Summer has been a whirlwind and it all started when jumped on a plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean so I could meet up with Helen, my lovely friend from London, for a weekend in Porto, Portugal.
I arrived at the airport jet-lagged and so out of it that I left the airport, was standing on the platform for the metro, and realized I had forgotten to pick up my suitcase. Thankfully I still had my boarding pass, as I had to show proof I was on the flight and be checked in with the police before a security staff member could escort me back to my bag.
I had time for a quick nap in our suite at the Magnolia Hostel before Helen arrived. I woke up to a text telling me they couldn’t find our reservation. After a series of messages and finally a call, she figured out she was at the wrong hostel, but just a quick eight minute walk away. (Her error made me feel less silly about my bag blunder – and assured me I was in for a hilarious weekend with Helen).
I think Porto is an absolutely amazing city and perfect for a weekend getaway. If you have any intention of walking around as much as we did my number one piece of advice would be to wear good shoes and stay hydrated. Everywhere you want to go in Porto is up a hill – literally. Want a butt lift? No need to go to the gym – just visit Porto and you’ll work your ass muscles in an instant.
10 things to do in Porto, Portugal
1. Port Tasting
Even if you don’t drink port, as Helen confessed to me, I recommend a port tour during a stay in Porto. While the hard core wine drinkers would likely vote for a day trip to the Douro Valley, those with less time can learn loads and experience a taste of Portugal on a port house tour. We climbed all the way up to visit Taylor’s, which offers an audio tour in several languages (ideal as many of the other port houses require advance bookings at designated times). After learning a ridiculous amount about port, we had a two-port tasting in the garden next to an inquisitive rooster.
2. Sunset on the Dom Luís I Bridge
While Helen wanted to watch the sunset from kayaks, it was a whole lot easier to time our walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge for a beautiful sunset. I walked the double-decker bridge, which links Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, many times during my stay in Porto – the view and the people-watching was always entertaining.
3. Eat a Francesinha
It is easy to work up an appetite walking up and down hills all day. Those eager to fill their bellies, and likely their arteries, with a local treat need look no further than for Portos most famous sandwich – the Francesina. Meaning little Frenchie, one story is that the croque-monsieur was adapted to a Portugese taste. The result is a sandwich stacked high with ham, cured sausage, sausage and a steak, then covered in cheese, topped with a hot thick tomato-beer sauce, and served with a ring of fries. It can also be topped with a fried egg – which is how Helen ordered it at Cafe Santiago, which is argued to be one of the best spots for Francesina in Porto.
In all my years of traveling and eating, I have never seen anything like it (and certainly nothing so gluttonous in Europe). It looked as if someone looked at Canadian poutine and said – we can make this meatier, with more carbs, and an egg. I couldn’t believe that people were ordering individual plates and not sharing. Helen made a good go of it – but the locals put her to shame with their plates licked clean. Perhaps it takes years of training to polish of a Francesina.
4. Take photos of tiles, tiles and more tiles
Porto is packed with beautiful tile work – from mosaics to building exteriors. People rave about the train station, which is beautiful, but it is packed with tourists taking photos (present company included), so I preferred the walls we found while exploring the city.
5. Go on a free walking tour
I love getting an overview of a city with a walking tour. I’ve done a number of Sandeman free walking tours all over Europe, and I always enjoy the mix of history, culture, random stories, and tips the guides of this tip-based tour company have provided. I enjoyed all the Harry Potter references we learned, and after learning about the price and wait in the line ups associated to go into Livraria Lello, I was ok with just admiring from afar.
*I heard that the Sandeman’s port-tasting tour was great value and recommended experience.
6. Watch a football (soccer) match
Although Portugal was out of the World Cup by the time we arrived in Porto, England was still in, and the fans were still flocking to watch the screens in front of City Hall. We took time out of our sightseeing to watch England win (the rowdy fans celebrated the win by throwing beer into the air and singing). We also caught a game at the Guindalense Football Club – where the alcohol prices were great and the view of the Luíz I bridge was even better.
7. Brunch at Zenith Cafe
Helen got a hot tip from a friend that Zenith Cafe served up brunch all day. (After traumatizing her the day before with a restaurant serving fish outside her comfort zone – I was happy to follow her lead for Sunday brunch). The line moved fairly quickly and provided just enough time to get an eyeful of the dishes on their menu. The place is an instagram food photographer dream – sky-high pancakes with oreo cookies, bright slices of avocados and yolk-porn eggs – the joint had a never-ended array of hipster dishes that had my mouth watering. They also had a variety of gluten-free options – so many that I wish we had more days to come back and try again.
8. Seek out street art
In addition to the traditional tiles that lined the streets, Porto was also packed with endless street art. (A dream for my friend Linda who loves Instagramable walls). Reoccurring images popped up on several street corners and many of the images brought smiles to my face as I explored the city. I couldn’t find a well publicized street art tour like in other European cities but I am sure there will be one soon – the place is haven for creativity in the streets. Until then, check out Time Out’s list of top street art in Porto.
9. Indulge in seafood
Ok, so I did more indulging than Helen, but I was very excited to eat seafood while in Porto. As a celiac, I had no problem finding gluten-free grilled fish, and the octopus I ordered one afternoon was the biggest tentacle I have ever been served. (The server put down a bowl of rice with chunks of braised octopus first and I thought, ‘well this is a ripoff.’ And the real dish came and even the couple at the next table was in shock).
10. Go Vintage Shopping
Ok, so I technically had one more day in Porto without Helen, and before I flew to France, so I wasn’t just there for a weekend. But if I went back, or if any of my fashion-loving friends were headed there, I would suggest a stop in a few of the vintage stores. At Patch Lifestyle I found an a vintage YSL (made in France) dress for 40 euro! I sadly left a Christian Dior in the change which was too big. I also hit gold at Mon Pere Vintage. I just about cried when the owner told me they were having a 1 Euro sale the next day. When I told her I had a 7 am flight she teased that I should change it. Tempting… but I had a culinary adventure waiting for me in France. And I have a feeling I will be back to Porto – it is definitely a competitor for my favourite city in Europe.
Thank you Helen for coming to meet me in Porto – can’t wait to potter around with you across the pond soon!