Porto often unfairly plays second fiddle to Lisbon, Portugal’s sunny, cosmopolitan capital to the south. But a city like Porto, steeped in rich culture, history, and a copious amount of its namesake port wine should not be missed. When I visited recently, I actually felt short-changed spending only 2 days in Porto before heading to Lisbon. I would suggestion spending your first day on a walking tour of Porto, and then using the rest of your two days in Porto to soak it all in.
Porto has plenty of historical and cultural sites to visit during your time there. The city center is very compact, and most sites are located within walking distance of each other. While it may be tempting to hit all the main sites in one day, you will enjoy it more if you don’t rush. You can book a guided walking tour of Porto, or you can follow the suggestions below for a self-guided tour. Just grab a good guidebook, map, and follow these suggestions.
Self-Guided Walking Tour of Porto
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To begin, I would recommend starting from the newer part of town where the majority of lodging options are located, and walking into the older town. I highly recommend staying at the Hotel Infante Sagres (they also have a wonderful breakfast!) Find your way to Avenida dos Aliados. The Avenida is not what is worth seeing— rather, it is the long square bordered by the avenue that is lined with architectural wonders. The buildings are grand and this plaza is the perfect place to begin a walking tour.
Walking down from the plaza, you will come to São Bento station. This station is used more by locals, but it is worth taking a quick peek inside to see the inside of the station’s main hall, which is covered from wall to wall with beautiful azulejos, quintessential Portuguese blue-painted tiles.
Extending down a hill as you walk out from the front of the railway station is the Rua das Flores, home to colorful storefronts and popular with tourists who wish to shop or eat. If you’re beginning your tour early in the morning, however, it may be best to leave this quaint street until later when you’re in the mood for lunch, dinner, or shopping. Instead, continue on Rua Saraiva de Carvalho.
As you walk uphill, you will just begin to catch a glimpse of the beautiful panoramic views of Porto that you will receive from the plaza in front of the impressive Se Cathedral, which is your next destination. Like most Portuguese churches, it’s quite plain on the inside— not at all gaudy like something you might find in the Vatican or Vienna— but there is something serene and beautiful, nonetheless, about the way the light hits the floor from the cracks in the cold, gray stone walls. Outside, the church is equally simple, but the buildings next to the church are beautiful examples of the white and dark brown grand buildings that are uniquely Portuguese.
If you continue down Rua de D. Hugo from Sé Cathedral, you’ll have a lovely view of the pastel colored houses below, many of which are still inhabited by locals. On a beautiful sunny day, there is something very beautiful about watching garments hung on crooked clotheslines fluttering in the breeze, gazing at the beautiful flower boxes, and watching the occasional cat pounce from wall to wall below the viewpoint. There are lovely views from here of the Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia, the city across the river from Porto.
If you continue back to the main road that you walked along to get to Sé and keep following it towards the river, you’ll reach the Ponte de Dom Luis I, the enormous, two-level, wrought-iron bridge that straddles either side of the Douro River.
The bridge connects Porto on the north bank with Vila Nova de Gaia on the South Bank. Stepping onto the bridge is not for the faint of heart, but if you aren’t terrified of heights, a walk onto the upper deck is a must. There are designated pedestrian lanes to walk on, but be careful of the light rail tracks; there’s no telling when a trolley car might come zipping by! From atop the bridge, you will have the most beautiful view of Porto’s proud grey church towers and rainbow colored houses with red-tiled roofs lining the hilly streets that extend up from the blue Douro River. The view of Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side of the bridge is also breathtaking—especially of the grand Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, a monastery that lies on top of the other rocky, cliff-like riverbank. The monastery generally is not open to visitors, but viewing from the outside is nevertheless worth it.
When you’ve finished taking in the views from the bridge, return to the Porto side and walk back the way you came, but when you get to a fork in the road on your way back to the Cathedral, take the left branch (Escada do Barredo) and walk down the winding road towards the very center of town. Turn left when it looks like you can’t go any further and keep walking down the hill until you hit the river. If you’re interested in a riverboat tour, this is an easy place to catch one. This area of Porto is beautiful but it is also incredibly touristy, and it’s best to visit here during the quieter hours. I also wouldn’t recommend staying here unless your time in Porto is really limited, in which case this might be a good central location. The Casa do Infante is around here, which is an ancient building with lots of history.
After visiting Ribeira Square, begin to circle back upwards from the plaza. There are many churches of interest in this area, including the Igreja de Sao Francisco and the Igreja de Sao Joao Novo. If you walk up Rue Ferreira Borges, you’ll pass the Bolsa, the old Porto financial center. There’s a nice green plaza here with a bit of a river view which makes for an ideal picnic location or a rest spot.
