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The Top Things to Do in Porto, Portugal for the Perfect Time
We’ve all met at least one of them once in our life.
You know that person… a friend, a family member, a coworker, that enigmatic person that looks unpretentious and ordinary, I’d even dare to say plain looking from afar.
And then you get closer, get to know them and you fall under their spell, their charisma and just can’t get enough. You know, that gregarious person full of joie de vivre who lights up a room when they walk in.
That’s exactly the case here. Let me introduce you to Porto Portugal.
I visited Porto while on my first solo trip and this city stole my heart. At first sight, you might find the capital of Northern Portugal slightly marginal compared to its fancier southern cousin Lisbon. Porto has an unassuming style which could be from being one of the oldest European urban areas. Its Baroque and Neo-classical architecture, similarly to Buenos Aires or Havana, in different variations of preservation, shows off this ancient city’s age and character.
However, as you explore all of the things to do in Porto and learn more about its colourful past and heritage, you can’t help but fall under its friendly appeal, I know I did. Roaming through the old town alleyways, spotting as many azulejos as you can, visiting historical buildings, wandering the Ribeirinha District along the Douro River or feasting on succulent Portuguese local cuisine and port wine, there are so many things you must do in Porto.
Here’s what you will get from this post
Table of contents
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Beautiful Monuments, Churches and Landmarks
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, there’s more than a fair share of beautiful places to visit in Porto, Portugal. There are hundreds of churches in Porto, most free to visit, as a matter of fact, it’s said there was a time when a church stood at every corner of the city. Another overseen fact about Portugal is how powerful and wealthy this country of great explorers and conquistadores was during the medieval era. It’s rich past and fortune is apparent in the many gilded building’s interiors and intricate tile works adorning the many exterior facades.
While Porto is somewhat on the hilly side (but not as much as Lisbon) the proximity of all of the many things to do in Porto makes it relatively easy to explore on foot. I particularly enjoyed meandering the streets, even upwards, but if you prefer you can use for a reasonable fee the Hop-on/Hop-off bus service or take an Uber which is available in the city.
Best Places to Visit in Porto
The Avenida dos Aliados / Grace da Liberdade
The perfect central area to start your exploration of the city. Lined with shading trees, the city’s main avenue designed to replicate the famous Champs Elisées has plenty of boutiques and cafés along the way and has a beautiful square to take in the view of the glorious buildings surrounding it. At the end of the avenue is Town Hall with yet another church built right behind it.
The story goes that in order to replicate the look of the Parisian Avenue, the mayor at the time wanted all buildings removed on the street, including that church, but the parish evidently wouldn’t comply. So the mayor built the town hall in front of it in spite!
The Clérigos Church and Tower
At the time of its completion in 1763, the Clérigos church tower was the tallest structure in Portugal standing at 76 metres high. Once used by ships as a beacon when coming into Ribeira, the landmark still serves today to the many city visitors as a guide and cardinal point of reference.
Surely one of the best things to do in Porto is to climb up the 240 steps up the tower to capture an exceptional 360 panoramic view of the city, where you can admire the Douro River, a remarkable sight on a clear day. Entrance fee for the tower includes access to visit the inside of this glorious but small Baroque church where you might have the chance to hear an organ recital as I did. Book your tickets here and skip the lines.
The Cathedral Sé de Porto
Sitting atop one of the many high points of the city, making your way to Porto’s Cathédral will reward you with great views. Initiated in the 12th century, many factors, such as war and politics, made its completion possible only in 1737. Since it took close to five hundred years to complete, the cathedral’s exterior displays many different styles of building design ranging from Baroque to Gothic. A few other sites to see are within its proximity like the Pelourinho Tower, the statue of Vímara Peres the country first ruler with 1000 years of lifespan dated on it – and the archaeological museum.
The Santa Clara Church
Don’t let the rustic and unadorned facade of this church fool you. Set in a courtyard beside the once Convento das Clarissa do Porto, the 15th century built church underwent major transformation later in the 17th resulting in what is considered one of the most important examples of the Oporto School of Woodcarvers – so the sign outside claims. Here you can witness the immense wealth Portugal once held with the intricate and extensively gilded interiors of the church. The inside of the church is undergoing restoration to bring back the woodwork to its former glory. Free to enter with donations suggested.
The Palácio da Bolsa
Located in the lower part of the city, close to that waterfront, the former Porto stock exchange is yet another beautiful example of what to see in Porto. You can easily pass by this plain looking 1800s building without particularly noticing it. Yet the glory of the Palacio is when you step inside. Intricately decorated with frescoes and glass domed ceilings, the interiors are exquisite, you’ll be glad you entered.
