14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Porto
Seemingly hewn out of granite near the mouth of the River Douro, Portugal's second city, known locally as Porto, dazzles with a rich collection of cultural attractions. Porto's historical heart is the Ribeira. This waterfront bairro positively insists you lose yourself amongst the maze of narrow streets and seek out some of the city's most cherished architectural treasures. In fact, so rare and precious are the buildings that make up this venerable neighborhood that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Much of old Porto can be described with a pronounced 18th-century accent. Extravagant Baroque churches and stately Neoclassical buildings punctuate the skyline, their most valuable contents displayed in world-class museums set in picturesque squares. Meanwhile, the city's contemporary character is evident in its thriving modern arts scene and an alarmingly futuristic music venue. Crossing the sweeping bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia is a sightseeing highlight, as is a guided tour around one of the port lodges. A cruise along the Douro should be considered, and for a truly memorable city panorama take a ride on the cable car that glides from one end of the quayside to the other.
1 Torre dos Clérigos
The soaring Clérigos Tower punctuates Porto's skyline like a monumental needle. This is the city's most visible landmark, a 75-meter high 18th-century granite hewn rocket. You'll need a stout pair of legs to climb the 240 steps to the top of the tower, but the effort will be rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the river, the coastline, and the distant Douro valley - a bird's-eye-view of Portugal's second largest city, and an inspiring way for first-time sightseers to get their bearings. Commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Clergy (clérigos) and designed by the Italian-born Nicolau Nasoni, the Baroque tower complements the adjoining Igreja dos Clérigos, which is also Nasoni's handiwork. Built between 1732 and 1750, the church itself is a wonderful example of the architect's affinity with the Baroque and features an elliptic floorplan, one of the first churches in Portugal built in such a way. But the tower remains the highlight and, day or night, its tapered profile stands as an historic beacon visible from most parts of the city.
2 Palácio da Bolsa
Dating from the mid-19th century, Porto's former stock exchange contains a wealth of historic interest. Built on the site of a Franciscan monastery, its sumptuous interior is divided into several rooms and salons, each one singular in its appeal and worthy of close scrutiny. Pretend you're a wealthy merchant visiting on business as you wander through the Portrait Room with its gallery of uniformed monarchs, and then cast your eyes skywards after entering the Golden Room to admire its gilded stucco ceiling. You'll be ready for your meeting with the boss in the lavishly furnished Chairman's Room before joining fellow merchants in the richly decorated Court Hearing Room to witness mercantile law acted out in due process. You may want to pop into the adjacent Juror's Room before gathering in the magnificent Hall of Nations to mingle with the great and the good. But you'll want to leave the best for last by sneaking off to the astonishing Arabian Room, inspired by Granada's Alhambra, and the one place that really sells a tour of the Bolsa. Incidentally, the building is the headquarters of the Porto Chamber of Commerce, and its members still gather in the classical General Assembly Room.
Address: Rua Ferreira Borges, Porto
3 Igreja de São Francisco
Visitors are shrouded by gold as they enter the beautiful church of St. Francis. Its 18th-century Baroque interior is encrusted with a gilded veneer so dazzling and exuberant that most agree this is one of the best examples of worked gold anywhere in the country. Indeed, this is a priceless sightseeing experience. Gilt carving embellishes the high altar, columns, and pillars, with barely a single patch of stone left visible. Look out for smiling cherubs and dour-faced monks as you edge towards the north wall and São Francisco's Tree of Jesse, a family tree in gilded and painted wood depicting Christ's genealogy. An extraordinary and beguiling artifact carved between 1718 and 1721, the tree boasts fine detail seen in the expressions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and other figures, including King David, Solomon, and Jesse himself, which leaves onlookers speechless. A tour of the ancient catacombs underneath the church helps bring visitors back down to earth, but there are more treasures from the church's monastery to behold in the museum afterwards.