If you go down the street from the Palácio das Artes, you’ll eventually hit a long winding street called Rua de Belomonte. Turn right on Rua das Taipas and walk until the intersection with Rua da Vitoria. If you cross the street and continue up Rua Sao Miguel and then Rua Sao Bento da Vitoria, you’ll pass through the streets of the old Jewish section of Porto. The history of this area is poorly documented and the signage is equally poor, but if you’re interested, a walk through the small area is interesting.
Make the next stops on your tour all around the area surrounding Praça de Lisboa. There’s a nice green space here called Jardim da Cordoaria, and Torre dos Clerigos is located here as well. The Torre, or tower, is the tower of a church, but most who visit skip the church and simply climb the tower. The views from the top are impressive and the tower itself is quite beautiful, but find a time that isn’t busy to visit to avoid long lines and overcrowding in the tower. A climb up the tower’s steps for the views is worth it, but not if you aren’t fit for the climb and/or claustrophobic!
Finally, spend some time in the shopping center just to the north of the tower. The shopping center and the surrounding area are home to lovely stores, some restaurants, and many bars. As far as shopping goes, A Vida Portuguesa – Loja Clérigos and Livraria Lello & Irmão are not to be missed. The former of the two offers beautiful Portuguese crafts and goods in a stunning venue. The latter is a famous bookstore, housed in a beautiful, turn-of-the-century building. Both of these stores are excellent places to find that perfect gift to bring home for someone else—or yourself!
Traverse back down the hill via Rua da Sao Bento da Vitoria and Tv. do Ferraz. You’ll hit Rua Vitoria, one street up from Rua das Flores. Rua da Vitória is a lovely street to walk on to enjoy Porto’s architecture, and it’s far less busy than Rua das Flores. Rua das Flores, however, is not to be missed. Rua das Flores offers great street views. Granted, there are a lot of touristy places on this street, but it’s nothing like Praça Riberia, and there are some exquisite venues for dining, drinking, or picking up souvenirs.
My personal favorite restaurant in all of Porto is located on this street. The restaurant, called Mercearia das Flores, is small and unassuming—don’t count on getting a table if you try to go at a bad time—but it offers up simply yet truly delicious traditional Portuguese snacks, from chourico and artisanal hard and soft cheeses to lovely olives, sardines and fresh octopus. Several tapas, or pestiscos in Portuguese, paired with a nice Portuguese wine (or a sweet port wine if you’re into that) and the good people-watching view that the restaurant offers makes for a really lovely ambience, especially for dinner as the sun begins to set and the façade of the nearby Sao Bento Station are lit up by night lights. Rua das Flores is also a lovely place to enjoy a coffee and a pastel de nata—the ubiquitous traditional Portuguese custard tart made up of a flaky pastry that surrounds a soft, creamy inside with a lightly caramelized top.
This walking tour should take up the better portion of a day if you’re moving along at a brisk pace. All of the sites I’ve mentioned are definitely worth taking more time on other days to visit—see what you like or what looks interesting to you on the walking tour and then plan the rest of your time around going back and visiting those sites. If you’re looking for other things to do in Porto, there are plenty of other churches and museums to keep you busy. A tour of the wine country might be in order if you’re interested in that (they’re easy enough to book and it may be possible to plan one on your own), and, as always, shopping, eating, drinking, wandering the streets and people watching can sometimes be a nice break from pure sightseeing.
If you’re looking for gifts to take home, the Portuguese make beautiful cloth handicrafts (everything is still manufactured in Portugal). Cork products are also abundant, as are beautiful tiles and ceramics, tasty port wine, sardines, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Portugal’s world-famous soap products.
If you’re traveling with children, Porto has lots of nice places (a few of which I mentioned in the walking tour above) to take kids to run around, rest, or have a picnic. Porto is a beautiful, manageable destination that has something for everyone. It’s also quite affordable compared to pretty much all of the other Southern European heavy-hitters (you will spend far less on everything here than in Barcelona, Madrid, Nice, Venice, Rome, etc). And with more low-cost flights than ever as well as TAP Portugal’s new “Portugal stopover” initiative, Porto and it’s old-world charm (with new modern flares being tastefully added) are definitely not to be missed on your next trip to Europe.
- Find out how to spend three days (or more) in Lisbon
- Learn the best things to do in Sintra
- See the best hotels in Portugal for families
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Today’s guest post is written by Max Levine. Max has been traveling ever since he can remember with his family. In recent years, he has been the one who plans vacations for his family and for himself, from researching airfare and railway tickets to crafting itineraries. In recent years, Max has traveled a lot both in the US and internationally. He has also developed a penchant for writing. Max hopes to continue pursuing opportunities to travel and write both in college and beyond that. You can also see Max’s suggestions for two days in Budapest.