Porto is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had to pleasure to visit. The second largest city in Portugal, romantic Porto looks like a colorful and vibrant fairytale. The fantastic medieval buildings, the stunning artwork, the Douro river flowing gently to the ocean, the wine… everything is just great! Porto is definitely one of the fastest rising touristic cities in the world, one that should pop up on any traveler’s map. Here’s how you can enjoy it on a small budget.
Porto at a glance
Porto is a city of narrow streets going up and down a hill, zigzagging through historical buildings and old, romantic settings. It’s a city of color, as anyone who has ever been there can tell you. Its exuberance and beauty is complemented by stunning baroque architecture, beaux-arts buildings piled on top of one another, and a sunlight which seems to coat the entire city in different auras, depending on the time of day.
Almost all the landmarks worth visiting are very close to each other, and it’s this proximity which makes everything even more spectacular. However, not all is as it should be in Porto. While most buildings are antique and beautiful, some are just downright old and run down. I actually felt a bit anxious while walking by some dilapidated houses which looked like they could fall down if someone huffed and puffed.
A mecca for wine lovers, Porto is a city with something for everybody. You can see hordes of students drinking on the street in the afternoon and in the night, older people enjoying the gentle river and the lovely beach, as well as curious travelers, who want to discover its history as much as possible. Tradition is at its finest in Porto, but modern art also thrives there. Porto residents dance to many of the world’s top rock, jazz and electronic artists. On warm summer nights a plaza can turn into one big party, and the small streets become the rendez-vous place for quiet lovers. Porto is not a very expensive city, but it’s not cheap either – if you want to get to know its workings, you have to feel it from ground level, cherish its unique personality; treat it well, and it will treat you even better.
Cheap Accommodation in Porto
Just like in Lisbon, or pretty much anywhere you go, finding cheap accommodation is crucial in Porto. There are plenty of places you can find good accommodation, and close to the city center. However, be careful and avoid tourist traps – there’s also plenty of those. The main thing you want to do is book with at least one month in advance. If you do this, you’ll pretty much certainly find something good and cheap.
The simplest thing to do would be to find a hostel. You may find something under $10, but you’ll most likely find a place in a room going for some $12-14. Again, there are plenty of good hostels in Porto so try your luck on websites like Hostel World or Hostel Bookers. Look out for the reviews and the hostel facilities, and keep in mind that a kitchen can do wonders! It’s often time worth it to find a hostel with a kitchen, because even without cooking (if you just microwave some frozen food or make some tea/coffee) you can save a lot of money.
You might also find an apartment to rent in Porto, and this can be quite cheap if you are traveling with some friends and you share the whole place. Having access to an entire apartment can be very pleasant, but you’ll have to do a bit of digging if you want to go cheap.
The cheapest option (though some people don’t like this idea) is couch surfing. If you’re not familiar with the concept, couch surfing allows you to stay as a guest at a host’s home for free. Of course, this is the cheapest alternative. While tens of thousands of people do this every year, some just don’t feel safe staying at someone else’s cost. If you do, then you’ll save a lot of money – if not, then there’s still the options I described above.
Transportation in Porto
The city of Porto is not so large, and it would be a pity to use transportation in the city center. Be advised – the city can be quite hilly so if you have a walking impairment, plan ahead for this. But if you’re fine and healthy, just walk! Seriously, getting lost on the small winding streets is pretty much the best feeling you can get to Porto! It feels like no matter what you do and where you walk, you still end up by the Douro River, and what a sight you’ll have there!
Seriously, if you want to really feel the city, don’t use the bus, the subway, or even the tram – seeing it on foot is the way to go. However, if you want to go to the ocean (and you really should), the walk can be very tiring. I walked for more than one hour by the river, and while I didn’t regret it and the view was superb, it was quite a hard walk. You can take the tram from the city center to very close to the ocean, and I recommend doing this much more than taking the subway, because you also get to enjoy the lovely view. If you need to get to the airport or somewhere very far away though, the subway works find and you shouldn’t have any problems with it.
Porto also offers some cruises along the city or even further up the river, but I never went on one, so I don’t really know what to say. To me, it just didn’t seem worth it to see the city from the outside, when you can see it from the inside, and I didn’t have the time to talk a longer cruise – I’m sure that’s a memorable experience too.
