Porto is the second largest city in Portugal with a population of ~240,000 and 1.7 million in the greater metropolitan area. It is also the origin of the country’s name; the Christians who conquered the Moors in southern Portugal came from Porto. Like the rest of Portugal, the cost of living is low and a visit can be inexpensive. Being in northern Portugal, it has a temperate climate and its location on the Rio Douro makes it a beautiful entrance to Portugal’s famous wine country in the Douro Valley.
While historic and beautiful, Porto is less polished than Lisbon, like Lisbon without a power wash. It has great seafood, a large, bustling waterfront and of course, Port wine. The city is a must see if you are visiting Portugal.
Sights in Porto
Avenida dos Aliados & Câmara Municipal (Avenue of the Allies and City Hall)
Avenida dos Aliados runs from Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square) to Câmara Municipal (City Hall). It has several buildings exemplifying art noveau and art deco architecture. On this avenue is the prettiest McDonalds in the world, the Imperial McDonalds.
Cais da Ribeira (Ribeira District)*
The Ribeira district along the Rio Douro is my favorite part of Porto and its most unique feature. The waterfront of promenades are bustling with activity. There are tons of restaurants, cafes and bars with great views of the water. You can see most of the city’s 6 bridges and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, site of many port wine houses, and the cable cars gliding above it. This is a great place to eat, although many restaurants are very large and so service can be quite slow.
Ponte Dom Luis I (Luis I Bridge)*
The most famous of Porto’s bridges, Dom Luis I bridge was completed in 1886. It was two levels, one for cars and one for subways, both of which are accessible to pedestrians. The bridge is best seen from the Ribeira waterfront or climbing the hillside in the funicular (pictured).
Rio Douro (Douro River)
The Rio Douro can be enjoyed a variety of ways: watching from the cafes on the Ribeira riverbank, walking across Dom Luis I bridge, on a boat cruise, or up in the air in a cable car (see Vila Nova de Gaia below).
Livraria Lello is considered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and it is. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it has been made very famous by Harry Potter. It is now a major tourist destination, which brings with it huge crowds and some lost charm. A €4 voucher is required to enter and must be purchased a few doors down the block. Tickets can also be purchased online in advance. The cost of the voucher can be applied toward the purchase of a book. It is open 10:00am – 7:30pm, 7:00pm on the weekends. It is very busy when in the morning, there is a line by the time the doors open. According to the staff, the best time to visit is right before it closes.
Mercado do Bolhão (Bolhão Market)
The Bolhão Market is a local market dating from 1850 selling meat, seafood and flowers. It is open Mon-Fri 9:00am – 7:00pm, Sat 9:00am – 1:00pm, closed Sun.
Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace)
The Palácio da Bolsa houses the Commercial Association of Porto. It is open every day for 45 minute guided tours Apr-Oct 9:00am – 6:30pm and Nov-Mar 9:00am – 12.30pm and 2:00pm – 5:30pm. Tickets are €8.5 and can be purchased online.
Igreja de Santa Clara
The Igreja de Santa Clara boasts a beautiful gold leaf baroque interior, remnants of the town wall from the 14th century, and views of the Rio Douro and Dom Luis I bridge. It is free to visit and guided tours are offered Mon-Fri 10:00am -12:30pm and 2:30pm – 5:00pm, Sat 10:00am -12:30pm, closed Sun.
Estação de Porto São Bento (São Bento Train Station)
The São Bento train station is one of the highlights of Porto with its famous tile work. There are around 20,000 azulejo tiles adorning the station depicting events from Portugal’s history!
Sé do Porto, Porto’s cathedral, dates to the 16th century. The church is open every day from 9:00am – 7:00pm, the museum and cloisters from 9:00am – 6:30pm and cost €3.
The square in front of the Cathedral has my favorite view of Porto, which should be seen both during the day and at dusk. From the square, there are narrow staircases winding down to the water.
Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos (Clérigos Church and Tower)*
The Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos is a Baroque church built in the 18th century. Although the church itself is very beautiful, it is most popular for its tower, which you can climb 250 feet to the top (225 stairs). The church and tower are open every day from 9:00am – 7:00pm. The church is free to visit, the tower is €4 to climb. Night tickets (7:00pm – 11:00pm) are €5.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Vila Nova de Gaia is a small city located on the south bank of the Rio Douro, across from Porto. It is known for its port wine cellars. It also has a cable car that runs along the river. You can reach Vila Nova de Gaia by walking across Dom Luis I bridge or taking a short taxi ride, or by taking the yellow line metro to Jardim do Morro.
*Indicates my favorites/cannot miss
I recommend waking up early to see the city while it is still quiet. Start at the Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos and climb the tower if you wish. Walk down the Rua Clérigos to the Avenida dos Aliados, view the statue of King Pedro IV and City Hall. Return to Rua Clérigos and continue to the São Bento train station to see the azulejo tiles. Walk south down Avenida Dom Afonso Henriques to Sé Catedral. In the square in front of the Cathedral are steps down to the Igreja de São Lourenço. From there, you can walk down hill through the winding streets and alleys to Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique, where the Palácio da Bolsa. Continue walking down hill to the Ribeira district on the waterfront, a great place to eat. You will be able to see the the Dom Luis I bridge, the river cruises, and the wine cellars and cable cars in Vila Nova de Gaia across the water. In later afternoon you can take a taxi up to Livraria Lello to see the bookstore at its quietest.
Porto’s official website has great information on the sights and several recommended walks.
If you plan to visit several sights, you might want to purchase a Porto Card. It offers free entrance to 11 museums and has an option to include free public transportation. Prices are 1 day – €6, €13 with transport; 2 days €10, €20 with transport, 3 days €13, €25 with transport and 4 days €15, €33 with transport.
There are direct flights to Porto from NYC on TAP Portugal. If flying TAP to a different destination, it is possible to schedule a free layover in Porto (or Lisbon). Trains run from Lisbon’s Oriente station to Porto’s Campanhã station. There are two options – a 2 hour 35 minute train ride or 3 hour ride. The 2 hour 35 minute ride costs €30.30 for second class, €42.40 for first class. The 3 hour ride costs €24.30 for second class, €35.90 for first class.
The central area of Porto with most of the sights is quite small and walkable, albeit hilly. You should be able to reach most places on foot or with a quick taxi ride between €5-10. If you are traveling with the metropolitan and want to take public transportation, there is a metro. The metro runs from 6:00am – 1:00am and tickets start at €1.20. You can also purchase 24 hour passes for €7 and 72 hour passes for €15.
Like Lisbon, Porto is very hilly, with steep hills sloping up from the river. If you wander down to the river, you can always take a taxi or funicular up the hill.
Camino de Santiago
One of the shorter routes on the pilgrimage (Camino de Santiago) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain begins in Porto. The route from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela is ~380 mi (616 km) but from Porto is only ~150 mi (240 km). The route dates from the 14th century and was even used by Queen Isabel of Portugal when she traveled to Santiago de Compostela.
When to Visit
Due to weather and crowds (both discussed below), it is best to visit in spring or early fall. Otherwise, during the week is preferable to weekends. If you are visiting during peak times or on weekends, it is best to make hotel and restaurant reservations in advance. Many of the best restaurants are quite small, with only a few tables, and fill up fast. Be aware that some things are closed Sunday – Bolhão Market,
The weather in Porto is quite moderate. The weather is usually in the 40-50s in winter and up to the 90s in summer. The river always brings a cool breeze that makes the heat more tolerable.
Porto is busier in summer, May-September, and of course, on weekends. If traveling in peak times, it is best to book hotels and restaurants in advance. Many of the sights are crowded in the morning when they first open due to tour groups. Late afternoon is the best time to tour churches and museums. Statues, monuments, and squares are best visited very early in the morning when no one else is around.
Porto, with Lisbon and Algarve, is one of the must see places in Portugal. It boasts beautiful sights, tons of activity and excellent food. If you are planning to visit the Douro Valley, it is a great launching point.
If you have been to Porto, please let me know what your favorite part of the experience was!