Journeys, Travel Guides

7 hours in Porto, the magnificent medieval city in Portugal

Porto is about embracing the flawed, celebrating the imperfect fairy tale… And the sad, colorful façades can make your heart melt as much as the old people perching over the 18th century windows, curious about the travelers wandering their streets.

The story of Porto

It’s late summer morning and the train is rushing across the bridge perching over Porto and the Douro River.

The tern sky and the light rain are menacing, and I’m almost convinced no pretty photos will be taken today. The morning didn’t promise much starting in Lisbon, where we missed the first train, probably because we’re still not convinced about the power of asking.

Getting off the train and going uphill on the old streets of Porto (Oporto), we were greeted by a peculiar light and cold rain – the drizzle.

Colorful old buildings, tall and thin doors, and the blue tiles/azulejos façade of a little church paved our way into Porto’s city center, making me face the drizzle in good spirits. Judging from their umbrellas, the locals were prepared for this rain, so my guess is this happens on a regular basis.

We walked and walked uphill towards the city center and this old town turned bigger than our first impression.

The sun came out, and the beautiful old buildings of Porto revealed their colorful coats to us.

Photo shooting time!

Because we didn’t have more than 7 hours to spend in Porto, we had to make the “hard” choices about what to visit and how to have fun, so we went for these

Top Porto Attractions:

  • São Bento railway station, because the 20,000 azulejos are pretty amazing
  • Seeing the most famous azulejos mosaic walls in Porto at the Church of Saint Ildefonso is a must
  • Feeling like a local at Casa Oriental, a traditional deli shop
  • Looking up at Torre dos Clérigos (Clérigos Church) and explore the nearby alleys
  • Strolling the narrow cobblestone streets of the city is charming
  • Spending most of our time in Porto at Praça da Ribeira, the most magic corner of the city, was the right choice
  • Taking a ride in the cable car – Teleférico de Gaia is a must; it offers amazing views over Porto and the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge across Douro. It also comes with a wine tasting!
  • Looking for Pestana Vintage Porto hotel in Ribeira, because it’s a medieval treasure, dating back to 1500s
  • Livraria Lello & Irmão, if you really can’t resist a spiral staircase; too crowded for my taste, but an interesting place to visit
  • Wine and dine, even if we didn’t have the time

São Bento railway station

Commuters and travellers are rushing in and out the São Bento railway station. Some stop to wonder, others take pictures, but most are just passing by indifferently, like 6 meters tall train stations covered in amazing scenes crafted from blue tiles is not much.

20,000 azulejos puzzles in the same place made me feel astonished and happy. Couldn’t stop wonder about the painstaking beauty of this place! The carefully crafted blue tiles depict scenes from Portugal’s history, landscapes or merely traditional motifs and are an absolute delight to watch.



Out of the railway station, Igreja de Santo Antonio dos Congregados greets the traveler with its wonderful azulejos façade, while the Porto Cathedral gazes from uphill, in the opposite direction.

Strolling the Oporto cobblestone streets somehow feels more authentically Portuguese than Lisbon. And it might have something to do with the charming old façades, the less glowing locals and the abandoned buildings in the middle of the city.

Porto is about embracing the flawed, celebrating the imperfect fairytale… And the sad, colorful façades can make your heart melt as much as the old people perching over the 18th century windows, curious about the travelers wandering their streets.


Walking in random shops and bookstores is something I really enjoy doing in a new city as it always feels like a local experience.

This time, an architectural gem revealed itself in the form of a shop full of sweet nothings (decorations, spices, records, you name it) right next to Lello bookstore. Its impressive wood-like interior is marked by a lovely staircase and if you’re visiting Porto, do step in for a minute.


Livraria Lello & Irmão

Being madly in love with the instagram construct of spiral staircases, and also fascinated by beautiful libraries and bookstores, I couldn’t miss Livraria Lello & Irmão.

This place is indeed beautiful, but being mentioned on Google for top attractions in Porto stole something precious from it – the whole bookstore atmosphere. Paying 3 Euros/person to get inside was a pretty good signal that this was a tourist trap, but still wanted to see it.

So for an hour or more, we faced the huge crowd gathered here to see something amazing – a “wood” built bookstore and that famous spiral staircase.

Yes, not even the Vatican is that crowded!  Just wanted a pic of this staircase for my collection, but couldn’t manage to find those 2 seconds when nobody was on it. Spiral staircase madness!

