Porto is a lovely, atmospheric city, built on two sides of the deep Douro river gorge in Portugal. It is a place steeped in history, with charming cobbled streets, beautiful tiled buildings and centuries of tradition, plus warm Portuguese culture, of course. Read on for a breakdown of all the best things to do in Porto, Portugal.
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Why Visit Porto?
Porto is famed for its Azulejos, so I had this image of Porto as being a place of vivid blues. But actually, the colour of my lasting impression of Porto is a palate of muted tones.
If Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is a cheerful extrovert that’s easy to love, Porto felt like Lisbon’s cooler, edgier sister. She’s perhaps a little bit ‘alternative’ – certainly doing her own thing and she doesn’t seem bothered if you like her or not.
I’d heard great things about Porto before I went – including that it was the best ‘second city’ in Europe. Personally, I still think Barcelona retains that title, but Porto is a charming city to explore.
On my visit to Porto, it was overcast and rainy, so I may not have seen the city at its best, but I loved its dramatic form. The city is built on two sides of the steep Douro river gorge, crossed by impressive bridges. On one side of the Douro river is the ‘establishment Porto’: the main churches and municipal buildings are located on the north side, as is the old town, known as Ribeira. On the other side is Vila Nova de Gaia, industrial Porto, home of the many wine merchants producing the port wine for which Porto is famous. This guide to the best things to do in Porto will help you discover both sides of Porto.
Best Things To Do In Porto
Rather than one long list of things to do in Porto, I’ve grouped these up into the ‘umbrella’ things to do and given the detail and options within each.
1. Be Dazzled By The Azulejos
The Azulejos are what drew me to Porto, so seeing them is top of the list of things to do in Porto.
Azulejos are decorative painted ceramic tiles used on the interior and exterior of buildings. They are an ornamental art form but also function to keep buildings cool. They are a distinctive facet of traditional Portuguese architecture.
They can be all kinds of colours, but the stand-out Azulejos buildings in Porto are cobalt blue. Here are some of the best examples of Azulejos to seek out in Porto.
Igreja de Santo Ildefonso
Igreja de Santo Ildefonso stands proud on a raised platform in front of a small square, Batalha Square. It was built in 1732, but the blue Azulejo tiles you see date from 1932 and were created by Jorge Colaço. The tiles depict scenes from the life of Saint Ildefonso, bishop of Toledo until 667, and imagery from the Gospels of the bible.
Capela Das Almas
Capela Das Almas doesn’t have quite the same distinguished position as Igreja de Santo Ildefonso: it is situated on a corner of two busy streets in the middle of the shopping district. It even has a bus stop on one side. As such, it’s quite hard to fully appreciate it, because there’s no stand-back vantage point. This is a shame because the Azulejos here are vivid and striking – it’s one of my favourites.
The church was built in the 18th century and the tiles were added in 1929. They were designed by Eduardo Leite and they represent the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine, who are venerated in the chapel.
Igreja dos Carmelitas & Igreja do Carmo
These two get mentioned together because although they may look like one church, they are actually two, right next to each other. In fact, they are separated by a tiny house, known as Casa Escondida, meaning ‘hidden house’.
It’s hard to believe but that door between them is a house! The legend is that it was built to reduce the chance of contact between the nuns of Igreja dos Carmelitas and the monks of Igreja do Carmo. But it hasn’t been lived in since the 1980s and is now a museum you can pay to enter.
Igreja dos Carmelitas was part of a convent originally and was built in the 17th century. Igreja do Carmo came later in the mid-18th century (although the tiles, again, were added later).
São Bento Train Station
Not all the Azulejos in Porto are churches. The central train station of São Bento has some stunning examples in its interior.
The station was built in 1916 and the tiles depict moments in Portugal’s history, including battles and royal weddings. Even if you’re not getting a train, do check them out, because they are seriously impressive.
2. Admire Porto’s Landmarks
For me personally, the Azulejos are the most stunning landmarks in Porto, but there are some other buildings that are worth checking out.
Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos
Igreja dos Clérigos is an 18th century Baroque church, which has a tall, ornate bell tower, Torre dos Clérigos. The 76-metre tower is definitely the part which catches attention. You can get entrance to the tower to climb the 200-odd steps for a unique view of Porto. And it is also very impressive when its 49 bells ring!
Porto Cathedral or Sé do Porto, is an impressive landmark on the north side of the river. Built in the 12th century, this Romanesque-style cathedral is big and imposing, with two towers you can see from various standpoints in Porto.
Close to Porto Cathedral is the Episcopal Palace, or Paço Episcopa, which used to house the bishops of Porto. The 18th-century baroque building sits high up and dominates the skyline of Porto. It can be visited with a ticket to the cathedral.
Palacio de Bolsa
This 19th-century Neoclassical palace has some very ornate interiors and has been a National Monument since 1982. You can take a guided tour of Palacio de Bolsa.
Praça do Município / Praça do General Humberto Delgado
In the middle of Porto is a long, thing ‘square’, presided over by some austere-looking buildings. This is Praça do Município, also known as Praça do General Humberto Delgado. Here you can find Porto’s grand City Council building, a statue of Portuguese literary and political figure, Almeida Garrett.
3. Find A Viewpoint
Porto sometimes feels like a vertical city, built on the steep sides of the Douro gorge. Therefore, one of the best things to do in Porto is to find one of the great viewpoints, or miradouros, from which you can look over rooftops and see the city.
Other than Torre dos Clérigos, which I’ve already mentioned, here are some miradouros around Porto.
Miradouro da Vitória
This is quite an elevated viewpoint, giving south-ward views of the city, including the Episcopal Palace, Porto Cathedral and Ponte Luís I.
Miradouro da Rua das Aldas
This miradouro is a little smaller and closer to the river but gives nice views over the red rooftops of Porto and of the Ribeira district.
Miradouro Ponte de Dom Luís I
While many miradouros include views of the impressive Dom Luís I Bridge, the bridge itself offers a great viewpoint of the city. You can walk across the bridge as a pedestrian on either the lower or upper level, with both giving panoramic views. Note the paths are fairly narrow, though, so watch out for passing traffic.
Miradouro da Serra do Pilar & Miradouro do Teleférico
These miradouros are on the south side of the Douro river, near the Ponte Luís I bridge, so you will get stunning views of the north side of Porto.
4. Wander The Old Town, Ribeira
One of the most charming things to do in Porto is to wander the old town, the district called Ribeira. The centre of Porto is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and this includes Ribeira.
This old riverside area is a patchwork of narrow cobbled streets and tall buildings, many of which are tiled in yellow or blue.
Things To Do In Riberia
I think the best thing is just to wander without an agenda. It’s not a big area and it’s hard to get lost. The main risk is getting tired because some of the streets are pretty steep!
However, you might want to check out:
- Elevador da Ribeira, which will take some of the effort out of exploring the steep streets, by connecting Ribeira to the more elevated neighbourhood of Barredo.
- St Nicolas Church, a small blue-tiled church that is very pretty
- Praca Riberia –this small square near the river is the heart of Riberia
- Rua da Fonte Taurina – just off Praca Riberia, this narrow alley really gives the feel of medieval Porto
- Alminhas da Ponte – bronze shrines to commemorate the falling of one of Ribeira’s bridges in 1809
5. Relax On The Water Front
In addition to the viewpoints I mentioned earlier, there are lovely views of Porto from the riverbanks on both sides of the Douro river. These are also buzzy places that are great to hang out with a drink and do some people-watching (and Porto-watching)
Cais da Riberia
Ribeira’s waterfront promenade on the north bank of the Douro is called Cais da Riberia – and this is a really vibrant area. There are lots of restaurants with terrace seating, boats coming and going, street performers – and lots of people!
Marginal de Gaia
On the south side of the river, the vibes are slightly more chill. Along Marginal de Gaia, there are also restaurants and people but also benches to sit and watch the river go by. You’ll also see plenty of Rabelos, traditional boats used to transport barrels of port wine.
