What to do in Porto, Portugal
On first glance Portugal’s second-largest city might look like a waterside jumble of Baroque churches and decaying mansions. But there’s a modern side to Porto too with contemporary art galleries and quirky boutiques among the wooden port boats and vintage shopfronts. Add in great food and wine, sandy beaches nearby and 300 days of sunshine each year, and you’ve got the next big European weekend break destination.
Here are some of Porto’s highlights:
Get lost in time in the old town
The Ribeira is the old medieval heart of Porto, stretching from the river up into the hills behind. Over 2000 years it grew from a Roman port into a flourishing city full of grand ornate buildings. Since then it’s fallen into disrepair but the fading grandeur just adds to the charm and it’s been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Behind the waterfront cafés a web of narrow streets is connected by steep stone stairs. Washing lines are strung in between buildings and balconies overflow with flowers, and as you get lost you uncover tucked-away plazas and tiny chapels. Buildings are slowly being renovated but much of the area still feels like a centuries-old time warp.
Explore old and new architecture
Porto doesn’t have a lot of big-name sights – other than the cathedral and Palácio da Bolsa – but it does have a great range of architecture. If you’re an Art Nouveau lover head to Lello, one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops. Its 1900s façade reveals a stained glass ceiling and a red spiral staircase surrounded by hand-carved bookshelves stretching from floor to ceiling. Or call in for a coffee at Café Majestic with its Art Deco chandeliers, marble and mirror interior. If you like your architecture more modern, head to Serralves. Designed by University of Porto graduate and Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Siza Vieira, its Contemporary Art gallery is Portugal’s most-visited museum. Or take a trip to the dramatically angular, glass-walled Casa da Música concert hall.
Go azulejo spotting
Looking around Porto it seems there’s hardly a surface that’s not covered in colourful painted ceramic tiles. Known as azulejos, they were introduced to Portugal by the Moors – the name comes from the word az-zulayj, meaning polished stone. They originally only used geometric patterns in keeping with Islamic law, but now you’ll find intricately painted scenes too. You can see examples all over Porto, with many different colours and designs. But some of the best can be found at São Bento train station. Over 20,000 individual tiles for the station walls were painted by famous azulejo painter Jorge Colaço in 1905 and it took him 11 years to finish them all. The tiles show battle scenes, coronations and other Portuguese historical events.
Look out over the city
Porto’s nicknamed the ‘city of bridges’ with six connecting it to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the River Duoro. The most famous of them is the Dom Luís I bridge, built in the 1880s by Gustav Eiffel’s business partner. At one point it was the world’s longest arch bridge and there are two different levels – with cars on the bottom and the metro up the top. From the pathway along the top level you get a great view along the river and down into the Ribeira. Or for an even higher panorama head to the top of the tower at the Baroque Clérigos Church. It’s a spiralling 240-step climb up to the top but the views across the city from the top make up for it.
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Go port tasting
Whether you prefer ruby or tawny, or are more of a white port and tonic fan, the fortified wine is synonymous with Porto. Across the river from Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia is home to over 40 port producers. The grapes are grown and pressed 50 miles upstream in the Duoro Valley, before the port is floated downstream to be stored and shipped. Many of the famous port lodges offer tours and tastings where you can find out more about how port is made and try some for yourself. There’s a surprising variety of ports, with red and white grapes, sweet and dry, young and cask-aged versions, all tasting completely different.
Take a trip on the Duoro
Originally the port lodges sent their latest vintages down the Duoro on board a wooden boat called a rabelo. Today it’s more likely to come by road, but you can still see the traditional boats on the water around Porto. On the 24th June – St John’s Day – each year there’s a rabelo race along the river. Or you can take to the water yourself in a slightly more sedate way with a boat trip on board one. Lots of companies offer a 50-minute trip to see Porto’s six bridges, or there are longer trips up into the Duoro Valley wine region where the riverbanks are lined with terraced vineyards.