Eurofile lives in the UK. She travels regularly around Europe with her husband, and they have visited Portugal many times.
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 carving itself a deserved niche on the Portuguese tourist trail. Porto delivers a memorable and rewarding experience for visitors.
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 three 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.
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
- 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, 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 is 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 climbed 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 houses a photographic museum. The jail closed after 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. It is interesting to spot familiar models from bygone, pre-digital days.
Read More from WanderWisdom
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 from 1991 to 1993 and wrote part of the first Harry Potter book 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.
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.
Having had a great experience on a free walking tour of Lisbon the previous year, we signed up for the walking tour towards the end of our time in Porto. It did not 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 visit.
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.