For your first visit you probably need around two days to enjoy the city’s major sights.
Distances are practically all walkable, but beware that in the city core climbs and descents will alternate with regularity.
Worthy attractions: Luís I Bridge; Cathedral; Palácio da Bolsa; Igreja de São Francisco; São Bento train station; Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos.
Left for another visit: Igreja de Santa Clara; Livraria Lello; Casa da Música; wine caves in Vila Nova de Gaia; Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.
Last visit: April 2019.
The central part of Porto is very colorful and fun to explore. It is as a whole recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although relatively compact, it demands a certain level of physical capacity of any visitor: the city is all build on inclines, there is barely a street that stays level for more than a hundred yards. The going does get easier once you move slightly beyond the central part.
The center of the city is understandably full of tourists, but take two steps away from the main tourist routes and you will have Porto all to yourself. There is a lot of building renovation and construction going on nowadays which may make some of the side streets less attractive by comparison.
Things to See
The Bridge of Luís I ♥♥♥ is among the most iconic sights of Porto. Cross it on its upper level, where the only traffic is that of infrequent trams, for great perspectives over both central Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The significantly lower level of the bridge is convenient for crossing the river when you are exploring waterfronts, but is far less interesting and narrow with vehicular traffic.
Ribeira waterfront ♥♥♥ is the unmissable part of town, and among the busiest in the afternoons and evenings. To get the best views of it you have to be either up on the bridge or on the opposite side of the river.
Up a short climb from the river is Palácio da Bolsa ♥♥♥, the local Chamber of Commerce. It is well worth buying a timed-entry ticket (there is a non-intuitive way to get tickets online, but most people will show up at the palace and buy tickets for an entry later in the same day). The central atrium – the starting point of the tour – is immediately impressive, and the slightly uneven narration from the guide will lead you through a number of different-usage rooms. The last room, Arab Revival Hall, is just mind-blowingly beautiful.
The church of São Francisco ♥♥♥ next to the palace is a relatively expensive church to enter (€7.50 as of the time of our visit), but well worth the fee. The ticket includes both the church and the nearby museum; the latter consists of a few treasury rooms, a crypt, and a pretty private church with a video on a loop devoted to restoration works – all technically skippable, but since you cannot buy a ticket only for the church, you might as well spend a few minutes in the museum. And then the church itself is something else, with incredible wood and plaster decorations on all columns, walls, and altar. No photography is allowed inside, although quite a few people cannot help themselves (nobody was actually watching).
The Porto Cathedral ♥♥ is comparatively unadorned, except for the rose window and the organ above the main door; there are a few stained glass windows. But once you proceed towards the altar, it will blind you with its richness, including the elaborate choir and painted walls. There are also a couple of opulent chapels in the cross-nave.
Another church worth visiting in Porto is Clérigos ♥, with an oval ceiling as well as golden altarpieces and decorations. The church tower ♥ is a popular attraction, although the wait to climb to the top may exceed 45 minutes at busy times. The route to the tower goes through the upper balconies of the church, which is well worth the perspectives. The steps allow people to pass in both directions, until the very last portion of the climb which gets really narrow; the platform itself is quite small and easily gets crowded. The views are pretty good, but I don’t think it is a must while in Porto.
One other church on our visit itinerary, Santa Clara, is closed on Sundays, and we did not find an opportunity for a visit on any other day that we were in town.
Of the many notable buildings in town, São Bento train station ♥♥♥ is one of the most arresting. It is not very big inside, but beautifully tiled on all walls, with stained-glass windows and some plaster decorations as well.
We only walked by buildings such as the National Theatre, or Cadeia da Relação (the former prison that now is home to the national photography center), or Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar (with reputedly best sunset view in town). All of them are explicitly mentioned on the World Heritage inscription and all probably have something to offer to those who want to explore in depth. We left them to a future return visit, as well as Casa da Música, which is some distance from the city center, and a number of mid-grade museums.
We also did not get to step into Livraria Lello, as it was closed during our time in town. The “Harry Potter” bookstore is among the most visited sights in Porto; even as people could not go inside, dozens of them stood in front admiring the Art Deco façade.
