Porto is the second biggest city in Portugal, nested in the Douro River bay, in the northern part of the country. The renowned Port wine gave worldwide fame to this beautiful location, placing in on the map a long time ago. However, numerous travel awards given to the city prove there’s much more to do that sipping on the sweet nectar. Whether it’s admiring historical monuments, enjoying local cuisine, sun bathing in pristine beaches or traveling upriver on a boat tour, options abound. Discover Porto, and Portugal, at your own pace and in your own way. This is Portugal Trails’ list of 15 best things to do in Porto.
1. Cross the Dom Luis I Bridge
First on the list is possibly Porto’s most iconic sight, the metal arch bridge of Dom Luis. It was named in honor of the then ruling king and was designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, Théophile Seyrig. It connects Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, the city on the other margin of the Douro River. The Dom Luis Bridge has two levels, the upper one used by the above ground Metro, the lower one open for car traffic. Both levels have areas for pedestrians, therefore providing different level views, connecting to different parts of Porto and Gaia. The higher bridge deck allows for an ample panorama of the river and the cities on each margin. Crossing the lower platform gets you closer to the scenic Rabelo boats that carry the Port wine downriver. It is from this deck that local kids jump from to impress onlookers, in exchange for a few euros. Crossing the Dom Luis Bridge is one of the most wonderful (and free) things to do in Porto, offering amazing views. It is also a great connection between the Port wine cellars and the Cais da Ribeira promenade sights.
2. Stroll around the World Heritage Ribeira neighborhood
Riverside in Ribeira, Porto
The historic centre of Porto drops downhill to the Douro River, making Ribeira a vibrant and interesting place in town. Beaming with history, the riverside promenade goes along stacked colorful buildings and arcades, some renovated into glamorous restaurants and hotels. It is an area where the old meets the new, allowing for scenic sights of the river and Gaia laying across. Esplanades are lined up next to one another, inviting you to sit and have a drink while admiring the view. One of the arches seen here is Postigo do Carvão, the only remnant of the city walls of the 14th century. It is an archway that connects the Ribeira pier to a street further above, therefore demonstrating the neighborhood’s historical relevance. Through this narrow corridor men carried the shipments that arrived in the boats docked bellow to the streets further uptown. Nearby is the Casa do Infante, housing Porto’s Municipal Archives and showing roman archeological findings dug in the area. The view, restaurants, and historical surroundings explain why Ribeira is classified World Heritage Site, and number two on our list of best things to do in Porto.
3. Climb the baroque Clérigos Tower to enjoy the view
The Clérigos Tower is a city landmark, part of a complex that also includes a church and museum with the same name. The church displays a recently renovated interior with a beautiful marble altarpiece and two impressive and still functioning pipe organs. In the museum, located where the old nursing ward was, we find an extensive religious art collection worthy of notice. However, it is the Clérigos Tower that is the highlight of the whole structure and most visited part of the site. The 225 steps are worth climbing, for the scenic veranda at the top offers a magnificent panoramic view of Porto. A landscape reader on the platform explains what the most important sighted buildings are, therefore enhancing the observing experience. All three buildings on site were designed by Italian Nicolau Nasoni and are considered milestone works of the Portuguese late-baroque. Nasoni, who lived the latter half of his life in Porto, left his mark and work all throughout the city. Come prepared for the climb and make your way up the stone stairs, the scenery up top is truly amazing. Going up the Clérigos Tower to enjoy the view is something that you definitely should not miss doing in Porto.
4. Enter a fairy tale bookstore in Livraria Lello
Reading enables traveling without moving, but searching for a book in this centennial bookstore is a memorable voyage itself. Located in Porto’s center, Livraria Lello invites us inside to marvel at its spiraling staircase and intricate stained glass ceiling. On the exterior, the building’s neo-gothic façade displays symbolic panels in colorful mosaics with figures representing both art and science. Inside, books are displayed in detailed wooden shelves, next to pillars that hold busts of some of Portugal’s memorable writers. The bookstore opened in 1906 by the two book-loving Lello brothers, and still engages in connecting the city with literature. Its status as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world makes it normally crowded with curious visitors. To control admissions, access is done by purchasing a voucher, the value of which can be deduced on books purchase. Besides the books written in Portuguese, they also have several sections dedicated to foreign authors or even Portuguese authors translated. Whether or not a fan of reading, the amazing interior of the bookstore makes going inside worth it.
