After seeing the ‘something-out-of-a-Disney-movie’ Pena Palace on Pinterest feed, I knew we had to visit Portugal. Only after getting there, did I realize that Portugal is more than a land of fairy tale castles and home to one the best desserts in the world, the Pastéis de Nata! We were in Portugal for 7 whole days and visited Porto, Guimarães, Lisbon, and Sintra. We were there in late September in 2018 and flew in and out of Porto from the US. Weather-wise, Porto is a lot cooler than say Lisbon (like SF vs LA). It is also a lot less crowded than Lisbon. Porto and Lisbon are connected by a little less than a 4hr train ride. Guimarães and Sintra are day trips from Porto and Lisbon so we squeezed those in as well and made the most of our trip.
The metro line connects the Airport to the City center making it convenient to get in and out. You can either buy a single ticket or buy them in bulk on a rechargeable Andante Card (0.50€, 1 card per person). Ticket prices are zone based and the Andante card can only be recharged with tickets with ONE zone (C2, C3, etc), so you need to use all the trips for a particular zone before you can charge the card with a different type of trip/zone! The airport is in zone N10 but the rest of the attractions in the city are in C1 so you could buy a Single use one-way ticket from the airport to get into the city and get a re-chargeable Andante card there – like we did. To reach the city center, exit at Trindade, Bolhão, or São Bento stations. Make sure to validate your ticket on the black & yellow machines before you go to the metro platform. You don’t need to validate again when you leave the metro station. However, every time you change lines, you must validate your ticket again!
You can also buy a 24 hour pass (that includes Metro and buses as well as Z4-airport) for €6.20. Most of the attractions in the city are walk-able so we hardly used our Andante Z2 tickets.
For walking directions within the city, Google Maps worked really well for us.
Knick Knacks: Anything made with Cork, Port wine, Azulejos (ceramic hand painted tiles), Pastéis de Nata
We split our trip in Porto in two halves – the first two nights, we stayed in a hotel before going on to Lisbon and came back to a well furnished rental on Rua de Santa Catarina for the last couple of days. We rented through BnBird Homes via Airbnb in both Porto and Lisbon and the service was exceptional. At both places, one of the BnBird people met us to let us in and show us around. The one in Porto went above and beyond when I asked her for recommendation for a good Pastéis de Nata place (having sampled several average ones across the city) by having a box of pastries waiting for us at the rental! Needless to say this turned out to be the best Pastéis de Nata we’d tried thus far in Porto and we went back for more and even flew home with a box! So if we visit Portugal again, we’ll definitely be booking with them.
Things to Do
- Clérigos Tower/Torre dos Clerigos: This is a must visit! You get 360 views of Porto from the top! We bought our tickets onsite. Closest train station is São Bento.
- São Bento train station: This is one magnificent looking train station. Its not just the outside which is grand with beautiful paneled tile work on the inside as well!
- Duoro River: The river separates Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia. Take a walk along the riviera/ribeira on both Porto and Gaia side. We actually walked down here from São Bento.
- Igreja de São Francisco: Gorgeous Gothic church close to the riviera on the Porto side.
- Igreja de São Lourenço: We didn’t go inside this church but the exterior was quite beautiful. Also, you can take the back alleys and walk across the Ponte Luis I to Jardim de Morro.
- Jardim de Morro: This is a park on the Gaia side. You can take the metro from Porto or walk across the Ponte Luis I like we did. Stunning views of Porto from here.
- Gaia: Walk down from Jardim de Morro to the riviera on the Gaia side. There’s an indoor market and plenty of wine cellars along the street. If you’re lucky, you can catch the street market selling various local things.
- Rua de Santa Catarina: Popular Shopping street. Busy during the day but really quiet when shops close. We actually rented an apartment on this street for part of our stay. Since this is a pedestrian-only street, its really quiet once the shops close so you can sleep peacefully.
- Praça de Carlos Alberto: Saturday market (wasn’t too impressed with the stuff so I wouldn’t go out of my way for this).
- Rua de Cedofeita: Another Shopping street, walk-able from Aliados metro station.
- Jardins do Palácio de Cristal: Beautiful gardens and Crystal Palace (which was closed for repairs during our visit). There’s also the PORTO letter sculpture here. This is a bit of ways from the city center (where we stayed) but you can take the metro or a bus to get here.
- Livraria Lello: This is the infamous bookstore that J.K Rowling apparently got her inspiration for the Harry Potter series from. We didn’t go here due to lack of time but looks like they charge an entry fee which is discounted (or maybe validated) if you purchase a book from there.
Where to Eat
- Da Terra: The best vegan food in town (and we’re not even vegan!). We ended up eating here on multiple occasions. À la carte during the day and a All-you-can-eat buffet at night.
- Sabores da Invicta: Right across São Bento train station. Best Pastéis de Nata in town. Not too sweet and perfect amount of flaky. And it was only €1/piece!
