succulent Portuguese cuisine and impressive ambiance include the Michelin-starred Yeatman restaurant in Vila Nova de Gaia, Praia da Luz in Foz do Douro (west of the city center) and Chez Lapin along the Porto waterfront near the Dom Luís I Bridge.
If you’re on a budget, you should still be able to find a great meal in Porto. Many restaurants feature pratos do dia (or plates of the day) for lunch, with the daily specials typically including fresh fish or meat dishes (and sometimes even a glass of wine and dessert) for a set price starting around €4 EUR (about $5.50 USD). Keep in mind, meals are served a bit later in Porto, with diners sitting down for lunch between 12:30 and 3 p.m. and eating dinner between 8 and 11 p.m.