Address: Rua do Infante D. Henrique, Porto
4 Cais da Ribeira
Porto's riverside quarter is an alluring labyrinth of narrow, winding streets; zigzagging alleyways; and low-slung, sun-starved arcades. Facing the River Douro, though, are terraces of lofty townhouses painted in bright mustard, tangerine, and tawny hues - the Ribeira is an adventure in color and flavor. A plethora of restaurants and cafés set under the arches along the quayside makes this the most popular area in the city for relaxing and socializing. Praça da Ribeira, the riverfront square, is a popular and lively meeting point and buzzes with a young, friendly vibe. This is also a busy commercial district, where grocers rub shoulders with butchers and fishmongers. Tiny, dilapidated shoemaker's studios echo to the industrious tapping of cobblers' hammers, and the rustic aroma of freshly baked bread collides with the Douro's salty, briny odor. Above it all, locals share gossip from balconies or open windows, shouting inexorably across lines of washing snapping in the breeze. The Ribeira is also about history, and exploring this fascinating neighborhood is to discover medieval relics built over Roman foundations. UNESCO loves the place, and long ago declared it a World Heritage Site.
Location: Cais da Ribeira, situated on the north bank of the River Douro, Porto
5 Ponte de Dom Luís I
The grandiose Dom Luís I bridge is one of the most iconic structures in Portugal. Spanning the mighty River Douro to link Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, the bridge's majestic sweep and two-tier aspect is a binding component in the city's proud, social fabric. The heavily riveted charcoal-grey ironwork has Gustave Eiffel written all over it, and indeed it was an assistant of the great French engineer who built the bridge in 1886. Commuters use the bridge on a daily basis - a road, Avenida da República, runs across the lower deck while the upper span accommodates a metro railway line. Pedestrians can walk across using the narrow pavements set either side of the road, or be really brave and traverse the structure using the 60 meter-high top-tier footpath. An outstanding view of the bridge can be had from the terrace of the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, on the south bank. From here, the entire city forms a fabulous backdrop and the panorama is particularly dramatic at dusk. Don't forget your tripod!
Location: Avenida da República, Porto
6 Sé (Cathedral)
Sightseeing in Porto should always include exploration of the city's cathedral. In fact, the sweeping panorama from the terrace over the old-town streets and the sleepy River Douro is a great curtain raiser and primes the senses for what lies ahead. An imposing 12th-century landmark, the cathedral has the appearance of a fortress, such is the forbidding look of its towers and the shadowy complexion of its façade. Redeeming features include a beautiful 13th-century rose window set in the west front, and the serene Baroque cloisters paneled with sky blue azulejo tiles. Linger here a little to absorb the medieval ambiance and the tranquil locale. From here, a worn 18th-century granite staircase connects with the chapterhouse, which is wrapped in more stunning tile work. Another standout attraction is the magnificent silver retable in the small chapel to the left of the chancel. Round off your tour by poring over the cathedral's dazzling hoard of gold and silver held in the Treasury.
Location: Terreiro de Sé, Porto
7 Vila Nova de Gaia
With its long, broad promenade and riverfront aspect, Vila Nova de Gaia is an irresistible diversion. Easily reached on foot by crossing the Ponte de Dom Luís I, the town's landscaped quayside is fringed by a long line of stylish restaurants and cafés. It's also the departure point for numerous Douro River cruise boats. Adding a wonderfully nostalgic perspective is the fleet of traditional barcos rabelos moored alongside the esplanade. These graceful sailing vessels were once used to ferry casks downriver from the Douro port estates, and with Porto's Ribeira district providing a suitably romantic backdrop, sightseers are regaled with an atmospheric cityscape, a tableaux reminiscent of the 18th century. For a truly dramatic outlook, take a ride on the Teleférico de Gaia, or cable car. This novel new sightseeing attraction runs along the Gaia riverside and connects the upper station, near the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, with the eastern end of the esplanade.
