The point of a vacation is taking time to step back, relax, and explore a new area... which it is why it is extremely ironic that vacations can often be the catalyst for stress and anxiety.
It is easy to be overwhelmed when trying to ensure that you "see it all." There are dozens and dozens (probably hundreds) of must see lists, all demanding the precious hours you have in any city.
And the worst part? This lists often cannot be trusted. Sometimes the top sights are overhyped, crowded, and a general waste of time.... bumping something better off the list.
I was very unimpressed with all the the "top sites" in Porto, Portugal. If you have a short amount of time in Porto, these are the things you should allocate your time for...
MUST SEE PORTO, PORTUGAL:
BIKE RIDE UP COAST
When traveling on an (extreme) budget, the best places to spend time are the ones that cost no money. Parks, for example, allow for a real glimpse into local life, and, after spending a day in one, you can still afford dinner. In coastal cities, beaches can take the place of this!
The rocky atlantic coastline of Porto is 5million x better than the touristy riverfront and should be a priority when visiting the city. It is not exactly an ocean you would want to swim in, but the rocks, fog, and waves are akin to that of northern California. Walking to the coast from the historical center would take close to 2 hours. However, on bike, it takes about 30 mins. You will pass several rental places if you walk past the San Francisco church and start walking along the river towards the coast. Be safe - watch for trams!
I talked a lot about Taylor House here, but basically, drinking Port in Porto is an absolute must. It is such a large part of the city's history. You have to do it. You have to. I am not saying this because it is so great that you can't miss it - actually, quite the opposite, Port is gross - but you must try it at least once while in the city. Since you HAVE to do it, why not do it with a view. Taylor House overlooks the entire northern coast of the city. Cab there, walk back to the other side of the river. If you are feeling REALLY fancy and are reading this several months before your trip, make a reservation at the Yeatman next door for dinner after your tasting.
Get out of that circle of hell that is the riverfront in Porto and into the city. Rua de Miguel Bombarda cuts through the center of the city's art district and is the perfect area to get some local culture. This is a great post on how to map out an afternoon in the art district.
SAN FRANCISCO CHURCH
During every trip to Europe I feel like I spend about as much time in churches as I do sleeping or breathing. After a while, it gets old.... and the 'wow' factor seriously diminishes. However, perhaps because my expectations were so low when visiting the San Francisco Church in Porto, I was completely wowed!
The structure of the San Francisco church dates back to the 14th century. The physical building is a characteristic gothic church, but the inside is completely gilded. In the early 18th century the church was renovated to have an ornate baroque facade. The inside looks like it is dripping gold. The church is in the heart of the historical center, so very easy to access - just make the time to give it a visit!
DOURO RIVER VALLEY
I talk a whole lot about the Douro River Valley here, but basically, the stunning countryside is an escape from the busy city. Visiting the valley helps create a better picture of the history of the region and the impact the Port industry had for hundreds of years. Read my post for the details, but even if you only have a few days, prioritize making the trip outside of Porto to see the Douro River Valley. So beautiful!
TILE TOUR OF THE CITY
It would be impossible to walk around Portugal and not notice all of the intricate tile work that covers almost every building, church, train station. Like Port wine, Azulejos tiles are important part of Portuguese culture. In northern Portugal, the tiles are typically blue and white. Mapping out a route to hit all of the following tile stops will give you a great tour of the city, and the chance to see the most beautiful Azulejos in the country:
- Church of Saint Ildefonso
- Capela Das Almas
- Igreja dos Carmelitas
- São Bento railway station
Here are a couple of things on all of the "must" lists that don't really need to be prioritized:
- River front
- Majestic Cafe
- Lello Bookstore
- Rua das Flores - the famous pedestrian "shopping" street. To get around the city, it is almost unavoidable, so don't plan any special time to make a trip up it. The shopping is mediocre at best.