Porto is one of Portugal’s most popular cities. The capital of the Northern region, Porto, has something for everyone. It opens up like a pop-up book from the Rio Douro banks.
Relatively edgy-yet-opulent Porto attracts huge crowds with its historic center, great wine and food, and charismatic locals.
Porto’s attractions are as subtle as the muses of an aged tawny port, best relished slowly on a romp through the rugged backstreets of Ribeira, Miragaia, and Massarelos. It’s the peaceful moments of reflection and the snaps of daily life that you’ll cherish most:
- the image of laundry drying in river winds
- the slosh of the Douro against the piers;
- the music of port glasses tinkling;
- the sight of young lovers silently tangled under a landmark bridge, on the border of a park fountain, in the collapsing notch of a graffiti-blasted wall.
Let’s explore this mystical destination in our today’s travel guide.
How to reach Porto?
Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport, also known as Aeroporto de Pedras Rubras or Aeroporto do Porto, is the third busiest airport in Portugal and is approximately 15km from the town center. The Metro line connects the airport to the town center, offering a peaceful and quick ride into the heart of the town.
If you hate airplane travel and wish to drive to Porto, the highways will lead you to your destination. Five major highways serve Porto:
- A29, which joins Porto to Aveiro,
- A1, which joins Porto to Lisbon
- A3 joins Porto to Spain,
- A28 joins Porto to Caminha next to the guarded Spanish Border,
- and my favorite A4, which goes eastwards from the town towards Braganza and the Spanish border near Valladolid.
Things to see in Porto:
It would help if you started your Porto voyage from Ribeira, the part of the town adjacent to the river, which is also a brilliant place to begin exploring the world heritage region; to the river’s other side, you will see the Ribeira de Gaia, a similar region from the town of Vila Nova de Gaia (the two are only split by the river) and where you could ultimately find the Port Wine Cellars. Next, go up to the São Francisco church and the Stock Exchange palace nearby, where you can visit the nation’s most majestic Arab room.
Here are top places to see in Porto:
Palácio da Bolsa
This marvelous neoclassical monument (built from 1842 CE to 1910 CE) honors Porto’s present and past money merchants. Just past the entrance is the glass-domed Hall of Nations (Pátio das Nações), where the exchange once operated. But this pales compared with rooms deeper inside; to explore these, join one of the half-hour tours (guided ones), which set off every half an hour.
Igreja de São Francisco
Igreja de São Francisco seems from the outside to be a Gothic church, but inside it hides one of Portugal’s most beautiful baroque finery displays. Hardly a meter escapes unsmothered, as otherworldly sober and cherubs monks are plunged by nearly 100kg of gold leaf. If you wish to visit only one church in Porto, make it this one.
Jardins do Palácio de Cristal
Sitting atop a bluff, this impressive botanical garden is one of Porto’s best-loved retreats, with lawns interwoven with sun-dappled paths and dotted with sculptures, fountains, camellias, giant magnolias, olive trees, and cypress. It’s a potpourri of small gardens that open up little by little as you wander – as do the marvelous views of the city and Rio Douro.
Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis
Porto’s best art museum offers a heavenly collection ranging from Neolithic carvings to Portugal’s take on minimalism and modernism, all housed in the imposing Palácio das Carrancas.
Things to do in Porto:
- Don’t forget to explore the FC Porto Museum, where you can see more than a century of history from one of the most prosperous football teams in Europe.
- Take a voyage upriver – the cost is about €10 and takes about an hour minutes, or you may also pick a day-long cruise for a higher price. Go as far as Pinhão – the landscape is stunning. If you choose to do this in the summertime, don’t forget your factor 50 sunscreen! Look for cruises pulling up on the Vila Nova de Gaia side, as some of them may offer discounts for port purchases and cave tours.
- Take a port wine trip and visit the different wine caves! This is a must as Porto is the world’s port wine capital. The cellars are in Vila Nova de Gaia, a quick 5-minute walk from Ribeira across the Douro river. There are remarkably convenient bus pick-ups from easily suitable areas to take you up the twisting hills to the cellars. Tours vary in price but normally cost €3-5 and include a quick tasting. Most all have English speaking tours along with Portuguese, Spanish, and French. There are also quite a several cellars offering free tastings.