An Alternative Guide to Porto, Portugal
July 8, 2019
by Lindsay Semel
Porto is the second biggest city in Portugal. This economic and cultural hub of the North has attracted lots of attention over the last few years—and for good reason. The carefully preserved historic center of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site. Mild weather, welcoming people, and rich food and drink leave visitors eager to spread the word about charming Porto. But the recent influx of international attention has left the city somewhat overwhelmed. Stagnant salaries for locals have driven many out of their homes and businesses to make way for tourists with deeper pockets. Read on to find out how to enjoy a spectacular stay in Porto while supporting a sustainable, vibrant local culture and economy.
What to do in Porto
Take a walk
I would start the day as early as possible down in the Ribeira district. Pack a light picnic breakfast, grab an espresso at one of the cafes, and gaze out over the Douro River and the port wine cellars of neighboring Gaia. Then go for a nice long wander. With one loop and some good walking shoes, you can hit all the major sites including the cathedral, São Bento, Rua Santa Catarina, Mercado do Bolhão, Aliados square, Rua de Cedofeita, and the Casa da Musica. There’s no need to rush. Get lost in the alleys, admire the street art, and take frequent breaks for coffee and pastries. Find a street performer you like, enjoy for a while, and leave some coins in gratitude for the show.
Just before sunset, take some cold beers (and an instrument if you’ve got one) and finish the day at the Parque das Virtudes. From here you can watch the sun go down over both Ribeira and Gaia, surrounded by Portuguese and foreigners from every walk of life. Make some friends and you just might learn of something fun to do at night.
Enjoy the art scene
Porto is a great city for art lovers. Rua Miguel Bombarda is a treasure often overlooked. Starting at Rua de Cedofeita and finishing at the Jardim Palacio Cristal, blue flags line the street. Each one marks an art gallery showcasing local artists. The surroundings are full of high-quality, locally-owned shopping and food. Serralves, the modern art museum and park, is a little bit outside the city center, but it boasts gorgeous gardens and a wonderful collection. You’ll often find special exhibits, and if you catch their yearly all-night party you’re really in for a treat.
Experience the Festivals
Porto is a city that loves a good party. São João occurs throughout the night of June 23rd, but in recent years, Porto and other northern cities have extended the festivities to include special events during the entire month of June. The night itself can be pretty epic. Stay out on the streets until dawn and you’ll find yourself surrounded by new friends of every nationality.
One of my favorite smaller festivals (there are many) is the annual Feminist Festival, which occurs in the Spring. At the many art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, discussions, and more, you’ll rub shoulders with Porto’s badass feminists and discover which issues are leading Portugal towards greater gender equality.
Another favorite is Busker Fest, a summer festival that welcomes international street artists to venues all over the city.
Visit alternative spaces
There are many alternative spaces in Porto looking to promote a vibrant, inclusive, and accessible cultural life in Porto. Unfortunately, some of them are closing down due to rising rents, but the best way to ensure the viability of these important spaces (and to have a great time while you’re at it) is to go and show your support. Here are a few to get you started: Res da Rua, Rosa Imunda, Casa Bo, Espaco Compasso, Livraria Confraria Vermelha, and Maus Habitus.
Take an unusual guided tour
Slow Motion Tours and The Worst Tours are two guided tour groups that try to promote sustainable tourism. They’re fun and they love to welcome guests to their city while offering the tools to cohabitate respectfully. Slow Motion leads entertaining scheduled walking tours of select neighborhoods, providing historical information you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. The Worst Tours personalizes your tour according to your group’s familiarity with the city.
What to eat and drink
Traditional Portuguese food is animal heavy and veggie light. A meal in any typical restaurant will leave you full and satisfied. Get out of the crowded parts of the city and look for places with paper tablecloths, fluorescent lighting, and televisions on the walls. Enjoy fresh local seafood, or seasonal specialties like wild boar, suckling pig, and lamb. If you’re up for a francesinha, a veritable tower of meats smothered in cheese and special sauce and often topped with a fried egg and French fries, plan to take a siesta afterward.
For tasty, affordable vegan and vegetarian food, you can’t do better than Casa da Horta. This restaurant is one function of an association run by a group of locals and adopted locals. They host volunteers who contribute to their environmental awareness campaigns, events and workshops, and general promotion of sustainability for all. Porto’s got more vegan/vegetarian-friendly options every day, but for the price, food quality, and charm nothing beats this classic spot.
In the North of Portugal, Super Bock was the only game in town for ages. Walk into any bar in Porto and ask for a beer (uma cerveja) and you’ll receive a bottle. Ask for um fino and you’ll get the same thing on tap. Enjoy with a plate of tremoços—salted lupin beans—and an FC Porto football match. Since the craft beer craze hit Portugal, Nortada, a semi-artisanal enterprise, has become a formidable opponent. They produce a reasonably priced line of solid brews now available in many of the city’s bars and cafes. Portugal does have some microbreweries, but most of them aren’t worth the price tag just yet.
Wine in Porto is cheap, good, and plentiful. If you’re into the regular stuff, try mature wines from the nearby Douro Valley, or the Alentejo farther south.
Vinho do Porto
If you like your alcohol strong and sweet, try port. Port is wine from the Douro Valley that’s had its fermentation process halted by the addition of brandy and been aged in the cellars in Gaia.
If your pallet is a bit more adventurous and you want to drink like a local, vinho verde is the way to go. Vinho verde means ‘green wine’ and, no, it’s not green. The wine is made of grapes that can manage the cool, humid climate of the north and is meant to be consumed young. Vinho verde is distinctive for its effervescence and its acidity. Often only the whites are marketed to tourists as a sort of Portuguese champagne, but a jug of red vinho verde with dinner is more typical. Be careful, though: a Portuguese serving of wine is up to the brim and this stuff will give you a wicked headache in the morning.