Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Porto is known for its old-world architecture, gorgeous painted tiles (called azulejos), museums, port wine cellars, and more. It’s a historic city that’s right on the Douro River, in Northern Portugal.

In 2023, Porto won Europe’s Leading City Break Destination award for the third time, having won it previously in 2013 and 2020. This is no surprise! Porto is easy to get to, affordable compared to other European cities, has a walkable center, delicious food, and plenty to do.

Thinking about traveling to this Portuguese city? Read on to learn what Porto is known for, and 10 reasons why you should visit Porto, Portugal.

What is Porto famous for?

Porto is most famous for its azulejos, Port wine production, and historic centre, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. All throughout the city, you’ll notice intricate painted tiles (azulejos) used to decorate churches, train stations, and other buildings.

Porto’s other claim to fame is its port wine cellars. Port is a sweet red fortified wine that originates in Portugal, and in Porto, you can visit cellars to learn about its production and taste the wines.

And of course, Porto is a historic, cobble-stoned city, which is reason enough to visit. You’ll enjoy wandering through the city center, admiring architecture, squares (called “praça” in Portuguese), and more.

Whether you spend a weekend in Porto, a week, or longer, you’ll be sure to find plenty to do in enjoy throughout the city.

10 Reasons to Visit Porto, Portugal

Let’s dive into the details about what Porto is known for, why you should visit, and what should be on your list to visit when you travel to Porto.

1. History

Porto is known for being one of the oldest cities in Europe. Evidence of settlers in the city date back 2000 years, to the Bronze Age!

According to records, Porto officially started out as a town founded in 417. Over the centuries it had various rulers, including the Suevi, the Goths, and the Moors.

The town grew into a commercial hub, which developed the area into a city. And when the “Age of Discoveries” arrived, Porto had an important role in European affairs.

The city became a major trading port, and in the 15th century it was one of the greatest ship building centers in Portugal.

It was also in the 15th century that Portugal began to take part in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese acquired slaves to do labor on Atlantic African island plantations, and for plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

In 1756, Porto became an important industrial center because of its wine production. Many wealthy families built beautiful Baroque and neoclassical buildings during that period.

Throughout the 19th century, Porto became known as a progressive and liberal place. The city fought for civil rights, and many important writers and poets lived there during that time. Today, Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Clérigos Church and surrounding buildings in Porto, Portugal on a sunny day
Clérigos Church in Porto, Portugal

2. Architecture

Porto is known for its Baroque, neoclassical, and modernist architectural styles. You’ll notice the influence of these styles in the buildings and streets of the city. In fact, Porto’s architecture helped it earn its recognition as a UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

There are a couple notable places to visit in Porto to admire architecture.

Livraria Lello was originally a hotspot for Portugal’s literary scene, and has now become a popular tourist site. It’s an old bookstore known for its  neo-gothic features. The bookstore has a stained glass ceiling, wood carvings, ladders and rails for reaching books, and even a special room that is home to the bookstore’s oldest and rarest books.

Clérigos Church is a Baroque church in the center of Porto. The church is known for Its 75 meter tall bell tower, the Torre dos Clérigos. Both the church and the tower were built in the 18th century. Today, the Clérigos Tower is the tallest campanile in Portugal.

São João National Theatre is a theater and concert venue. You can go to see a show, or simply stop by to admire the building. The exterior of the building has a beautiful neoclassical façade with five arches and a huge central dome.

The Don Luis I Bridge is an iconic bridge that was built in 1881 by famed engineer Theophile Seyrig. The bridge spans 477 meters, and has 16 arches that rise above the Douro River. Its highest arch is 70 meters tall.

3. Gorgeous Churches

Porto is known for its many unique churches, many of which are intricately decorated. Here are a couple that are must-sees while in Porto.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is a Baroque style church that dates back to the 18th century. Its front is decorated with over 11,000 blue and white azulejos, which were added in 1932 by Jorge Colaço. The tiles depict the life of Saint Ildefonso, as well as religious stories. Inside Igreja de Santo Ildefonso you’ll find beautiful stained glass windows and a pipe organ that dates back to 1811.

The Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto in Portuguese) is one of the most important religious buildings in Porto. The cathedral sits at one of Porto’s highest points, overlooking the city. The construction of the Sé do Porto started in the 12th century, but it was rebuilt and also renovated a couple times throughout the centuries. When you first see the Sé from the outside, it looks a bit like a fortress or a castle, and so sometimes people don’t even realize it’s a cathedral.

The Capela das Almas (also known as the Chapel of Souls or St. Catherine Chapel), is an 18th century church, and it’s arguably one of the most famous churches in Porto. This is because the church is adorned with 15,000+ azulejos which depict the lives of notable saints.

the front of Igreja de Santo Ildefonso in Porto
Igreja de Santo Ildefonso in Porto

4. Art and Murals

There’s lots of opportunities to see art throughout Porto, including collections of ceramics, sculptures, textiles, and modern art. Aside from seeing collections in formal settings, you’re likely to spot some beautiful street arts and murals around Porto, too!

In the eastern part of Porto, Casa Sao Roque features a collection of contemporary art with works by artists from around the world.

At the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, which was founded originally in 1833, you can see  sculptures, engraving, jewelry, furniture, paintings, textiles and glass.

For street art, I recommend going to see Half Rabbit. It’s a giant art installation by Portuguese artist Bordallo II  that is meant to critique society’s wastefulness.

The rabbit is made of recycled materials and trash collected from around the city, and it’s installed on the corner of a building in Vila Nova de Gaia.

The sculpture is positioned on the building so that the rabbit is seemingly folded in two. One half of the rabbit is bright and multi-coloured, while the other half is unpainted. This is why the installation is called “Half Rabbit.”

half rabbit is an art installation in Porto, Portugal
Half Rabbit

5. Traditional Azulejos

Portugal is known for its ceramics. You’ll see glazed blue ceramic tiles or azulejos everywhere, particularly in Porto.

The word azulejo comes from Arabic roots, translating to a “small polished stone”. Originally they were simple pieces cut into geometric shapes in neutral tones, but they became more detailed over time.

Azulejos date as far back as the 13th century, when the Moors invaded the land that now belongs to Spain and Portugal. Some of the best places to admire the traditional azulejos that Portugal is known for can be found at these locations in Porto:

Sao Bento Railway Station. This station  is famous for its walls and ceilings which use azulejos to illustrate scenes from Portuguese history and culture.

Igreja dos Clérigos (Clérigos Church). This is one of Porto’s most famous churches, and part of that fame is thanks to its azulejo-lined tower that offers panoramic views of the city. You can buy pre-booked skip-the-line tickets here!

Palácio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). This is a 19th-century building where you’ll find a botanical garden as well as an impressive collection of azulejos that depict scenes from Portuguese folklore and mythology.

Casa do Infante. This is a historic building that’s known for being the birthplace of Henry the Navigator, a famous Portuguese explorer. Today, it’s a museum that showcases some of the finest azulejos in Porto.

Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls). This small church is famous for its intricate azulejo murals that can be seen on the

decorative tiles inside sao bento train station in Porto
Tiles inside Sao Bento Train Station.

6. River Cruises

The Douro River is the third-longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. The river flows through Porto, and then spills out into the Atlantic ocean.

The Douro River is connected to much of Porto’s history, including its history of wine production. The river was key for transporting wine from the local vineyards of the Douro Valley to Porto.

Rabelo boats, which are typical of Porto and the Douro River, would carry the wine barrels (and people!) from the vineyards to the city.

Going for a Douro River cruise out of Porto is a great way to see the city from a different perspective. Floating down the river while gazing at Porto’s beautiful cityscape is a wonderful way to spend a few hours on your weekend in Porto.

You’ll be able to see Porto’s famous 6 bridges: Dom Luis I Bridge, Ponte de Infante, Dona Maria Pia Bridge, Ponte de São João, Freixo Bridge, and Ponte da Arrábida.

This Douro River Panoramic Tour by Boat is a 2 hour long cruise on the river between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The cruise includes a glass of wine! There’s also the option to take this cruise at sunset. Book the tour here. 

The Douro River flowing through Porto.
The Douro River flowing through Porto.

7. Port Wine

Porto is known for its port wine, of course. Port is a sweet red fortified wine that originates in Portugal.

