Porto may not be the number-one stop for visitors to Portugal, but the city is a dark horse that surprised me in the best way possible. Unlike Lisbon, which suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 1755, the coastal city in northwest Portugal has maintained its stunning Baroque, Gothic and Neoclassical architecture.
Like in many of Portugal’s other cities, you’ll find cobblestone streets, terracotta rooftops and charming squares where you can people-watch for hours while covering yourself in pastéis de nata crumbs. But Porto’s iconic bridges, blue- and white-tiled churches and historic port lodges make you feel like you’re stepping back in time.
This is how to spend three perfect days in one of Europe’s most charming cities — with plenty of stops for pastries and bica (espresso) along the way.
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If one thing sticks with you, let it be this: Porto is hilly. Be strategic and avoid blowing out your knees on day one. Fuel your day with coffee and pastries at Majestic Café, Porto’s oldest and most beautiful café, where writers and politicians have congregated under its chandeliers since the 1920s. Once caffeinated, take a stroll down rue de Santa Catarina, stopping for a snap outside the beautifully tiled Church of Saint Ildefonso.
From here, leisurely amble towards the Douro River, stopping for grilled sardines at one of the many tascas (casual eateries) in Ribeira, a charming district with coloured façades located along the riverbank. The Cais da Ribeira strip is a nice spot to enjoy an ice cream while you take in the views, though it’s always flush with tourists.
Cross over the magnificent Dom Luís I Bridge on the lower level, then spend some time exploring the shoreline from the other side. The cable car back to the top (6€ a trip) will bring you right to Jardim do Morro, a hilltop park with live music and one of the best views of the city. From here, take the upper footbridge back across.
Walk to the Bomfim neighbourhood, where you’ll find al fresco cafés and natural wine bars like Cave do Bon Vivant. Finally, rest your weary bones at Casa Kala, a charming guesthouse with gorgeous rooms that’s tucked down a side street, away from the hustle and bustle.
Porto is a stunner, but she’s also pretty small. If you have an extra day, take a trip to one of the nearby beautiful shores. Matosinhos Beach, a 20-minute Uber ride from the city, offers a sandy stretch to sun yourself, plus plenty of fun shopping and dining options.
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Meander towards the south end of the beach where you’ll find the 17th-century Fort of Saint Francis Xavier. With consistent waves, Matosinhos is a great spot to spy surfers — and to indulge in schadenfreude when they inevitably wipeout.
When your tummy starts rumbling, exit the beach at the north end. You’ll know you’ve reached Restaurante O Valentim when you smell the fish sizzling on the grill. Order a bottle of vinho verde, the grilled octopus, and — if you’re feeling fancy — the turbot. It’s reasonably priced and the clientele leans toward the business-lunch crowd, so you can play the local.
Now that you’ve got the lay of the land, it’s time to start ticking off those bucket list Porto adventures. If you can bear the mess of tripods and wannabe influencers, Livraria Lello — the bookstore that inspired Hogwarts in Harry Potter — is worth a visit. Book the earliest time slot (5€ a ticket) and get there before it opens at 9:30 a.m. for the least chaotic chance to snag a picture on its iconic staircase.
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Two minutes away, you’ll find the Clérigos Church — this is also ticketed (8€), but the panoramic views of the city are well worth the 225-step climb to the top of its famous bell tower.
Quench your thirst at Base Porto, an open-air bar located on top of a shopping square, but be careful not to lose a whole day sipping Super Bock on a bean bag under the olive trees. Instead, save yourself for a port tasting. All of the port lodges are on the southern bank of the Douro River, due to its cooler temperature, which makes it ideal for storing and maturing the fortified wine.
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Caves Cálem takes guests through an interactive museum, a guided tour of the historic cellars and — the best part — tiered tastings of their port. With a higher alcohol content (16 to 20 per cent), you’ll need to follow up with a low-energy activity. Mellow out on a boat (originally used to transport wine barrels) for a one-hour river cruise — and perhaps a snooze.