We stopped in Porto, Portugal, for several days between month-long stays in Lisbon and Barcelona, Spain. As budget travelers, we can count on us to find great, inexpensive ways to enjoy any city – Porto included.
Port wine is a reason adults go; J.K. Rowling’s bookstore staircase inspiration for a part of Harry Potter is why kids want to go. The web is loaded with information about wine tours and the famous bookstore, and I’ll get to our experiences with those tourist attractions.
But first, what else is Porto good for? Oh – I’m so glad you asked, fellow budget traveler!
Seven cheap or free activities in Porto
Walk and photograph the waterfront: Walk along the Douro River on both sides, and also walk over the Arrabida Bridge for gorgeous views of the city. Late afternoon or early morning sun will create better lit pictures.
Visit the Crystal Palace gardens: This place is a gem and shouldn’t be missed. It’s a beautiful park with stunning views of the city and river. There used to be an actual palace somewhere on the grounds, but it was demolished in the mid-20th century. Bring a picnic lunch, bring a book, bring headphones, or bring nothing to simply sit and take in the beauty of this place. Official website is here, in Portuguese. It’s free.
Stroll through Agramonte Cemetery: After all, cemeteries are for the living, and I love cemeteries. The graves and grounds in Agramonte are beautiful. We went in late winter/early spring and the trees were just beginning to bloom. Though some graves are relatively ancient, many are newer and we saw family members caring for the plots. We also saw graves of Porto’s influential people – artists, city planners, and a former mayor. Official website for the cemetery is here, but it’s in Portuguese. And, if you’re into it, Agramonte is on the official European Cemeteries Route, which is comprised of cemeteries that reveal local histories through grave markers while featuring sculptures on grave sites. More information on the route is here. It’s free.
See the rooftop view from the House of Music: Also called Casa de Musica. The design of this odd shaped building (like a slanted cube of sorts) is acoustically acclaimed. We didn’t have time to see any free shows there, but we did stop by to marvel at the building, and to see the view from the roof. Go to the top floor, walk through the fancy restaurant, and out the sliding glass doors. If you want to check the schedule of shows (most are not free), the official English-version website is here. It’s free, but we did stop in the cafe on the ground floor for refreshments before we left.
Marvel at traditional Portuguese tiles that cover churches, building facades, and the Sao Bento rail station: Churches feature elaborate tiles that tell a religious story. Facades feature decorative tiles that shimmer in the sun and add bursts of color to the already colorful city. The tiles at the Sao Bento rail station depict scenes from the 12th century onward – and they are intricately beautiful, and relatively new – from just the last century. This is free, but you could always leave a donation in a church.
Wander cobblestone streets, alleyways, narrow staircases: Off of the main roads, there are many side roads and alleys and staircases that run like a maze from one place to the next. It adds a bit of an adventurous feeling to exploring an old European city.
Visit Praia de Matosinhos, a beach a short ride north of the city center: We saw surfers, paddle boarders, sculptures, art work, and best of all — the ocean! I hadn’t seen the open ocean in awhile. Also – there is a great visitor center where the boardwalk starts. It’s full of brochures of things to do around the area. Get there by public transportation, or from a hop-on, hop-off bus tour (covered later in this post).
Now to those attractions that might cost a little bit more (but not necessarily much more).
Restaurants and bars all over town offer local wine, and you can see the cellars clearly marked by large signs on the waterfront from the Porto side of the Douro River. I don’t drink alcohol, but Tedly enjoyed a quick free wine tasting as part of our hop-on/hop-off bus tour. A tour of a wine cellar was also offered but we skipped that part.
Tedly enjoyed a few kinds of the port wine he sampled, and said he was surprised at how sweet it is. The samples came from bottles that cost about $11 USD at the Pocas Junior cellar. Those were the least expensive bottles. He sampled the inexpensive white, tawny, and ruby because that’s what was offered. There are other variations and prices points, including a colheita that cost as much as $242 USD per bottle on the high end. Yikes.
There are all kinds of wine tastings and tours at all kinds of prices, if you’re into port wine. The budget way to do a quick tasting is to get it for free – like us – through one of the bus tours.
We used the Yellow Bus tour. It cost $21 USD each for two days, and included that free wine tasting (and the cellar tour that we skipped). Not a bad deal. This bus company had a decent amount of history on a recording as you’re driven around the city and the immediate region. More than some other other hop-on, hop-off tours, but still, for a city as old as Porto, you’d think you’d be hearing non-stop talking on your ear buds.
You don’t need a bus tour in this city if you are resourceful, want to do a lot of walking up and down hills, and if you feel up to the challenge of working out the public transportation system, which isn’t difficult. Porto’s not that big.
Livraria Lello, or, the Harry Potter bookstore
As a young kid, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As an older kid, I loved Lord of the Rings. In my adult life, I’ve never read Harry Potter. This may be why I didn’t feel the need to wait on a line and buy entry tickets to the Porto bookstore with the famous staircase that inspired author J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for awhile many years ago.
Livraria Lello was packed, of course. There was a friendly guard outside, checking to make sure people had tickets to enter the bookstore. You buy the tickets at another location half a block away. I decided to skip this because it more than six bucks to get in, the line was long, and I’m not a Potter fan. Yes, I’m a book fan; yes, this Kindle reader loves old books; yes, this is one of the most beautiful bookstores in Europe. Still, I skipped it.
We peaked inside while standing behind the make-shift gate. Tedly took a few pictures, and I scanned the nearby skyline to see other ornate buildings and monuments that must have also influenced Rowling to some degree when she lived there.
Beautiful city for a one-time visit — for me
Porto is beautiful, and I’m glad we went to see another city in Portugal, especially since we were in Lisbon anyway. We got to Porto by train from Lisbon, which cost nearly $19 USD each. It was about a three-hour train ride through rural areas of Portugal.
I must say that I liked Lisbon more, and I’m really in no rush to go back to Porto. But hey, that’s just me – a non-drinking, non-Potter-reading, early retired budget world traveler.