Porto

The central part of Porto – Oporto in Portuguese – is very colorful and fun to explore, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Porto
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 the vehicular traffic has to be accounted for.

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 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 several different-usage rooms. The last room, Arab Revival Hall, is just mind-blowingly beautiful.

Churches are certainly in many cases the most impressive monuments in town. Quite a few of them house museums of sacred art and therefore demand a fee to enter. Even if you decide to skip the treasuries, the churches’ interior decorations usually are worth a few euros to see.

Among the most impressive are: São Francisco ♥♥♥, with incredible wood and plaster decorations on all columns, walls, and altar; Santa Clara ♥♥♥, probably the most opulent of all to the point that it becomes hard to distinguish details of golden-leaf ornamentation; Carmo ♥♥♥, which is comparatively small, but includes access to several additional spaces, the roof, an upper-level balcony near the organ, as well as backdoor access into one of the side chapels (which is not especially interesting but rather unique); you can also see Casa Escondida, the narrow dwelling between two churches which feels surprisingly livable, on the Carmo ticket; Carmelitas ♥♥, adjacent to Carmo and not requiring a ticket to enter, the feels bigger, lighter, and just as opulent.

The Porto Cathedral ♥♥, in contrast to all of the above, is comparatively plain, except for the rose window and the organ above the main door. 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. The cloisters are covered in azulejo, and there is also access to an upper chapel and the tower.

São Lourenço ♥ is almost the opposite of the other opulent churches, large, airy, with muted decorations; a golden altar on par with opulence elsewhere can be found in the transept. The views from the church towers are among the best in all of Porto. There is also a small archaeological wing with a yard with a tranquil water feature.

Santo Ildefonso ♥ is somewhat unique in having several newish stained glass windows.

Chapel of Souls is fairly small and not exceptional beyond its exterior azulejo covering.

Clérigos ♥ sports an unusual oval shape, but the biggest draw here is separate access to its tower which is the highest point in Porto. 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; it then gets pretty narrow close to the top and the platform itself is small and easily crowded. The views are not bad, but as much as I like elevated viewpoints, this is not a definite must.

The city built on high banks of the river Douro boasts quite a few elevated viewpoints. In addition to the church towers mentioned above, the two unmissable ones are Miradouro Vitoria ♥♥♥ and Miradouro da Serra do Pilar ♥♥♥. Terraces of Crystal Palace Gardens ♥ also offer various perspectives and the large park is simply a pleasant green space. Parque das Virtudes also offers views, but its key feature is relative tranquility.

Of the many notable buildings in town (some expressly mentioned on the World Heritage inscription) São Bento train station ♥♥♥ is one of the most arresting. It is not very big inside but beautifully decorated with azulejo tiles, with stained-glass windows and some plaster decorations as well. Cadeia da Relação ♥ is the former prison that now is home to the National Photography Center, free to enter and explore. You will most likely walk by the National Theatre or Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.

Casa da Música ♥, which is some distance from the city center, could be an interesting destination for anyone impressed with the modern architecture. Guided tours in either Portuguese or English are offered daily.

Livraria Lello is a hugely popular sight, among the most visited in Porto, and requires advance voucher purchase (which counts towards a purchase if you decide to spend money at the bookstore). Even when closed, it attracts dozens of people if only for the admiration of the Art Deco façade. The interior is lovely and atmospheric, but not necessarily commensurate with the hype.

Other impressive Art Deco architecture is well present on wide squares at the northern 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.

The precincts around the cathedral are, conversely, full of narrow sloping streets with the most medieval character in town. I especially adore Largo da Pena Ventoza ♥.

Museums in Porto are not really of must-see variety but could be fulfilling enough for a discerning visitor. Museu Romantico ♥ contains a mix of small collections in a historic mansion; it is, in a sense, an understated monument to being a collector. Nothing too special until you get to the Cosmos room, which is a mirror-covered curio cabinet that is quite impressive. Museu Soares dos Reis is a reasonable collection of Portuguese painters and sculptors of 19th-20th century on one floor, and china, jewelry, and other art objects on another. The Episcopal Palace has several impressive rooms. Tram Museum or Casa Guerra Junqueiro are other potential options for museum-goers.

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 cheap, but you get a few more perspectives of the city during the 5-minute trip.

It is in Gaia where several well-known Douro wine and port producers have their visitor centers. If you do not tour the Douro Valley, definitely consider a visit to one or a few. Several are situated right on the quay, but if you walk up a bit, you can get to places like Fonseca ♥♥, which feels like a modern cavern with access to a couple of barrel rooms, or Taylor’s ♥♥, where you can sit in a nice garden with city views and peacocks.

Close by is WOW (“World of Wine”) ♥♥♥, a modern dining, shopping, and museum complex. There are six museums in total here. The Wine Experience ♥♥♥ is an exhaustive interactive immersion into all things wine, complete with a tasting at the end. Porto through Ages ♥♥ is also great, with many nice exhibits and details. I cannot imagine that anyone would be able to see more than two museums in one go; it is also among the most expensive attractions in all of Porto.

A food walking tour with Taste Porto ♥  is a great diversion, including a couple of sightseeing segments and stops at half a dozen different establishments.

Yet another popular activity is taking a boat tour of the river. Multiple options are available on both sides of the river.

A wine tasting at de Lima’s Wine Bar ♥♥ is among the best such experiences that we had anywhere. Rafael, the proprietor, is knowledgeable, personable, and enthusiastic about wine.

Practicalities

Despite its uneven topology, Porto is very walkable; public transportation may only be needed for some points outside of the city center. Light rail, nonetheless, is a reasonably viable option to get to town from the airport for those without heavy suitcases.

Porto.card covers dozens of points of interest and establishments, but most in the form of small discounts. It takes a lot of visits to break even. Some options include unlimited use of public transportation, which could be more beneficial if you stay outside of the city center.

Lodging

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.

Dining

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.

For lunch, consider stopping by a mercado: among the most prominent such food halls are: Mercado Bom Successo and Mercado do Bolhão at the edges of the city center, Mercado Beira-Rio on the Gaia waterfront.

Pastry shops and little cafes are found on every step in Porto, and I have never been disappointed with any random stop at such an establishment.

Worthy of specific restaurant recommendations are: Intrigo (on R. de Tomás Gonzaga), with great views of the Gaia side of the river from the terrace, and overall amazing food, including sourdough bread made on premises; Atrevo (on R. do Morgado de Mateus), a small conceptual restaurant where you can order a la carte or partake in a delightful tasting menu.

Gazela (on R. dos Entreparedes near the National Theatre) is popular to the point of sporting lines to enter at peak times. I wouldn’t stand in line to get in, but if you are in the area and find it accessible, it is the most famous place to have a cachorrinho, which is the local take on a hot dog.

Special mention for a couple of nice breakfast places: Do Norte Café by Hungry Biker (on R. do Almada near Clerigos) and Esquires Coffee (on R. de 31 de Janeiro near Santo Ildefonso).

Beyond Porto

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.


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