- Mercado do Bolhão: Fresh Produce market. The original location was closed for renovation while we were there (September 2018). So if its still under construction, you can find the temporary location in the La Vie Mall/Decathlon building. We had a fully equipped kitchen for part of our stay so we bought some fresh fruits and veggies for some comfort food.
Stuff to Avoid
- So the afternoon we got in, we went out grocery shopping to get some milk and granola for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, the supermarket did not have any refrigerated milk. All milk was non-refrigerated which is apparently common in Europe (we didn’t have any trouble finding them in Spain, France, Belgium, or Ireland so Portugal must be an exception). So we picked up some low fat milk (after some Google Translation) and headed back. Unfortunately, the fake milk didn’t agree with me the next morning and made me sick with terrible cramps and nausea ruining the entire day. So if be careful if you drink dairy milk but don’t find any refrigerated ones there.
- Jóia da Coroa: They call themselves a “Victorian tea shop”. The tea we ordered came with a tea bag and the chicken sandwich had chunky untoasted slices of bread. The worst thing about this place was the bathroom which was disgusting – should have been shut down for health violations in my opinion.
- Majestic Café (on Rue de Santa Catarina): Very famous café but over-hyped in our opinion. Long lines out the door and has a legit bouncer (who was an American dude when we were there). Barely any vegetarian options (I had to ask for a cucumber/cream cheese finger sandwich to be made full size).
- Hotel da Bolsa: Okay so this may sound something out of a movie but it actually happened. We had a reservation at Hotel da Bolsa that was booked thru a 3-rd party website. When we arrived at the hotel at the check-in time, we were told that our room was not ready yet as the previous guest put a hole in the wall (literally!) and if we could come back 3 hours later. They offered to store our luggage while we were out. 3hrs later when we went back, the new concierge guy told us that they were overbooked and didn’t have any rooms anymore but they’d accommodate us at their “sister property” Hotel Aliados at no extra cost. They even paid an Uber to take us there. When we arrived at Hotel Aliados, the concierge there didn’t have any clue what we were talking about. She even denied Hotel da Bolsa being related to them. So after what seemed like 45 minutes and a couple of phone conversations between the two hotels, we were given a room at Hotel Aliados for the night. Honestly we were so tired after the day we’d had, we went straight to bed. Unfortunately didn’t sleep very soundly due to the traffic noise outside. So if you’re considering staying along one of the main streets (with car traffic) and are a light sleeper, find a quieter room or a different place and also avoid Hotel da Bolsa!
- Tram Line 1: Having never been on a tram before, I was super excited to get on one in Porto. After about an hour of waiting, we got on the tram Line 1 a little past Igreja de São Francisco. There were tons of people waiting to get on the tram. Only after we got in and tried swiping our Andante card we were told that the card wouldn’t work on these trams (although its a public tram) and had to buy our ticket from the driver which was €5 each! The tram was packed so we couldn’t see the Duoro river which was on the other side. When we got to Foz, the end of the line, we were all asked to get off. So we didn’t know that return trip was not included in the fare. So instead of wasting money on the return ride, we got off, ate dinner on the waterfront and took the bus 500 back (on which our Andante card worked).
How to get VAT (Value Added Tax) refund if you’re not a EU Resident
Unlike the US where sales tax is charged explicitly on the goods purchased, most countries in Europe (and rest of the world) bakes in the tax in the retail price of the goods, Portugal included. In Portugal, the VAT is typically 23% on standard goods. However, certain countries, including Portugal, allow you to claim a tax refund on goods purchased during your trip when you leave the country if you’re a non-resident. Typically, you can only claim tax refund on purchased items that you haven’t worn or consumed during your stay – so not on dining or on those boxes of Pastéis de Natas tucked away in your suitcase but definitely on the wine you bought to bring back home!
- However, there is a minimum spend amount in a single transaction in one store (€61.35 at the time of writing this post) to be eligible claim the refund.
- When you’re buying stuff at a store, just ask the counter staff if they do a VAT refund for non-EU residents. If they do, they’ll ask you for your passport and print a special receipt with the VAT breakdown including how much you’d get back (which is typically a little less than the 23%).
- At the Porto airport, there are wall kiosks (on the opposite side of where the airline counters are), when you self-scan your purchase receipts and get a acknowledgement receipt. If you get lost, just ask the Information Desk where the Kiosks are.
- Take this receipt and go to the VAT refund operator, which was Global Blue at the time we were there. It was just before the Security line to get to the gates. They give you the refund amount in cash minus a commission (which was actually half the refund amount in our case). Also, the airport customs officials may want to “see” the items you’re claiming refund for so do this before you check your bags in, although no one checked ours. Btw, lines can be long at the VAT refund operator counter so give yourself an additional at least 30-45min (When we were in Spain, the line was way too long and we didn’t have enough time so we had to give up on the refund after waiting for a few minutes).