Portugal is often referred to as the garden that was planted next to the ocean. While it could be chalked up as quite a random saying, once you get to know the region you understand the meaning behind it. Portugal is like a garden of fresh offerings just waiting to be picked. Beautiful beaches, cosmopolitan cities, rural landscapes, mixed in with beautiful Mediterranean climate, culture, gastronomy, history and so much more.
The small country really only has 2 large cities, Lisbon, the largest of the two, which is the most known for its historic significance, and the smaller lesser known city of Porto. With 1.7 million residents, the old historic city of Porto holds a very intimate and unique travel experience and a must visit for any oenophile.
An elegant city, you will notice the difference from Lisbon in the narrow streets and manner homes and the overall sophisticated and friendly lifestyle of the locals. Centered around the wine industry, a visit to Porto is an experience in local gastronomy and culture that will have you wanting to see and do more.
Although the weather is good almost year round, the best time to visit is late spring, May to early June, when in addition to that great weather you will find fewer tourists then peak season in July and August.
Another reason to visit during the cooler mid season is the 600 year old annual Festos Santos (Saints festival) celebration that occurs annually June 13 – 24th. If you want to experience Porto in all her glory, be in town on June 23 for one of the most important and largest celebrations in the region, the Festa de Sao Joao do Porto. This large celebration starts in the afternoon (Saint John’s Eve) and goes into the night with street concerts, local celebration and rituals through-out the streets and neighborhoods and a midnight fireworks show. The celebrating goes well into the next day, June 24th, when revelers watch the sunrise over the ocean and further celebrate the Feast of St. John, the patron Saint of Porto, with an annual sailing Regatta.
If your schedule does not allow for a visit during the celebration, there are so many other reasons why Porto should be on your travel bucket list:
Stop in at the Igreja e Torre dos Clerigos –
A Baroque church that was built between 1735 and 1748, with its Clerigos tower, is the most symbolic monument in Porto. Tour the beautiful church with its unique architecture of goldsmithery, and the museum before the highlight of your visit, climbing the 250 steps to the top of the tower. Featuring a carillon made up of 49 bells that you pass as you reach your final destination for gorgeous panoramic views of the city of Porto. Good to know is – if you are lucky enough to be in the tower when the bells ring, the sound will offer a startling experience.
Tram to the Foz district –
A unique Porto experience is taking a ride on one of the vintage trams called “carros eléctricos”. A fantastic way to experience the city, the Linha1 is the best route from the Infante stop in the historic center of Porto and follows the banks of the Douro passing under the Ponte da Arrabida bridge to the serene tree-lined Passeio Alegre Park in the beautifully charming region of the Foz district.
Visit the Ribeira District –
The oldest section of Porto, located on the riverbanks of the Douro river, right under the iconic Ponte Luis 1 bridge. Here is where you will want to wander the winding medieval streets and small cobblestone alleyways to see the ancient Hotchpotch houses, visit the family run boutiques and enjoy a Francesinha (Portuguese sandwich) on the terrace of one of the lively restaurants. I bet once you are there you will find yourself indulging in a glass of local Port wine at one of the trendy Ribeira bars. The district has a great atmosphere that becomes even more colorful at night.
Spend a day at the local beaches –
A visit to the local beaches is definitely a must if you are a beach lover visiting Porto. The Costa Verde is a beautiful stretch of coastline with some amazing beaches easily accessed by one of the historic trams. Praia de Carneiro is the closest to the mouth of the Douro river, the resident lighthouse marks the southern point of the beach region. Located in the Foz district, Praia dos Ingleses is a large sandy beach with some rocky areas at the shore line. The local region offers many cafes and other sites to visit if you want to add to your beach day experience. Porto’s main beach, Matosinhos is your best bet for the true beach going experience of golden sand and great surf, beachside cafes and lots of locals to socialize with.
Port tasting is a must while visiting –
Port aka vinho do Porto, is a fortified wine (aguardiente is added to stop fermentation and preserve the sweetness of the grapes) that is produced specifically in the Douro region of Portugal. Although a sweeter red wine, it typically has a high alcohol content (sometimes up to 19%) and also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties. Stopping into one of Porto’s local wine lodges for a tour and tasting is usually a top travel experience for a Porto visitor. The majority of the wine production houses is in Gaia, the hub of the wine industry, which is located on the opposite side of the Douro river from Porto.
For a more immersive wine experience –
There are a few options to take your wine experience next level. A day trip by car or boat excursion for exploring the Douro wine region are good sample experiences. However these will only get you so far. Our recommendations for really exploring the Douro growing region is the Linha do Douro train or a fully immersive river cruise.
The Linha do Douro, considered one of the most scenic routes in Europe, runs along the Douro river offering expanded views of the river and river valleys. Passengers typically hop on the train at the São Bento station in Porto and ride the rails to the small village of Pocinho. Note this route can take anywhere from 3.5 to 4 hours without visiting any of the wine villages or stopping along the way.
With so much to do and see to fully explore the UNESCO designated Douro river, wineries and impressive villages, we recommend a river cruise from Porto to Vega de Terron, at the border of Portugal and Spain. Immerse in the region as you sample the wines from the old world villages, historic sites and enjoy the raw beauty of the Douro region. The itinerary offers 2 nights in Porto and additional time in Lisbon and Madrid, Spain for a full bucket list itinerary. Prime time to cruise the Douro is late Spring during growing season through Fall just after the fall growth harvest when the colors start changing.
To learn more about river cruising the Douro river, visit our website.