The central part of Porto – Oporto in Portuguese – is very colorful and fun to explore, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although relatively compact, it demands a certain level of physical ability, since the city is all built on inclines, and 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. On the flip side, there is a lot of building renovation and construction going on nowadays which may make some of the side streets less attractive by comparison.
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 far busier with vehicular traffic.
Ribeira waterfront ♥♥♥ is the unmissable part of town and surely 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 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 comparatively expensive church to enter (€7.50 as of 2019), 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 lovely 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 enforcing the rule).
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 transept.
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 to climb, although the wait may exceed 45 minutes at busy times. The route to the tower goes through the upper balconies of the church, opening up additional perspectives. The steps allow people to pass in both directions, until the very last portion close to the top which gets really narrow; the platform itself is quite small and easily gets crowded. The views are pretty good, but as much as I like elevated viewpoints, this is not a definite must.
One other highly-recommended church, Santa Clara, is open on a limited schedule.
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.
You will undoubtedly walk by the National Theatre, 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. Casa da Música, which is some distance from the city center, is another possible consideration as well as a number of mid-grade museums.
Livraria Lello, if open, will especially appeal to Harry Potter fans; the bookstore is among the most visited sights in Porto – even when closed, it attracts dozens of people if only for the admiration of the Art Deco façade.
Other impressive Art Deco architecture is well present on wide squares at the edge of the 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 option.
On the other side of the Douro River, the Vila Nova de Gaia waterfront ♥ is less colorful than Ribeira but more spacious – and most importantly, the place to admire Ribeira across the river. If you cross the bridge on the upper level, your best route down is on 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. If you do not tour the Douro Valley, definitely consider a visit to Calem or Ramos Pinto or any number of other caves.
A wine tasting at de Lima ♥♥ cozy bar is among the best such experiences that we had anywhere. Rafael, the proprietor, is knowledgeable, personable, and enthusiastic about wine. A superb experience: 6 wines in total (3 red, 3 white), with cheese and meat pairings.
Another nice diversion is a food walking tour with Taste Porto ♥, which 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!
Yet another popular activity is taking a boat tour of the river. A number of companies offer such rides from both the Porto and the Gaia sides.
In the “memorable stays” category, the Studio 45 apartment (link) was cozy and suitable for either a couple or a solo traveler. Great location on the bustling pedestrian street; unbeatable in terms of reach to the main points of interest. The third floor with no elevator could be a challenge for those less mobile. Full bathroom, full kitchen, nicely decorated and appointed, with a small balcony overlooking an inner yard.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Porto. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of a specific recommendation is Intrigo (on R. de Tomás Gonzaga, which is within loose boundaries of the city center and yet somewhat off the main tourist routes), with great views of the Gaia side of the river from the terrace and an overall amazing food, including sourdough bread made on premises; reservations recommended.
Leitaria da Quinta do Paço is a hundred-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 independently.
The main road links in Portugal are among the best in Europe, putting places like Guimarães, Douro Valley, and quite a few others within reach of Porto for a day trip. All of them are covered in this article. Some of the sights in the central part of the country, most notably Coimbra (featured in this article), are also easily reachable.