Porto is a charming Portuguese city on the Rio Douro. The tall buildings with the red roofs and colourfully tiled cladding sitting next to each other forming narrow streets made me realise how different this place is to all those we have visited so far. Admiring small balconies, different tiles and taking photos of washing up hanging from the front windows made me trip over my own feet not just once. Not everything is as pretty as guidebooks describe or the photographs you see on the internet.
There are some old roofless houses and very tired looking buildings shouting desperately for a bit of love but even these add to the atmosphere of this city. So, would I recommend exploring Porto with kids? Definitely yes!
Get a good guidebook
If there was only one piece of advice you were willing to take from me, it should be this one: get a good guidebook, read it before you step on the airplane and make a note of those places that sound interesting to you. You might find a lot of articles about top sights, must-see places, things to do, but remember all of these are subjective and there is so much to see. A guidebook will provide you with some good insight and once you are there, you can choose what to see and what to skip. However, I will mention our favourites but also places that were disappointing to us and it will be up to you to make up your own mind.
Exploring Porto with kids is rather easy because you have a couple of options available to you. You can walk everywhere, or take a tuk-tuk ride, hop on a public transport, ride on a vintage tram or take a sightseeing tour bus and there is also a metro. Everything is quite close to each other. If you start at Igreja de São Francisco, next to it is Palácio da Bolsa and just opposite is Praça Infante Dom Henrique and so it goes. You end up walking down one street after the other from one side of the historic centre to the other, across the bridge and you are in Vila Nova de Gaia.
That’s what we did the first day. We walked everywhere. We walked aimlessly the whole day soaking the atmosphere of the city. Occasionally, we checked the tourist map we picked up in the tourist office just to make sure we didn’t get lost. Our 7-year-old didn’t complain once, he enjoyed himself so much. Our baby wasn’t bothered at all being out from 9 am in the morning till 7 pm in the evening. She slept in the carrier and we took her out every time we stopped so she can walk too. Next day, however, my feet were killing me!
So we bought tickets for a sightseeing bus. There are 3 companies: red, blue and yellow. After much deliberation, we decided to take the yellow bus. It cost £28 per adult, £14 child, the baby was free. It included 48 hours hop-on hop-off rides, 1-hour boat cruise on the river Douro, wine cellar tour with wine tasting and free rides on all public transport buses. If we were to book a cellar tour and a boat trip separately, it would have cost us more. The Yellow bus has also two routes, a long one which goes to Matosinhos and down the river bank back to Porto and historical tour that takes you around the city centre and across to bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia. I can tell you, we made the most of it.
Tip: We sat through the historical tour (takes about an hour) so we could get an overall feeling about the city and learn interesting things about certain places , then on the second round we hoped-off at the places we wanted to explore further. There are beautiful little streets you can’t see from the bus. Remember, you can get on the bus as many times as you like during your booked days.
Something for football fans
Castelo do Queijo (Fort of São Francisco do Queijo)
I like river cruises because I can just sit and enjoy the views from a different perspective. In Porto, there is definitely a lot to admire. The boat will take you under all 6 bridges that people of Porto are very proud of. You can listen to the interesting comments about them if you like. We boarded the last boat so we could enjoy the sunset over the river. The cityscape and riverfront of the city looked even more beautiful in the golden light.
Vila Nova de Gaia and wine cellars
Gaia is famous for the wine cellars and it is the true seat of port-wine industry. You can either walk there over the Luis I Bridge or let the yellow bus to take you there. When we walked on the bridge for the first time, we noticed young men standing on the lower part of the bridge getting ready to jump off into the river. It is 20 m high! I was mortified (I hate heights) and was expecting the police car to arrive anytime soon. But then I learned that this was nothing unusual. The youth jumps into the water all the time and the tradition is quite old as well. Imagine that happening in the UK where in the name of health and safety schools close after 2 cm of snowfall.
On the river bank, you can see Barcos Rebelo (traditional Portuguese wooden cargo boats) that were used for many years to transport goods along the Douro River. These unique boats are native to the Douro region and can’t be found anywhere in the world.
Even though we don’t drink alcohol (I just don’t like the taste and hate the fact that after one glass of wine a pavement becomes too narrow for me to walk), we had to visit the wine cellar to see how port wine was created and how it is made. It all seemed very interesting. However, our baby disagreed with us and screamed the cellar down. We had no other option than to skip the tour right to the wine tasting part :).
If you want to have the best view over the river and Ribeira, you HAVE TO climb up (or let the yellow bus take you) to Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar. The view from there is breathtaking.
If you like Church architecture, you will love Porto. I lost count of how many are there. You don’t need to be Christian to like churches and chapels. Admittedly, I love church architecture and the different styles they are built in. Wherever we go, I always go inside to have a look and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Azulejos and the tile style
The azulejo tiles were the first thing I noticed in Porto. They are everywhere and each of the house has a different facade. They are one of the reasons I tripped so many times! Instead of looking where I was going I was admiring these ceramic tiles. You can see them on the facade of churches, homes or inside of the train station. And there is no house same as the other, so I started to take detailed pictures of the tiles! I know crazy, but that’s me :).
Yes, we were sometimes disappointed. But this is personal and if you go there or you have been here already, you might feel differently.
The Majestic Café
Every guidebook praises this cafe. How charming this place is and the ‘Belle époque’ atmosphere of one of the oldest cafes in Porto and about the carved wood, mirrors & chandeliers. Well, was jam-packed. Tables are so close to each other that you almost feel part of the group sitting at the next table. So forget about enjoying a nice cup of coffee and be prepared to fork out €4 for it. Or skip this one and enjoy it somewhere quieter or outside, just for €0.80 instead.
Another tourist trap. After seeing the images of the bookshop online, I had it on my top 5 list. But I didn’t even get in. There was a charge of €4 to go inside. A charge for going to a shop? I’m sorry, but no, I was not paying for that. If it was a library, museum then yes, but not for entering a shop, no matter how beautiful it is. Oh, and you need to leave your bag in a storage room. Sorry, but that’s not for me!
Torre dos Clérigos
This time it was dad’s turn to be the grumpy head (how Hugh called him). There is a charge, as you would expect, and you have to wait half an hour or more to be able to climb up. You can book online but you still have to wait and apparently there is no less busy time. So we didn’t go inside. Maybe we would, but waiting in a crowded room in a crowded place with a small child wasn’t a good idea. It would have been a waste of time especially if you can enjoy the view from Gaia.
In overall, I think visiting Porto with children can be a fantastic experience. I would definitely recommend it to families no matter how young their children are. And if you plan to stay in Portugal for more than a couple of days, why not take a trip to other places such as Braga, Aveiro or Guimaraes?
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