It would be a crime to visit Portugal but skip Porto, the country’s second largest city. It is a destination for explorers, art enthusiasts, photographers, architecture lovers, and culture vultures. It’s a very tourist-friendly city; compact, walkable, and bursting with neoclassical museums and churches. In this blog post, I am going to share ideas about what to see and do in Porto and how to maximise your time there.
Did you know Porto’s historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996? The architecture there is really stunning, with Porto Cathedral is the oldest surviving structure, along with the small Romanesque Church of Cedofeita, several 15th-century houses and the remnants of the city walls. Other buildings to admire include the Stock Exchange Palace (Palácio da Bolsa), the imposing town hall Câmara Municipal do Porto, and the buildings in the Liberdade Square. The city is best explored on foot, strolling down side streets and around corners without maps or direction. Make sure to wear really comfortable walking shoes because Porto’s full of steep hills and slopes. Within a day, my calves were burning!
Dom Luís I Bridge is one of the most unique bridges I’ve seen. It is a double-deck metal arch bridge connecting Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia (the other side of the Douro river). The lower level is for vehicles and the upper for trams (pedestrians can cross at both levels). The upper level is ideal for impressive views of the river and city skyline. For more great views across the city, you can climb the 75-metre high Clérigos tower.
You simply can’t miss São Bento train station, with its gorgeous, iconic azulejos (tiles). I took dozens of photos and still couldn’t capture the incredible artistry. São Bento is decorated with 20,000 blue and white tiles, showing scenes from the country’s history and rural scenes showing the people of various regions. Built between 1990-1916, it is regularly voted one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.
Porto has some stunning churches (igrejas), decorated in the baroque style with elaborate gilt work interiors. Some showstoppers include:
- Igreja de São Francisco
- Igreja da Misericórdia
- Igreja de Santo António dos Congregados
- Igreja de Santa Clara
- Igreja do Carmo
Another surprising must-see attraction is the McDonald’s Imperial on Praça da Liberdade. It has been voted the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world (who knew such a contest existed?!). The interior contains Art Deco stained glass windows, sparkling chandeliers and a beautiful mural by Portuguese artist Ricardo Leone. A well-known café, Café Imperial opened there in the 1930s. McDonalds bought the building back in the 1990s, but kept the original interior intact.
Port wine is one of the country’s biggest exports and it’s no surprise that one of the most popular activities in Porto is a wine cellar tour and tasting. There are lots of wineries in Porto but we chose Graham’s as they offer a good variety of tasting menus for every price range. They run hourly tours in English, but it’s best to book in advance to secure your place. Our guide was funny and friendly, and showed us around the wine cellars and explained how different types of port are made. The tasting was very enjoyable with generous portions! We chose the ‘premium port tasting’ and ‘premium tawny tasting’, the highlight being a fantastic 20-year old tawny port (we couldn’t resist bringing a bottle home with us).
If you’re not able to book a tour at Graham’s, some other big-name wineries like Sandeman, Ferreira and Cálem. It’s a great way to learn more about the port-making process and try a variety of port types (including sweeter, drier, more expensive and more budget-friendly types!).
Porto has an extensive public transport system, including a metro system, buses, and trams to take you all over the city. To use Porto’s public transport network, you can either buy an andate card (which can be repeatedly topped up with credit) or buy a day travel pass.
If you are planning on lots of sightseeing and using public transport very often, look into the Porto card. This 1, 2 or 3-day card gives you free or reduced entry into many of Porto’s attractions, along with unlimited public transport.
If you have extra time…
You can probably see Porto’s main sites and attractions within two or three nights, making it ideal for a weekend getaway. However I really recommend staying longer so you can fit in a day trip or overnight stay in the Douro valley. There are different towns and villages along the Douro river, within easy reach from Porto. We stayed in Pinhão, which turned out to be the highlight of our entire Portugal holiday. To reach Pinhão and its neighbouring villages, you can rent a car, catch a train from Porto city centre or do an organised tour (which includes a port tasting, boat cruise and lunch).
Alternatively if you want a day trip closer to Porto, you can visit Praia de Matosinhos (Matosinhos beach). There is a lovely promenade to stroll along, and we saw a few brave people swimming. It’s an easy reach from São Bento bus stop (take the number 500). Bus tickets cost €2 per person each one-way (cheaper if you travel with an andate card).
I hope this blog post has given you lots of ideas about what to do and see in Porto, Portugal. If I haven’t included any of your favourite places or attractions, please share them in the comments.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow