Portugal’s second largest city is built into its hillside cliffs, overlooking the Douro River. Charismatic and picturesque, with an endless supply of nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered by the avid traveler, the city is best unearthed on foot. Filled with history and monuments, as well as a thriving, cosmopolitan downtown area, the charming city of Porto is well worth a visit.
Here are the top ten things to do when visiting Portugal’s ‘capital of the North’.
1. Stroll the Historic City centre
The historic centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits proudly above the Douro River, like a colorful popup town. Portugal’s second largest city (after Lisbon) is characterized by rugged, tumbling houses, baroque churches and faded storefronts piled on top of each other in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Strolling along the narrow winding streets and up and down the rickety staircases is a must, to truly unearth the essence of the city.
2. Cross the Dom Luis Bridge
Opened in 1886, the Dom Luis Bridge once held the record for the longest iron arch in the world. Built by Gustav Eiffel, many people find the bridge reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower itself. The bridge sprawls across the Douro, connecting the historical centre of Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. The upper level is where the metro runs, but cars and tourist may cross on the lower level. Walking across the bridge is an experience well worth the incredible views.
3. Tour a port wine cellar
On the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia stand some of the most prestigious Port wine cellars known around the world. Many are open to the public for wine tastings and inexpensive tours that take you into the heart of the cellars. Private tours or those for large groups can normally be accommodated upon request, and if you want to buy port wine, dedicated personnel help answer all your port-related questions as you browse. With the famous names of port wine all in such close proximity, the most difficult part will be choosing which cellar to visit!
4. Beat the photo ban at the Livraria Lello
Certainly the oldest, easily the most interesting, and arguably the most beautiful bookstore in Portugal, if not the world – Livraria Lello is located in the city centre of Porto. The bookstore is widely tipped to have been an inspiration for parts of Harry Potter’s magical world, since JK Rowling lived in Porto prior to writing the books. Taking pictures inside the bookstore is prohibited, and those caught snapping shots are often asked to leave…but that doesn’t stop those hoping to seize a souvenir of the bookstore’s famous staircase.
5. Tempt a heart attack with a Francesinha
Porto’s most famous sandwich is quite frankly a coronary on a plate. The name Francesinha literally means ‘Little Frenchie’ as it is thought to have evolved from the croque monsieur. The signature lunch time dish comprises of two toasted bread slices, filled with three types of meat – wet-cured ham, linguica (fresh sausage) and steak. The entire concoction is covered in cheese, drenched in a tomato-beer sauce, and served on a plate of french-fries. Locals and tourists alike will argue over where to find the best Francesinha, often citing the sauce as the key secret ingredient in the success of the sandwich.
6. Ascend to the heights of Torre dos Clérigos
One of Porto’s most characteristic symbols, the baroque façade of the Clérigos Church and its bell tower can be seen from most places in the city. Built by Italian architect Nasoni and completed in 1763, the church and its tower are open to the public. Those braving the climb -240 steps in total- are rewarded with breathtaking views over the city. (I recommend the climb after trying the Francesinha!)
7. Ride Tram # 1
Porto’s tram #1 is one of three heritage line routes (the others being #18 and #22) Line 1 connects the city (at the Infante stop) to the seaside district of Foz do Douro. The ride is almost exclusively along the river bank and makes for wonderful views along the way. The ride itself – in a rickety antique tram car – adds to the all round experience of the tour. Although the line operates on a schedule, it arrived considerably late during our wait so I’d recommend allowing plenty of time for this activity. The tickets are sold on board and cost 2.5€ per person.
8. Feel the ocean breeze in Foz do Douro
Foz do Douro literally translates to ‘mouth of the Douro’ and is the seaside spot where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. This area is one of the most expensive places to live in Porto and is as such, inhabited by the city’s most affluent people. The main boardwalk is lined with palm trees and upmarket cafes and there is a lively vibe at night with the Felgueiras Lighthouse – which is situated at the edge of the Douro’s river mouth, creating a spectacular backdrop. Also worth visiting in the area is the Castelo do Queijo, a fortress dating from 1661, and Parque da Cidade, the largest park in Porto.
9. Soar above the city in the funicular
With unsurpassable views over the Ribeira, Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia the Funicular dos Guindais is well worth the 2€ price tag. The journey is quite short, approximately 3 minutes – and at the top, travelers are treated to a panoramic view of the city and the Dom Luis Bridge. Whilst the funicular shuttles its fair share of tourists up and down the steep incline from Batalha to the quayside at Ribeira, it’s also frequented by locals who avoid making the steep climb by foot.
10. Slow it down with a boat tour on the River Douro
Whether it be an hour-long trip along the banks of the city, travelling under the famous six bridges; or a longer cruise from Porto to a nearby town like Regua or Pinhão, cruising along the Douro offers a unique perspective of the Portuguese landscape. Some tours can last much longer – up to a week, and there are various tour operators in the area ensuring that prices are competitive.