Last updated on March 9th, 2022
Portugal’s second largest city is a Mecca for romance seekers, foodies and wine connoisseurs alike. Dissected by the Douro River and connected by an iconic bridge designed by a student of Eiffel, visitors to Porto are treated to a compact display of historical landmarks, panoramic lookouts and culinary delights in a city that seems to move at a slightly slower pace than usual. Whether explored as part of a long weekend or in conjunction with a visit to Lisbon, here are the top 10 things to do in Porto.
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Home to some of Portugal’s most stunning landscapes, wine has been produced in the Douro Valley for over two thousand years. With rocky soil, hot summers, and cold winters, grapes are forced to survive in very harsh growing conditions. Only grapes from the Douro Valley can be used in the making of port wine, with traditional harvests still the norm around here including the crushing of grapes by foot. Day trips to Portugal’s wine country from Porto are a great way to connect with nature and visiting a few port wineries along the way will certainly lift your spirits.
Porto’s former stock exchange, Palácio da Bolsa is among the city’s most magnificent buildings. Designed in neoclassical style, the 19th-century palace was constructed to honor the city’s bankers and financiers. While the palace looks impressive from the exterior, it’s what lies inside that will blow you away. Among the palace’s striking rooms, the absolute highlight is the Arabian Hall – a grand Moorish-influenced ballroom whose walls are decorated with gold.
The 76-meter bell tower of the Clerigos Church (Torre dos Clerigos) is the most visible feature in Porto’s charming skyline. Towering over the 18th-century baroque church, visitors must share a narrow spiral staircase and climb 240 steps to reach the viewing terrace. But it’s all worth the effort folks, with unobstructed 360-degree views of Porto and all its famous landmarks.
A visit to Porto’s Romanesque main cathedral is not to be missed. Dating back to the 12th century, the Sé do Porto is the most important Catholic church in the city. Walking up here is a pleasant experience on its own as the cathedral’s location on a commanding hill affords panoramic views of Porto along with a unique vantage point to the charming yet dilapidated apartment building of the surrounding area. Apart from visiting the interior of the cathedral, you should wander around the lanes leading to the cathedral and check out the peculiar Pelourinho – an interesting twisted-column statue.
Many of Porto’s churches, monuments, and even the interior of train stations are decorated with beautifully painted ceramic tiles – locally known as azulejos. Key events in Christianity, Portugal’s, and the city’s history are depicted on the large mosaics of ceramic tiles, turning the streets of Porto into an open-air museum. The most impressive azulejos are to be found inside the São Bento train station, the facades of the Churches of Saint Ildefonso and Carmo, and the exterior of the Chapel of Souls (Capela das Almas).
The Igreja de Sao Francisco resembles other gothic-influenced churches you come across in the city. The twist, however, is its interior chapel – one of the most impressive you’ll ever see. Inside the church, there’s a small museum housing impressive religious artifacts and a crypt. However, the jewel in the crown is the chapel – an unfathomable accomplishment of Baroque-style woodwork covered with kilograms of gold. Unfortunately, photography of any kind is not allowed so you’ll need to snap a few covert photos to remind you of the magic of this place.
The riverfront district of Ribeira is the most picturesque in Porto and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Squeezed between the Douro River and the rest of the neighborhood, strolling along the pedestrian street of Cais da Ribeira is an activity that on its own can fill up a few hours. In the morning hours, fog partially covers the famous Dom Luis I Bridge and locals are busy hanging fresh laundry outside the windows of their ancient-looking houses, whose facades are covered with brightly-colored tiles. Grab a seat at a cafe in Praca Riberia and enjoy the slow pace of Porto life.
Completed in 1866 by a student of Gustave Eiffel (yeah, the one from Paris), the iron Dom Luis I Bridge is another iconic Porto landmark. Connecting the Ribeira district with Vila Nova de Gaia, the bridge helped solve a major traffic challenge that plagued the city’s expansion at the time. The best way to enjoy the crossing of the bridge is by taking its pedestrian-friendly upper deck but if you’re feeling lazy, just grab a sunset drink with some tapas at the trendy Bar Ponte Pensil.
Food is a major part of any good vacation and the good news is that Porto has a lot to offer in that department (and it’s cheap). For breakfast, head to one of the city’s long-running cafes, where whipped cream is always added to your drink and where fresh pastries put your calorie-counting habits on pause. For lunch, head to the Bolhão Market and dine with the locals at Cafeteria Pintainho. For dinner, head to the seafood restaurants of Afurada or explore the alleys leading down to the Ribeira, where the family-owned restaurant of O Bom Talher serves the best codfish in town. And in between? Shop in the city’s specialty food shops and sample exquisite cheese, olive oils, cured meats, and so much more surprises!
The sweet-tasting liquid named after the great city is aged and bottled in the warehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia. Dating back to the 17th century, it was the British who are credited with commercializing the production of port wine, rising out of their need for an alternative to French wine back when the two former superpowers were at war. Grapes from the Douro Valley are harvested and crushed, making the trip downriver on the iconic Rabelo boats in the “good old days” and now by the truckloads to the Gaia’s port houses. Learning about the various types of port and, of course, tasting a few glasses is a must-do activity in Porto. Of the plethora of winery tours and tastings, don’t miss the visit to Taylor’s – one of the finest brands of port you can find.
Now that you know the top things to see and do in Porto, start planning your own adventure! Are you including Lisbon or other parts of Portugal in your travel plan? Sample itineraries and an in-depth guide to Portugal’s capital city are all waiting for you in the Portugal Travel Guide collection. Bom dia!
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