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Top 12 Sights to See in Porto

Eurofile lives in the UK. She travels regularly around Europe with her husband, and they have visited Portugal many times.

Porto.

Porto.

Why Go to Porto?

When you think of Portugal as a travel destination, what springs to mind? Some might say the capital, Lisbon, which features on cruise itineraries. Others might picture the sunny beaches of the Algarve on the south coast. Few would mention Porto, Portugal’s second-biggest city, on the northwest coast and the place from which many think the country took its name.

In recent years Porto's status has risen. A combination of the increased popularity of river cruises, with trips setting off from Porto to go up the River Douro, and the expansion of Porto airport to receive flights from Europe’s biggest low-cost airline, Ryanair, has heralded a big increase in tourism.

Locals say “Lisbon boasts, Braga prays and Porto works”. This ‘working’ city is setting about carving itself a deserved niche on the Portuguese tourist trail and delivering a memorable and rewarding experience to all who come here.

Having already visited the Algarve several times and also Lisbon, we count Portugal as a favorite holiday destination, not least because it is one of the more reasonable European countries to visit. There can not be many countries where you can buy two coffees for less than two euros. Casting around for a different part of Portugal to explore, Porto came up on our radar and the reports were encouraging. Add to the mix 12 days of annual leave going spare in June-July, a hotel available at a great points redemption rate plus cheap flights from the UK, and, for us, it was a no-brainer.

Porto.

Porto.

Where to Go in Porto

Most people call in briefly on Porto at the start or the end of a river cruise, or at most spend 2-3 days there on a city break. Having spent 12 days in the area, our explorations of Porto and its surroundings were more thorough. Here are the top 12 places we visited in the city.

Top 12 Sights in Porto

  1. Torre dos Clerigos
  2. Centro Portugues de Fotografia
  3. Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas
  4. Livraria Lello
  5. Estacao Sao Bente
  6. Se Catedral
  7. Palacio da Bolsa
  8. Igreja de Sao Francisco
  9. The River Douro
  10. Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar
  11. Taylor's
  12. Jardim do Palacio de Cristal

At the end of this article, you will also find information on getting to Porto, where to stay while there, finding your bearings, and the weather.

1. Torre dos Clerigos

In an unfamiliar city, it is helpful to find a good viewpoint, from which you can get an idea of the overall layout and the geography of the area. Torre dos Clerigos stands at the top of Rua Clerigos and overlooks Praca de Lisboa to the north of the Ribeira area, which runs down to the northern banks of the River Douro. Once you have negotiated the 225 step spiral staircase, you are rewarded with panoramic views over the city of Porto.

After taking in the 360-degree view, the museum might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly worth exploring the adjoining church, which is included in the cost.

Admission to the tower and museum is 6 euros (9 am- 7 pm) and 5 euros for the tower only at night (7 pm-11 pm).

2. Centro Portugues de Fotografia

Located south of Praca da Cordoaria and within sight of Torre dos Clerigos, this former prison, now housing a photographic museum makes a handy shelter, as we found during a downpour. Its former life as a jail ceased with the Carnation Revolution in 1974, but it still gives an atmospheric backdrop. Many original features have been retained and photographs of previous inmates are displayed, complete with details of their misdemeanors. As well as hosting photographic exhibitions, the museum has a collection of cameras, giving the older ones amongst us the opportunity to spot familiar models from bygone, pre-digital days.

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3. Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas

Located on Rua do Carmo, a few minutes walk to the northwest of Torre dos Clerigos, and separated by a meter-wide house, these must be two of the closest located churches. The narrow house in the middle once divided the monks of Carmo and the Carmelite nuns. It was inhabited until the 1980s.

Tiles depicting scenes from Mount Carmel and the founding of the Carmelite order were added to the side of Igreja do Carmo in 1912.

Entrance is free to both churches with their well-gilded naves. Please be respectful of services taking place there.

4. Livraria Lello

Amongst its more famous residents, Porto boasts that J.K. Rowling lived here. She taught English 1991-1993 and wrote part of the first Harry Potter book whilst in the city. Livraria Lello, a neo-Gothic bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas, (to the north of Praca de Lisboa and Torre dos Clerigos), dating from 1906, has a twisting staircase, which is said to have inspired one in Harry Potter. Whatever the truth behind the tale, the bookshop’s owners have not looked back since. They charge 5 euros for admission, which is deductible against any book purchases, as many tourists went there to view only and book sales fell. It is now advisable to pre-book your visit to avoid lengthy queues. Tickets are sold next door and online.