Food in Porto
To me, the food in the Porto area is the best in the entire country! Seriously, Portugal has some great food, but Porto just takes the crown – the food there is superb. The queen of Porto cuisine is definitely the Francesinha – a type of sandwhich with 3 types of meat, French fries, and egg on top and a delicious sauce covering it all! Seriously, if you like meat, do not leave Porto without trying one! Just be sure to avoid the touristic restaurants (where the food is quite a bit more expensive and not so tasty) – look for smaller places where the locals are eating. Portuguese love small restaurants and diners and you’ll find quite a lot of those in Porto. The price for a Francesinha starts at about $7 and can go up to triple that – but it will be one of the best meals you’ve ever had. There is also a vegetarian Francesinha, though you can only find that in some places.
Just like in the rest of the country, good fruits and pastries are at home in Porto. There’s a myriad of delicious pastries to choose from, and the fruits are really good and quite cheap. I found that unlike Lisbon, merchants in Porto aren’t always trying to rip you off and you can find decent prices pretty much everywhere, though if you want the real deal, be sure to check out the local fruit and vegetable market. As for sweet lovers… rejoice! Be sure to try the Pastel de Nata (which can be found virtually everywhere), and try anything else you think looks good – it’s all delicious. I can’t remember trying an even average pastry in Porto, everything’s really good.
Another well known local specialty is the bacalhau – a type of cod fish specially prepared. Bacalhau is not cheap though, so while it’s definitely worth a try if you like fish, expect to pay a price of at least $10. Other than this, you can find lots of good sandwiches, fish, meat, vegetables at reasonable prices. The soup is very good in Porto – almost everywhere they serve a type of cream soup for 1 euro (just over $1), and many places serve “Today’s menu” at reasonable prices.
The Port Wine
No talk about Porto could ever be complete without discussing Port Wine. Port is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley, and nowhere can you find it in such abundance as in Porto. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine though it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.
It’s a fortified wine, made with must (not yet fermented wine) and cognac. You can find over a dozen wine caves in Porto, all of which will try to lure you in with rich histories, a spectacular story, and of course, splendid wine. Port wine goes from really cheap (I think the cheapest one was about $5 a bottle) to extremely expensive. You can buy low or mid range wine in supermarkets. You can also visit some wine caves for about $7 (5 euro), and they will also include one or two glasses of wine for you to taste. I really recommend visiting a wine cave – it will be a memory you’ll cherish forever, long after the wine is gone.
What I really liked is that you can drink wine on the riverside – improvising a picnic with some cookies and Port wine is one of my most cherished memories from Porto. Nothing beats a sunset in such a romantic city.
Attractions in Porto
Like pretty much every big city in Portugal, Porto has some spectacular churches. I’m not a religious man myself, but the architecture and the religious art is simply stunning! Especially the Se (the cathedral) is worth a visit – the cathedral and the view you get is quite spectacular.
Porto is not especially known for its museums, though you can find some very nice, small and interesting museums (the museum of wine for example, a football museum or a pharmacy museum). There is also a really nice Museum of Sacred Art and Archaeology which you can visit for free. However, what you might want to do is spend more time discovering the city itself – especially the Douro riberia and the place where the river meats the ocean – it’s a breathtaking sight! The trail is also spectacular, though as mentioned above, it’s quite long. Be careful if there’s a storm however – it can become pretty dangerous in no time.
Walking along the sea side is also amazing. Whatever you do, if the sky is clear, go see the sunset at the ocean – you won’t regret it. There is also a very nice geological trail along the sea side, with clear panels and signs so you can also understand the beauty you are seeing Porto’s beach was once the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, and the beach has some spectacular formations. The Livraria Lello is also one of the main attractions – it’s a working bookstore where you can find some pretty awesome books, though most are in Portuguese. The design however is the reason why most people visit it – it looks simply gorgeous.
The Torre dos Clerigos is another noteworthy landmark, and the entire area around it is very pretty. If you didn’t come by train, make sure to also check the inside of the train station – you’ll find some amazing murals. All in all, it’s not one thing that’s awesome in Porto – it’s the blend of various buildings, the mixture of old and new, and the sheer beauty of the design.
To Sum it Up
I feel that while it may be very easy to get carried away in a city like Porto, you can easily manage with a budget of $25. Avoid eating right in the city center where all the touristic restaurants are (there are plenty of small diners around the city centers where you’ll find good, cheap food), and you should be good to go. Tasting the basic types of Port wine isn’t that expensive, and the best things about Porto are free. Have an awesome time!