Porto is one of the only cities in the world where you have the ocean, the beach, a major river, an iconic bridge, and a wine region, complete with ancient cultural and historical landmarks, and endless Instagram-worthy photo opportunities at every turn. It truly is a unique and amazing city, unlike any we have ever visited, that still remains shockingly affordable.
This city in Portugal had been on JJ’s radar for a long time and was high on both of our lists of places to visit. Our friends Dawson and Neva had recently been and provided us with several great tips and recommendations for our stay. Many of their tips aligned with the list provided by our Airbnb, and even from our own research. In our opinion, that made for the Holy Trinity of a Porto Travel Guide, and we hope to share as much of this as possible in this article.
There is lots to do and see in Porto, and much of it is walkable (assuming you’re willing to climb the occasional steep hill, stair, or incline). Some of the people that seem to be enjoying themselves the most are either dining al fresco along one of the many river restaurants, or on one of the many boat tours along the river. There are actually boat tours galore since the Douro River leads to the famed Douro River Valley, with it’s lush hillsides and vineyards that make for picturesque views.
- Old Town
- The Douro River
- The Douro River Valley
- Flooding the Dam on the Douro River
- Food in Porto
- Franchesinha at Cafe Santiago
- Pasteis de Nata at Manteigaria
- Hamburgueria DeGama
- Cachorrinho at Cervejaria Gazela
- Matosinhos Beach
- Lais de Guia
- The People and The Vibe
- Len and JJ’s Overall Rating:
Old town is the area we would recommend staying in if you don’t mind spending a little more on accommodations or lodging. It’s closer to most of the amazing restaurants that we will document at length later on in this article. It’s also home to most of the impressive historical landmarks and architecture, such as the Porto Cathedral, Casa Encantada (the Hidden House), and the multi-colored water front homes along the Duoro River.
Gaia is located on the other side of the river from Old Town. It’s where all of the port wineries are located, reportedly strategically because it’s a darker, damper side of town that gets less direct sunlight, making it more ideal for storage. Most importantly, Gaia, and the crossing of the River, provide some of the best views of Old Town Porto.
You can reach Gaia by crossing the top of San Luis Bridge (as we did, and assuming you are good with decent heights). This will give you some of the best views and photo opportunities of Porto’s Old Town, specifically the many famous colorful buildings along the waterfront.
You can cross at the bottom of the bridge for an entirely different perspective as well. Crossing the bottom of the bridge by foot seemed to be the fastest way from Old Town to Gaia in our opinion.
You can also pay to ride the river ferry or water taxi that crosses every 10 to 15 minutes or so. We felt this was a waste of time and money since you can walk from one side to the other in the same 15 minute time period you would be sitting there waiting. Like in, say, Hong Kong, I suppose it would be the cheapest way to get a boat ride in Porto, but we recommend doing a Dour River Valley Tour for a much more extended and pleasant experience.
The views from Gaia can’t be beat, and it’s also the gateway to the history of Port Wine, for those seeking this sort of experience in Porto. The views from Graham’s Lodge, probably the highest regarded and most recommended port winery in Porto according to many sources, sits high up on a hill, and provides a unique landscape view of both sides of Porto and the San Luis Bridge.
The Douro River
The heartbeat of Porto has to be the Douro River. It’s sort of both the dividing line for the two most popular neighborhoods in the city (Old Town and Gaia, as mentioned above), as well as the central hub for all water and boat traffic.
When viewing the San Luis bridge from almost any angle, you can see trains, planes, buses, boats, and ferries, all at the same time. People are going to or coming from this area at all hours of the day. It sort of reminded me of Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia where you can see the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Sydney Opera House, and central hubs for ferries and trains alike. This is where the entire city comes together, both literally and figuratively, and it’s one of the major places to explore in Porto.
The Douro River Valley
On one of our final days in Porto, we booked a Douro River Valley Day Trip, which included a River cruise with breakfast and lunch provided on board. This is an amazing way to get outside of the city, and take in beautiful and relaxing views of one of Portugal’s most desired regions. We discovered that the Douro River Valley is to Portugal what Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley are to California. This fertile valley and river provides the optimal agricultural conditions for Porto’s famous wine region (or so we were told).
Flooding the Dam on the Douro River
Perhaps the coolest part of the boat ride from Porto down the Douro River, was experiencing the unique phenomenon of passing through two dams. The boats must enter the “flood zone” (or so I’m calling it) one boat at a time. Once inside, a giant concrete wall closes in behind you, and you start feeling like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the trash compactor from Star Wars. Then the enclosed area slowly starts flooding, and the huge boat filled with all the passengers begins rising with the water level as seen in this short video:
It was an impressive feat of engineering that we got to experience first hand, and made the river trip to the Douro River Valley unforgettable.