Livraria Lello.

Livraria Lello.

5. Estacao Sao Bente

If you walk east along Rua Clerigos, you will pass Palacio das Cardosas (now an InterContinental hotel) on the right and Praca da Liberdade on your left, with the Camara Municipal do Porto at the top of the square. Turn right onto Av. D. Alfonso Henriques, as you do so take a look at the fascia of Igreja dos Congregados, which is illuminated at night. You will see the station (Estacao Sao Bente) on the left. From the outside it might look like a city station from the early 20th Century, but take a look inside and you will understand why this station merits a particular mention.

Completed in 1903, Estacao Sao Bente has been described as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. The walls of the front hall are decorated with azulejo panels, using 20,000 tiles, depicting historic battles and the history of transport.

Walking Tour

Having had a great experience on a free walking tour of Lisbon the previous year, we signed up to take the walking tour towards the end of our time in Porto. It didn’t go quite to plan. The guide took us inside the Welcome Center where he spent some time explaining the interactive displays there, before getting a group photo. This was taken early before people dropped out. The first stop was Estacao Sao Bente across the road, where the guide went into great detail about the stories behind the azulejo panels. He was passionate about his subject, but as time went on, the eyes of his listeners glazed over and I have to admit that we sneaked off and failed to complete the rest of the tour.

6. Se Catedral

If you head south from Estacao Sao Bente along Av. D.Alfonso Henriques, you will end up walking across the top level of Ponte de D. Luis 1 over the River Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia. But it is worth taking a slight detour off to the right to visit the Se Catedral, which you can see from afar with its granite towers. We looked inside at the barrel-vaulted nave and the altarpiece, but just as striking and worth a look were the views over Porto from the terrace outside. There is a small charge for the cloisters, which we did not venture into.

7. Palacio da Bolsa

I recommend a visit to Palacio da Bolsa, (translated as stock exchange palace) located a short walk north from the River Douro on the west side of Rua Ferreira Borges. The only way to see the inside of the palace is to get onto one of the guided tours, which set off every 30 minutes in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English. Tours cost 10 euros per adult.

The tour starts in the Patio das Nacoes (Hall of Nations), where the stock exchange operated. This is an impressive sight with a Greco-Roman floor mosaic, a large skylight, and the edge of the ornate ceiling decorated with the coats of arms of the countries that Portugal once traded with.

The guided tour continues up the Escadaria Noble (Noble Staircase), which is beautifully carved out of granite and adorned with busts. The ceiling frescoes are illuminated by two bronze chandeliers. Take a glimpse into Gustave Eiffel’s study along the way. The guide will show you into a Courtroom and also Sala do Tribunal, with its ornate wooden look, where the port is still declared ‘vintage’. But by far the most decoratively impressive room is Salao Arabe (the Arabian Hall). This was inspired by the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain, and every surface is covered with Moorish designs gilded with gold.

8. Igreja de Sao Francisco

Located adjacent to the Palacio da Bolsa and on Praca Infante Dom Henrique, Igreja de Sao Francisco is visible from the River Douro. The church stands out on the northerly bank in The Ribeira district of Porto. This was on our ‘must see’ list, as it is highly acclaimed for its baroque finery and many kilos of gold leaf.

Entry is 7.50 euros and, with photography banned in the church, many visitors spend a further 1 euro on an information leaflet. Having visited other churches for free and having taken photos of ornate naves elsewhere, we were underwhelmed by this church. Therefore, I would not recommend it unless you have a particular interest in baroque churches. Admission includes entry to the museum and the catacombs.

Places to See North of the River

9. The River Douro

The River Douro, which separates them, is the focal point of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Instead of walking over the top level of Ponte de Dom Luis 1, we chose to make our way down through the small streets and alleyways from the cathedral terrace to the Cais da Ribeira. This riverfront promenade, lined with eating places, is a hive of activity. Stalls sell boat trips, which set off from here. A water taxi regularly travels between Porto and Gaia on the other side.