Vlad found out that the beautiful Lello bookstore in Porto is made from cement, gypsum and plaster (no wood), which was a bit disappointing; along with the fact that I didn’t manage to find a José Saramago book in English. But it’s ok.


The famous Azulejos Walls in Porto  

Going uphill from Lello bookstore and into the great square, we found the most famous Azulejos mosaic walls in Porto.

They belong to the Church of Saint Ildefonso, which we skipped visiting due to the heavy works in the area. But we did have fun trying to capture interesting people walking past its marvelous walls.



Torre dos Clérigos and Casa Oriental

Wandering the Porto streets led us to Torre dos Clérigos and to a beautiful little square where salted cod fish and laundry left out to dry give a bohemian feel to the façades.

Entering Casa Oriental, the small traditional deli shop with fish as front decorations, and dating back to 1910, felt like being a local. It’s filled with goodies, ranging from fish cans to coffee, wine, tea and chocolate.

The city is full of authentic corners, merchant houses, vintage barber shops and cafés, and other than the medieval quarter of Ribeira, the streets near Torre dos Clérigos offer the most rewarding experiences in Porto.

Although it’s the second-largest city in Portugal, it really feels small, community centered type of place. But the locals seemed to me less welcoming than the people of Lisbon. Funny enough, a barber closed the door in my face while I was trying to capture the façade of his small shop.

Next, we adventured towards the medieval quarter, taking detours on every narrow cobblestone street we could find.



Praça da Ribeira

There’s no place more beautiful in Porto than the medieval neighborhood of Ribeira!

It’s a vivid side of town, placed right on the waterfront, bustling with tourists and locals alike.

Oh, the façades of old merchant houses, shops and cafes along the Douro river warm the heart of any architecture lover.

Looking up will reveal not only the walls’ patina, but also local folks perching their white hair over the windows, curious about the travelers flooding the alleys.

The Ribeira district is filled with colorful blocks of 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings, and has been classified World Heritage by UNESCO. Pestana Vintage Porto hotel is part of these buildings, and it’s amazing because its walls date back to the 1500s.

We spend more than three hours in the lovely Ribeira, mesmerized as if we were watching a film.


Teleférico de Gaia

Maybe my best cable car ride so far! Because the vista is spectacular, like a fairy tale land is unfolding right before your eyes.

Crossing the Dom Luís I Bridge perching over Douro (it takes 20 min. by foot), we made our way uphill, to the Teleférico de Gaia station (don’t know for sure, but maybe you can take it from the downhill station).

The cable car goes on the same side of the river, in Vila Nova de Gaia, on a side of town that looks like an industrial area, but so charmingly different, with old orange roofs similar to those in Lisbon.

5 minutes up and 5 down, with a wine tasting stop (which we didn’t have time to take), Teleférico de Gaia is something you need to try, even if you’re pretty afraid of heights like I am. The scenery will certainly compensate for the trembling of your hands.

Initially, we thought about taking the Funicular dos Guindais, which looks like a lot of fun, but the cable car seemed more rewarding and adrenaline free.

The neighborhood uphill in Gaia is highly contrasting: pretty little white houses among beautiful abandoned places greet your every step and you can’t see many locals or tourists on the streets as in Porto.




Lisbon to Porto by train

Good to know:

  • The trip from Lisbon to Porto did take a lot of time: 3,5 hours each way, but it’s really worth it.
  • It’s a bit costly for a train ride (50 Euro/person/both ways), but the travel recommendation points it as the fastest way to get from Lisbon to Porto.
  • Whether you have motion sickness or not, I strongly recommend you asking the ticket office for a chair facing the road’s direction. Because 90% of the chairs are faced backwards. J Funny enough, we were both motion sick on our way back and spent the last half an hour or so on the hallway, praying and hoping to reach Lisbon asap.

Happy we got to see so much of Porto in such a short span of time (7h), slowly wandering, taking time to feel the city vibes.

Loved Porto because of its authenticity, its old merchant houses and the wonderful narrow streets. So if you have more time to spend in Portugal, this is a trip you don’t want to miss.

View all the beautiful corners I found in Porto:

My mobile photos only – Copyright © Ana Matei | June 2016 | Porto, Portugal

Read Next: Portugal Travel Guide (all articles) >

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