Palatial, palatable Portugal: a long weekend in Porto and the Douro
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.