April 30 – May 2: Porto (or Oporto as it’s often called) is a beautiful, gritty old city, with lots to see and do, particularly in the historical centre which is protected as a World Heritage Site. As the second largest city in Portugal, it is definitely worth at least a 2-3 day visit, perhaps as a prequel to a trip to the famous Duoro Valley. We had two nights and one full jet-lagged day, so we definitely only touched the surface but that’s always a reason to return, right?
We arrived in Porto at about 10am, after a 15 hour flight from Kelowna, which included a 4 hour layover in Toronto. We were able to get a direct flight from Toronto via SATA (Azores Airlines) which was nice. Getting through customs and picking up our luggage was a fairly simple process, and I was able to pick up a Portugal SIM card at Vodafone for my iphone before we left the airport.
We each bought a 1€ Andante transit card and loaded it with two 4-zone trips (under €2 per trip) so we could take the metro directly into town and get back to the airport again later to pick up our car. The transit ticket machine was easy to use and there was an English option. I’ve found that to be the case for most ticket machines and ATMs in Europe. We swiped our cards to validate them and caught the purple E-line Metro direct into town – a 30 minute trip – and it was cheap, clean, comfortable, and easy to use. I read up on the Porto transit system ahead of time here and found lots of good information.
We got off at Trindade Station and walked about a kilometre to our studio apartment (Oporto Chic and Cozy Studio Apartments €67/$100CAD per night) which was located in the heart of the upper town, known as the Batalha, and was easy walking distance to the sights we wanted to see. We had made arrangements through booking.com’s instant messenger feature to meet with the manager, Hugo, between 11-12 and he quickly checked us in and let us know about the area. Once settled in, we fell into bed around 1:30pm and slept for 4 hours since neither if us had slept well on an airplane. In the evening, we found a grocery store, made sandwiches for supper and wandered around the neighbourhood a bit to get our bearings. We always need a day or two of R&R to get over the jet lag.
On our one full day, we bought tickets for the Yellow Hop On Hop Off Bus Vintage Tour and did the longer Castles tour to get a feel for the city and enjoy touring without having to walk to0 much. Apart from the inner city tour, it also took us out to the coastal area, along Av. do Brasil, into the suburb of Matosinhos which is known for its amazing sidewalk restaurants where they cook fresh fish, and we could see that it would be nice area to stay for a few days if we had more time.
There are quite a few ways to get around in the city and you can purchase a 24 hour pass on your Andante card for €7 which will allow you to use the metro and the local bus system all day. The pass does not include the popular cable trams which criss cross the city for about €2.50 each way, but you can purchase a 24h City Tour ticket for €8 which you can use the trams all day if you wish.
There are many things to see in town and we definitely did not have time to do more than get a cursory look. There is a 14th century Sao Francisco Church to visit, the Clerigos Tower which was only a block from our apartment, Cafe Magestic if you want to stand in line for an expensive coffee in a lovely old building, and the amazingly cool Livraria Lello, the bookshop which some say JK Rowling used as inspiration for the Hogwarts library (it has a 4€ entry fee, long lines at times, but sadly was closed when we were there). In addition, you will often see the University students wandering around town between classes, wearing their black capes, even in the heat of the day. They definitely reminded me of Harry Potter. Another place worth checking out, is the Sao Bento train station with its interesting history and beautiful mosaic murals.
Porto is built on a steep hill and in the afternoon we walked down to the Duoro River to the lower section of the city, called the Riberia, and wandered along the promenade lined with busy restaurants and bars. Obviously, seafood is the thing to eat in Porto, including the wide flat dish called Cataplana. Also popular are custard tarts. Erik had to try the local favourite, Francesinha, a ham or meat sandwich, covered in melted cheese, and a beer/tomato sauce. It was pretty rich and he enjoyed it but I didn’t try it. After lunch, we crossed the bridge over to the Port wine house area and picked up a bottle of Tawny Port at the oldest Port House, Kopke, in town. We caught the HOHO bus to get back up to our place, but for something different, you can always take the Funicular back up the hill.
As an aside, I would not recommend driving in Porto. Like most older European cities, the streets are narrow and challenging to drive unless you are a resident. We decided to head back to the airport to pick up our rental car so we could get straight out onto the highway instead of negotiating city streets. We learned our lesson in Florence 10 years ago, when we picked up our rental car right downtown.
On the morning of our departure we decided not to take the metro back to the airport, but instead paid our host €20 to give us a ride – it made the morning a little smoother and meant we didn’t have to hurry. We donated our Andante cards to our driver. At the airport, we picked up our car – a little Kia Picanto which we booked online through rentalcars.com (Europcar), and headed out to visit the Duoro Valley for a few days.
- Before booking accommodations, read reviews carefully, and check out the street and neighbourhood on google street view. Are you able to walk or use local transit access to the sights you want to see? Does the area look safe? Are there restaurants and markets close by?
- Get your phone unlocked before you leave home so you can use a purchased SIM card.
- Leave your phone on airplane mode until you get a SIM card (wifi only), so you don’t get dinged for your home data plan long distance.
- I have purchased SIM cards from Orange and Vodafone in Spain and Portugal. They run from €15-30 and include the SIM card itself (5-10€) plus a data/phone minutes package. Different carriers offer different packages but most have options for data and phone minutes/texting. I usually get as much data as I can afford and don’t care much if I have phone minutes. You can often recharge the card either online, if you can figure out the language, or at a store. Employees in larger cities are more likely to speak some English but be prepared to have google translate on your phone and explain what you want in their language. The salesperson will usually install the card for you and ensure it is working before you leave. Even with a local SIM card, I usually keep my phone on airplane mode when I’m not using it so I don’t accidentally use too much data due to automatic updates etc.
- Plan your route from airport to accommodation before you leave. Most larger cities have direct access via metro or bus. It’s inexpensive and usually easy to use (unless you carry a lot of luggage with you).
- If you have to walk from the metro to your accommodation, plan the route ahead of time and take screen shots of the map on your phone. Some apps will work offline but if you are tired and have been travelling for hours, you will be happy to have screenshots available in a pinch.
- Don’t plan too much on your first day following an overseas palace ride – in fact, if you have the time, plan nothing more than a walk and meals and naps. We often like to take a Hop On Hop Off bus on the first day to get our bearings, learn about the local sights, and still be able to sit and relax.
- Check to see if there are local holidays or festivals when you will be visiting. We didn’t check this out, arrived on a Sunday when many things are normally closed, and found out Monday was a holiday (May 1). It worked out fine for us, but often Museums etc can be closed on holidays. It’s always good to know.
Next Up: Duoro Valley
Here are a few of my favourite pictures of Porto.