Last Updated: June 3, 2020
COVID-19 Update: Portugal has re-opened to tourists from certain countries as of June 1st. TAP Air Portugal is scheduled to resume flights to North America on June 4, 2020.
The last stop on our recent around the world trip this past November was Porto, Portugal! Having really enjoyed visiting Lisbon in 2010, we’ve been eager to return to Portugal and Europe in general. In this post, we will share highlights of the 3 full days we spent here in November 2019 and some tips to help you plan your trip.
1. Porto vs Lisboa (Lisbon)
It is always difficult to decide between visiting somewhere you liked before and venturing to somewhere new. We would have been happy in either city but it was an airfare deal to fly from OPO – Porto to EWR – Newark on TAP Portugal that nudged us towards Porto this time.
Both Porto and Lisbon are coastal cities on the Atlantic Ocean; Porto is 300 km’s north of Lisboa and closer to the border with Spain. Porto has a population of approximately 217,000 people in an area of 15.99 mi² and Lisboa has a population of approximately 505,000 people in an area of 38.63 mi².
From memory, Lisboa definitely feels bigger than Porto and Porto feels more touristy but both have similarities and differences; we found Porto to be quite condensed compared to Lisboa. From where we were staying, we could conveniently access many things within a 20-45 minutes of walking. We also found similar things to enjoy in both cities: architecture, art, and the best part…food and drinks! We have also become more experienced travelers and can research things a lot better now but blogs and forums do come in handy!
After spending time in both, we would be happy to visit either one again as we both enjoyed them for similar reasons.
- If you are visiting Lisboa in warmer weather, consider taking the train to Cascais, a small coastal city for a day trip to enjoy the beach, the picturesque town, and the historical sites that date back to the 15th century.
- If visiting the Douro Valley wine region near Pinhão and a day tour is important to you, stay in Porto as it is only 2 hours away compared to 4 hours from Lisboa. If you do decide to spend the night, there is a very nice Six Senses resort that we considered staying at.
2. Where to Stay:
Since there were no Marriott properties located in the centre of the city, we immediately decided to search for boutique hotels in Porto and decided to stay at Cocorico Luxury Guesthouse and highly recommend it due to its location, the quality and design of the rooms and the building, the price, and their croissants!
At the time of our research, there were only a handful of reviews as Cocorico is a new guesthouse from a renovated apartment building but we did like what we see in the photos and reviews and decided to book it and we were not disappointed.
Each room is named after famous Portuguese-French couples; we booked the Eduardo ‘ Salome Room (Deluxe Suite) which had a king sized bed, a large shower with great water pressure, a nice soaker tub, and a balcony where we could enjoy our tea and Nespresso when we bundled up.
Breakfast was also included in our rate; coffee, juice, baked items, deli meat, cheese, and a small fruit bowl. On our last morning, we had to leave earlier than when breakfast started and they left us a bag with croissants to take with us since we raved about them so much which was a nice gesture. They told us they are baked daily in-house which makes sense since Cocorico is owned by a French company, Millésime Hôtels et Restaurants.
Overall, staying at Cocorico helped enhance our stay in Porto due to how nice the room was, the location in a more residential neighborhood while being less than a 10 minute walk to the main square (Batalha Square), and the price as we came in under budget due to the low nightly rate.
We had also considered two more hotels:
- Rosa Et Al Townhouse:As much as we liked their branding, their onsite café and bakery, and the style of the rooms, in the end we decided the location was a little too far out of the center of the city and their strange shower setup in the rooms was not to our liking.
- Torel Hotels: We were also interested in both the Torel Avantgarde and the Torel Palace. We were interested in the balcony rooms at the Torel Avantgarde but there are only 3 and they were sold out. The Palace was still being renovated and we were quite worried it wouldn’t be ready for our stay; it wasn’t ready and looked quite far from being completed as we walked by.
- Stay in a boutique hotel in Porto on the north side of the river instead of Vila Nova de Gaia because in Porto, there is a saying “The only good thing in Vila Nova de Gaia is the view towards Porto.”. There are more the places to explore and things to enjoy in Porto. It is also easy to walk across the bridge to check out port houses and the popular Serro do Pilar viewpoint.
- Many of the small boutique hotels and guesthouse in older buildings do not have elevators; anyone in a wheelchair or with other mobility issues should be mindful of this when choosing a room and hotel. Cocorico does have an elevator but our room was not wheelchair accessible as there was a step to get into the bathroom.
- Anyone traveling with children should check with the hotel what amenities are offered as Porto is more geared to adult travelers and we saw very few children during our time there; the other guests at Cocorico were all couples like us.
- If you will be in Porto during nicer weather, some hotels offer rooms with balconies and view of the river and it might be worth splurging on that. Here are a couple to consider: Torel Avantgarde and The Yeatman.
3. Budgeting – Cash and Credit Card:
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at how affordable everything was in Porto as Canadians who lose out on the exchange rate from Canadian Dollars to Euros. We found the price of food, drinks, and the accommodation to be very reasonable. For example, a delicious bifana was 2 euros, a beer 1.50 euros, a glass of vinho verde at a nice restaurant 2 euros, and a bottle of wine 2 euros at the grocery store and about 14 euros at a nice restaurant!
