Porto is Portugal’s second city. While Lisbon may be the capital, Porto has the claim to fame as being the inspiration behind the country name. Historically, Lisbon was the political seat of power, and from here in Porto the bishops and priests ruled. Instead of the usual European “castle on the hill”, in Porto it’s the Bishop’s house that sits in that prized location.
Thanks to their different “leaders” throughout the years, Porto and Lisbon are both very different cities, and I highly recommend visiting each of them while in Portugal. If I had to pick a favourite though, Porto would be it. There is just such a lovely feel about the city. The historic centre has also been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Here are some of the best things to do in Porto Portugal.
- 1 Take a walking tour
- 2 Taste some Port Wine
- 3 Visit the beach
- 4 Eat Francesinha, the local specialty
- 5 Visit the São Bento train station
- 6 Do a Harry Potter Tour
- 7 Visit the Livraria Lello book store
- 8 Relax in Port of Ribeira Square
- 9 Check out the Luis I Bridge
- 10 Admire some of the many Churches
- 11 Experience Fado
Take a walking tour
When I first arrive in a new place, my favourite thing to do is a walking tour. Usually I will opt for a free (tips based) walking tour, as I have found them to be fantastic. In Porto we did not one, but two walking tours with Porto Walkers. First we did the Classical Tour, which covers much of the popular historical aspect of Porto. We got a great background to help understand many of the things we were to see in the city.
The second tour we did was the Porto Lifestyle Tour, which goes to an entirely different part of the city and focuses more on Portugal today and how people live.
I enjoyed both of these tours, and would happily recommend them, but there are many more out there. These really are great free things to do in Porto. Here are just a few more options you may be interested in.
- Private Porto Secrets Walking Tour
- Porto Architecture Walking Tour
- Porto Jewish Heritage Walking Tour
- Porto Food and Wine Tasting Tour
Taste some Port Wine
You cannot come to the home of Port Wine without doing some sort of wine tour, and this is one of the best Porto things to do. Now I have never been a fan or fortified wines. I always thought of them as sweet and sickly. I now have a whole new appreciation though of the original versions of this wine.
Fortified wines can now only be called Port if they come from this region. They are not actually made in Porto though. The grapes are grown further up the river in the Douro Valley. They are then brought down the river to be stored and aged. Still they do not end up in Porto though, but across the river in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. That side of the Douro River gets the right amount of sunlight to store the wine at the perfect temperature. It also means form the Porto side, there is a lovely view of all the cellar doors along the banks of the river.
For our tour we did the paid tour offered by Porto Walkers since we had enjoyed their free tours so much. We visited three different types of wine cellars, and I learnt a lot about Port Wine. I previously only thought there was one version, Tawny Port, but there are three more – White Port, Rose Port and Aged Port. Of these, the tawny was my least favourite. We also learned a lot about the history of wine in the area, and some of the different winemaking techniques of each of the wineries. One also had a small museum put together by the larger-then-life founder.
There is a second, lesser known Portuguese wine that is also worth a taste, vinho verde, literally “green wine”. The wine is not green though, it can be red or wine, but it is very young wine, usually available for sale about three months after the harvest. Made in the north of Portugal, it’s easy to find versions of this wine in Porto restaurants and shops. This wine will also be included in some of the tastings or it’s possible to do whole tours just tasting vinho verde.
There are dozens of other options for wine tours in Porto. They range from tours of a few hours like I did, to multi-day tours to the Douro Valley. Here are just a few of them.
- Douro Valley Small-Group Tour with Wine Tasting, Portuguese Lunch and Optional River Cruise
- Porto Calém Cellars Admission with Tour and Wine Tasting
- Wine Tour Porto
- Vinho Verde Day Trip from Porto with Wine Tasting and Lunch
Visit the beach
Porto is located only a few kilometres up river from the Atlantic coast, so why not take a trip to the beach while you are here. The best place to go is Matosinhos. Many of the tourist buses (such as the City Sightseeing red buses) visit this area on their loop, so if you have already purchased a ticket for them you can use that.