5. Gorge on a traditional Northern meal, the Francesinha
This item on the list of things to do in Porto is not for the feint-hearted, but deserves a mention. Throughout all of the Portuguese regions meal portions are known for their big size, but the North takes the prize. Porto has a diverse culinary tradition that includes roasts, sausages, the traditional cod and mouthwatering pastries like the Almond Tart. And then there is something that will raise your calorie intake to a whole new level, the famous Francesinha sandwich. It consists of a steak cluttered with several types of sausage and covered in melted cheese, dripping over the bread. Normally served with fries, it’s the tomato and beer sauce where the sandwich is swimming in that makes the difference. The city restaurants compete between each other for the fame and glory of who has the better secret sauce recipe. Legend has it that this repast, translated as Little French Girl, was a Portuguese immigrant’s adaptation to a French croque-monsieur. A different story of origin explains that it was the French, during the Napoleonic invasions that brought the multi-layered sandwich. If you feel up for the quest, partake in this unique gastronomic experience, Porto locals do it all the time.
6. Visit a Port Wine cellar and go on a wine tasting
One of the most defining features of Porto, as well as the whole of Portugal, is the fantastic wine produced. The grapes that make the famous fortified sweet Port wine grow in the beautiful slopes of the Douro River Valley. After harvesting and processing, it is transported to Vila Nova de Gaia to be stored in the various existing cellars. These cellars, belonging to different brands, can be visited to learn more about the trade, ending normally with a tasting. The most famous names are located just across the river from Porto’s center, next to the Dom Luis I Bridge. A lot of Port brands have English names because of the British investment in the trade, dating back to the 1700s. The Douro region is the third oldest protected wine region in the world, making Port wine a historic beverage. Visiting the cellars is an interesting activity, one of great importance in the city because of the wine’s significance. For wine enthusiasts, Portugal Trails will create your customized tour focused on the splendid wine and food Portugal has to offer. Every tour is tailor-made and adapted to your interests, providing you with all the tools for an enhanced travel experience.
7. Enjoy the beach and have a seafood meal in Foz or Matosinhos
Porto stretches westward to the Atlantic, where the Douro River mouth meets the area known as Foz. Here begin the lengthy sidewalk and bike path that go along the coast, where access to the beaches is made. There are several beaches to choose from, but the further away from the city, the longer the stretches of sand. The path goes north for 4km, until it reaches the other watercourse that intersects the city of Porto, Leça River. Before the Leixões harbor lies the immense Praia de Matosinhos, the biggest of these urban beaches and meeting point for surfers. Between the Foz and Matosinhos areas are plenty of beautiful beaches to choose from, as well as several restaurant options. In these places the menu normally highlights local fish and seafood, making it important to ask about the daily catch. The most important thing when choosing where to eat is deciding what sort of gastronomic experience you wish to have. The Foz neighborhood is famed for its refined esplanades and elegant outfits, including a restaurant awarded with a Michelin star. Matosinhos offers more down-to-earth experiences, with Marisqueiras (seafood restaurants) charcoal-broiling a diverse array of fish and seafood on the streets. Both options are great thing to do in Porto, particularly after a pleasant day enjoying one of the city’s beaches. Even better is to have your itinerary planned thoroughly by local experts beforehand, and all your reservations taken care of. Your Portugal Trails customized trip will allow you enjoy all the wonderful things Portugal offers, with none of the hassle.