In fact, you can take a Douro river cruise in one of these Rabelo boats.
6. Taste Some Local Wine
Porto is within the Douro Valley, a world-renowned wine-producing region of Portugal. And Porto itself has given its name to Port wine, a fortified wine made from Douro grapes and ‘fortified’ with grape spirits. Trying some port or other local wines is one of the top things to do in Porto (provided you drink alcohol of course).
Port Wine Experiences
Port wine has been stored and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia for centuries and there are plenty of port warehouses which offer tours and tastings. These include Taylor’s, Graham’s and Cockburn’s.
World of Wine
As I’m not a fan of Port myself, I opted for a wine tour at World of Wine, which has an interactive exhibition about winemaking. It touches on Port wine but is much broader than that, showing you the way wine gets produced in the Douro Valley, covering the vines and how they’re cultivated; how the grapes get harvested and processed into wine; how they’re aged and bottled. There’s information on all the different varieties found in the area, plus a tasting at the end.
I found it to be a really interesting, engaging exhibition – though I would have liked to have tasted more than one wine at the end, haha.
Even if you don’t do a full-on wine tour, there are plenty of bars offering port wine tastings around the waterfront of Vila Nova de Gaia.
7. Try Some Local Food
While you’re in Porto, you must try some Portuguese Food. Portuguese cuisine isn’t as well known around the world as some others, but it is really delightful – characterised by an emphasis on seafood, with plenty of freshness.
I wrote a whole post about Portuguese dishes you should try, and the top of that list is of course pastel de nata, those gorgeous little custard tarts. You can’t leave Portugal without trying one!
Try The Legendary Francesinha Sandwich
One of the unique things to do in Porto is to try this local speciality – but only if you’re very hungry! The Francesinha is a double sandwich which consists of steak, sausage and ham, topped with a fried egg and covered in melted cheese. It is served in a pool of spicy gravy and normally served with chips. I tried (and failed to finish) a Francesinha at Piolho cafe.
Places To Eat In Porto
Here are a couple of places I ate that I recommend:
- Cantinho do Avillez – a relaxed place but with great food and great service
- Café A Brasileira – established in 1903, this is a Porto institution. Although the service is slow, it’s a good place to try a pastel de nata.
- Café Guarany – Although this is newer than A Brasileira, this one seems somewhat more old-fashioned. I quite liked it for those old-school vibes, though!
8. Be Spellbound By Harry Potter
Harry Potter fans have some extra things to do in Porto because there are some places known to have been frequented by JK Rowling when she lived in Porto at the time she started writing the Harry Potter books.
The two main places Harry Potter fans should visit are…
This café is in the Art Nouveau style and the rumour is that JK Rowling used to come to this café and write. Or it might be that she simply made notes on a napkin.
Café Majestic is on Rua Santa Catarina, a major shopping street.
This charming bookshop features a decorative twisting staircase and is believed to have inspired either Flourish and Blotts, the bookstore in Diagon Alley where Hogwarts students purchase their school books, or the Grand Staircase at Hogwarts – or maybe it inspired both!
Top Tip for visiting these two places: be prepared for queues! The biggest queues I saw anywhere in Porto were for these two places.
Map – Things To Do In Porto
Here’s a map of the things to do in Porto:
How To Use This Map: click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each one. If you click the star next to the title of the map, it will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu, go to ‘Your Places’, then click Maps and you will see this map in your list.
When To Visit Porto
The peak season to visit Porto is from June to early September. I visited just outside of that in late September and I did catch some overcast and wet weather, as you can see from my photos. But going in the shoulder seasons of April to May or September to October can be a less busy, more affordable time to visit.
How To Get To Porto
Where To Stay In Porto
I can recommend the hotel where I stayed in Porto. The Pestana Porto was great: it was very comfortable and it was close to the São Bento Train Station, where I arrived by train. It is also close to the Ribeira area and right next to A Brasileira.
I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Porto!
And if you need more inspiration for Portugal, check out my guide to exploring Lisbon, Portugal’s glorious capital.