We were visiting during a slower time of the year for tourism but that wouldn’t change the price of food and drink. We had leftover Euros from Marrakesh so we used them here, as well as credit card. Most of the restaurants we ate at were cash only if we recall correctly but we were able to pay with card at the breweries we visited.
One thing that can add up quickly are Port tastings, especially at some of the more premium places like Kopke. We are not really port fans so we did not feel the need to spend our money on that and opted to try local craft beer and wines.
Always make sure to have enough cash to pay in case the credit card machine doesn’t work as ATMs in restaurants and bars are not as common as in North America.
Based on our experience and our friend Fleming’s advice, tipping is not outrageous in Porto like it is in the US. At smaller places, like Cerverjaria Gazela, round up to the change left behind or leave an extra euro or two, and for nicer restaurants like Taberna Dos Mercadores, 5%-15% is usually the practice.
4. What We Ate:
Porto has a fun food scene especially if you are interested in trying Portuguese food! Here are some of our favorites:
- Cervejaria Gazela: If you come to Porto and don’t go to Cervejaria Gazela, you will really be missing out on a unique, fun, lively, and tasty place to eat; you can’t say you’ve been to Porto without coming here! Gazela has always been popular but become more known, especially with tourists due to Anthony Bourdain visited. We ate here twice because it was close to our hotel, super fun, and the food was quite good! It is best to enjoy Gazela by sitting at the bar where you have a view of the action; you will be amazed at how fast they work to make the food! You also get to interact with your server who will greet you and shake your hand. Grab a couple of beers, order the special hot dog with spicy sauce (a hot dog pressed into a bun with cheese and spicy sauce), share some fries, and caldo verde. Tip: If you order a caldo verde and two spoons, they will split it into two bowls for you!
- Conga – Casa Das Bifanas: Bifanas are very popular in Portugal; they are essentially a traditional sandwich prepared with thin pork cutlets in a Portuguese roll. We decided to visit Conga – Casa Das Bifanas since it was close to where we were staying. The atmosphere was very Portuguese in the sense it looked like a drab cafeteria with televisions but it was super busy for lunch with local people enjoying bifanas, beer or wine, and caldo verde. The food was delicious and cheap and the service friendly. The bifanas are quite small so order 2 and enjoy them with beer; the sauce is not that spicy but it does have some heat to it.
- Taberna Dos Mercadores: This is a very popular place with tourists and locals because of how good the Portuguese food is and the ambiance that makes you feel like you are eating in someone’s kitchen. Our lunch at Taberna Dos Mercadores was one of our favorite meals on the entire trip….and it almost didn’t happen! Taberna is very popular but very small; they can only seat a maximum of 16 people and have a lunch and dinner service. We tried to get a reservation the day we arrived in Porto and the only time available was on our last night for dinner at 21:45 which was too late for us. We decided to show up at lunch for opening and see if there might be space; they were completely full but did give us a table. Many people tried showing up without a reservation and were turned away. It is best to visit Taberna with other people to order as much off the menu as possible while keeping in mind that Portuguese food is quite heavy. We ordered:
- The marinated octopus salad: This starter was so delicious; it has the right balance of richness and zest and due to the high quality olive oil and lemon. It was simple but outstanding.
- Alheira sausage: Alheira sausage is actually one of seven of Portugal’s seven gastronomic wonders and in some parts of the country, it must be made according to strict regulations. The filling is usually made with meat (usually pork), lard, Portuguese bread crumbs, olive oil, garlic, salt, and sweet paprika before being smoked. It can be served boiled, grilled or even deep fried which is how we think it was prepared due to the crispy exterior. Fact: Alheira was invented by the Jews who wanted to escape persecution when the Jewish faith was outlawed; Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. It was pork free alheira rhey made to resemble the pork sausages that hung from smokehouses that may have saved them.
- The baked fish in salt: Baked fish in salt is a popular dish in Portugal, especially with cod. It can be a little salty but baking it in salt retains the moisture and adds flavor especially when high quality local sea salt is used.
- The pork stew: We didn’t know what to expect with the pork stew but it was delicious. It also had a balance of richness from the pork and the fat and some zest from what appeared to be pickled steamed vegetables.
- Pasteis de Nata: Known as “Nata” for short, these are essentially Portuguese custard tarts. They are a popular snack throughout the day with coffee, port or Giginha (sour cherry liqueur). We became quite found of nata during our trip to Lisboa and made sure to sample as many as possible in Lisboa. They are all slightly different; some are sweeter, eggier, or even soft depending on how caramelized the top is. Our favorites were at Manteigaria and Castro.
- Loja das Conservas: We decided to stop here on our rainy day in Porto and enjoyed the canned sardines they grilled for us with some vinho verde. We were hoping to do this at Bolhao Market but it was closed so this was good substitute.
Places we visited that we are not sure we would go back to are: Casa Guedes (preferred Casa Dos Bifanas), Carmo Brewery (poor bad service and poor beer list), and Pedro Dos Frangos (decent but not outstanding even if it smells really good).