8. Marvel at a ceramic tile masterpiece inside the São Bento trains station (plus the nearby world’s most beautiful McDonalds)
The Avenida dos Aliados is Porto’s main downtown artery, sloping from the majestic city hall building to D. Pedro IV’s statue. Crossing the street from this southern side we see the French-styled São Bento Train Station, central station from suburban connections. Going inside the first hall is recommended even when not taking the train, the walls between the archways hold beautiful artwork. These magnificent ceramic tile panels are a city’s milestone, altogether over twenty thousand blue and white pieces laid in 1905. Representing episodes of Portuguese history or ethnographic events like farming and processions, they call for contemplation in the busy entrance. Also normally crowded is the famous burger chain restaurant that stands in the southeast side of the Avenida dos Aliados. This best thing to do in Porto idea doesn’t need to involve eating inside, but is worth a peek. The McDonalds franchise took over the remarkable Café Imperial building in 1995, when it was in clear need of restoration. Work was done with the goal of rebuilding the interior while maintaining the art-deco elements of this 1930s’ emblematic café. The hanging chandeliers, the carved friezes and the majestic stained glass windows behind the counter catch your eyes at once. The bronze eagle that gave the name to the café was maintained in the frontispiece, now behind the brand name. Both these buildings are worth going inside for a look, conveniently located in the city center and with free admission.
9. Take a boat cruise up the Douro River
Porto’s surroundings are also amazing and a boat ride upstream the Douro is one of the best daytrips from town. It allows you to observe the beautiful countryside, where vine covered hills slope down and blend with the calm river. You will traverse under several bridges linking both margins, while your eyes follow the green and brown terraces along the valley. It will give you a glimpse of Northern Portugal’s rural life and its hard working inhabitants, even if from afar. If you go upriver enough, you can visit the International Douro Natural Park and spot some of it’s incredibly biodiversity. The Park covers a large area and also encompasses Spain, where cliffs are more arid due to longer sun explosion. There is an abundant offer of Douro River cruises, with different things to do, in Porto’s area or its outskirts. The best way to enjoy your boat ride is to choose the right one, with the help of Portugal Trails. Whether focusing on wine tastings, kayak rides or observing nature, our local knowledge will help you pick your perfect fit. Contact us to know more about how to explore the Douro Valley, be it by boat, car, train or helicopter.
10. Catch a music concert and admire the exuberant building of Casa da Música
If there is one contemporary structure that stands out in Porto for its astonishing look, it is Casa da Música. Located on the eastern end of Avenida da Boavista, this interestingly shaped building lays like a spacecraft waiting to take-off. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas when the city was European Capital of Culture in the year 2001. Inside it holds two separate auditoriums for musical performances, as well as a smaller venue hall on the upper floor. After the official inauguration with a Lou Reed concert, the Casa da Música has been hosting many different musical experiences. The schedule includes concerts on a daily basis that range several musical styles from classical, jazz to pop and fado. The restaurant inside the building sometimes has dinners where the menu is devised according to the artist performing that evening. If music and architecture are interests of yours, consider adding this to your list of things to do in Porto. This way you will be able to visit an internationally renowned concert hall as well as enjoy a musical show.
11. Walk through Parque da Cidade, taking in the fresh air and its immense green
When in need of reconnecting with nature or going for a run, Parque da Cidade is the place to go. Considered the biggest urban park in Portugal, it spreads out for 80 hectares, from Avenida da Boavista to the ocean. Take a relaxing walk or a run in the open grassy fields or shaded by tall pine and oak trees. Facilities inside include football pitches, beach volley area, a restaurant, bathrooms and 10 kilometers of to walk, run or cycle. There are also several lakes by the grass where ducks go to rest and locals go to enjoy scenic picnics. Spring time brings blossoming flowers and the Nos Primavera Sound festival, closing part of the park for the music concerts. During three days in June the natural setting is enhanced with the sound played onstage by indie and alternative bands. The grand size of Parque da Cidade allows for everyone to enjoy the setting, even when the Primavera is happening. A walk in this lovely park is one of the best outdoor activities the city of Porto has to offer. Try visiting when in the nearby Matosinhos area, this way you can enjoy both the beach and the calming nature.