The Livraria Lello
Clearly one of the top things to do in Porto for book lovers, this library holds a particularly special place in the hearts of the many Harry Potter fans around the world. The Liveria Lello is one of the places that famous author J.K. Rowlings once cherished during the few years she lived in Porto in the 1990s. In fact, the place has become so popular that a long queue is now the norm to go in.
There is an admission cost of 5 E to visit for which you can purchase the ticket at the neighbouring store with an equally long line. If you’re one of the many HP fans, you might be inclined to wait in line in order to view the packed but beautiful library, I chose to pass. From the pictures I’ve seen of the interior, it’s easy to understand where the author got the inspiration for Hogwarts.
The São Bento Train Station
One of the iconic symbols of Portugal is its Azulejos, the famous blue and white glazed ceramic tiles of which you’ll get to see over 20,000 of in the São Bento station. Located in the centre of the city, visiting this train station is a must do in Porto. Inside the main hall, the 4 walls hold a ceramic mural, each with a different scene depicting knights and queens historical moments. A real feast for the eyes.
Must Do in Porto / Attractions & Activities
The heart of Porto is by the Douro River. Here you can take in the beautiful views of Vila Nova Gaia on the opposite shore, walk alongside the river, sit down at one the many inviting tables of the Ribierinha promenade or simply watch street performers do their thing. While many of us will gravitate to this centric region of activity in Porto, there is also plenty to do outside that realm.
Here are some of the many things to do in Porto.
Cross the Dom Luis Bridge
There are actually 4 bridges crossing the Douro, which can be best seen during a river cruise, but the most prominent and eye-catching one has to be the Dom Luis Bridge. The imposing bridge held the record title in 1886 of the longest arch in the world and for the highest span between two superposed metal structures.
Walking across the top level bridge will reward you with breathtaking views of the river valley and offer exceptional photo op but please watch out for the metro train that passes in the middle of it with little warning. The bridge’s lower level is accessible to cars and is the easiest access for pedestrians to cross over to Vila Nova de Gaia.
Cruise the Douro River
What better way to capture the essence of this ancient city than by cruising on its emblematic river. Once used to carry the port wine from the Douro Valley vineyards to local port wine cellars, you can now enjoy a leisurely 1-hour cruise on part of this 900 km long river. The gentle cruise is complimented with insights and information about the landmarks sighted along its bank.
My favourite spot in Porto has to be the riverfront with all of its lovely and beckoning restaurant patios. The promenade of the Ribierinha makes for an enjoyable stroll along the Douro where you will be most likely entertained by street acts and musicians. Now, I don’t need to tell you that, as in any city, the waterfront area is not the most economical place to grab a meal.
Nonetheless, Porto is still a very affordable destination (hurry up before it’s not any longer!), even though the Ribierinha District is overpriced by Portuguese standards, it’s still somewhat reasonably priced. You can either decide to indulge at the many inviting restaurants along the promenade or do a picnic in the river’s edge.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Just across the Ponte Dom Luis is the world’s famous keeper of port wine, Vila Nova de Gaia. This neighbouring borough is equally famous for delivering the most picturesque images of Porto’s skyline enhanced by its many Rabelo flat bottom boats moored along its shore. Come and spend the afternoon exploring the alleyways where you’ll find shops, port cellars and some of the old stately houses. Make a plan to finish your tour at one of Gaia’s many cafés and restaurants strung alongside its waterfront. The perfect spot to see Porto at night.
Crystal Palace Gardens
You will find this stunning oasis just outside of the city centre. Once the home of the Crystal Place, now the glorious landscape area surrounds an exhibition hall abundant with beautiful flowers and the odd roaming peacock. Find the large Porto sculpture and grab a picture of you with it before strolling the gardens towards the river for some more amazing views.
Spot Azulejo Tiles
The Igreja do Carmo Church Tiles work will leave you speechless
A list of best things to do in Porto would not be complete if it didn’t include spotting Azulejos, Portugal’s infamous and splendid glazed tiles. Walking around Porto, you’ll see many exterior facades adorned with these beautiful tiles. Some displays are simple with a unique tile pattern layered while others, mostly on churches, are extraordinary masterpieces reenacting historical scenes.
Mercado do Bolhão
Who doesn’t like a local market visit? Right in the centre of Porto, this market goes back to 1850 and offers a variety of goods with the majority being fresh products from farmers, fishmongers, butchers and florists.
Things to Do in Porto for Day trips
Although there’s loads to do and places to visit in Porto, if you’re looking for a day trip out of the city, there are fun options for your enjoyment.
