During my recent trip to Porto, I was struck by two things: how absolutely beautiful the city is but also how bloody difficult it is to navigate as a disabled person. I was lucky as my parents have been visiting Porto a lot over the last ten years, it’s one of their favourite cities in Europe, so they gave me a lot of good advice ahead of time about how to deal with the inaccessibility of the place. Today, alongside a few recommendations of cool things to see and do, I want to pass on some of the great advice I gained from them with some of my own that I picked up whilst I was there.
This post is verrrrry information heavy, so settle in and buckle up for the long haul. I was tempted to edit it down severely to make it a little lighter, or split it into more than one post, but I’m going all in on the one complete Porto City Guide. Enjoy!
SÃO BENTO RAILWAY STATION: The foyer of the 19th century São Bento station is covered in traditional Portuguese blue and white azulejo tiles – around 20,000 of them – to form large scenes of past battles and processions with smaller countryside and urban vignettes. It’s high ceilings and grand architecture make this a great stopping off point, whether by Metro or as you’re passing by, to take it all in. Fully Accessible: via a ramp from the side entrance if coming in from street level rather than off the train.
PALÁCIO DA BOLSA: The ‘stock exchange palace’ was also built in the 19th century and can be found in the heart of Porto’s historical centre. Every room is so sumptuously decorated, but the Salao Arabe (pictured above) is the high point. It’s absolutely breathtaking, hard to describe with any sense of justice, but well worth a visit. Partially accessible: whilst the staff are very accommodating and claim that they will facilitate or arrange tours for any and all requirements, the stairs to get in are numerous and no alternative entrance (other than a shorter staircase) was apparent during my visit (May 2017).
JARDIM DO PALÁCIO DE CRISTAL: Of course, I wanted to make a beeline for the botanical gardens in Porto. Originally the site of an identical Crystal Palace to the one in London, it was only replaced as late as 1956 by the current domed construction which houses gigs and sporting events. These gardens though…. they’re an oasis of serenity in the city and afford a gorgeous view of the Douro River. Fully accessible.
MUSEU NACIONAL DE SOARES DOS REIS: Just down the road from the gardens is a fascinating art museum housed within an 18th century palace, this museum is the home to a whole host of Portuguese art giving a gorgeous overview of artists from the area. Specifically that of Portuguese painter Soares Dos Reis, who the museum is named for. Fully accessible.
CHURCH OF SÃO FRANCISCO: Okay so this place spoke to my inner goth; it is amazing. From the outside, a towering Gothic monument and from the inside it’s an extravagant Baroque dream… but then you head downstairs to be greeted by a network of tombs, like the ones above, which you can explore to your hearts content: all whilst the sounds of Gregorian chants are piped in to fill the air around you. Sadly not accessible to wheelchair users at all, those with limited mobility like myself may struggle too – there really are A LOT of stairs.
THE BEACH: Although the centre of Porto itself isn’t beachy, you don’t have to travel very far to find one. On our last day we stopped off at the quiet beaches of Matosinhos as it’s an area which is very easy to get to using the Metro system, plus it’s on the way to the Airport from the city centre. However, Foz do Douro is another beachy area which is also easy to reach by bus and there’s a little bit more going on there. Fully accessible: very wide promenades, ramps down to the beach, wooden boardwalk type paths onto the beach and into the beach bar.
RIVER TRIP: If you cross the Dom Luís I Bridge (or any of the other road bridges) over to the opposite side of the river, Vila Nova de Gaia, you’ll find that the river tours to see all of the famous 6 bridges are cheaper. We grabbed one which had an audio guide in multiple languages and lasted around an hour for €12 each, plus when you get off the boat they give you a voucher for some free port so it’s worth hanging onto that! The boat trip is gorgeous on a sunny day, and the audio tour is incredibly engaging. Partially accessible: ramps down to the boats but then steps and stairs to embark. Whilst the companies operating the river trips claim that their tours are fully accessible, none of the tours on the Gaia side appeared to be wheelchair accessible.
TELEFÉRICO DE GAIA: Staying on the Gaia side of the Douro River, you’ll find the Teleférico de Gaia which is a short cable car trip taking you from the banks of the river, over the buildings and up to the level of the Jardim do Morrow Metro station. This is a viewing point from which you can see for miles across the river, I took the panoramic photo at the top of this post from there and it’s just like looking at a postcard irl. You can then grab the Metro, on the yellow line, back into the old town (get off at São Bento), or up to the main drag (Aliados) or even further up to Trindade or Marquês if your hotel is based a little further out. This yellow line in general was a godsend for me as it cut out the big hill from the river upwards that the whole of Porto is built on. Fully accessible.
PORT HOUSE TOUR: Of course, there are multiple Port Houses / Cellars in Porto, and they are all on the Vila Nova De Gaia side of the river. The one that came most highly recommended to me was Ramos Pinto, however many of the boat tours will include entry to their own ‘affiliated’ port house – so if you don’t have a preference then it might be worth going along to one of them after your trip down the river. You get a tour of the building, the cellars, a bit of history of the place and the process and then the chance to try some of their tasty offerings. You can even buy some to take home with you! Many of the port houses are now only available for visits with a prior reservation and the only one I know for sure has wheelchair access is Quinta dos Corvos, so please check accessibility when you book.
FRANCESINHA: This is a meal sent from the gods, I swear. Francesinha (‘Frenchie‘ in Portuguese) is a meat and cheese sandwhich covered in a beer and tomato sauce then served with chips. I know, right? Every establishment in Porto makes their own unique version of it, I even had a hotdog version in one place. If you go, have it at least once, it’s amazing and I could eat it every day.
PIZZA: I didn’t expect to be blown away by pizza in Portugal, but that’s exactly what happened. We grabbed a quick lunch one day in a place called Tram; if you grab yourself a seat in a window, not only is there a great view across the river but you can also watch the trams pass by too, in extreme close up. The pizza we had were gorgeous thin crust beauties with beautiful cheeses, tasty mushrooms and thick, juicy meats. One quick note: the toilets here ARE NOT REMOTELY ACCESSIBLE. They’re down about five flight of stairs which nearly killed me, so that’s a real no go.
SARDINES: Portugal is generally accepted as being the best place in Europe for sardines, but if you want the really good suff then get yourself over to Matosinhos which is very easily accessible using the Metro system (and where the lovely, calm and quiet beach is that I mentioned earlier). Matosinhos is where the fishermen dock so all the sardines are as fresh as you can get. The seafood restaurants in this area are incredible in general, and they all claim to be the best, take a local recommendation if you get one but honestly you can’t go wrong wherever you choose.
For me, this is the most important bit. All of the above activities and places were accessible to me, I have limited mobility but I’m not a wheelchair user. Some places were more of a struggle, such as the church of São Francisco, and workarounds had to be found for others.
Porto, like many of the older European cities, is not really geared towards people with differing mobility levels. I found just moving around the city to be quite difficult and I noticed that many places we visited did not have wheelchair access or disabled toilets at all. Not least of all our hotel, as like many hotels in Porto it was a converted townhouse with a small number of rooms all based around a central staircase with no lift. Some of the larger hotels nearer Aliados are more geared towards disabled access, with lifts and accessible rooms, but their proximity to the tourist hub of the city means they are much more expensive than the smaller hotels a little further out.
As previously mentioned, the whole of Porto is on a hill which climbs away from the river and can be incredibly steep in places. We stayed a fair distance out of the centre, but managed the steep hill situation by getting the Metro to the stop which was further up the hill than the hotel, and then walking back on ourselves but downhill. If you are booking accommodation and can’t afford riverside or Aliados prices then try to get somewhere close to, or between, two Metro stops.
The Metro is relatively cheap, and you buy tickets from machines – which you can set to English – in the lobby of each station much like the ones you’ll find on the Tube. In fact, if you can navigate the Tube, the way the Metro in Porto is presented is virtually identical so you’ll be able to navigate it with little fuss. You’ll find a lift down from street level to the platforms at each Metro station, the doors of the train carriages are wide and low, and there is space for wheelchairs at the front of each. This is one of the most impressive parts of Porto for me as a disabled person, and it really did surprise me considering how difficult everything else is to navigate.
Many of the buses are accessible too, however I did not personally experience them as the Metro was so convenient for everything we wanted to do. The only non-accessible public transport I encountered were the old wooden trams which shoot up and down the river, however these are less practical in terms of reaching a destination and are intended as tourist lines for the experience of going on a tram.
Many of the streets in Porto are cobblestoned, and a lot of the pavements are uneven with a very high kerb. Whilst drop kerbs did appear to exist, for example close to pedestrian crossings, there are a lot less than on the streets over here. Overall for a wheelchair user, I would recommend taking your small portable ramp with you if you have one as there are very few places to go or see that have no stairs, steps or changes of level at all so – whilst I agree that it shouldn’t be necessary – it will help enormously.
Another small note, in Porto you can smoke indoors. The bars, cafes and restaurants largely allow smoking with few exceptions. This can be pretty overwhelming, especially as most of us won’t be used to it any more. For anyone with respiratory issues or a high sensitivity to odours, it is worth bearing this in mind. Whilst a seat outdoors does not fix the problem, it may help to not be in an enclosed space with a thickly smoky atmosphere.
Finally, for anything or anywhere I haven’t mentioned here, check out this Accessible Buildings of Porto map which might be useful. The page is in Portuguese, but Google Translate does a decent job of… well… translating it. Choose any building that you’re interested in visiting from the drop down menu, or from the map itself, and if it’s green it’s fully accessible, yellow means it’s partially accessible and red means it’s not accessible at all.
I hope this is helpful for planning your own trip to Porto, and whilst I have taken every care to be as accurate as possible, the advice contained in this post is based on my own experience and observations of the city, and was correct at the time of posting (June 2017).