Food in Porto
It will become infinitely clear to our readers, that JJ and I are not fashion models or fitness gurus. That’s not to say we are not fit or are overly ugly (lol). Where we are going with this is that we are Texans at our core, which means we like to eat. Make no mistake, and believe us when we tell you, Porto has outstanding food.
We believe in doing what the situation calls for and in trying to blend in with the locals as much as possible anywhere we go. When you’re in Japan during cherry blossom season, you take photos of cherry blossoms. When you’re in Pamplona, you go to bull fights or run with bulls (or at least watch idiotic people run with bulls) while wearing funny white pants and red sashes. When you’re in America, you go to NFL Football or Major League Baseball games and eat hot dogs. When you’re in Porto, yes, take in the historical landmarks and gorgeous river and bridge views. But ultimately, you should be prepared to eat and drink. When there is an entire Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode dedicated to Porto, that might be your first clue that this is a place to eat some delicious food. It’s the Porto way.
Franchesinha at Cafe Santiago
The Franchesinha has unofficially become the official sandwich of Porto. It’s a documented Porto original. It’s rumored to have healing properties, mainly for people suffering from severe hunger pangs or maybe just a hangover. A Franchesinha features two slices of thick bread, ham, two kinds of sausage, steak, and other various roasted meats. It’s cooked together, almost like a “stuffed” sandwich, then covered in melted cheese, some sort of tomatoey special sauce (rumored to be a beer sauce). Then for the true purist, topped with a fried egg and served with french fries.
My personal recommendation is to cut deeply into the middle of the sandwich to let the juices and sauce flow freely throughout your plate, giving you a natural dip for the accompanying french fries. This also exposes all of those individual mouth watering meats, and lets you construct various intricate bites (for those that are into that sort of thing). Red sausage, ham, cheese, egg, bread, french fry bite anyone? Then compare that to the brown sausage, steak, egg only bite. You get the idea.
It’s safe to say that I enjoyed the whole Franchesinha experience a little more than JJ, but she still reportedly liked it as well. What can I say, I was a skinny tight end in college football, but my inner-fat kid was as big as any offensive lineman’s. I guess it still is, because this sandwich is friggin’ delicious. I loved all the meats, collectively and individually. I loved the sauce (but I’m a recovering sauce-aholic, I blame genetics). Even the fries, a bit soggy, which is normally a no-no for me, I believe is done on purpose by Cafe Santiago for maximum sauce soakage. Mmm. Siskel, Ebert, and Len give it 3 Franchesinha sauce-stained thumbs up!
Pasteis de Nata at Manteigaria
If Franchesinha is the official sandwich of Porto, Pasteis de Nata are the official breakfast item. Pastel de Nata or “Pasteis de Nata” are a Portuguese custard tart, best served warm and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. As if you needed to hear more to want to try these.
Admittedly, the word “custard” is a turn-off for many. But that statement would mostly relate to the uninitiated in this decadent Portuguese past time. When done correctly, as Manteigaria certainly has cornered the market on, the fresh baked finish ensures that your pastel is chewy on the outside, while the “custard” is warm, gooey, and vanilla-ey, silky smooth on the inside. And like any good self-serve station, you can cinnamon and powder sugar the heck out of your pastries until your little heart’s content. This is yet another incredibly delicious, uniquely Portuguese culinary item that is not to be missed in Porto. You can get in the main line for Pasties, Espresso, and cash-only payments at the large counter, where you will see these faithful artisans at work (as depicted in the photos). Or you can also order from the separate Delta coffee bar, which has their own stash of Pasteis de Nata, a much more extensive coffee list, and is card friendly. Manteigaria is always steadily busy, but was not so crowded as to create an extensive line or lack of seating on our visit.
We learned pretty quickly that the Portuguese like their meat. You can’t have a good burger without good beef, and from that viewpoint, Porto is doing it up right. Admittedly, as Fort Worth, Texans, where we have so many epicly good burger spots (Fred’s, Kinkaids, Rodeo Goat, Charlie’s, Dutch’s, just to name a few) that we have to have a competition each year to decide the best one, we try not to eat too many hamburgers when outside of the states. You can get a hamburger anywhere, sure, but when you’re used to the bar being Fort Worth high, you try to limit this European burger exposure at all costs. That means definitely no McDonalds or Burger King unless it it’s getting late and you are REALLY really desperate.