Location: Cais de Gaia, Porto
8 Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis (Soares dos Reis National Museum)
If you decide to visit just one museum in Porto, make sure it's this one. The outstanding collection of Portuguese art spans from the 16th to the 20th centuries and includes sculpture by António Soares dos Reis, the country's celebrated 19th-century sculptor after whom the museum is named. The displays are wonderfully eclectic in their scope, with the gold and silverware particularly engaging. The collection of paintings showcase works by Portuguese and foreign artists, notably Dutch and Flemish. Fine Portuguese glassware from the 18th and 19th centuries complement rare ceramic pieces that include porcelain from China, and examples of Delftware. Decorative furniture from as far away as India and Japan lend the exhibition an exotic veneer, while the textiles collection is mostly derived from fabrics and other materials that were confiscated from dissolved monasteries and convents. Allow a good couple of hours to browse the various galleries and then explore the garden, perhaps before a bite to eat in the museum's cafeteria where the lunch choice includes vegetarian options.
Address: Palácio dos Carrancas, Rua D. Manuel II, Porto
9 Igreja do Carmo
Plastering the exterior of Porto's 18th-century Carmo church is a blaze of blue and white azulejos (tiles), and the striking façade is one of the most instantly recognized in the city. The immense panel is a real head turner, but the splendid gilt carvings that decorate the interior are equally appealing. In fact, the elegant golden-brushed woodwork is among the finest examples of Portuguese Rococo. The neighboring Igreja das Carmelitas is less of an eye-opener. Incredibly, dividing both is a house, built to comply with an ancient law that stipulated that no two churches were to share the same wall. Many believe this to be the narrowest private residence in the country, although it's been unoccupied for nearly 30 years. A whimsical anomaly, the one-metre wide abode makes for an interesting snapshot squeezed as it is between two granite monoliths.
Address: Rua do Carmo, Porto
10 Casa da Música (Music House)
Anyone staying in Porto for a few days should check out the cultural program on offer at this fabulous international concert venue. The 'Music House' is celebrated as much for its radical design as the calibre of the entertainment it hosts. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas kicked convention into touch when he was commissioned to create a building that would propel the city headlong into the 21st century. This he achieved to great acclaim, and the best way to appreciate his triumph is to attend one of the many gigs staged within its bleached, odd-sided skin. All musical tastes are catered for, anything from classical and fado, to jazz and hip-hop. World-class acts performing here include the late Lou Reed, who played the opening night back in 2005. Another way to glimpse the interior is to walk up to the top-floor restaurant. On the menu of Mediterranean influenced cuisine is an inspiring panorama across Porto's busy Boavista neighborhood. But for an unhurried, up-close-and-personal view join a guided tour. Otherwise, amble over here at dusk when the venue is washed with floodlight for a truly abstract perspective of this extraordinary structure.
Address: Avenida da Boavista 604, Porto
11 Fundação de Serralves Museu de Art Contemporânea (Contemporary Art Museum)
The influential Serralves Foundation runs Porto's highly respected Contemporary Art Museum. Designed by minimalist wizard Álvaro Siza Vieira, the chalk-white building is itself a cultural draw, an example of subliminal ergonomic architecture set in a verdant, meandering park four kilometers west of the city center. The museum has eschewed a permanent collection and instead aspires to offer different perspectives on contemporary art in various media. This all adds up to an exciting and unpredictable visitor experience where very often you're left to make your own mind up about the meaning behind each piece and the intentions of the artist - in other words, this is modern art. Also set within the grounds is the pink Art Deco Casa de Serralves where other exhibitions are held. Discussions, arguments, and points of view can be exchanged in the on-site café or the more formal restaurant. The park is quite beautiful, a landscaped Eden of tremendous biodiversity. A series of footpaths snake through the 18 hectares, winding past spruce lawns, ornamented lakes, and aromatic herb gardens before circulating through a shady, wooded copse.
Address: Rua Sao Joao de Castro 210, Porto
12 Café Majestic
With its distinctive Art Nouveau façade of curvaceous stonework and undulating motifs, this sparkling gem of a coffeehouse is unmistakable. Inside, a vintage 1920s ambiance percolates the salon. Arranged throughout the lavish interior are the original carved wood chairs and marble-topped tables that lend Majestic its delightfully bohemian flavor. Cherubs and lamplights cling to the plasterwork ceiling. Gracing the walls are sets of huge Flemish mirrors that reflect the evocative, yesteryear character. This is the most celebrated of Porto's cafes, and one of Europe's most historical. Lunch and dinner can be taken here in considerable style, the menu tempting with a fusion of Portuguese and Mediterranean flavors. The café is also known for its cakes and pastries selection, and conjures up specialties like French toast smothered in a creamy egg custard topped with dried fruit. Kids will love it here, especially when they realize that author J.K. Rowling worked on the draft of her first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone while sipping coffee at a table near the entrance. Magic, or what?