Ponte de Dom Luis 1

Barcos rabelos, flat-bottomed boats that were used to transport barrels of Port wine along the river line the bank towards Ponte de Dom Luis 1. Sometimes mistaken as being designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower, Paris fame) himself, this bridge was actually completed in 1886 by one of his students. A railway bridge spanning the Douro further east, Ponte Maria Pia, was Gustave Eiffel’s project completed in 1877.

Ponte de Dom Luis 1 is a striking piece of engineering, spanning the River Douro on two levels. The upper level carries a metro line and pedestrians, whilst the lower level carries cars and pedestrians.

Lower Level

It is an easy walk up from Cais da Ribera to the lower level of Ponte de Dom Luis 1 and views from it are worthwhile. But be warned. The pavements are not wide and it can be a jostle facing oncoming pedestrians with traffic passing you, as you negotiate those who stop to take photographs and selfies.

Teleferico

Some of the best views of Porto are from Vila Nova de Gaia, especially from the teleferico da Gaia (cable car) that travels between a station near the upper level of the bridge down to one further along the Gaia promenade, conveniently located near the river cruiser berths.

The teleferico is a painless way of accessing the upper level of Ponte de Dom Luis 1, which I would highly recommend.

Upper Level of Ponte de Dom Luis 1

Although it can be slightly unnerving having the metro pass by with little between you, other than a few well-spaced out bollards, the walkways on the upper level are wider than on the lower level. Views back over the river, Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia are stunning.

The alternatives to the teleferico are a steep walk up steps from the Vila Nova de Gaia side, not for the faint-hearted, a steep walk up from the Cais da Ribeira, or reasonably flat access by following Av D. Afonso Henriques south from in front of Estacao Sao Bente.

10. Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar

Located in Vila Nova de Gaia, to the east of Ponte de D. Luis 1, this hilltop monastery offers stunning views, looking down onto the bridge and beyond to both banks of the River Douro.

As the monastery is on part of a military base, to explore inside and on the top, you need to book a 40 minute guided tour leaving every hour between 10.30 am and 12.30 pm and between 2.30 pm and 5.30 pm.

The tour cost us 4 euros each, which I thought represented reasonable value. We were allowed to wander around the circular cloister, before being introduced to a member of the military who lead us at a fair pace up the steps to the rooftop for more views over the two cities and the river, slightly obscured by the trees around the monastery. Once back down the steps, our small group was met by the guide who took us into the circular church and, in excellent English, explained its various features and uses over the years.

Port Houses in Porto

No article on Porto is complete without a section on its most famous export, port wine, Vinho do Porto, or simply port. This popular wine, made from grapes grown in the Douro valley, is fortified by the addition of grape spirit. Traditionally the port barrels were transported downriver on rabelos (flat-bottomed boats, which now line the banks of the river in Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia) to the port houses set up by merchants, many of whom were foreign, in Vila Nova da Gaia. Here the port was aged before being bottled and exported. A tourist map indicates 14 of the larger port houses in Gaia. There are many familiar names amongst them, such as Taylor’s, Croft and Cockburn’s. All of them boast a strong heritage, offer port tastings, and the opportunity to purchase the product. Several of them run tours of the port houses. Having read promising reviews and having a friend who claims Taylor’s port as his favorite drink, we opted to tour Taylor’s port house.

Port wine.

Port wine.

11. Taylor’s

Taylor’s is located further uphill than many of the other port houses in Gaia, on Rua do Choupelo. Although easily identifiable with its clear rooftop signage from afar, for us, walking up from the river, Taylor’s took some finding, but it was worth it when we got there.

To walk through the gates is to walk into another world, with its English grounds. On a hot day, the coolness of the cellar is much appreciated. The tour is done via a headset with numbers on exhibits corresponding to recorded information in your chosen language so you can go at your own pace, taking in as much or as little as you want. Perhaps the most impressive sight is the vast cellar with its large barrels of aging port wine, including one holding 100,000 liters.

The tour continues with graphic explanations of the history of port winemaking, using photographs, displays, and video footage, and brings you up to date with an explanation of current methods. By the time you emerge into daylight, you will feel like a port wine expert. Then comes the best bit, the opportunity to taste some of Taylor’s high-quality port wine. The measures were generous.

Tours cost 15 euros each and include tastings of three port wines. Find a voucher on a tourist map to expand your tasting session to sample 4 of Taylor’s port wines and your walk back down to the river will become a little more unsteady.

