Top 12 Sights to See in Porto
Why Go to Porto?
When you think of Portugal as a travel destination, what springs to mind? Some would say the capital, Lisbon, which features on cruise itineraries, while others might picture the sunny beaches of the Algarve on the south coast, but few would mention Porto—Portugal’s second-biggest city on the north-west coast and the place from which many think the country took its name.
In recent years things have changed. 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, delivering a memorable and rewarding experience for all who visit.
Having already visited the Algarve several times and also Lisbon, Portugal had become a favorite holiday destination for us, not least because it is one of the more reasonable European countries to visit. There can’t 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 and cheap flights from the UK and, for us, it was a no-brainer.
Where to Go in Porto
Most people call in briefly on Porto at the start or 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 a little more thorough. Here are the top 12 places we visited in the city, followed by more information for travelers.
Top 12 Sights in Porto
- Torre dos Clerigos
- Centro Portugues de Fotografia
- Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas
- Livraria Lello
- Estacao Sao Bente
- Se Catedral
- Palacio da Bolsa
- Igreja de Sao Francisco
- The River Douro
- Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar
- 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, getting your bearings, and the weather.
1. Torre dos Clerigos
It can be helpful in an unfamiliar city, to find a good viewpoint, from which you can get an idea of the overall layout and the geography. I would recommend Torre dos Clerigos, at the top of Rua Clerigos and overlooking Praca de Lisboa to the north of the Ribeira area, which runs down to the northern banks of the Douro river. Once you have negotiated the 225 step spiral staircase, you are rewarded with panoramic views over the city.
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 all included in the cost.
Admission to the tower and museum is 5 euros (9 am- 7 pm) and the same price for the tower only at night (7pm-11pm).
Tip: choose your time carefully, as the top of the tower and steps up can get crowded at busier times of the day.
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, with many original features retained and photographs of previous inmates, 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.
Entrance to the photographic museum is free.
3. Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas
Located on Rua do Carmo, a few minutes walk to the north-west 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.
Entrance is free to both churches and they are worth a look inside, with their well-gilded naves.
4. Livraria Lello
Amongst its more famous residents, Porto boasts that J.K. Rowling lived here, whilst teaching English 1991-1993. It is said that she wrote part of her Harry Potter book whilst here and that 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 inspired the one in Harry Potter. Whatever the truth behind the tale, the bookshop’s owners have never looked back since. They now charge 5 euros for admission, which is deductible against any book purchases, as many tourists were there to view only and book sales fell. It is now advisable to pre-book your visit to avoid lengthy queues and tickets are sold next door.
Tip: If, like us, you are put off by the queues, the inside of the shop is illuminated in the evening, so a reasonable photograph can be taken after 7.30pm when all the crowds have gone.
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. ‘So what? it’s just a station’ you might say. But take a look inside and you will understand why this station merits a 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, and depicting historic battles and the history of transport.
Tip: If you are interested in finding out more about the background to the scenes depicted, you could always sign up for a free walking tour of Porto, which starts in front of Porto’s welcome center opposite the station, as we did.
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, as the guide took us in the Welcome center and spent some time explaining the interactive displays in there, before getting us to line up for a group photo. I now realize that this was done early on before too many people dropped out. 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 obviously 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 walk 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’s 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 would 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 various languages
Tip: Be organized and plan your visit in advance to ensure that you can book a tour in English at a time that suits you. It took us two attempts to get on a tour. On the first occasion, turning up on spec did not work, as the English tour was full. At the second attempt, we arrived earlier and booked a tour for later that day. It cost us 8.50 euros each.
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 of sculptors. 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 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, as it stands up from 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.
It cost us 4.50 euros each to enter and, as photography was banned, we spent a further 1 euro on an information leaflet. In all honesty, having visited other churches for free and having taken photos of ornate naves elsewhere, I can say that we were fairly underwhelmed by this church. Therefore, I would not recommend it unless you have a particular interest in baroque churches. Admission included entry to the church museum and the catacombs.
Places to see North of the River
9. The River Douro
Without a doubt, the focal point of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia is the River Douro, which separates the two. 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 with stalls selling boat trips on the river, which set off from here as well as the water taxi, which regularly travels across to Gaia on the other side.
Tip: If on a budget, don’t be tempted to stop for food here before exploring the other side of the river, where eating places get cheaper the further you walk along away from the bridge.
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.
It’s 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 quite a jostle facing oncoming pedestrians with traffic passing you, as you also negotiate those who stop to take photographs and selfies.
To my mind some of the best views of Porto are to be had looking back from the Vila Nova da Gaia side of the River Douro or from the teleferico da Gaia (cable car) that travels between a station near the upper level of the bridge down to further along the Gaia promenade, handily located for the berthing place of the river cruisers.
The teleferico is a painless way of accessing the upper level of Ponte de Dom Luis 1, which I would highly recommend. Although it can be slightly unnerving having the metro passing you with little between you, other than a few well-spaced out bollards, the walkways are wider than on the lower level and the views back over the river, Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia are stunning.
The alternative to the teleferico is a steep walk up steps from the Gaia side, not for the faint-hearted, a steep walk up from the Cais de Ribeira side 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.
Tip: For great free views of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, the Douro and some of its bridges, you can access the terrace in front of the monastery for no charge.
Tip: As the monastery is on what is part of a military base, to explore inside and up on the top, you need to book onto a 40 minute guided tour leaving every hour between 10.30 am and 12.30pm and between 2.30pm and 5.30pm.
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 ever complete without a section on its most famous export, port wine, Vinho do Porto, or simply port. This fortified wine is made from grapes grown in the Douro valley and 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, where 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.
Taylor’s is located further uphill than a lot 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 well worth it when we got there.
To walk through the gates is to walk into another world, with its English grounds and 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 it right 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 and we found the measures fairly generous.
Our tour cost us 12 euros each and included tastings of three port wines.
Tip: pick up a tourist map, widely available in hotels or tourist information offices, and you will find the offer of a free glass of vintage port upon presentation of the map at Taylor’s.
Your tasting session is expanded to sample 4 of Taylor’s port wines and your walk back down to the river becomes a little more unsteady.
Tip: unless you have your heart and your budget set on an expensively branded vintage port, I would advise looking in a supermarket, where perfectly acceptable bottles of Port can be purchased for a fraction of the cost.
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.
A popular place for a quiet stroll, the gardens are also 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 da Gaia.
Tip: June/July is not the best time to view these gardens. If at all possible try to visit in early spring to catch everything in bloom.
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 into the center of the city costs 25-30 euros. The metro or bus services offer a cheaper option.
Where to Stay in Porto
As with any city expanding into the tourist market, Porto now 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 Porto, to the Holiday Inn Express Exponor, near Matosinhos and within walking distance of the coast, or the Hotel Ibis Budget Porto Gaia. Along with a host of others branded and independent, as well as self-catering apartments in the center 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 temperatures up to the high 30 degrees Celcius / over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a trip up the Douro valley and also 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 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 needn’t 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.
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© 2018 Liz Westwood