Otherwise, catch the 500 bus from near the Dom Pedro IV statue in the Praça da Liberdade (sort of opposite the Intercontinental Hotel). It’s only a Euro or two, paid to the driver on the bus.
Once at Matosinhas, consider dining on the amazing seafood served up fresh at one of the many small fish restaurants. Wear off your meal by walking along the wide sandy beach, or taking a dip if the weather is warm enough. Check out the pilgrim statues, and keep your eyes open for the modern day variety, as this stretch of beach forms part of the Portuguese Way, one of the many Camino de Santiago paths.
Here in Matosinhos you will also find many surf schools, teaching beginners to surf the Atlantic waves. Even on the cold March day we were there keen learners were having a go. Click here to book a surf tour.
Eat Francesinha, the local specialty
Francesinho is the local specialty food, and everywhere you go you will hear about it. While you are in Porto you just have to try one. They can be found all over, but our walking tour guides recommended two places that are apparently the best – Cafe Santiago and Lado B. We ended up at Lado B, simply because it was the first of the two we came across.
The Francesinho is like an over-the-top toasted sandwich. It includes bread (the thicker the better) filled with ham, sausage and steak, then covered in lashings of cheese and a special beer and tomato sauce. It is often topped with an egg and served with hot chips on the side. A local would easily eat this whole thing in one meal, but we had been warned to share.
And I am glad we listened. This is truely a heart-attack on a plate. It is so heavy, I could almost feel my arteries hardening with each bite. It didn’t taste terrible, but it wasn’t amazing either. There is no way I could have finished a whole serve. If I had to eat it again I would, but there are so many better meals out there to choose from.
Visit the São Bento train station
Located on a site that was originally a convent, the São Bento train station is known for its beautiful traditional tiles. Yes, they are lovely to look at, but the station has some interesting stories too. When the location was decided, the bishop of Porto agreed the station could be built there, but only after all the existing nuns moved or passed away. The final nun lived on and on, and it was 58 years after the agreement was made that work was able to commence on the now badly needed new train station. The ghost of the final nun – who did not want the convent to be demolished – is said to still haunt the train station today.
The building did not go to plan either. Acclaimed young local architect Jose Marques da Silva designed the building and all it’s amazing tiles. It wasn’t until they were about to open it, they realised that the design did not include anywhere to sell tickets! Whoops! An extra section for the ticket office was hastily tacked on the side of the building.
Do a Harry Potter Tour
If you are a huge Harry Potter fan, you would know that JK Rowling was living in Porto when she came up with the concept for the books, and wrote the first few chapters before moving to Edinburgh. There are therefore many sights in Porto that relate to the book.
Many fans like to go and eat at the Majestic Cafe, a place were JK Rowling spent a fair amount of time while she was here. It’s a beautiful, historic cafe, but I was warned that unfortunately it is home to tourist prices and less-than-great food. One of our guides mentioned that locals will not eat here. If you really want to visit, perhaps call in for a coffee or tea, and leave the meals for one of the many much better restaurants.
There are some tours that run which are dedicated to visiting Harry Potter sites and telling all the tales the locals know about the author. We only got a taste on our general walking ours, and some of the stories are very interesting.
Click here to have a look at the Wizard for a Day: Harry Potter Private Tour
Visit the Livraria Lello book store
If you don’t want to do a whole Harry Potter tour, you can still visit some of the most well known places. One of those is the Livraria Lello bookstore. Originally opened in 1906, this is another of the contenders of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It’s most prominent feature is the beautiful staircase, dark timber, and a lovely bookish feel about the place. And that’s where Harry Potter comes in. It is said that Livraria Lello was the inspiration for the bookstore in Diagon Alley called Flourish & Potts.
Thanks to the success of the Harry Potter books combined with the beauty of the store, tourists began to flock here for a visit and a photograph. Unfortunately this meant a lot of people, but barely any sales. Now if you want to visit, you have to pay an entrance free – €5 at the time of writing, which is deducted off the price of any books you may purchase. Tickets are available from the ticket office a few buildings down from Livraria Lello. It is likely that you will easily see where to go, as every time I walked past during my visit to Porto, there were long lines at both the store and ticket office.
