Over a dozen reasons why you should visit Portugal’s second city.
Portugal’s second city, Porto enjoys global renown for its longstanding association with port production and indeed for many, this is reason enough to visit. And yet Portugal’s second city is a glorious and picturesque city break destination, set as it is on the banks of the River Douro, its medieval streets brim full with Baroque churches and neoclassical buildings, decorated with distinctive azulejo tiles. The atmospheric Ribeira district, Porto’s Old Town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an absolute must, as is a visit (or two!) to the riverside wine lodges occupying the Douro’s southern bank. Here’s our round-up of Porto’s principal attractions…
Porto’s historical centre, Ribeira oozes atmosphere and allure with its narrow alleyways, colourful houses and lively cafes, bars and restaurants. As well as offering its own architectural delights, among which are the Casa do Infante and the Palácio da Bolsa, Ribeira also offers a fabulous vantage point, the riverfront Praça da Ribeira, from which to see the Port Wine houses situated across the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia, as well as the Ponte de Dom Luís I.
Vila Nova de Gaia
A Porto pre-requisite, any visit to Portugal’s second city should include a tour and tasting at one of the famous Port Wine houses, some 60 of which are to be found in Vila Nova da Gaia. Situated across the River Douro from central Porto and in turn offering splendid views back across the river to Porto itself, Vila Nova da Gaia’s array of distinctive, terracotta-topped warehouses play host to all the big names in port including Caves Calém, Sandeman and Taylors. For a truly memorable experience, catch the Teleférico de Gaia glass gondola ride across the river.
Ponte de Dom Luís I
Regarded by many as the emblem of the city, the Ponte de Dom Luis I was designed by the engineer, Teófilo Seyrig, a student of Gustave Eiffel. Completed in 1886 and measuring just shy of 400 metres long, the bridge’s distinctive arch is still considered one of the world’s largest to be constructed of forged iron. Today it serves both pedestrians and the metro service, connecting Vila Nova de Gaia and the Garden of Morro with central Porto and its cathedral in particular.
Ponte Dona Maria
Also known as the Ponte Maria Pia, this bridge, unveiled ten years after the Dom Luis I and perhaps even more famous, also spans the Douro. Named after King Luis’ wife, the wrought-iron bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel himself (before he built the Eiffel Tower) and was considered for a time to have the world’s largest bridge span. No longer in service since 1991, the Ponte Dona Maria is regarded not only as a national monument in Portugal, but has also been designated an ‘International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark’ by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Towering above the Ribeira district is Porto’s mighty cathedral, an austere, fortress-like edifice with its origins in the 12th century. Site of the baptism of Prince Henry the Navigator and the marriage of King John I and Princess Philippa of Lancaster in the 14th century, the cathedral has undergone many transformations in its considerable history, the Gothic rose window being the only remaining part of the original façade. Today it is famed for its distinctive blue-and-white tiled Gothic cloisters and its collection of sacred art contained in the chapterhouse.
Palácio da Bolsa
Standing out amidst the architectural splendour of Ribeira is the Palácio da Bolsa, a lavish neoclassical structure built between 1842 and 1910. Porto’s former stock exchange, this opulent palace was built to impress the wealthy money merchants and today serves as the city’s meeting point for heads of state and other civic functions. Highlights include the ornate Arabian Hall, said to have been inspired by the Alhambra of Granada, and the glass-domed Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations).
Torre dos Clérigos
Attached to the Clérigos Church, the baroque, 18th-century Torre dos Clérigos was designed by the Italian architect, Nasoni and rises 76 metres into the city skyline. The highest city tower in Portugal, the tower formerly served as a visual guide for ships coming into the Cais da Ribeira and is today one of Porto’s most distinctive landmarks and attractions. Visitors climbing the 240 steps will be rewarded with sweeping panoramic views over the city, River Douro and beyond.
Igreja da São Francisco
Whilst the cathedral might be Porto’s largest church, the São Francisco must undisputedly lay claim to being its most opulent. Behind its unassuming façade lies a baroque interior bedecked in gold, where the 17th and 18th-century vaulted pillars and columns boast intricate gilt wood carvings of golden cherubs, plants and animals. Be sure to pick out the Tree of Jesse, dating from 1718. No longer operating as a place of worship, the Church of São Francisco serves as a venue for classical music concerts and also houses a museum in the catacombs located beneath.
Casa da Musica
Considered one of the world’s best concert halls, Porto’s Casa da Musica is a striking example of contemporary, modernist architecture, designed by world-renowned Dutch architect, Rem Kolhaas. Costing over 109 million euros, the Casa da Musica opened in 2005 and has since played host to a wealth of top international orchestras, as well as boasting its own resident company. Rising 12 storeys high, this utterly unique, bright white building is definitely worth a photo pitstop.
Fundação e Museu de Serralves
Arguably one of Portugal’s leading centres of contemporary art, the Serralves Foundation and Contemporary Art Museum is set a few kilometres outside the city amidst the beautiful 18-hectare Parque de Serralves, boasting rose gardens, lily ponds and fountains. The Serralves Foundation is split over two buildings, one of which being the distinctive, pink-hued, art deco mansion known as the Casa de Serralves, and plays host to a series of temporary exhibitions on a contemporary art theme.
Casa do Infante
Translated as ‘House of the Prince’, the Casa do Infante is famed as the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator. A former customs house dating back to the 14th century, the Casa do Infante is situated on the riverbank in the Cais da Ribeira and today plays host to the city archives. You’ll find the document of Prince Henry’s baptism here, along with other articles and manuscripts related to Porto’s history.
Museu FC Porto, Porto
As you may have cunningly deduced from its name, this museum is devoted to the Portuguese football club, FC Porto, the most internationally successful of its kind in the country. Only opening its doors in 2013, this relatively-new museum is set under the east stand of the city’s Estádio do Dragão stadium and contains 27 high-tech, thematic and interactive areas devoted to the club’s history, including its most memorable matches, titles won, managers and players, in addition to other national sports including handball, basketball and even roller hockey. And of course, there’s a large collection of silverware on display, including seven international trophies.
Renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful historic stations, São Bento Station impresses both inside and out. A grand stone structure paying homage to the Renaissance architectural style so prevalent in France, its interior is nothing short of spectacular: walls adorned with murals comprising some 20,000 magnificent azulejo tin-glazed ceramic tiles depicting the history of transport and Portugal. Dating back as far as 1916, the most remarkable panels depict King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster by the city’s cathedral in 1387, Prince Henry the Navigator conquering Ceuta in Morocco, and a representation of the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez.