Thanks to an increasing number of flights touching down at Porto’s international airport, the second largest city in Portugal is fast becoming one of Europe’s must-see destinations.
Framed by the North Atlantic Ocean and the Douro River, a visit to the Porto District comes with a warning: many fall in love with its ramshackle charm and don’t want to leave. In the old city centre, steep streets twist past centuries-old buildings that seem to sigh with every breath; washing flaps against rusted railings; cats peer out from splintered doorways; and wild vines festooned with purple flowers cascade down hillsides.
Beneath this rustic surface is a city finding its 21st century groove. Trendy bars, luxury hotels and fashionable boutiques continue to pop up like mushrooms.
This Porto city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
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For a taste of Porto’s flourishing cultural scene, start with a visit to the ‘House of Music’.
Casa da Música’s modern architecture is an attraction in itself and the concert hall offers a schedule of (sometimes free) live performances. Check their website to see what’s on during your visit.
For a look at Porto’s contemporary art scene, head to Rua Miguel Bombarda. On one Saturday afternoon every second month, the galleries along this strip simultaneously change their exhibitions and put on live entertainment. As you stroll through the city, also keep your eyes peeled for works by two of Portugal’s best known graffiti artists — Costah and Hazul.
If festivals are your thing, you might like to time your visit to Porto with the São João Festival in late June — an all-in celebration dedicated to the city’s patron saint. Along with eating, drinking and dancing, people wander about hitting each other with giant plastic hammers (a strange tradition, yes, but certainly a lot of fun!).
Porto for history lovers
In Porto’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre, the streets and buildings themselves share the story of the city’s rich past.
For example, the Sé Cathedral in the city’s oldest district presents a fusion of architectural styles from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Remnants of the old city walls can be seen nearby.
A visit to some of Porto’s gold-laden churches, such as the neighbouring Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas (connected by an astonishingly narrow house), gives an appreciation of the historical prestige the city has enjoyed. The giant tiled murals inside the São Bento train station illustrate specific stories from Portugal’s past.
For a more detailed look at the history of Porto, visit Casa do Infante — the city’s former Customs House and supposed birthplace of one of Portugal’s most historic figures: Prince Henry the Navigator. It’s now a free museum. The Misericórdia do Porto history museum and church is also well worth seeing.
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For the most part, Porto’s culinary offering is very traditional — which is perfect if you want to feel like a true ‘tripeiro’ (a nickname used to describe the people of Porto, meaning ‘tripe eater’).
Never fear — there are plenty of less confronting local specialties to tempt you.
To sample a selection of typical Portuguese tapas, Museu d’Avó is a great choice. It has a playfully cluttered interior that accurately reflects its name — ‘Grandma’s museum’. For a more sophisticated take on Portuguese cuisine, Tapabento offers big share plates at reasonable prices.
You can’t beat the exceptional value at Comme Ça — where a delicious lunch of bread, salad, a set menu main and a coffee will set you back around €5.
To escape the city centre, make the pleasant journey along the Douro River by foot, bus or tram to the river mouth suburb of Foz and try Bar Tolo. The intimate three-level restaurant serves a range of flavoursome dishes and includes a small rooftop bar.
Further along in the beachside area of Matosinhos, you’ll find smoke billowing from outdoor barbecues as the catch of the day is grilled on the street. Pull up a chair at one of the many restaurants to enjoy the freshest of seafood.
Back in the city centre, seafood lovers will also love Moules and Co. Share a giant bucket of mussels and crunchy fries in the outdoor courtyard.
Where to shop in Porto
Porto’s main shopping strip is Rua de Santa Catarina.
Amid the pedestrian hustle and bustle you’ll find street vendors selling ceramics and Portugal’s famous cork products — such as pencil cases, bags and necklaces. Nearby is the colourful and chaotic Bolhão food market, where you can also pick up a range of Portugal-themed trinkets.
For a more interesting souvenir, check out Oliva and Co. They offer a selection of Portugal’s finest olive oils. Ask for a free tasting to learn about the different flavours, producers and olive growing regions across the country.
Take a stroll down Rua do Almada and scope out funky clothing, jewellery and knick-knacks at stores like Almada em Branco and Workshops Pop Up (where they also run Portuguese cooking classes).
Continue down the street to the boutique clothing and shoe store The Feeting Room. Enjoy a quality brew at the store’s onsite cafe — The Coffee Room.
Ways to relax in Porto
The Portuguese have long recognised the relaxing properties of a good port wine.
Try Porto’s famous tipple during a visit to one of the many wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia (know as just ‘Gaia’) — located directly across the river from the city. Good choices are Graham’s, Ramos Pinto, and Croft.
If you’re in need of further R&R, wander through the beautiful Palácio de Cristal gardens or head for Parque da Cidade — which at 83 hectares, is Portugal’s largest urban park. A cruise down the Douro River is a chance to rest your weary feet. You’ll learn about life on Porto’s working waterway and its fascinating (and enormous) bridges.
When the sun sets, make your way up to Porto Cruz’s rooftop bar to sample the city’s signature cocktail — the porto tonico (white port and tonic water). It’s served with an incredible view across the city and river.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Emily McAuliffe is an Australian travel writer and photographer based in Portugal. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications, including Qantas and Jetstar’s inflight magazines, Get Up and Go, and Women’s Fitness. Visit Emily’s blog for more inspiring Portuguese travel stories.