If you enjoy visiting wine regions, the Douro is an epic one not to be missed. I’ve done my fair share of wine regions around the world and was impressed with the Douro Valley. While I had the opportunity to tour the valley by car, I can attest that the scenery along the way is breathtaking.
Your options to experience the Douro Valley are renting a car and go touring on your own (do make sure you have a designated driver), join a guided tour or hop on a day river cruise which takes you to Pinhão and back. A day trip I highly recommend if your time schedule allows it.
Portugal has world renown beaches and some fabulous options for surfing or just to relax by the sea, are accessible in the Porto region.
Miramar and its chapel: A 30-minute train ride out of the city will get you to the village of Miramar where the tiny Capela do Senhor da Pedra (“Chapel of the Lord of the Stone”) sits atop a rock formation among a spectacular stretch of beach. Although the chapel itself dates back to 1686, the rock itself is said to have been a place of worship for two millennia.
Foz do Douro: Hop on Bus#1 from outside the São Bento train station to reach the posh district of Porto, Foz de Douro. Enjoy the beach with its many oceanfront bars, cafés, restaurants and its “Praia dos Ingleses” promenade – a reminder of the long-lasting relationship between the English and Portugal.
Get more recommendations here from the Tourism Bureau
Must Eat and Drink in Porto
An important part of exploring a new travel destination is to dive into its culinary delights and traditional cuisine. While some of the following are commonly found in Portugal, a few remain typical of Porto and should be added to your must-do in Porto list.
Port Wine Cellars in Gaia
No visit to the epicentre of Porto wine would be complete without touring its many port wine cellars. Vila Nova Gaia is where most of the major port producers have a cellar, just across the bridge from Porto. While many of them offer port wine tastings, an experience you can do on your own, you also have the option to do a guided tour such as the one I joined.
My tour included 3 major port houses with a grand finale on a rooftop with fantastic views of Porto and the Douro River. Taking into consideration the amount of port tasting, the tour quality and the finale, the value of this type of tour was exceptional.
Eat a Francesinha Sandwich
This famous sandwich is a Porto delicacy. Basically composed of multiple layers of all kinds of meat (sausage, ham, steak…) captured by bread that’s wrapped in cheese with an over-easy egg sitting on top of it, eating a Francesinha sandwich is not for the dainty eater. But wait, that’s not all. Then you have a beer tomato type sauce covering, or should I say drowning it all up with a serving of fries.
Yes, it’s a monster serving, which is probably better shared. I’m not one to fray away from trying new food so gave the Francesinha sandwich a try, so I headed to recommended Cafe Santiago. This might have been epic for somehow it fell short for me. Then again, from the reactions on this video above from fellow travel bloggers my failed attempt might have been to order the Francesinha with the sauce on the side, a recommendation from a local. You be the judge.
Other typical foods to try while in Porto Portugal
The Portuguese are renowned for their seafood but most particularly for Bacalhau (salted cod), grilled sardines and octopus. Try to savour those local dishes while in the city.
Canned fish: When we think of canned fish, ordinary bland sardines are probably the first thing that comes to mind but that is not the case here. Portugal has a strange love affair with canned fish and you will find various shop and boutiques selling many varietals from basic to gourmet.
Pasteis de Nata: All I will say about this traditional Portuguese dessert is to make sure you eat as many of these infamous custard tartlets as you can during your stay, you will thank me later.
Get a complete guide Where to Eat in Porto here
How To Get to Porto
It is now easier than ever to get to Porto with the many international flights landing directly in the local airport. This has opened up tourism in a grand way so seriously, don’t wait and go visit Porto Portugal before this destination becomes overly popular…and expensive.
From the airport, the metro is the easiest way, safe (at any hour) and economical option to get to the city centre. Buy your ticket at the airport terminal from the self-serve machines (credit cards accepted) and make sure to validate your ticket before entering the station. The purple line brings you directly into town in about 30 minutes and the cost is only a few dollars. Another option is to take a taxi or an Uber.
Porto came pretty close to not be included in my Portuguese itinerary. Crazy right? Someone in my inner circle had visited Porto and felt unimpressed with the city. The word unfinished was mentioned. Maybe this is what prompted me to go visit, the need to find out for myself and I’m so glad I did. Yes maybe there are hints of Porto not being “finished” but Porto felt real to me, real as in lived in, but also real as in filled with passionate people, hard at work showing off their beloved city, welcoming travellers with open arms.
I reckon that on first impressions, Porto might come across as a tad rough around the edges but as you get closer, you’ll quickly realize that what this city lacks in lustre, Porto makes up tenfold with personality.
So go ahead and make a date with that enigmatic and gregarious lady, you’ll have the time of your life.
Have you been to Porto Portugal?
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…