The Highlights of Porto
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path European city break, you'll love Porto. This vibrant port city is full of history, culture, and charm. From the beautiful downtown district full of medieval architecture to the stunning coastal views, there's plenty to see and do in the city that gave Portugal its name.
Here are some of the highlights you absolutely don't want to miss during your visit.
1. Take a cruise down the Douro
Porto was named after the Portuguese word for port, and as a port city, one of the best ways to see the city's splendid waterfront and get a taste of its maritime history is to take a cruise down the Douro River. You'll glide past imposing castles, towering bridges, and quaint villages while enjoying the fresh sea breeze.
2. Visit Sé Cathedral
Porto's fortified cathedral is one of the city's most iconic landmarks. The Romanesque-Gothic building dates back to the 12th century and is home to a beautiful Baroque interior. It was originally used as a defense fortress against invaders and today is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Make sure to climb the bell tower for some of the best views in town.
3. Explore the Ribeira District
This picturesque riverside district is one of the most popular areas in Porto. It's the oldest part of town, where Porto originated, and one of the most atmospheric. In recent years, it's been revitalized and is now full of trendy bars, restaurants, and cafes. Stroll along the riverfront, enjoy the views and soak up the lively atmosphere. After admiring the architecture, you can stop for a drink or a bite to eat in one of the charming cafes and restaurants.
4. Walk across the Dom Luis I Bridge
This elegant bridge, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, spans the Douro River and offers some of the best views in Porto. It was designed by celebrated architect Téophile Seyrig and completed in 1886. The upper deck is reserved for pedestrians and the Metro public transport system and offers panoramic views of the cityscape, rising 60 meters above the water.
5. Climb the Clérigos tower
For breathtaking views of Porto, head to the top of the Clérigos Tower. This Baroque bell tower was completed in 1763 and is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. You'll have to climb 240 steps to reach the top of the 75-meter-high tower, but it's well worth it for the views of the city and the other side of the Douro River.
6. Visit the São Bento Railway Station
This historic train station is one of Porto's most photographed (and Instagrammed) landmarks. It was built between 1904 and 1916 and features superb azulejo tile work depicting scenes from Portuguese history and rural scenes. Even if you're not taking the train, it's worth a visit to admire the stunning interior.
7. Stroll through the Old Town
Another of Porto's UNESCO-listed heritage sites provides the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the city's unique vibe. The narrow, cobbled streets are lined with beautiful medieval buildings, charming squares, and quaint cafes, so take some time to wander through these historic streets and soak up the atmosphere of history and charm.
8. Have a drink in a tasca
A tasca is a typical Portuguese tavern, and Porto has plenty of them. These lovely little bars are the perfect place to try local wines and snack on traditional Portuguese tapas. Be sure to try the famous francesinha, Porto's signature dish, and a tastier, meatier version of the Croque Monsieur while you're here.
9. Take a day trip to the beach
Porto may be inland, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some beach fun. If you have enough time and the weather is good, take a day trip to one of the beaches on the Atlantic coast to mingle with the locals. They're easily accessible by public transportation and make for a perfect day of relaxation.
10. Visit the Palacio da Bolsa
The Palacio da Bolsa is one of Porto's most striking and opulent buildings. It was built in the 19th century as a stock exchange and now serves as a conference and event center. The building is open to the public and offers guided tours so that you can admire the striking Arabic-style interior, complete with chandeliers, marble staircases, and intricate woodwork.
11. Check out the street art
Porto's streets are full of colorful murals and graffiti, making it a perfect place to explore if you're a fan of street art. You'll find some great pieces in the Rua Miguel Bombarda, Rua das Flores, or around the maze of backstreets of the Ribeira neighborhood. But keep your eyes peeled as you wander through the city – you never know when you'll stumble upon a hidden gem. There are several walking tours available that will take you to some of the best-known pieces, or you can simply stroll around and see what you can find. Either way, you're sure to be impressed by the talent on display.
12. Visit the Igreja de São Francisco
This beautiful Gothic church, located in the historic center of Porto, is one of the city's most iconic landmarks. It was built in the 14th century and is known for its ornate Baroque interior, covered in an estimated 400kg of gold leaf and floor-to-ceiling gilded wood carvings. You can also visit the underground catacombs, where some of Porto's most influential citizens are buried, along with the bones of thousands of Franciscan monks.
13. Explore the Mercado do Bolhão
This covered market dates back to 1839, although the current building is from 1914. It's a great place to stock up on fresh produce, sample some local delicacies, or simply soak up the atmosphere. Even if you're not in the mood to shop, it's worth a visit to people-watch and see the sellers in action.
14. Ride the Porto Tram
Porto's historic tram system is one of the best ways to see the city. The electric trams, which date back to 1895, run through the city center and up into the hills, providing stunning views of Porto as you go. There are several different routes to choose from, so you can tailor your ride to your interests and see different parts of the city.
15. Shop at the Porto Belo market
This open-air market, located in the central square of Praça de Carlos Alberto, is the perfect place to find souvenirs and locally made products. Inspired by the famous Portobello Road Market in London, you'll find everything from handcrafted jewelry and pottery to fresh produce and artisanal food items. The market is only open on Saturdays, so be sure to stop by if you're in town on that day.
There you have it: our guide to the highlights of this charming city.
And as you make your plans to visit this magical city, here are some curious facts about this Portuguese gem to impress your travel companions with.
Three curious Porto facts
Livraria Lello and Harry Potter: this enchanting bookshop is said to have inspired J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Except it didn't. Since rumors of its Harry Potter connection began to circulate, the shop has become a must-visit for hardcore fans, with hundreds lining up every day to feel a little bit closer to the magic. The author has gone on record to deny the rumors via Twitter and confirm that she never visited the shop, but that doesn't seem to have deterred the fans. Regardless, this one-of-a-kind bookstore, founded in 1906, is known for its stunning Art Nouveau interior that features an intricately carved wooden staircase, stained glass skylights, and a gorgeous stained-glass ceiling. Even if you're not a bookworm, it's worth a visit for the architecture alone.
Port is not from Porto: Port is a sweet, fortified wine that's closely associated with Porto, as the name suggests, but it's actually from the Douro Valley, about an hour outside of the city. The wine is produced by blending different types of grapes and then aging it in barrels, which is what gives it its characteristic sweetness. If you're interested in trying this delicious local specialty, be sure to visit one of Porto's many port wine cellars, where you can learn about the production process and taste a few different varieties.
Porto hasn't got an Eiffel Tower; it has an Eiffel Bridge: Gustave Eiffel himself built Porto's Maria Pia bridge to carry trains across the Douro river. At the time of its construction in 1877, it was the longest single-arch span in the world. Today it's been overshadowed by the equally impressive Dom Luís I bridge, but it's still an interesting piece of engineering to see. The American Society of Civil Engineers even declared it an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Porto is a city full of character with a rich history and much to offer visitors. There's plenty to explore with its fabulous waterfront, historic landmarks, and charming cafes and taverns. Whether you're interested in its maritime history or just want to enjoy the views, there's something for everyone in Porto.
Start planning your trip with us today, and see what this vibrant city has to offer. You won't be disappointed.