The city is home to many historic wine cellars, most of which are located in the Vila Nova de Gaia municipality, which is just across the Douro River from Porto.

The best way to learn about port wine production and taste it, is to visit a port wine cellar. Some of the best ones to try are Cálem Cellar, Burmester Cellar, and Fonseca Port Wine Cellar.

Be sure to book your visit in advance. Most of the tours are 1-2 hours, and include a port wine tasting at the end.

black wine barrels stacked on top of eachother at Calem Cellar in Porto.
Wine barrels at Calem Cellar in Porto.

8. Portuguese Food

What is Porto known for? It’s food! Whether you’re looking to enjoy breakfast in Porto, lunch, dinner, or just snacks, you’ll find delicious Portuguese food all throughout the city.

Here are some must-have foods to try while in Porto:

Sardines 

In Porto and other Portuguese cities you’ll notice entire shops that specialize only in sardines! This is because sardines (sardinhas) are a staple across Portugal.

You can order sardines in restaurants the classic way, either with bread or as they are on a plate. In Porto, there is a tourist shop called ??O Mundo Fantástico das Sardinhas Portuguesas. It’s a fun shop because it sells all sorts of canned sardines that you can bring home with you.

In Porto, the best time to have sardines is throughout summer and early fall, when they are in season and fresh.

Pastéis de nata

Pastéis de nata are Portuguese custard tarts made of puff pastry that’s filled with egg custard. Often, they are served a dusting of powdered sugar or cinnamon.

This popular pastry originally comes from the Jerónimos Monastery, just outside Lisbon. Apparently, back in the 18th century monks in the monastery used leftover egg yolks to make pastéis de nata!

Castro (Atelier de Pastéis de Nata) is a traditional pastéis de nata shop in Porto. Besides tasting this delicious Portuguese pastry, I really enjoyed Castro because you’re able to see the pastry chefs actually making them! There’s a glass window that makes it possible to observe the process.

Typical Portuguese custard pies - "Pastel de Nata"
Typical Portuguese custard pies, which are called “Pastel de Nata”

9. Beautiful Neighborhoods

There are seven key neighborhoods in Porto: Ribeira, Baixa, Cedofeita, Bonfim, Foz, Marquês, and Boavista. You likely won’t have time to visit all of these neighborhoods, so I’ll just touch on my four favorites.

Ribeira is a central Porto neighborhood that sits right along the Douro River. It’s a gorgeous, vibrant neighborhood that is within walking distance of many of Porto’s main sites.

Baixa is just up the hill from Ribeira, and so it’s a very central neighborhood as well. Baixa is a bit less touristy, filled with gorgeous churches, coffee shops, little bars, restaurants and more.

Cedofeita is right next to Baixa, and it’s one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Porto. It has an art district at Rua Miguel Bombarda, where you’ll find interesting art galleries and concept stores.

For a more local experience, head to Bonfim, which is east of the city center. There are less tourists in this area, which means you’ll find yourself more immersed in local Porto life. In Bonfim you’ll find fun bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and it’s quite close to the famous Chapel of Souls.

The best way to get to Porto’s various neighborhoods is on foot. The city is quite compact, and so many of these neighborhoods are a walkable distance, regardless of where you stay.

If you get tired of walking, the city has an extensive public transportation system that’s operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto. You can hop on the metro, buses, or trams.

Beautiful buildings in Porto, Portugal
Beautiful buildings in Porto, Portugal

10. Scenic Miradouros (Viewpoints)

Porto is known for being a hilly city (similar to Lisbon). And lots of hills means great lookout points!

Miradouro da Vitória is a viewpoint that is above the Ribeira neighborhood. From this spot, you have beautiful views of one of the oldest parts of the city, as well as the Douro River.

You’re able to see cobblestone lanes, terracotta rooftops, and many of the city’s main attractions like the Porto Cathedral and Dom Luis Bridge.

To reach this viewpoint, you’ll need to climb steep streets – I found that because of how steep the walk is, it took longer than I had expected.

Be sure to set out for Miradouro da Vitória well before sunset time so that you can take rests as you walk up, and still have plenty of time to see the view.

