Downtown Porto is filled with history, art museums, gardens and beaches, so there is plenty to choose from for your Porto family holiday. Three days are enough for you to try a number of the great things the city and its surroundings have to offer – from the basic principles of surfing to contemporary art.
Day One: Walking through Porto
The Douro River marks the landscape of the city: you can see it under the city’s many bridges, in Ribeira or near the Port Wine cellars on the opposite river bank, in Vila Nova de Gaia.
The view from the river banks is stunning. But you can have an even more rewarding experience: picture yourself sailing along the Douro River, under the six bridges. You can board one of the typical rabelo boats (used to bring the Douro wine from Trás-os-Montes to Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia) and explore the city with your family.
Whether on foot or by bicycle (several companies offer bicycle rental), you can start in Ribeira, with or without the rabelo boat trip. Then, explore the alleys in the historic centre, classified by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. In these streets and squares you will find remains of human occupation and architecture from several periods – a history “lesson” for the whole family.
Visit Palácio da Bolsa (the Stock Exchange Palace) and be dazzled by the renovated Arab Hall, the crown jewel of the 19th century palace and symbol of business in Porto.
It only takes a few minutes’ walk to get from Ribeira to the magnificent cathedral built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Enjoy the view over the city to recharge your batteries and then go down to the São Bento train station. Take in what the entrance hall has to offer: 20,000 glazed tiles painted by Jorge Colaço, depicting the evolution of transportation and telling some of the history of Portugal.
Be prepared to walk up and down the historic centre, from Rua 31 de Janeiro to Rua de Santa Catarina, the busiest high street in town. Rest at the Café Majestic, considered by many as one of the most beautiful cafés in the world. In the same street, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from for a family meal.
Day Two: Taking the tram downtown
It is said that the tram reflects the soul of Porto, so this is an excellent way to start the second day of your family outing in the city. At Mercado do Bolhão (the best known market in town), the vendors yell out pregões to attract customers into buying their vegetables, fish, meat or flowers.
Go along Rua de Santa Catarina and its many shops until you get to Praça da Batalha, home of the São João National Theatre. It’s now time for you to try some typical Porto transportation. While the first tram line in Porto opened in 1872, the tram itself is not something of the past. The "Porto Tram City Tour", using refurbished trams from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, has three lines running through the iconic areas of town, from the waterfront road to downtown.
Take tram 22 from Praça da Batalha, which runs through the most famous streets in downtown Porto in a circular route between Batalha and Igreja do Carmo, built in the second half of the 18th century.
From Igreja do Carmo, one of the most remarkable Rococo-style buildings in Porto, go along Rua de Cedofeita until you reach Rua de Miguel Bombarda. Two things you mustn’t forget to do: visit the Lello bookshop, one of the most beautiful in the world (you can tell your family that the amazing stairway inspired J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” saga, who lived in Porto), and join efforts to climb up the 75-meter-high Torre dos Clérigos, a landmark of the city.
The minute you set foot on Rua de Miguel Bombarda you’ll find yourself in the heart of the artistic part of Porto. Signs of the artistic creativity and new entrepreneurs that have taken the city by storm in recent years are pretty much everywhere. Browse the many art galleries and new shops that specialise in niche markets (from Portuguese crafts reinvented by designers to figurines from popular culture).
The largest green area in downtown Porto, the gardens of Palácio de Cristal, is nearby. The gardens were designed in the 19th century as romantic gardens boasting trees and plants from all over the world: palm-trees from California, herbs, horse chestnuts and roses are arranged by theme gardens and “avenues”, with many fine areas for you to spread your picnic blanket or just to unwind.
After a busy day, the family deserves a delicious dinner. The city’s official sandwich is called francesinha. You can find it everywhere – spicy or not so spicy, with endless variations of the sauce which is the soul of the francesinha. Many restaurants also offer Portuguese traditional cuisine. Your family will be pleasantly surprised by the delicious cod dishes – in Portugal, cod is eaten after it has been salted.
Day Three: Art and surf
After visiting the historic centre and the downtown area, save a day for other tours in town.
Any day spent with your family at the Serralves Museum and Park is a good day! At the Museum, designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, from the Porto School of Architecture and Pritzker prize winner in 1992, you can visit the contemporary art exhibitions. The ticket for the museum is also valid for the park, 18 hectares of gardens which are a landscaping landmark in Portugal.
Workshops for families take place every Sunday. Youngsters and adults learn more about art, biodiversity and landscape. Do you want to go frog-watching? To build machines and gears? To create a plant collection? Anything is possible on Sundays at Serralves.
The Casa de Chá, located in the Park’s old tennis court, has menus for the various times of day and a shop selling gourmet teas, snacks, wines and homemade jams. On hotter days, the outdoor terrace is very popular.
Don’t leave Serralves without taking a photo next to the sculpture of the garden shovel, standing more than seven metres tall.
When you leave Serralves, walk down Avenida da Boavista and straight to Praia Internacional, the main beach in the city. Thanks to the effect of the Leixões harbour, the sea here is not too rough for most of the year. This is why we find many surf schools here, offering beginners’ lesson packages for water sports.
Sea Life is just around the corner, with its shark tank, tropical fish and many other marine species. Inside the “ocean tunnel”, you can feel like a fish in the water (lots of water: 500,000 litres of it). At the rocky pools, children can touch a starfish or play with sea urchins. If you have time, and want to see other forms of animal life, the Santo Inácio Zoo, in Vila Nova Gaia, is the largest zoo in northern Portugal.
On dry land, next to Sea Life, the City Park is the main lung of the city and one of the most sought-after places for jogging, walking, or simply relaxing on the lawn. Kids can spend their energy looking for ducks, swans, geese, and other species living in this 83-hectare area.
The Water Pavilion can be reached from the City Park. There you can compose music, understand the dynamics of waves, and see images in three dimensions through optical illusions.
How to get there
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you opt for low-cost flights, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Rome Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
At the Francisco Sá Carneiro International Airport, take the Metro ‘E’ line – this takes you to the city centre in just 30 minutes.