Beyond Ribeira, impressive Art Deco architecture is well present on wide squares at the edge of central area. The grandest of them is Praça da Liberdade ♥ (together with Avenue dos Aliados), crowned by the city hall building. Praça de Gomes Teixeira ♥, the home of the University of Porto, is another grand and beautiful one.
If you are into street markets, the one on Rua da Galeria de Paris ♥ is a pleasant artisan one.
On the other side of the Douro river, Vila Nova de Gaia waterfront ♥ is less colorful than Ribeira but more spacious. If you cross the bridge on the upper level, your best route down to the river is to ride Teleférico de Gaia ♥ – the cable car ride is not really cheap, but you get a few more perspectives of the city during the 5-minute trip.
It is on Cais de Gaia where several well-known Douro wine and port producers have their caves. Our overall itinerary to this part of the country included a dedicated Douro Valley exploration, as well as a private wine tasting session in Porto, so we cut the caves from our schedule. On a future visit, Calem or Ramos Pinto might well feature on the list.
The wine tasting was at de Lima ♥♥ cozy wine bar with its knowledgeable and personable proprietor, Rafael. It was a superb experience. 6 wines in total (3 red, 3 white), with cheese and meat pairings. We learned in 2+ hours more than we had learned in prior 30 years of drinking wine. The prices start at €45 per person.
We also joined a food walking tour with Taste Porto ♥, led by an engaging, talkative, and funny guide. The tour included a couple of sightseeing segments and stops at half a dozen different establishments (a grocery store for cheese and sausage; a specialty store and bar for fish with Vinho Verde; a cafe for coffee; a full-service restaurant for more sausage and fish with Douro wine; a sandwich shop; a pastry shop; and a wine cellar for port tasting). Good fun!
One other popular activity did not fit into our itinerary: boat touring on the river. A number of companies offer such rides from both the Porto and the Gaia sides.
Places to Eat
As in any other large city, there are plenty of restaurant options in Porto well represented by TripAdvisor. As our plans in town included aforementioned food tour one evening and wine tasting another evening, we actually did not avail ourselves to too many restaurant choices. Here are a few that we are familiar with now. All visits in Spring of 2019.
Intrigo ♥♥♥ is within loose boundaries of the city center and yet somewhat off the main tourist routes. Great views of the Gaia side of the river from the dining room and the terrace. Amazing food: garlic shrimps, veal costellettes, duck breast were all fantastic. Sourdough bread made on premises deserves its own mention. Very nice service. One of the best meals on our travels. Our damage: €72 for two, including wine. Reservations highly recommended.
Traça ♥ on busy Largo São Domingos. The food was nice without being outstanding. Not bad service while we were sitting inside. We wanted to move to the sidewalk seats, were graciously accommodated in the middle of the meal, but the service dropped off the cliff after we were seated on the sidewalk. Still a good meal on balance. Great people-watching on the square. Our damage: €78 for two, including wine. Reservations recommended.
Cozinha de Cabral ♥ was a semi-random choice one evening, on Rua do Dr. Sousa Viterbo close to Largo São Domingos. Nice and friendly. Deer loin and stew “a Cabral” were both excellent. Our damage: €56 for two main plates, plus wine.
While on Ribeira quay during lunch time, we sat down at Botequim Nostalgic ♥, right by the Ribeira Square. The people-watching is unbeatable here, and we enjoyed a pretty good charcuterie board.
Leitaria da Quinta do Paço ♥ is a 99-year-old pastry shop with amazing offerings on Praça Guilherme Gomes Fernandes. Try lemon eclair. A few doors down is Padaria Ribeiro, which our food tour guide marked as the best pastry shop in town in his opinion, but we did not get a chance to test it.
In spring of 2019 we rented an Airbnb apartment ♥♥♥ which was cozy and suitable for a single traveler or a couple. Great location on the bustling pedestrian street; unbeatable in terms of reach to the main points of interest. Third floor with no elevator could be a challenge for less mobile. Full bathroom, full kitchen, nicely decorated and appointed, with a small balcony overlooking an inner yard. The bed could be described as “full-size-plus”, and there is no closet space (a couple of clothes hanger organizers on walls). For an active traveler’s stay in Porto the place is a great choice!