Address: Rua Santa Catarina 112, Porto
13 Centro Português de Fotografia (Portuguese Center of Photography)
The Portuguese Center of Photography will appeal to anybody with an understanding of the photographic process. This engaging cultural facility is set within the walls of a former 18th-century prison, the Cadeia de Relação. The jail was closed in 1974, but its labyrinth of cells, various administrative offices, and the inner courtyard were all carefully restored and now serve as unusual exhibition spaces. Exhibitions tend to focus on vintage and contemporary Portuguese photography, but a number of international photographers have seen their work exhibited as part of cultural exchange initiatives. Interestingly, photographs created digitally and those taken using traditional analogue methods share a more or less equal platform, so purists and fans of new imaging technology will be equally enthralled. Most visitors, however, will be fixated on the collection of antique cameras and photographic equipment housed on the top floor. After musing over the miscellany of antique Linhofs, classic Leicas, and evergreen Kodaks, taking a photograph using a telephone will seem faintly ridiculous.
Address: Largo Amor de Perdição, Cordoaria, Porto
14 Avenida dos Aliados
A vibrant and entertaining overview of everyday Porto can be gleaned by strolling the length of this broad double avenue. Lined both sides with shops, stores, boutiques, cafés, and restaurants, "Aliados" is the city's clamorous commercial hub. At the foot of the thoroughfare lies Praça da Liberdade, but visitors can begin exploring by popping into the nearby Estação de São Bento, Porto's central railway station, to gaze upon the 20,000 or so dazzling azulejos depicting early modes of transport and the history of Portugal. A slow amble north will take you to the Câmera Municipal, Porto's city hall, which crowns the top of the avenue. From here, turn right along Rua Formosa until you reach the covered Mercado do Bolhão. This tumbledown two-tier market has seen better days, but still exudes an alluring, boisterous character and is the best place in town to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, household goods, and handicrafts. If you're traveling on a budget, stock up on cheese and freshly baked bread rolls and head back down the opposite side of the avenue to enjoy a picnic by the river.
Address: Rua Formosa, Porto
Where to Stay in Porto for Sightseeing
Porto is a largely vertical city clinging to the river bank, so map distances can be deceiving, and places that seem close can be a long, steep climb apart. A few main attractions are close together near the riverside, while others cluster around Praça da Liberdade, both convenient locations for hotels. The best views are from Vila Nova de Gaia just across the river. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Porto:
- Luxury Hotels: InterContinental Porto Palacio das Cardosas overlooks Praca da Liberdade, near Sao Bento station and a short walk from the Carmelite church and Torre dos Clerigos. In terraced grounds with views from every room, The Yeatman is a contemporary resort-style hotel with a spa, in- and outdoor pools, and Michelin-starred dining in Vila Nova de Gaia. You'll feel like a star entering the glamorous film-set lobby of the well-located Hotel Infante Sagres, updated to highlight its classic old-world elegance and add a stylish contemporary flair to the rooms.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In the old town, with river views, boutique Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel offers budget-friendly luxury, between Torre dos Clerigos and Sao Francisco, a five-minute walk from the Ribeira. In the upper city, near the Carmelite church, less than a 10-minute walk to the old town, Eurostars Das Artes Hotel is handy to restaurants and the Soares dos Reis museum. In the old town, near Sao Francisco and the Bolsa and a three-minute walk from the Ribeira shore, Carris Porto Ribeira blends modern décor with vintage features.
- Budget Hotels: Overlooking Praca da Liberdade near Sao Bento station, Hotel Universal is close to restaurants and 15 minutes from the port. Nearby Vera Cruz Porto Hotel offers free breakfast with panoramic views. Also including breakfast, Hotel da Bolsa is just up the street from the Bolsa and Sao Francisco church, a short downhill walk to the river past local restaurants and shops.