Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Porto, Portugal: The Destination You Didn’t Know You Needed

I didn’t plan on visiting Porto. I took a bus from southern Spain that brought me across the border to the Algarve region in Portugal. There a second bus unceremoniously took me the rest of the way north through endless fog and rocky green hills to Lisbon.

View across the city rooftops on a beautiful sunny day

Porto Rooftops on a Sunny Day
Photo: Jacopo AKA Bracco

I admit Lisbon was lovely, but it only took me a day to realize I’d rather spend my time somewhere a little smaller and quieter. An hour of research landed me on an apple-green train heading up the coast to Portugal’s second largest city, and over the next three weeks, without flash, without pretension or fanfare, Porto became one of my favorite places on the planet.


Welcome to the Old World

Don’t get me wrong when I say “without flash,” there’s plenty of wonder in Porto but it’s all of the weathered sort- the type of grandeur left over from a significant colonial past that hardly echoes through Portugal’s modern financial troubles. Porto has worn down with time and while its inhabitants certainly care about their city they haven’t polished it to a sheen to appeal to tourists.

The tourists who do come tend to arrive during the summer months to take advantage of the city’s gorgeous beaches. I stayed in Porto during the spring, before the busy season, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed the city less if it was teaming with students letting loose on summer break. Arriving in the off-season you’ll trade swimmable warm waters for understated leisure, an exchange I was more than happy to make and would accept again in a heartbeat.

Even with the waters cold the beaches are more than worth a visit. Open expanses broken with ragged rocks, soft sands dotted with sea-shells whose blue-and-white coloring mirrors the hues of traditional Portuguese ceramics. During the days you can sit and watch locals fishing and during the nights you can walk the shores and sit undisturbed on ancient stone structures as the waves crash under the moonlight.


The Douro River

A view of the Portuguese city of Porto across a major river

Porto Across the River
Photo: Feliciano Guimarães

Arriving at the beach is easy- just take the rickety old train running along the shore of the Douro River. The rail will take you back and forth between the beach and Porto’s main docks, and along the way you can watch the adegas, the old port cellars, pass you by across the waters, their buildings marked with monumental old signs bearing the names of the families that own them.

The docks by the Dom Luis Bridge are lively during the day but offer a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience when visited at night, as the top of the bridge offers an unbelievable view of the rolling city and river illuminated by the lights of countless small stone homes. I could write endlessly on this view, but I’ll refrain. Go to Porto, go to the Dom Luis Bridge at night, and thank me when you return.


The Joys of City Life

Porto is a beautiful city, not quite as steep as Lisbon but still filled with its fair share of hills and rocky outcroppings half disguised by beige stone buildings with subdued red tile roofs. The city has plenty of distinguished centuries-old buildings but nothing caught my attention quite as much as the Casa da Musica, a large and seemingly unwieldy modern concert space-slash-school lying fairly close to the heart of the city. The Casa da Musica is impressive and imposing inside and out and looks almost like the sand crawler from the movie, Star Wars.

Looking over and up a street as it goes up a hill

A Oporto Street
Photo: Ignacio Duarte

Casa da Musica is less than a decade old, but it carries with it the same macho feel that permeates all of Porto. The city is rough hewn, carved from large blocks of stone and decorated with pillars and statuary overflowing with thick figures on their way to, or from, conquering someone else’s country. My favorite of these sits at the center of Rotunda da Boavista, a circular park right beside the Casa da Musica. The base of this imposing column stands 30 feet tall and gives a solid base for the triumphant soldiers on their way back from trouncing the French in 1814. At the top of the pillar a 20-foot lion lays waste to an equally large, though clearly outmatched, eagle.

This pillar tells you everything you need to know about what Porto gets right. The city, like much of the Portuguese spirit, is hyper-masculine at its core. The streets and the people are craggy, the museums are housed in imposing castles, the region’s namesake wine flows thick and strong and is served alongside heaping dishes of some of the simplest, heartiest food I’ve ever had in my life.


Sticking To Your Ribs

Porto’s food is heavy, oily and delicious. The city’s signature dish is salt cod, and seafood dominates most of the menus you will encounter. Whitefish baked or fried, whole sardines, grilled octopus, all served with plenty of potatoes and vegetables. If having some of the world’s best seafood isn’t your thing you can avoid the fish and order stewed rabbit pulled off the bone and mixed with greasy rice, fatty cuts of red meat cooked down until they melt on your tongue and thick-cut pork sausages every bit as spicy as Spain’s famous chorizo, all of which are served in generous portions. Porto’s food is NOT vegetarian friendly, but if you allow yourself an expansive field of dietary options you will find much to love eating out in this small city.


Where to Stay in Porto

I can’t write about Porto without mentioning the Yellow House Hostel, the place I called home during my three weeks in this city. The Yellow House Hostel is everything you could want from travelling accommodations. It is inexpensive, about $10-15 USD (€8-12, £4.50-9) or a night when I stayed there), it is clean, and it provides a comfortable, cozy common area as well as a full kitchen and garden in the back. The Yellow House Hostel sits within a beautiful old building and the people who run it are wonderful, friendly, and truly care about their guests. If you visit Porto, and I hope you do, stay at the Yellow House Hostel.