Porto – an alternative European city break

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While many travellers opt for Lisbon, Porto—its often-overlooked smaller sister—provides an equally charming Portuguese experience at a more affordable price. Peering over the Douro River, Porto’s traditional, local ambiance offers both a relaxing and interesting getaway, ideal for a long weekend.

A mere two hours, very affordable in off-peak times, flight brings you just a forty-minute tram ride into the centre. For accommodation on a budget, Porto offers a range of hostels, but splitting an Airbnb can be equally cost savvy.

Getting around Porto is easy—it’s extremely walkable. This means, by the end of a short trip, you’ll have gotten to grips with much of the city. Start by orienting yourself in the city with its famous monuments. Porto’s Cathedral or Sé do Porto mixes its original 12th century Romanesque features with Gothic and Baroque architecture to create a really interesting and beautiful site. Discover the Italian architect Niccoló Nasoni’s work on the loggia and its gothic blue azulejos, including one depicting Ovis’s epic The Metamorphoses.  It’s worth buying the three-euro ticket, which has a student discount, to climb the winding steps up to the tower for panoramic views over the city and across the river.

Descending from the Sé’s hill, more of Porto’s famous azulejo tiles can be enjoyed at the São Bento Train Station. Artist Jorge Colaço’s blue and white slates depicting Portuguese history line the walls of the ticket room, earning it UNESCO World Heritage status. Walk through the atrium to the Time Out market in one of the station’s wings. Launched just in 2024, the team of Time Out critics and journalists have put together a space to try the best of Porto’s gastronomy. Sit at a shared long bench and choose from sixteen different food stands and bars, all very local and some Michelin starred. The food is not very budget friendly but a pastel de nata from the bakers at Padaria Ribeiro won’t set you back too much.

Time Out’s market is one of the many markets Porto boasts. Historic Mercado do Bolhão still makes up a lively part of the city’s urban fabric. Fresh produce as well as shops and restaurants makes it a must visit for an authentic taste of the city. Across the road is the equally local patisserie Confeitaria do Bolhão serving Portuguese pastries, cakes, custard tarts and Porto’s speciality “tigelinha do Bolhão” for over 100 years. Pastel de natas cost under a euro and can be enjoyed in their charming art deco café.

Much of Porto’s beauty can be enjoyed by strolling through the city. Rua das Flores is one of the most beautiful streets. For a culture hit, visit the gothic bookshop with an enchanting interior Livaria Lello— supposedly one of the many places in Porto that inspired J.K. Rowling during her time there teaching English. If you’re certain you’ll buy a book, buy the eight-euro entry ticket that is taken off your purchase—if not, just poke your head in the door while walking past.

More worth your time is discovering the city’s port history. Cross the Dom Luis bridge, a monument itself, to the Vila Nova de Gaia district, home to many historic port lodges. Famous names such as Sandeman, Taylor’s and Cálem all have tasting tours where you can familiarise yourself with ruby, white and tawny ports. Explore the cobbled lanes stretching behind the main promenade for old churches, small eateries and bars. On this side, many affordable boat trips allow you to take in Porto from the river’s level.

For a green respite, head to the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal. Perched on a hill, the park has amazing views, lots of interesting flower gardens as well as boisterous cockerels and geese to meet. Although the Douro river is the main water feature for the city, a short tram or bus trip to the Foz district brings you to the rugged shores on the Atlantic. Foz itself has a few shops and cafés like the colourful Amelia to explore.

For a short trip, you’re spoilt for choice for great local food and bar options. Negra Café serves delicious brunch and a relaxed atmosphere in the Baixa district. Equally popular is the Esquires café which has a large outside area and great food deals.

Generous portions of local cuisine and green wine from North Portugal can be found at the charming small restaurant with a terrace Português de Gema. In the Ribeira district Muro do Bacalhau‘s menu, designed for sharing, offers tastes of the local seafood, all beautifully prepared. Try sardines, cuttlefish and cod amongst other delights while taking in the river at night.

After dinner, clamber behind the river’s promenade, of UNESCO World Heritage Site value, through Porto’s narrow streets to the centre. You’ll stumble across small restaurants, bars and ice cream shops lit by the yellowy street lights.

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One thought on “Porto – an alternative European city break

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