12. Jardim do Palacio de Cristal

Located to the west of central Porto, this park south of Rua Dom Manuel II and north of the River Douro offers the opportunity to escape city life for a quiet stroll amongst a mosaic of small gardens. The gardens were laid out by the German landscape architect Emille David and include ornamental parterres, secret hedge gardens with fountains, areas of woodland, and a rose garden.

The gardens are home to a selection of peacocks and hens. The original Palacio de Cristal was replaced in 1956 by a domed pavilion, in which sports events, exhibitions, theatre, and musical performances take place.

Not to be missed are the miradouros (viewpoints) on the park’s southern edge with views over the River Douro towards Vila Nova de Gaia.

More Places Worth Visiting

Getting to Porto

Porto airport receives flights from many other European destinations, including London (Gatwick and Stansted airports), Madrid, and Barcelona. If traveling from the USA, the best plan would be a transit via a bigger European airport, or better still, to take in Porto as part of a longer European trip.

Francisco Sa Carneiro Airport is 12.1 km north and slightly west of Porto. A taxi to the center of the city costs 25-30 euros. The metro or bus services are a cheaper option.

Where to Stay in Porto

As with any city expanding into the tourist market, Porto has a wide range of hotels to suit every budget. From the 5 star InterContinental, set in a former palace and the Yeatman, with its stunning views over the River Douro, to the Holiday Inn Express Exponor, near Matosinhos, within walking distance of the coast, or the Hotel Ibis Budget Porto Gaia. There are also a host of others, branded and independent, as well as self-catering apartments in the center of the city and by the coast.

We stayed at Holiday Inn Express Porto Exponor for 11 nights in June/July 2017. Our choice was primarily determined by the availability of rooms on a very reasonable points basis via the IHG rewards scheme. Although the hotel was a 20-minute bus journey (at best) into Porto, the location suited us because of the nearby coastline, within walking distance. However, if you are limited for time, I would recommend a more central location.

Getting Your Bearings in Porto

The city of Porto lies several kilometers inland from the coast, on the northern bank of the River Douro and facing the city of Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. Its location offers tourists the best of both worlds, a stunning city to explore as well as the opportunity to relax on a beach during the warm summer months or take in a bracing coastal walk in the cooler months.

The Weather in Porto

If you are expecting the high temperatures of the Algarve, you might be disappointed. Due to its more northerly location on the west coast, the hottest month tends to be July with temperatures averaging 20 degrees Celsius / 67 degrees Fahrenheit. January is the coolest, averaging 10 degrees Celcius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Although it has to be said that these temperatures act only as a rough guide. At the time we were in Porto late June/early July we experienced a wide range of temperatures. The thermometer hit a high of 30 degrees Celcius / over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a trip up the Douro valley and also a low in the mid-teens degrees, Celcius / low 60s degrees Fahrenheit on the Atlantic coast.

July is the driest month with around 20mm of rainfall and December is the wettest with 175mm. December has the record for the lowest average hours of sunshine at 3 per day. June and July share the highest average at 10 hours of sun per day.

Where Is Porto?

Portugal lies on the Iberian peninsula at the southwestern edge of mainland Europe, adjacent to Spain. Porto is 312km north and slightly east of the capital, Lisbon, 55.1km south-west of Braga, and 563km west and slightly north of the Spanish capital, Madrid.

Final Thoughts on Porto

Before we traveled there, I wondered if we would find enough to fill 12 days in Porto. I need not have worried. There was plenty to do. In fact so much, that I have material for several more related articles, which will follow in due course. I have no hesitation in recommending Porto as a great destination for a city break or a slightly longer holiday.

Your choice.

Sunset in Porto.

Sunset in Porto.

Explore More of Porto

  • Top 8 Travel Options in Porto and the Douro Valley
    Wondering how to make the most of the variety of transport types available in Porto to see as much as possible of the city and the Douro Valley? Here's a guide to being a savvy traveler in Porto based on what we learned during a 12-day trip there.
  • Where to Eat and Drink Around Porto on a Budget
    A guide to some of the most reasonably priced local restaurants and bars around Porto, Portugal, based on our experiences whilst visiting the area.
  • Exploring the Coast Near Porto
    A summer holiday to Porto exceeded our expectations. We had no difficulty filling 12 days with visits around the local area. This is a description of what we discovered as we explored some of the nearby coastline.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Liz Westwood

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