Updated: 24th May 2019
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The golden hues of the fading sun imprint the silhouette of the Dom Luís I Bridge onto the Douro some 45-metres below, our modern tram gliding high above the buzz of activity. The famed bridge connects the city of Porto on the northern bank with Vila Nova de Gaia on the south, and from my window view, I was captivated by the colourful charm of these sexy cities.
Nowadays, the two cities blend together, and to most tourists, they are one and the same. On the north, cafe tables are overflowing at the base of colourful townhouses, and on the south, the famed Port houses are conducting tours and tastings. Looking down from the prime perch above, you’ll quickly understand why Porto has become such a palatable city break, partly because of its charm, partly because of its port, and partly because of what adorns its plates. For whatever reason you venture for a long weekend in Porto, you’ll be hard pushed not to fall for its charms.
One of the many reasons I moved to Portugal was for the way it blends old and new; one moment you can be admiring historic architecture adorned with Azulejo, Portugal’s colourful tiles, and the next, hanging out in the most hip of bars with brash street art outside. While Lisbon can be an exhausting city to explore thanks to its hills, Porto is more pocket-sized, making finding this blend of contemporary and classic easier, and perhaps more suiting of a long weekend escape.
Another of the reasons I’m proud to call Portugal home is the laid-back, no fuss hospitality of the locals. Friendliness oozes from the pores of the population here, and if you only have two or three days to get under the skin of Portugal, I highly recommend you follow in my footsteps and explore Porto with a local. It would be a sin to visit the city and not get some insight from Portugal’s best asset, her people.
One of the best tours to take in Porto is actually outside the city. While Porto and neighbouring Gaia are easy to explore on foot, hidden gems such as ocean swimming pools, the Tidal Pools of Leça da Palmeira, and lush forests are just a short drive away and complete a long weekend trip to Porto.
Things to do in Porto on a long weekend
While Porto might not be the largest of cities, there are countless ways to keep yourself entertained, here are some of my favourite suggestions for a long weekend in Porto.
Visit the Port houses
A must-do when in Porto is to visit the old Port houses on the Gaia side of the Douro. I’ve toured three different ones between my visits, and each one is slightly different, and of course, you get to sample the different Ports. The history of the area is fascinating, as some of these cellars are more than 400-years old. The tours are usually pretty relaxed, and although you may be able to turn up and try to get on a tour, with Porto getting busier for weekend trips, I’d recommend booking in advance, especially on peak dates.
On my last visit, I heard that some of these Port cellars are to be closed and moved further out to the Douro, so be sure to visit this history while it’s still here in the heart of Gaia.
Marvel at the Porto Train Station
Chances are if you arrive at Porto from Lisbon, the train station will be your first stop, and even if it isn’t, you should be sure to visit the main hall. São Bento train station is a piece of art in itself, with some 20,000 blue and white tiles taking you through some of the local histories, it’s one of the most impressive sets of Azulejo in Porto.
Enjoy blue tiles at Chapel of Souls and the Church of Saint Ildefonso
Another Azulejo must-visit during your long weekend in Porto is the Saint Ildefonso church or the Chapel of Solus. While I haven’t made it inside either, the tile-work on the exterior is stunning, and they have both quickly become a famous Instagram backdrop, although the ornate architecture is worth much more than quick photoshoot opportunity. There are in fact a few of the tiled churches throughout Porto, Igreja de Santa Clara being another.
Go bar hopping in Ribeira and Gaia
Port and great wines aren’t the only things on the menu though, the bar scene in Porto has exploded in recent years. From hip coffee roasters to chic restored bars shaking up killer cocktails, a weekend in Porto can be more than palatable.
My favourite modern coffee spot, and also serving excellent craft beer, was 7groaster, not far from the famous bunny street art on the Gaia side. I also couldn’t fault any of the meals I had in Porto, and living in the Algarve I have to say, the culinary skills and dishes are a lot more interesting in northern Portugal, whereas in the south we rely more on simple, fresh fish dishes.
The Ribeira area on the Porto side is more charming though, with cobbled streets and colourful townhouses dotted with cafes and bars everywhere. You’ll quickly realise that coffee and wine culture are a massive thing in Porto, and sitting down with a glass to people watch is one of the many simple joys of the city.
Try the local dish, the Francesinha
I wish I could say this tasted better than it looked, but the jury is still very much out for me. The Francesinha sandwich originates from Porto, and consists of bread, sausage, ham, meat, cheese and is then coated in a sauce that looks like gravy but is beer and tomato based. It’s certainly not the healthiest of meals, and some touristy restaurants charge a premium for it, but go local and don’t pay too much as chances are, you’ll find it a bit heavy.
The dish dates back to 1953 when a local returned from travelling around Europe and wanted to make a croque-monsieur a bit more Portuguese – I’ll let you be the judge on whether the French dish or the Portuguese one is your favourite! It’s also worth noting that the McDonalds in Porto, while not stocking the Francesinha, is one of the most stately in the world and worth a quick look at!
Visit Livraria Lello bookshop (or don’t!)
This beautiful bookshop with the iconic staircase is perhaps Porto’s biggest indication of the over tourism that will eventually consume this city. Portugal has rightly won its place on the international tourism stage in recent years, but many of the incredible places in the country haven’t been discovered by the masses, which means crowds bottleneck at key attractions and this library is one of them. It’s become so busy now, in part due to JK Rowling, that you must buy a ticket and queue, sometimes for hours, to get in.
The ticket once inside can be exchanged for a book, but sadly the owners had to take this step as their store had become a staircase photoshoot room, and no longer a bookshop. I skipped it, as I didn’t want to dedicate a chunk of my long weekend in Porto to waiting in line.
Head to the top of Clérigos Church
Just across the square from the bookshop is the Clérigos Tower, part of the ornate church. The tower is one of the icons of the city and if you like your views from high above, be sure to take the staircase to the top for some great views across Porto.
Igreja de São Francisco (St Francis)
One of the oldest convents in Portugal, the Baroque interior of this church is insane. Gold, gold, gold (not pictured – no photos allowed). It’s certainly worth paying the entrance ticket to the complex, as this church is extraordinary inside and you can also get access to the catacombs and other parts of the complex.
Explore the stunning Bolsa Palace
Somehow, I’ve never actually been inside the Bolsa Palace on any of my visits, and it’s perhaps due to the fact the outside isn’t as ornate, you might not realise how special it is inside. Only a couple of hundred years old, the building does not boast the history of some of your other Porto hot-spots, but inside the palace is incredible. So much so it’s now UNESCO listed and firmly on my list for my next long weekend in Porto.
If you want another religious monument to explore, the Porto Cathedral stands in a prime position and is a fantastic example of the renaissance side of the city.
Admire the views at Serra do Pilar
This former monastery sits above the Dom Luís bridge and boasts incredible views of Porto and Gaia. If you see the word Mirador anywhere in Portugal, it means viewing point or platform, and here is the best one to visit on your long weekend in Porto, the views are spectacular. Once you’ve finished here, walk back down to the gardens and take the cable-car down to Gaia for another angle of the city.
Mercado do Bolhão
*Currently under renovation* It’s a shame that this market is temporarily closed, and I wasn’t able to get any details on when it would re-open on my last visit (you’ll currently find blue covers around it) but when it does re-open, be sure to head here and hopefully the two-story market will still retain its charm and old-fashioned frontages.
Estádio do Dragão
I’m not a big football fan, but my Dad dragged us along here on our family weekend in Porto, and while I enjoyed a beer in the cafe, he headed off on the stadium tour and said it was great, so if you are into Porto FC or sport, this might be a good option.
Visit the Douro Valley on a day cruise
The Douro Valley is one of the most beautiful spots in Portugal and easily done during your long weekend in Porto. There are various ways to venture here, but I found the best option for a day-trip was to take the train out to the Douro and then a boat back. I booked my tour all in one, so we travelled as a group by train, then boarded the boat back.
To be honest, I think it would have been better to take the train separately to allow a little time in one of the villages before boarding the boat, but I didn’t find such an option that suited my timeframe. The views from the river cruise are beautiful, though, and we enjoyed a great lunch on board and bottomless Douro wines throughout the four-hour sailing. I took my mum for her birthday, and she loved the whole day out.
Venture further in the North of Portugal
There are plenty more things to see in the North of Portugal so if you are here for longer than a weekend, be sure to venture to the likes of Braga and Minho, both smaller cities but also worthy of a visit.
Portugal is a pretty compact country, and quite easy and quick to get around by both cars and also on the vast bus network. Trains also offer connections to main hubs. If you do plan on spending longer in Portugal, then you could easily combine a visit to Lisbon, and the stunning coast of the Algarve into your trip.
Need to know Porto
A few tips and insights to make planning your visit to Porto a little easier.
Where to stay in Porto on a budget: On my first visit to Porto, I stayed at the So Cool hostel in Cedofeita, which is a little out of the city-centre but great value and close by the metro. The dorms and private rooms were clean and spacious, and the restored building is beautiful inside.
Where to stay in Porto like a baller: The Porto 1829 Hotel might not be the highest of luxury, but this classy boutique hotel in the heart of the city ticks all my boxes. The historic building, great finishes, and some quirks such as roll-top baths in some of the bedrooms, I really enjoyed my one-night stay here on my last visit.
How to get to Porto: Porto Airport (Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport) is a Ryanair hub, and offers connections to many destinations in and beyond Europe on various airlines. The airport is connected to the city by metro in under 30-minutes.
Accessibility in Porto: As with other parts of Portugal, Porto is quite a hilly city although a lot flatter than Lisbon, so much of it is accessible. The Visit Portugal website has a page dedicated to accessible routes and self-touring options which can be found here alongside detailed information on local transport.