Porto’s gorgeous historic district in late afternoon.

Let’s get this out of the way: Porto was a MOB SCENE last October.

When we planned last fall’s trip to Portugal and Spain, we somehow thought we’d be hitting the downside of the tourism rush. “Kids will be back in school and Europeans will be back at work, and besides, it’s well into shoulder season,” we naively thought.

University students wearing the black cloaks that identify them as senior-level. The cloaks are part of a 500-year-old tradition (and were the supposed inspiration for the academic garb worn by the kids in the Harry Potter books).

Wrong! In early October, Porto was chock-a-block with tourists. So many that we realized we’d have to take a different approach with this city. Rather than trying to hit all the usual tourist spots (and wait in LONG lines, which we refuse to do), we looked for lesser-known corners. We started early in the morning and sought out quieter places, less frequented by visitors. We walked, walked, walked and looked for smaller details that might be overlooked in a mad rush to see as much as we could, as fast as we could. And along the way, we fell in love.

Here are some fun facts about this ancient, scenic, and endlessly fascinating city:

Porto’s roots run deep. Strategically located near the mouth of the Douro River, Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities. Its earliest human inhabitants were Celts, but the area later became an important outpost for the Roman Empire. In fact, Porto’s name is derived from the Roman name Portus Cale, which is also supposedly the origin of “Portugal.”

When most people think of Porto, they think of port wine. It’s true that that Porto is the global epicenter of port. However, it’s not actually produced in the city but just across the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia to the locals). In Gaia you’ll find the major port cellars and plenty of tasting rooms to satisfy your port jones.

Livraria Lello bookstore interior. We decided to save it for next time (photo from Lello website).

Author J.K. Rowling lived in Porto for a few years and supposedly got her inspiration for the Harry Potter books during that time. HOWEVER, she says she never even stepped foot in Porto’s famed Lello bookstore (a beautiful and historic place that was rumored to be the setting for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts library). Shh, don’t tell the hordes of people we saw queued up around the block, who had bought tickets to enter . . . a bookstore! (The shop does credit the cost of the ticket back if you buy a book.)

* * *

Crowds notwithstanding, we were gobsmacked by Porto and can’t wait to visit at a quieter, less hectic time. Here are our highlights from our four days in Porto. Note: Some of the photos are in galleries; just click on the first to click through larger versions of each.)

Strolling Medieval Streets

Our favorite moments in Porto were in the early morning or late afternoon, when the frenzy of tourists wasn’t as apparent and we could wander the ancient streets to our heart’s content. It’s the small details that captured our imaginations.

Crossing the Dom Luis I Bridge to Villa Nova de Gaia

Connecting Porto with its sister city of Gaia, the Dom Luis I Bridge was the longest double-deck bridge in the world when it first opened in 1886. There’s a common misconception that the bridge was a Gustav Eiffel creation, but he only submitted an early design that was not used. Nonetheless, the Dom Luis I is an engineering marvel and easy to walk across on either the upper or lower decks. Pedestrians share the upper deck with the light rail system and the lower deck with other public transport; it’s closed to private vehicles.

Looking back at Porto from Gaia, with the Dom Luis I Bridge on the right. The sailing vessels are replicas of those used to transport grapes from the Douro Valley to the port houses in Gaia, back in the day.
The upper deck of the bridge affords a panoramic view of Porto.

Savoring Port in Gaia

Whether your taste runs to ruby, tawny, or white (I love a beautifully aged tawny myself), you’ll find a glass of port with your name on it in Villa Nova de Gaia.

There are many port houses to choose from along Gaia’s riverfront, and most of them offer tastings and tours. Instead of standing in the queues to get into the more famous cellars such as Sandeman or Graham’s, we visited Ramos Pinto. This was a sentimental choice for John, who repped Ramos Pinto in his former life as a wine/spirits distributor.

Visiting Sāo Bento Railway Station

Porto’s gorgeous Sāo Bento train station is one stop on the tourist circuit that we’re glad we visited, even though it was crammed with other visitors at the time. (We were there as part of a walking tour; otherwise, we might have tried to find a quieter time to go.) Completed in 1916, the station is still in operation and is a major hub for rail connections throughout the region.

Porto’s magnificent São Bento Railway Station is a must-see. Just try to go when it’s less crowded.
The station features large panels consisting of 22,000 azulejo tiles that represent moments in Portugal’s history.

