Porto is one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal and has been attracting more and more visitors every year. Its spectacular buildings with tiles on their façades, the colorful houses, the amazing food, great prices and historical centre (a Unesco Heritage Site since 1996), make Porto the perfect weekend gateway. I’ve made a list with the top 10 places to visit in Porto on your first trip to this wonderful city.
São Bento Station
São Bento is considered one of the most beautiful train stations in the world and once you see it, you’ll understand the reason. It was designed by José Marques da Silva, a local architect that sign many buildings in Porto, with influence from the French Beaux-Arts Style. Although the building is spectacular, the most impressive part is the magnificent tile work inside the station. With more than 20 thousand azulejos (tiles), this masterpiece was work of the artist Jorge Colaço and took him more than 10 years to finish it. The tiles show epic scenes of Portuguese history, such as the meeting of Egas Moniz and the king of Castilla Afonso VII, the battle of Valdevez (1140), the Conquest of Ceuta by Henry the Navigator (1415), the marriage of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster (1387), the daily life of the Northern Portuguese people and on the top, the history of transport.
Located on the banks of the Douro River, Ribeira is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Porto and definitely the most beautiful ones. This working class area, with the narrow streets and colorful beautiful houses (some dating from the XVI century), was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1996. The Luís I bridge, connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank is a marvel and was considered the longest bridge of this type when it was finished in 1886. If you have the time and want to see the city from a different perspective, I’d recommend doing the traditional 6 bridges cruise to enjoy the view from the Douro River.
This incredible baroque church was built in 1750 and was the most famous work of Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect and painter who left an extensive body of work in the North of Portugal in the XVIII century. It’s most impressive part is the bell tower. Built in 1763 it was inspired by the campaniles in Tuscany. With 75 meters, it was the tallest building in Porto for a very long time and it can be spotted from most parts of the city. To reach the top, you have to climb 240 steps. Its hard work but you will be rewarded with the most spectacular view of Porto.
The most important avenue in Porto was named in honor of the allied countries in WWI. It’s hard not to be impressed by the imposing granite buildings, with their domes, spires and statues. At the top of the street, the wonderful building is Porto’s City Hall, which reminds a lot the Palaces in the North of France and Flanders, built in Flemish style with a 70 meters high central tower and at the bottom of the avenue, its oldest building, a former convent built in the XVIII century called Palácio das Cardosas which now hosts the fancy Intercontinental Hotel.
The most important church in the city, Sé Cathedral was originally built in the XII century in Romanesque style but curiously, also with a defensive role, as you can see from the buttresses and arrow loops. It went through some changes, the most important in the XVIII century, adding the baroque style to the main portal and the tower cupolas. Some of the highlights of the church are the gothic cloister and the chapel frescoes.
Porto Wine Cellars
Port wine is probably the reason why Porto is so famous. This fortified wine started to be popular in the XVII century and many of the wine cellars are more than 300 years old. They are all located in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south bank of the Douro River. Most of them offer tour explaining the origin, the process and types of Port wines and the best part they all have in common, a wine tasting at the end. I’d recommend Real Companhia Velha, Taylor’s and Sandeman, which also offers museums documenting their history.
Crystal Palace Gardens
The original Crystal Palace was opened in 1865, inspired on the English version located in Crystal Palace in London but was demolished in 1951 to be replaced by the semi-spherical Rosa Mota pavilion, which has hosted exhibitions in the past but is going through renovations at the moment.
What remain are the wonderful garden and its walkways, tree-lined waterways, sculptures and peacocks (real ones) that live here. It was designed by the landscape architect Émile David and the best part is the fantastic view of the Douro River.
Serra do Pilar
The hill located in Vila Nova de Gaia hosts the Serra do Pilar Monastery, which was originally built in the XVI century and used for military purposes nowadays. During Portugal’s civil war in the XIX century, it was the only place the Liberal army was able to conquer on the south bank of the Douro River. It offers the most spectacular view of Porto, especially at sunset.
This bookshop was built in the XIX century and was voted the third most beautiful bookshop in the World by the The Guardian and travel website Lonely Planet. The famous red staircase is said to have inspired the one in Hogwarts as JK Rowling lived in Porto for about a year. This art nouveau building became so famous, especially among Harry Potter fans that they had to start charging an entrance fee.
Palácio da Bolsa and St. Francis Church
Founded in the late XIII century as part of the Franciscan Monastery, it took centuries to be completed, despite its relatively simple architectonic structure. Even though the church’s origins are Romanesque, it was later transformed into one of the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture in Porto. The west façade has a lovely Gothic rose window, but its main portal was given Baroque touches in the XVII century.
The Stock Exchange was built in the XIX century by the city’s commercial association in neoclassical style but it was once part of the St. Francis Convent. Most of the construction was finished in 1850 but the decoration of the interior was completed only in 1910. The most impressive part is the Arab room, with 300 meters, decorated in Moorish style, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada and where the official receptions are held.
If you are visiting Porto and want to learn a bit more about these places, join one of our Porto Free Walking Tours. They are all part of our route and we can guarantee you'll have a fantastic time. We offer the tours every day at 11:00 and 15:30. Just book your spot on our website.