A historic city center, colorful buildings with red-tiled roofs, phenomenal foods with a namesake, world-famous wine, and a beautiful river running through it—this is Porto, Portugal’s second city after Lisbon, and a real gem of a travel destination.
An Enduring City
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, a settlement flourished along the south bank of the Douro River: Portus Cale. As the Empire crumbled, others arrived and settled on the northern side of the river. Over the centuries, the town has changed hands among the Alani, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians.
Porto itself is small, but the greater Porto municipality spreads up and down both sides of the river from the Douro Valley to the east out to the Atlantic Ocean two miles to the west.
The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the district of Ribeira, which slopes with its cobblestone streets and medieval buildings down to the riverside. One can find a variety of small shops, bars, and restaurants to disappear into here.
Visit the Church of St. Francis, a Gothic structure with a magnificent Baroque interior; the old stock exchange at the 19th-century Palácio da Bolsa; and the city cathedral. Another iconic church, Igreja dos Clérigos, features a 248-foot tower (with 240 steps and a 49-bell carillon) and is iconic to the city.
The city lends its name to Port, the fortified wine, and the Port Wine Museum occupies a 19th-century warehouse in the old city. But to visit the “port houses,” you must cross the river to the municipality of Vila Nova de Gaia. Kopke Port House is the oldest, dating to 1683. Most were founded by UK merchants and bear names such as Taylor’s—one of the largest in the world—and Graham’s. Most of them lie along the riverside street and promenade, Cais de Gaia, which offers views of the pastel buildings of Ribeira and the Ponte de Dom Luís I, the 1886 steel bridge designed by a co-founder of the Eiffel Company. Cross it at river level for foot and car traffic or at almost 135 feet above at the top of the bridge’s arch via the bridge reserved for light rail and view-seeking pedestrians.
For a spectacular end to a sunny day in Porto, take the Gaia cable car from the riverside up to the green space that is Jardim do Morro, where crowds gather for sunsets. The gorgeous UNESCO-listed Monastery of Serra do Pilar rises just beyond, overlooking everything, and the upper level of the bridge connects back to Porto there.
Porto offers varied scenic views—high and low, in all directions. But one of the city’s most unusual features is its ceramic tile work. Typically blue and white, the famous azulejos are gleaming squares of beauty and adorn the exteriors of even ordinary houses. Don’t miss the lobby of the 1903 São Bento Station, which counts more than 20,000 of them.
Another fine display is the Igreja do Carmo, conjoined churches from the mid-18th century, one of which features a completely tiled façade on its streetside wall. Take a coffee or snack at a sidewalk café opposite the churches. Azulejos created by local artists make for popular souvenirs.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
At least half of the attraction of Porto is its cuisine. Patisserie windows tempt with the national treasure: the pastel de nata, an egg custard tart. With a clean bill of health from your doctor, try a francesinha, a toasted sandwich stuffed with ham, fresh sausage, and steak and covered with melted cheese and a gravy-like beer sauce. Tuck into a Pudim Abade de Priscos, a rich crème caramel particular to the region, made with abundant egg yolks, pork fat, and port wine.
Splurge and take breakfast or coffee at The Majestic Café, a Belle Epoque-era cafe with an ornate interior.
Burn off at least a few of those calories: Taste Porto offers three-hour walking tours of the best places to eat each iconic dish while providing a history and culture tour along the way. They also offer wine-focused excursions and a craft-beer tour with visits to several local breweries and taprooms.
Modern myth claims that the library of the popular book series is Livraria Lello on Rua Das Carmelitas. Maybe not, but the stained-glass ceiling and curving staircases capture the imagination. Pick up a novel from Portugal’s Nobel-honored José Saramago, take some photos, and check out the little HP display in the back.
The Douro Valley, also a UNESCO World Heritage region, produces the wines for Port. One can drive or hike through there or board a rabelo, a traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat, for a river tour.
Visit the seashore. Vila Nova de Gaia alone has 17 “Blue Flag” beaches in a 10-mile stretch. At the mouth of the river is Foz do Douro, home to fine restaurants, an old fortress, a covered market, and a lovely promenade.
If You Go
The summer heat is kept at bay by pleasant ocean breezes in May through September. During April through May and October through November, the weather is still mild and Porto sees fewer tourists.
Buy a Porto Card for unlimited public transport, free entry to six sites, and discounts on many other attractions. Port house tours and tastings require reservations.
You need at least 48 hours to see the city itself—ideally a full weekend—and add time for day trips, beaches, and exploring the wider region as well.