We also visited the historical Bolhao Market in its temporary location as the renovate the older building. It did have nice produce, some food and drinks but not enough to entice us to eat and drink here but we were still full from lunch. Hopefully we get to visit the market when it re-opens.
We did not eat here but enjoyed the beer at Letraria – Craft Beer Garden Porto and would have a meal here next time, especially in their lovely beer garden. The service was fantastic, the beers were great, and the food menu did have interesting options.
- Compared to North America, people eat later in Porto: be prepared to have dinner after 19:00 with a lot of places opening at that time.
- If there are restaurants you are interested in, make a reservation as far in advance as possible; especially for Taberna Dos Mercadores and the renowned DOP Porto.
- The restaurants near the Douro River have nice outdoor seating but also have staff enticing you to go eat there; some of them definitely look like tourist traps so do your research beforehand.
- Many things are closed on Sundays in Porto; make sure to research operating hours to avoid disappointment.
5. Visiting in the Fall – The weather in November:
Porto was by the far the coldest destination we visited on this trip and we were resigned to the fact we’d probably have to explore in cold and wet weather.
Overall, the weather cooperated; we only had one rainy day and even at that, it wasn’t heavy rain like we are used to in Vancouver. It was cold; about 8 Degrees Celsius in the morning and warmed up to about 12 Degrees Celsius in the afternoon and it was also very windy one day. We were traveling with carry-ons and so didn’t bring as much clothes as we should have for this weather; Maxine ended up buying a sweater and some gloves to stay warm and used a free scarf obtained during a port tasting.
To maximize on affordable accommodation and to avoid crowds while enjoying the weather, we would come back in September (after school starts up) to mid-October or in early May.
- Pack a waterproof windbreaker jacket with a hood will come in handy more than an umbrella, especially when it is windy and you are walking through narrow streets.
Portuguese is the mother tongue and is spoken widely; we also noticed people were speaking French. Overall, you can get by in English and don’t need to know a lot of Portuguese but it does help to have an app to translate things and to know some words. Most places have an English menu but some do not and so that’s where having an app or general knowledge of the language help.
There are some similarities between Spanish and Portuguese, but do not speak Spanish thinking Portuguese people will understand you. I did once ask for “dos” of something and in Portuguese, two is “duas” or “dois”, not dos and the “s” is pronounced like “sh”. Maybe the Portuguese do not get offended when people slip up and speak Spanish but we don’t want to be culturally ignorant or insensitive tourists. Knowing a few common words and sayings in the local language is also part of being a good tourist as it shows you have an interest in the local culture and the people by making an effort.
- Obrigada Vs Obrigado: There are two terms in Portuguese used to say thank you and local people have told us you can use whatever you feel like and not to overthink it. Obrigada is feminine and obrigado is masculine. There is no rule in the sense of a woman having to thank another women by saying obrigada or thank a man by saying obrigado. Unless it’s a formal communication there are no rules, which is hard to grasp. All of that to say, don’t worry about offending anyone by using either term for thank you.
7. Tourist Attractions:
Some popular tourist activities include: river cruises, visiting the renowned Sé Cathedral, port house visits (we recommend our friend Fleming’s guide on her website Wareontheglobe), food tours (we recommend our friend Fleming’s guide on her website Wareontheglobe), the São Bento train station, Ribiera, Porto Trams, Livreria Lello, and the Guindais Funicular.
We were interested in visiting the Livreria Lello because we love books and bookstore but since it was featured in Harry Potter, it gets very crowded and even if you can buy fast track tickets to skip waiting in line, there are always tons of people in there taking photos which takes away from the experience.
We also decided to skip the Guindais Funicular and just walk to the top for the view; not only did we save money but it was actually quite a nice walk through small streets.
- If you plan on visiting Livreria Lello, buy fast track tickets and try to go during the lunch hour when it is said to be less busy.
- If you are not sure you like Port or want to try it at discount, local stores like Pingo Doce sell them in small bottles for around 2 euros.
- All the port house are on the Vila de Nova Gaia side because of taxes imposed in 1255 intended to take commerce away from Porto. You can easily walk to many of them and back to Porto; it’s an easy and scenic walk.
8. Getting Around:
It is really easy to get around Porto by walking and from what we can tell, they do have an extensive transit system within the city with buses and light rail, and trains to the suburbs. Uber is available and we recommend using it to get to and from the airport for the price and safety; we were not impressed with our taxi ride from the airport to downtown. It is about 20 euros to take an Uber to the airport from where we were staying at Cocorico. We considered taking the train but decided against it since we had to leave really early and didn’t have time to research it enough.
Overall, we had a great time visiting Porto and would definitely go back, especially to explore other spots in Portugal. We would also like to go to the Douro Valley to check out the vineyards for a day or even a 2 night stay when the weather is better for that. We also found Portugal much more affordable than France which makes it even more enticing for us as a European destination. If you like to walk around and just absorb architecture and history in between meals and drinks, you will really enjoy Porto!
Have you visited Porto? Anything to recommend for our next visit?
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