With its narrow buildings wedged on river hill sides, a beautiful waterfront, and plenty of cultural attractions, Porto is a destination you don’t want to miss. If you’re on a tour of Portugal then it’s worth spending a few days there, though the city is equally attractive on its own on a weekend city break (many low-cost flights go to Porto from around Europe).
While Porto has seen a lot of redevelopment in recent years, it might still strike you as somewhat raw and gravelly. Though if you can deal with a few faded facades, then you’re going to love its unpretentious character and welcoming atmosphere.
Here are some of the things worth checking out on your Porto visit.
1. Torre dos Clerigos
The top of this narrow baroque church tower provides the best vantage point of central Porto. I suggest making this your first stop, as the sweeping views give you a great preview of some of the neighborhoods and sights you can explore later.
While you’re here, check out the adjacent Praca de Lisboa, a wonderful square with two levels: it has shops and cafes on the lower level, and a public green roof with olive trees on top.
2. Cais da Ribeira
The Ribeira neighborhood sits right along the Douro river and is one of the oldest parts of the city. Famed for its narrow and colorfully tiled dock-side houses, as well as its views of the iconic double-decked Dom Luís bridge, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is simply a must-see.
For a true taste of Porto, be sure to also explore the warren of windy streets behind the riverside. As one local told me, back in the day “you couldn’t go there at night without losing your dignity”, but nowadays there isn’t much to fear from dipping into this little labyrinth of backstreets.
3. Igreja do Carmo (a two-headed church)
This church is interesting not just for its gorgeous tiled murals, but also for its unusual construction. Look closely and you’ll notice it’s actually two adjacent churches (the other on the left is the Church of the Carmelites) which have been sort-of merged together.
Apparently there was some complicated rivalry between these churches. Due to a law stipulating that no two churches may share the same wall, a tiny house was constructed in between them. You can still see the 1m wide house wedged in there with its own little front door. Someone actually lived there until about 20 years ago.
4. Livraria Lello book store
Livraria Lello might well be the prettiest book store I’ve been. Opened in 1906, it is one of Portugal’s oldest. Apparently, J.K. Rowling used to frequent this place while she was living in Porto as an ESL teacher back in the 90ies. Some say this place gave her inspiration for Hogwarts, which doesn’t seem like a total stretch.
The situation at Livraria Lello now is a little odd: on the one hand, it’s a wonderful book store selling Portuguese and English-language literature, nonfiction, and coffee table books. On the other hand, it’s also become a ticketed tourist attraction. Entry costs 4 Euro and entitles you to 10% off any book purchases.
5. Ride the old trams
Porto has many vintage trams still in service, and you’ll have a better chance of riding one here than on the overcrowded lines in Lisbon. Line 1 runs westward from the center along the Douro river; it’s quite scenic and gives easy access to the beaches of Foz do Douro. Lines 18 and 22 snake their way through the old city. Everything from the signs to the track switches is still operated manually.
6. Fundação Serralves museum
The Fundação Serralves museum hosts various temporary exhibitions focusing mainly on contemporary Portuguese artists. The art is intriguing, but so is the museum’s minimalist architecture, not to mention the surrounding sculpture gardens and farmland. I easily lost a couple of hours gazing at the modern art and wandering through the lush park area.
7. Eat this gross thing
The francesinha is the typical Porto dish, consisting of multiple layers of beef, ham, bacon, sausage, egg and dough, drenched in tomato and beer sauce, and served with fries.
Yes, it has about as much subtlety as a British builder’s breakfast, and no, it’s not a particularly light meal. But maybe, if he visited Porto, this is the sort of thing that a drunk Anthony Bourdain might call a guilty pleasure. If you’re going to do this, do it on a very empty stomach.
The restaurant where I got mine didn’t forget about the vegetables, as they toothpicked a single token cherry tomato onto my epic layer cake of meat. (It was drenched in melted cheese, of course.)
8. Visit a port wine cellar
Porto is of course the origin of… port wine! Just on the opposite side of the river you’ll find all of the old warehouses and major cellars for the famous fortified wine. You can get wine tastings and guided tours at almost all of these cellars, teaching you about the port making process and how to differentiate between different types (with the hopes, of course, that you’ll buy some at the end).
Speaking of the opposite side of the river, this part of town known as Gaia is worth a wander. On the top level you get some of the best views of the city, especially at sunset and from the viewpoint at Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.
9. Jardins do Palácio de Cristal
This unusual domed building, apparently once constructed for a world roller skating championship, certainly made my head turn when I walked past. Around it are some peaceful gardens, wonderful views of the Douro, and some peacocks milling about. There is no actual palace, but the gardens are pleasant enough.
10. Casa da Musica
Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the wedgy Casa da Musica sits like a Jawa Sandcrawler along the Rotunda da Boavista. The best way to experience it is surely to go to a concert here, though it’s worth having a look for the architecture alone.
I must confess I’m not usually a fan of Koolhaas—I can’t help but think of designs like De Rotterdam or the CCTV building in Beijing as horribly grandiose and oppressive. But Casa da Musica feels quirky and approachable instead, contrasting wonderfully against the traditional houses that surround it.
11. Have tea at Rota do Cha
I don’t normally do restaurant or cafe recommendations as they so easily fade with time, but I loved this little find so much I had to include it as a bonus mention.
Rota do Cha has a dazzling menu of over 300 teas from around the world, served in a quiet leafy tea garden in a residential street. It’s a wonderful local spot where you can escape the city or, as I did, camp out for a while to do some work.
When to visit Porto
I’d say that Porto is a year-round destination. I visited in January, which many travel guides would say is the worst time of the year to visit, though the climate is still pleasant enough (with temperatures reaching up to 17 degrees C). You can easily spend two or three days in Porto to see the sights, though if you’re there during the warmer months, you can also add daytrips to the beaches or the Douro wine valley.