First 24 hours in Porto, Portugal

Wine cellars, curious alleyways and awe-inspiring architecture abound in Portugal's second city, finds Lauren Razavi.

Where? Along the Douro River in northern Portugal

Why? Explore the historic trade city where port wine acquired its name

When? June to September, when days are long and sunny

Before you arrive

Portugal’s second city is a laid-back destination full of pretty shops, historic alleyways, and stories from its time as an iconic European trade city. Visit for its magnificent architecture, its burgeoning modern gastronomy, and the delights of a relaxed city with a strong cultural identity.

Get inspired before your trip by reading Richard Mayson’s Porto and the Douro for an overview of the history and importance of wine in the region, and jump into historical fiction with Richard Zimler’s Hunting Midnight, a story that begins in Porto and ventures into three different continents.

At the airport

Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport (OPO), also known more simply as Porto International Airport, is situated 11km from the city centre. Modern and bustling, it’s equipped with restaurants, shops, ATMs and 24-hour information desks. Limited free WiFi is provided, and full WiFi is available for a fee.

Getting into town

The local metro service takes roughly 30 minutes from the airport to Estádio do Dragão station, which connects with all major stations. Buy a reusable transport card for €0.50 at the Andante shop in airport arrivals, then it’s €1.80 for a single trip into the city.

Regular buses run between the airport and the city, and cost €1.80 for a single journey. Look out for services 601, 602, 604 and 3M. A taxi usually costs €20-€30, but add 20% if travelling between 9pm and 6am, or at the weekend.

Other ways to arrive

A fast train runs every hour between Lisbon and Porto. The journey takes around three hours and costs roughly €25. Reservations must be made in advance, either online or at the station.

Porto orientation

The whole of Porto’s compact historic centre has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, so walking is certainly the best way to discover the city.

First day’s tour

Start with a walk across the Dom Luís Bridge, one of the most recognisable icons of Porto. The grand metal arch straddles the Douro River and connects the city with its neighbour across the water, Vila Nova de Gaia. Between the pavement cafés full of smiling vendors, the Bolhão Market is a hidden-away, chaotic gem where locals go to buy their produce. Although small, a visit to this quirky little market provides great insight into Porto’s enthusiastic community culture.

Porto’s main train station, São Bento, is an architectural highlight in itself. The station was built in 1916 on the grounds of a former Benedictine monastery, and is famed for its tile panels depicting important moments in Portuguese history. Wander down the imposing Avenida dos Aliados to take in the grand architecture and admire the town hall and its 70-metre high bell tower. Statues of King Pedro IV on a horse and Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett are also close by.

When hunger hits, head to Restaurante DOP, an eatery run by one of Portugal’s best chefs and cookbook writers, Rui Paula. Beautiful presentation, quality local ingredients and outstanding flavours combine to make Restaurante DOP a truly mouthwatering spot.

Spend the afternoon drifting between port cellars as you learn about the rich heritage of Porto as a trade city, and the impact of wine on its development. Sandeman’s, established in 1790, and Graham’s Port, established in 1820, both offer guided tours of their cellars, which house mini-museums with objects from their beginnings to the present day – from bottles to corks to advertising.

For dinner, Restaurante D.Tonho is popular with locals and tourists alike, but few people know about its sister restaurant of the same name, situated just across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Excellent for avoiding the queues and bustle of central Porto at peak times.

You'll find plenty of local tour guides offering everything from half-day wine tours to multi-day itineraries – although it is easy to sample the local cellars on your own steam. If you're venturing further afield, enlisting the help of a tour company – Grape Escapes, for example – can help with navigating more rural wineries.

First night’s sleep

Top end: The flashy Yeatman Hotel has its own Michelin-starred restaurant and extensive wine cellars on-site. The sumptuous rooms boast views of Porto from private balconies. Doubles from £470.

Mid-range: Find vintage charm in Grande Hotel do Porto, whose guests over the years have included nobility, spies, bohemians and artists. Rooms are decorated in a warm contemporary style. Doubles from £70.

Budget: With its colourful décor, relaxed staff and a bustling atmosphere, Oporto City Hostel is a top-value choice. Situated right in the middle of the city. Doubles from £39.

Stay or go?

Go – but not too far. Trace the history of the region in more depth by venturing out of Porto and into the picturesque Douro Valley, two hours away by train. Spend some time at the Douro Museum, soaking up the stories of generations past.

Experience spectacular views and delicious wines at Quinta de Tourais, a family-run micro-winery that grows 30 varieties of white and red grape, and end the day with dinner at another winery, Quinta da Pacheca.

Essential info

Population: 207,600

Language: Portuguese

Time: GMT+1

International dialling code: +351
Visas: Not required by UK nationals

Money: Euro (€)

Health issues: Tap water is safe to drink in major towns and cities, but be more cautious in rural areas. Medical treatment is free or reduced to EHIC holders at state-run hospitals and health facilities. Note that pharmacies usually close for two hours over lunch across Portugal.

Recommended guidebook: Rough Guides Snapshot: Porto and the Rio Douro (2014); Lonely Planet: Portugal (2014)

App: Tripwolf Porto Travel Guide

Climate: June to September is when Porto hits its warmest temperatures of 23-30°C and offers up to 10 hours of sunshine each day. October to November brings mild temperatures of 17-20°C and the weather turns wet and grey, while December to February brings lots of rain, with the average high temperature dropping to 14°C. March to May heats up to 16-20°C and rainfall decreases but is still reasonably regular.

Originally published by Wanderlust Magazine. Image above by Jesse Norton (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

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