Another great viewpoint is from Miradouro da Rua das Aldas. From this Miradouro you have wonderful views of the river and bridges of Porto.

Miradouro da Rua das Aldas is very near the Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral), and so it’s worth combining your visit to the church with this lookout point.

View from Miradouro da Vitória

11. Interesting Markets

Like many European cities, Porto has great markets! Porto’s most well-known market is Bolhão Market. It’s a traditional market that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, prepared foods, and nowadays, souvenirs.

Mercado do Bolhão dates back to 1839, when Porto’s town hall bought the land where the market now stands and defined the area as a market. In 1914, a neoclassical building was built to house the market.

When you visit Bolhão Market you can wander through that historic building, which is now divided into two floors, as well as various market areas.

12. Historic Palace

Porto is known for Bolsa Palace, a historic palace that was built between 1842 and 1910. The building originally operated as the Portuguese stock exchange, and so its glamorous interior was meant to attract and impress wealthy investors.

Today, Bolsa Palace is representative of the wealth that Portugal had in the 19th century. Visiting the building gives you a glimpse into Portugal’s political and economic past.

And, you’ll get to admire ornate rooms like the incredible  Salão Árabe (Arab room), and the Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations, the original trading floor).

You can’t visit the Bolsa Palace without a guided tour, which is included with the admission price. Tours are run in four languages, throughout the day, and cost less than 20$.

Go to Bolsa Palace and wait in a brief line to book your ticket and select your tour time and language. Once your name is down for a specific time, you’ll come back at the time for the 30 minute tour.

the glass ceiling and paintings on the walls inside Bolsa Palace, Porto
Inside Bolsa Palace

13. Douro Valley Day Trips

The Douro Valley is a hilly region that surrounds the Douro River as it flows through northern Portugal. This area of Portugal is famous for being the oldest demarcated wine-growing region on the planet.

Demarcated in 1756, the Douro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of how wine-making over the course of 2000 years has influenced development in the region.

Winemaking has shaped the area into a terraced, vine-covered destination that produces red, white, and port wines.

Porto is known for its proximity to the Douro Valley. You can easily book a guided day trip to visit the region, taste wines, and enjoy a river cruise.

This Douro Valley Full-Day Wine Trip with Lunch is a highly-rated, small group tour that includes pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation. You’ll spend a day exploring the Douro Valley, visiting local wineries, learning about the wine making process, and relaxing on a river cruise.

You’ll enjoy a typical Portuguese lunch, and finish the day learning about the differences between premium wines, and the techniques used to produce them during a private guided tour.

Douro Valley Full-Day Wine Trip with Lunch includes:

  • Hotel pickup and drop-off
  • Transportation by air-conditioned minivan
  • Guided tour
  • Visit 2 wine estates
  • Wine tastings
  • Selection of Portuguese cheeses
  • Olive oil & honey tasting
  • 1-hour river cruise
  • Lunch (meat, fish, or vegetarian option)
  • Bottled water

Book The Tour Here!

Traditional boats on the Douro River, at sunset in Porto
Traditional boats on the Douro River, Porto

14. Year-Round Good Weather

Overall, Porto experiences a moderate climate that’s enjoyable year round. Even during winter in Portugal, the temperatures stay above zero and there is some sun. This makes Porto a great city to visit at any time of year.

That said, for the warmest weather, the best time to visit Porto is from May to September. The rainiest months of the year in Porto are February, October and December. The rain shouldn’t stop you! If you visit during those months, simply bring a rain jacket and/or a good umbrella.

What is Porto Known For? Final Thoughts

Porto is known for many of its main sites, like Dom Luis I Bridge and Livraria Lello, as well as its neighborhoods like Ribeira and Baixa, and of course, taste Porto’s famous port wine. You can easily spend 3 days or more learning about Porto’s history, admiring art, and more.

As with traveling anywhere, while in Porto, do your best to be a mindful and responsible tourist, and follow sustainable tourism practices. To avoid contributing to overtourism, consider visiting Porto in the low season for tourism (fall to spring).

Want to kick-start your Porto trip planning? I’ve created a Google Map with all of these locations and activities pinned. View and save the free map, here

Source: https://pinatravels.org/

By Lala