So when Hamburgueria DeGama kept coming up on our radar and local searches, we dismissed it at first. But after discovering their uniquely Portuguese twist on an old faithful, and extensive menu with roughly 15 custom burgers to try, we figured we had to check it out.
The Ganda Sostra, .05 burger, includes an all beef patty, sausage, turkey ham, cheddar cheese paste, mushrooms, pickles, caramelized onions and mayonnaise. I’ve definitely never had a burger quite like it anywhere in the states. One of the secrets to a great burger, in my opinion, is it’s softness or tenderness. If the bread and beef are too firm or hard to chew, it can ruin the best burger. From the bun, to the beef, to the gooey cheddar cheese, the Ganda Sostra was perfect. What really made the burger explode with flavor was the caramelized onions. I’m not normally a mayo guy either, but the juice and natural sauce from those onions blended perfectly together. This was indeed an extremely tasty burger, worth all the buzz, and more than worth the 7.25€ price tag.
JJ’s “De Cu Tremido”, with an egg stuffed inside the beef patty, was delicious as well. She got the traditional french fries, while I opted to try the home made potato chips. You can’t go wrong with either choice. Hamburgueria DeGama was yet another stellar Porto eatery, at an unbelievably reasonable price point.
Cachorrinho at Cervejaria Gazela
A “cachorrinho” is a Portuguese hot dog. Just look at that photo and tell me you’ve ever seen any “hot dog” quite like it? You probably haven’t, nor have you tasted one so unique unless you’ve been to Cervejaria Gazela.
Cervejaria Gazela is admittedly one of those little places that wasn’t in any of our guidebooks or recommended by our Airbnb or anyone we talked to. We wouldn’t have known about it if not for CNN’s Porto episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” which you can watch on Netflix.
You’ll see in the episode, that Bourdain, as we were, was skeptical to try this place. It’s easy to dismiss such a tiny hole in the wall, with maybe enough seating for 10 people, where the specialty is something as cliche’ as hot dogs. But then when you pay attention to the fact that every single seat in this tiny joint is taken, at virtually any time of day, then you start to get the picture.
One of the secrets to the hot dog or cachorrinho is that the hot dog is actually sliced in half long way and grilled on the flat top. This aint no ordinary hot dog bun either. Think more along the lines of gourmet french bread. The real key ingredient, in my humble opinion, is the spicy sauce at the end.
We learned that it’s almost offensive to not get fries on the side with anything you order. Oh darn. But the real faux-paw, Golden rule no-no of Cervejaria Gazela is to never eat the cachirrinho with anything but your hands. In the words of the owner, the charming man in glasses, “you don’t want to look like a tourist after-all”. I nodded in agreement as I took photos of my cachirrinho, spicy sauce dripping down my chin, then promptly ordered three more cachirrinhos.
We try to limit the number of things that we say are “not to be missed” on this blog, but trust us, Cervejaria Gazela is one of them. It’s authentic, amazingly delicious, and amazingly cheap, unpretentious grub in Porto. In other words, it’s a Bourdain kind of place, hence his picture hanging on the wall.
Just outside of Porto is Matosinhos Beach. It’s the last stop on the Blue line of the train and only takes about 25 minutes or so from Casa de Musica and most of the major stops in town. It is a beautiful, huge beach, and port area of Porto.
Lais de Guia
Lais de Guia is a lovely little cafe and beach bar right on Matosinhos Beach. It was unpretentious and the perfect spot to take in the sunset on this lovely day in Porto!
The People and The Vibe
We felt that the people in Porto were friendly and laid back. It almost reminded us, especially when riding the metro, of all the hipster neighborhoods in our home town of Fort Worth. Porto feels like a young person’s town. We enjoyed that it was filled with people of our age range. Most of the 20’s and 30 somethng’s were wearing vintage clothes, or designer jeans with t-shirts of their favorite band and cool shoes. We felt right at home.
A lot of the guys have beards and tattoos, but of the well manicured variety and not scuzzy-looking. We wouldn’t call Porto “wealthy” but we definitely wouldn’t call it poor. As compared to say, much of Spain, the people seem to have a nice standard of living, and a nice hometown setting with which to enjoy that standard of living. We didn’t go to Lisbon, but in my mind I found myself comparing Lisbon to Dallas and Porto to Fort Worth. In our travels, people inevitably ask us where we are from and we always say Fort Worth (not Dallas) even though most people have never heard of it. There’s a reason for that, and once you’ve been to both cities, you’ll get it.
Len and JJ’s Overall Rating:
We Would Definitely Go Back