12. Embrace the contemporary art exhibits that Fundação Serralves has to offer
The Fundação Serralves comprises different settings with a lot to explore, making it a great thing to do in Porto. Altogether it includes the Casa de Serralves, the surrounding homonymous Parque, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Casa do Cinema. The Foundation that manages the entire precinct is one of Portugal’s leading cultural institutions, enriching the lives of all visitors. Originally, the Casa de Serralves was the long-lived dream project of the Count of Vizela, serving as his private residence. It’s considered the most relevant example of art-deco in Portugal, and was bought by the state from the property heirs. The beautiful Serralves Park, also planned by the Count, was inspired in Victorian designs and is an important landscaping heritage. Walking these grounds is like travelling back to Romantic times, where calm gravel paths are encircled by trees and shrubs. Besides these estate features, the Foundation presents to visitors the Museum, designed by Siza Viera, and the House of Cinema. The iconic Museum is dedicated to contemporary art in Portugal, housing an impressive permanent collection, besides temporary exhibitions and performances. Check out what the Serralves agenda has to offer, interesting activities are happening all the time, both indoors and outdoors.
13. Admire the exuberant interiors of the Palácio da Bolsa and the gothic Igreja de São Francisco
In the Infante D. Henrique Square we see the statue of that noble figure, thought to have been born nearby. This notorious character of the Portuguese Discoveries points to the sea, and towards the most interesting buildings surrounding the plaza. Although split apart by five centuries, the Igreja de São Francisco and the Palácio da Bolsa stand side by side. The first is a gothic church that began being constructed as a Franciscan monastery, known for its beautiful gilded interiors. The latter is a neoclassical marvel, home to Porto’s Stock Exchange, where the grandeur of the different rooms impress visitors. Both buildings deserve a detailed visit, being two opulent representations of the city different classes, in distinct periods of time. The Palace was built over the ruins of the surrounding Church areas destroyed by a fire, bounding both buildings historically. The fire was a result of gunfight during the Siege of Porto, a turning point of the Portuguese Civil War. The buildings stand alongside one another in the historical center, so if you can save some time to visit both. These sights are two of the city’s most culturally significant places, therefore two things you should not miss in Porto.
14. Immerse yourself in the local nightlife at the Galerias
Like in any other cosmopolitan city, exploring the nightlife is also one of the important things to do in Porto. Luckily, there is one area in town that comprises some of the best bars, restaurants, dancing grounds and people-watching territories. The parallel streets of Cândido dos Reis and Galeria de Paris are commonly known as the Galleries, offering diverse entertainment. This is where locals and visitors go to enjoy a meal, have some drinks and put on their dancing shoes. Like other nightly hangouts, people normally grab their drinks inside the bars and, weather allowing, stand out on the street. Since this is a trendy spot in town with several neighboring establishments, the streets can get crowded, especially on weekends. It’s a great place for some end of the day fun, enjoying a drink in a lively and beautiful setting. Some interesting choices include the Galeria the Paris, an old textile warehouse turned into restaurant and bar with fado performances; Casa do Livro Bar, which serves drinks and kept its lovely bookshop décor, sometimes offering live music of different styles; Plano B, arguably the best dancing spot around, a two-floored cultural site, with interesting interiors and three different music rooms.
15. Ride the Gaia Cable Car and embrace the vistas
While exploring the southern margin of the Douro River, the Gaia Cable Car provides a fantastic aerial view of town. Choose which departing station to begin your sky voyage at, knowing that each one has different surrounding places of interest. The upper station is just below the Serra do Pilar Monastery, itself a wonderful viewpoint over the Dom Luis I Bridge. This entrance has an esplanade and connects with the top bridge platform, therefore a walking distance from Porto’s historical center. On this end there are several Porto sights you cannot miss, so bear that in mind when planning your ride. The lower cable car station is near the Rabelo boats and the Port wine cellars, allowing for a tasting afterwards. The trip goes for about 5 minutes and takes you to an altitude of 300 meters on the highest end. Get your camera ready to capture some amazing shots during the ride, it will offer you superb views all around.