Taking the Tram to Foz do Douro

One morning, in search of a little peace and solitude, we boarded the #1 “Infante” tram and rode it out to Foz do Douro – a neighboring town right where the Douro River meets the Atlantic (Foz do Douro means Mouth of the Douro). There we found a beautiful and nearly deserted park, a charming town, and a nice spot (Praia da Luz) for a cappuccino overlooking a lovely beach. (Note: We only had coffee at Praia da Luz, but it’s renowned for its seafood). If you’re short on time, just the tram ride is worth the effort. The historic streetcars, some of which are a century old, run along the river and afford fantastic views of Porto and Gaia.

Tip: The #1 Infante street car line begins just in front of the monolithic Church of San Francisco and starts running at 9:30. If you turn up at 9:00, there should be few (if any) people queueing for the first car. A round-trip ticket costs 6€.

Stumbling on the Palácio da Bolsa

In our Porto wanderings, we came upon something we hadn’t heard about in any of our previous research: the ornate Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace). Built in the 19th century by an association of wealthy merchants, the Palácio is an absolute stunner with over-the-top interior decor. It’s a neoclassical marvel that is today used primarily for special events. And it was mercifully less crowded than other Porto landmarks.

Tip: Entrance to the Palacio is by guided tour only. Admission is 12€ (seniors get in for 7€).

And Now for a Serendipity Moment!

Hanging out with Abi and Patti in front of the National Theatre

Last fall’s trip to Portugal and Spain was filled with moments of connection, whether we were renewing old friendships or meeting new friends in person that we’d previously only known online.

In Porto, we were lucky enough to meet up with Abi and Patti Maghamfar, fellow travel bloggers who write the excellent blog One Road at a Time. And in the small world department, John and Abi figured out that John used to call on a restaurant owned by Abi in the San Francisco Bay area, back when John was a wholesale wine and spirits rep. It was a pleasure to spend time with them both!

Other Tips

Timing. Our visit to Porto raised some big questions about the ideal time of year to visit Europe. As climate change continues to bring unbearable heat to so many parts of the world during the summer months, “shoulder season” is being pushed later into the fall and earlier in the spring. It didn’t help that Porto has become a top tourist destination in recent years (it’s in fashion, as our tour guide said). But don’t let this deter you from visiting Porto. Even with lots of tourists, it’s the type of city that will reveal its magic, if you let it! Here’s a good article by Rick Steves on how to time a trip to Europe.

Yummy pizza at Farinha

Food and Drink. Our favorite spots: Farinha (Italian), Casa Guedes (traditional and delicious pork sandwiches), and  Mariscar, a sweet little seafood spot that came recommended by a friend. We also really enjoyed our meal at Taberna Santo António, a local joint that doesn’t take reservations (the wait was worth it). Important tip: If you find yourself in Porto during high season, go early or make reservations.

Lodging. We loved our apartment in a 1900s building in Porto’s Virtudes area, centrally located in the historic district and surrounded by great restaurants.

Free Walking Tour. We enjoyed the morning historical tour with Porto Walkers so much that we showed up in the afternoon for the street art tour.

Porto stole our hearts, and we’ll be back! Next: Lisbon, slightly less crowded and just as magical.

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28 Comments

  1. As you know, Porto, is the love of our travel life and we too were astonished (sadly so) to see the number of tourists in October. Porto is always a busy city, but of all our time spent/lived in Porto, October had to be a record-breaker. It didn’t help that the city center was under construction causing even more congestion. We have friends in retail, in Porto, and they all agreed that October was now an extension of the summer season. We love the city in November and December, as well as February and March, so at least until Portugal’s “moment in the sun” begins to fade, those are the months we’ll return. Anyway, it was fabulous that we were able to connect, and yes, what a small world that Abi and John had crossed paths. Thanks for the shout-out as well. So… where should we meet up next?!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ah, I forgot about all that construction! We look forward to seeing Porto when that’s all complete. And we’ll avoid October next time. It was so great to meet you two, and yes, for sure, let’s figure out another meet-up. We will be in the Cape Verdes and Canary Islands in April (as part of an expeditionary repositioning cruise we’re doing – more about that soon). And then Alaska in May. And a pet-sit in Bequia in July. Beyond that, no plans (so far).

  2. Loved our week in Porto, several years ago, in May. Such a rich, accessible and welcoming city.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yes, that’s a great description of Porto! May was probably a good time to visit. We’ll go in true off-season next time.