Relax in Port of Ribeira Square
Many of the photos you will see of Porto show the Luis I bridge on the right, the river in the foreground and the bishop’s house high on the hill. Below the bishop’s house are a cluster of houses cascading down to the riverfront. These buildings form the historical district of Ribeira. It is one of the oldest areas in Porto, and is now UNESCO listed.
Spend an hour or two winding your way down through the old, colourful houses until you reach the square on the riverbank. This is a major tourist spot, filled with restaurants, bars and cafes. This is a lovely place to sit in the evenings, have some tapas and a drink, and enjoy the views across the River Douro as the sun goes down. Beware though, it is popular, so expect to be paying tourist prices here.
Check out the Luis I Bridge
It’s unlikely that you will be able to miss Luis I Bridge while you are in Porto, but just in case, do make it a point to have a look up close. This double-decker bridge was built in 1886 by the one and only Gustave Eiffel. Yes, the same guy who built the famous tower in Paris.
Originally both decks carried motor vehicles, but in 2003, the upper deck was closed to vehicles so that it could be adapted for the Porto Metro system. Now it is used by the trains, and pedestrians can also cross over on foot. The bottom deck is still used by motor vehicles and pedestrians alike.
Admire some of the many Churches
Because Porto was the seat of the church in Portugal, there are churches here, many churches, that are worth a visit. If you do a walking tour, you will surely hear about a fe on the way. Some of the churches I suggest you visit are:
- Church of Carmelitas and Church of Carmo – these two churches sit almost touching, but in between you will find the smallest house in Porto, it’s only a metre wide. Find out how that came about during your visit.
- Clérigos Church – while visiting this church, climb the tower for fantastic 360 views over the Porto rooftops.
- São Francisco Church – the Francisan Order was founded in Porto and this is the location of the first church. While that one no longer exists, the current church dates from the fifteenth century.
- Church of Santa Clara – the interior of this small church is all entirely gilded. Dated from the fifteenth century, the woodwork and gilding is currently slowly being restored.
- Cathedral of Porto – the Cathedral of Porto is located right up on top of the hill next to the bishop’s house. It is one of the oldest churches in Porto, dating from the twelfth century
Many of these churches require an entrance fee of a few Euros to enter.
Imagine sitting in a restaurant or bar in Porto, and in the corner is an old man strumming a guitar and singing in such a melancholic way, you are not sure if you or he will be the first to burst into tears. That is Fado. While it’s not traditionally from the Porto area, it is part of the Portuguese culture and can still be found here. If this is your only Portuguese stop you should try to experience it if you can.
From Wednesday to Saturday try Casa da Mariquinhas. This is not really a great option for the budget though, as meals can be expensive here. This place was recommended by our guide though as one of the best. Slightly cheaper is Casa o Fado, which is open from Monday to Saturday.
If you would like to go to a show without a meal, click here to purchase tickets to a concert-like performance.
There are other places around the city that include Fado one night a week. I suggest asking at your accomodation for the best recommendation if neither of the above suite.
And that’s it, the best things to do in Porto! Here’s just a few more things you might find useful for your visit.
The Porto Card – This card comes in 1,2,3 or 4 day versions, with or without public transport. It will give you entry to some of the big attractions and a tasting at a wine cellar. It also includes over 170 discounts all over the city. Click here to get your card now.
Porto Airport transfers – The easiest way to get to the centre of Porto is by Metro. You can buy tickets at the airport, and the price is determined by where you are going. (If you are planning to catch the Metro, perhaps consider the purchasing a Porto Card above and picking it up at the airport on arrival so that the fare is covered by the card.) If you prefer a worry-free private transfer, click here to book in advance.
Accommodation – I stayed in, and recommend, Nice Way Hostel Porto. The location could not be any better, and I stayed in a big private room with ensuite. Breakfast was also included. Click here to see the latest prices and availability.
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