What to visit in Porto
Porto – The city after which the country is named. Divided in two by the river Douro, to the north is the suburb of Gaia, and to the south the historic center of Porto. Porto’s center is quite small and the main sights are all within walking distance. Across the river, along the riverbank in the town of Gaia, are the famed port wine bodegas.
You will need at least 2 days to see all that Porto has to offer. Below I suggest where to go, what to visit, and give you some insight on my favourite port wine bodegas.
Azulejos – The blue tiles
The azulejos tiles and their designs, which were mostly created in the early 1900’s, account for a large part of the decoration adorning the walls of the buildings in the center of Porto. Besides the cathedral, there are three other buildings to visit and see these precious pieces of art.
The building best known for its Azuelos is the train station of Sao Bento. Inside is a work of art that required 20,000 tiles to create and describes forms of travel used by the Portuguese in different areas of the country. On another wall, a scene of a battle (of Valdevez) is displayed, this one covers almost the entire wall. Many visitors come from all over just to admire the tiles, not to mention that it’s a fully-functioning train station.
A 10 minute walk from the station is the Capela das Almas (Chapel of the souls), which has nearly 16,000 tiles on its outside walls; they represent the lives of Sao Francisco de Assis and Santa Catarina. It’s a wondrous work of art to be admired from all sides.
The last beautiful example of the stunning handicraft of azuelos is the Igreja do Carmo church.
Its not-so-small side is decorated entirely and is a beautiful sight indeed.
Sights and historic buildings
When talking about heritage, there is plenty to see in Porto. To make it easy, I’ll list the top 3 historic buildings that are highly recommended to visit.
The Palácio da Bolsa is one of the most emblematic buildings and dates back to the 19th century; it’s located in the center and is now the Stock Exchange. Make sure to go inside and visit the Salao Árabe (Arabian Hall). A total of 18 kg. (40 lb.) of gold was used to decorate this room in stunning artistic Moorish designs.
Right next to it is the Igreja de Sao Francisco (San Francisco church). Tor those into architecture – is a masterpiece – with a Gothic style exterior and Baroque style interior. The altar is a gem with wood carving and images such as the Tree of Jesse (Life) plus Moorish beheadings. Part of the church is decorated with gold leaf carvings, giving it a more unique touch than in the standard churches in Portugal.
An iconic religious building worthy of a visit is Porto´s cathedral, simply called “Se” in Portuguese.
A 10-minute walk and 50 meters uphill from the San Francisco church, it’s a short and steep climb and offers some great panoramic views of the city and its river. Many physical changes took place at the cathedral over the centuries, notably those of the 18th century when azulejo tiles became quite trendy. Two enormous panels with blue and white tiles depict the old daily life in the countryside, it includes scenes of hunting and excerpts from mythology. These amazing blue and white azulejos still clad the walls of “Se”, originally built in the 12th century, and are reason enough to visit.
Port wine bodegas
Porto has dozens of bodegas producing the fortified “Port”wine, and most of them offer tours. The largest concentration of bodegas is just across the river in the town called Vila Nova da Gaia, a 10-minute walk from the center across the Ponte Luís I bridge.
So, which ones to visit? Well here is a top 3 selection of bodega´s, each one with its own character. The one thing that makes this bodega exclusive is that the building is built on top of an old convent. Dona Antonia Ferreira, the daughter of the founder of the bodega,is a symbolic figure in Douro´s history by showing an example of altruism and generosity to those in need.
This bodega is one of only a few that is still being used for production- and is not just a showroom. When visiting during the week, people are still working here and you’ll see the process of making Port wine.
There are several different types of tours, the main difference being the type of port you´ll be served at the end.
This is one of the most well-known ports in the world, as well one of the oldest. It was founded in 1692, and is the most popular bodega among visitors to the city of Porto, to an extent that they have audio-guides in 10 other languages.However, this might also be a disadvantage as the tour is self-guided, so many questions you may have won’t be answered. This bodega can also become quite busy.
They have some extensive descriptions and include films and photographs. With the audio-guide, you´ll leave with a good understanding of the way the bodega works. You’re able to move around the bodega at your own pace, which can be an advantage to the more independent traveler.
- Bodega Croft
The oldest active bodega in Porto dates back to 1588, and though one of the smaller bodegas, the experience does get more intimate and personal. Croft is known for its exclusive Vintage and Tawny port wines and was the first one to put a rosé port wine on the market in 2008.
There are several tours available. I would definitely recommend upgrading your tour this time to the option of a better tasting, since they do make some great port wines here.
These are some final tips for those who would like to go off-road, get some local tips, or visit curious places.
Cais da Ribeira (riverside pier) is just as the name says – a promenade where you can walk and catch some great views of both the port bodegas and Porto. Both during the day and in the evening, it is an excellent place for a leisurely stroll and has plenty of terraces to enjoy a coffee or a glass of local wine.
Next up is the Livraria Lello bookshop. This bookshop gained its fame after the release of the Harry Potter movies came out – since the writer J.K. Rowling was inspired by, and then used this book shop as the school’s library in the movie. Due to too many people entering the bookstore just to take pictures and thus spoiling the experience of the customer, there is now an entrance fee, which is later refunded with the purchase of a book. Even though you might not be the biggest Harry Potter fan, the shop is still worth peeking into to see its spooky interior.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, which McDonald´s is the most beautiful of them all? A very curious and little known fact, is that next to the Sao Bento train station is the McDonald´s which was nominated as the most beautiful McDonalds in the world. Being a great fan of Portuguese food, this recommendation only suggests taking a snapshot of the restaurant. In the entrance, a bronze eagle spreads its wings above a golden-colored McDonald´s sign. Once inside you’ll notice the stained glass windows and the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The building used to belong to a coffee house from the 1930s, and when the McDonald’s restaurant was installed, the company decided to leave the interior just as it was. For those who want to have a delightful coffee experience in the same style, go to a coffee house called Majestic House, which dates from 1921, and is just a few minutes’ walk.
Well, there you have it, my tips for your visit to Porto. I hope you gained some insight, some information, and that these tips will make your stay in Porto even better. The combination of great gastronomy, the Douro river flowing through the center, the famous blue tiles… it’s a city that never ceases to amaze and is surely a great city to visit.