  3. I enjoyed Porto (and Portugal, overall) when I visited several years ago. The country was already beginning to get overly-touristy in 2016, but since visiting, I’ve seen almost everyone I know going there! Crowds aside, it’s a beautiful little country with plenty of warm sunshine, friendly locals, and beautiful architecture and good food to boot!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca. This was our first trip to Portugal, and we fell in love. There’s so much of the country we have yet to see, and we understand why it’s so popular with visitors at the moment.

  4. No wonder Porto was so busy, as Portugal is one of the top visited countries in the world. Lovely😍

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Christie! Yes, Portugal is definitely “in fashion” at the moment. As is most of Europe, I think. It will be interesting to see how tourism trends change over the next few years as climate change really starts to have an impact (and people have gotten their post-Covid travel out of their systems).

  5. As always, you made me feel as though I had taken the trip with you! What a beautiful country!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Mimi! So glad you enjoyed the post. Big hugs!

  6. So when is shoulder season? November? We were planning on being in Portugal this coming spring but had to change plans. I know it will be on the books again soon, I would love to have a good tawny Port in Porto! Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That’s a good question. We went to Lisbon right after Porto and noticed the crowds were quite a bit smaller, so maybe late October is still doable. Hope you two get to Portugal soon! And have a glass of tawny for us 🙂

  7. What a lovely tribute you wrote to such a charming city. Sad to hear about the overwhelming crowds but we’d still love to return and spend more time there and in other regions of Portugal some day.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Annie! We too are looking forward to seeing more of Portugal, since this was our first visit. It will be interesting to see if it stays this popular.

  8. Lovely! My husband was working over there for a few weeks a couple years back and I visited him in July. It was heaving then of course, and I remember the same as you the queue for Livraria Lello being about 2hrs long, with people having to purchase tickets in advance (and then still queue!). Maybe January is the time to go!!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      And it must have been so hot in July! Yes, I think Jan/Feb/March might be the perfect time to see Porto, and it might even be possible to see Livrario Lello without waiting in line. We are huge fans of beautiful old bookstores and were a bit disappointed, but it’s not going anywhere. Thanks Hannah!

  9. Sorry to read it was so busy in October. Portugal has become super popular – for tourists and expats. It will be difficult to work around all that in the future, probably.

    The way we travel, we often found ourselves by ourselves, because we have the luxury to move at our own pace, avoid the crowds, and camp in nature. But, once we arrived in Chile – during their summer holidays – it’s been crazy busy (with local vacationers), loud (music, partying, generators, car engines, jet skis, …), and smelly (exhaust and camp fires).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Well, as we said, a city as magical as Porto finds a way to reveal itself even with lots of crowds! We still had a fantastic visit.

      Sorry you’re not too taken with Chile – I’d gotten the impression it was an improvement in several ways over the other countries you’ve been to. Hope things get better for you! Hugs to you both and Maya.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, we will love following your adventures in Porto and Portugal! Drink a Douro red for us 🙂

  10. After this I don’t even care what the main attractions are. You’ve revealed a charming city even without its “stars”.
    We’re like you – get up very very very early and you’ll see some wonders. I remember the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – we were 2nd in line and got to see a truly glorious space with almost no one in it. Same for the Acropolis. I think I’d rather do this, go in shoulder season and get up early, than freeze in winter.
    Lovely post!
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It seems the older we get, the more we prefer early morning to late-night doings. It’s a great way to appreciate a city in a different light. We will make that note about the Blue Mosque for our Turkey trip! Thanks, Alison – hope you and Don are well!

  11. Porto looks so beautiful- but it is good to know that October is busy. How fun to run into blogging friends while you were there. I think it is always worth it to get up early to see places before the crowds come 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Meg! We love early mornings wherever we go – it’s a great way to see a different side of a place. Have a lovely day!

  12. I really love your approach to enjoying Porto when you realized that the city was a lot busier with tourists than what you expected. There’s something fascinating about cities built on hills, and for this reason I’m always intrigued by this Portuguese city. How cool it is that you met fellow bloggers who happen to own a restaurant with past connections with John’s work! It couldn’t be more serendipitous than that.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Bama. I wonder if the future of travel will be finding ways to enjoy places in spite of large numbers of tourists? And it was such a thrill to meet Patti and Abi. We really are blessed with friends all over the place 🙂 Be well.

  13. I had the same thought about September and how crowded it was in Porto! I guess the shoulder seasons are becoming more popular, especially since summers are so hot! Loved seeing what you did in Porto. Foz do Douro looks like a great area to explore.

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