The town of Valongo is in the hills 10 kilometres from the centre of Porto. You can take in every inch of Norte’s capital and then return to a quiet residential community, near forested mountains and vineyards, and with a handful of its own attractions to keep you diverted.
In June one of Portugal’s most unique traditional celebrations takes place in Valongo, while it also puts on a magic festival in autumn that books up to 200 performers, many from abroad. You’re also in a convenient place to see some things in Porto’s outskirts that most tourists neglect, like the medieval Leça do Balio Monastery, which was designed as a fortress.
Lets explore the best things to do in Valongo:
1. Porto’s Riverside
With Porto 15 minutes away by car it’s only natural that you’ll gravitate towards this UNESCO city.
You should dive into the historic core, at the Ribeira, which has brightly painted houses on the Douro riverside.
It’s a chaotic, tourist-friendly quarter with bars and restaurants.
From the quayside there’s a view to cherish of the Dom Luís I Bridge conducting road, pedestrian and tram traffic over the Douro on two levels.
On the left bank of the Douro in the Vila Nova de Gaia are the famous port lodges, as well as some spectacular vantage points over the river to look back at Porto.
And on this side of the river you can embark on a short voyage on a rabelo, the old vessels that used to ship wine downriver from wineries in the east.
2. Porto’s Museums and Sights
It would take days to get through all of Porto, but there are a few musts that every first-timer has to tick off.
The Baroque Clérigos Church has a 76-metre tower that pierces the cityscape, with 240 steps to the top.
The sensational Palácio da Bolsa stock exchange building has 19th and 20th-century interiors with a different style in almost every hall, including the Arab Room, which has supremely ornate stuccowork.
And the Praça da Liberdade is a genteel open space, bounded by the city hall and grand apartment blocks, and designed in the 18th century.
After that there’s the cathedral and a plethora of smaller churches (Igreja do Carmo, Igreja de São Francisco for starters), all gleaming with gilded woodwork and with glazed tiles.
3. Museu Municipal de Valongo
Valongo’s museum is in the Neoclassical former town hall, from the beginning of the19th century.
When it was converted into an attraction in 2001 some of the interior decor was restored to its original splendour while other parts of the building were turned into bold modern exhibition spaces.
You’ll be introduced to Valongo’s history and culture, learning about its old slate-mining and linen processing businesses, as well as the Bugios (Christians) and Mourisqueiros (Moors) that take to the streets on June 24. There’s also painting, religious art, trilobite fossils and Roman artefacts from the gold mines they dug into Valongo’s mountains.
4. Galeria Museológica do Fórum Cultural de Ermesinde
Ermesinde’s cultural centre is as cool as they come.
It’s adapted into a the town’s tile and brick factory, which dates to 1910.The building was totally overhauled to set up an auditorium and gallery, but big sections of the factory were integrated into the design.
Art exhibitions are actually held inside the old furnace, using its vents for lighting and air conditioning.
Since it opened this gallery has put on shows for some luminaries of Portuguese contemporary art, like Cruzeiro Seixas, Albuquerque Mendes, and Jaime Isidoro, as well as emerging talent from around Porto.
5. Museu da Lousa
There used to be slate mines in Valongo, and although these are no longer exploited the industry has left a small legacy in the town.
The Museu da Lousa has three slate houses, built with traditional techniques.
The first of these drives home the harshness of life as a miner, with cramped living quarters and a small workshop where the women of the family would whittle slate pencils for extra income.
The remaining two buildings have mining machinery, photos and exhibits about the material’s extraction and its various applications.
6. Centro de Interpretação Ambiental
Around Valongo, Porto’s conurbation starts to thin out, and the urban sprawl is replaced by the Santa Justa and Pias mountain ranges.
These are low-lying peaks ensconced in natural woodland and eucalyptus plantations, and coursed by a tributary of the Douro.
Before setting off an a walk through this landscape you can drop this interpretation centre that will get you up to speed on the plant and animals that have a habitat in the ranges, and also some of the fossils found in the range.
7. Festa da Bugiada
St John’s Day or the night before is a special time in the Porto area, and every municipality has its own way of celebrating the date.
Valongo’s festivities happen on the 24th and are so unique they may soon be recognised by UNESCO. The story behind the scenes acted out on Valongo’s streets is of a battle over a miraculous image of St John the Baptist owned by the Christians (Bugiadas), but also wanted by the Mourisqueiros (Moors) to help cure the daughter of their king.
Both sides dress up in colourful, strictly coded attire and perform dances to symbolise the conflict.
But there’s also much more going on, like satirical plays and other traditional dances (Dança do Cego ou Sapateirada).
8. Magic Valongo
Portugal’s oldest magic festival brings some razzle dazzle to Valongo at the turn of October every year.
The event isn’t on a massive scale, but it has won the heart of Europe’s magic community, and has been commended by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM). It has been going since 1992, and invites scores of illusionists to the town.
These have come from all over the world, and among the guests down the years have been several FISM Grand Priz winners.
They take part in magic contests, street shows, conferences and gala events at the snazzy cultural centre in Ermesinde.
9. Museu Mineiro de São Pedro da Cova
If you’re curious about old ways of life around Valongo you won’t be short of things to do.
The disused mining complex at São Pedro da Cova was declared a “monument of public interest” in 2010. Coal was mined at this place for 170 years, and some heavy-duty structures remain on the site, like the titanic concrete headframe, which was the first in Portugal to be built from this material.
In the galleries, set in the former dormitory, you can enter a section of tunnel, see an original minecart, helmets, lamps and discover the geology of the coal seams under Gondomar.
10. Estádio do Dragão
On Porto’s northeastern outskirts is the home ground of its most famous football team.
The Champions League, UEFA Cup and European Super Cup, FC Porto have won them all, and are the second most successful team in Portuguese history, just behind Benfica.
This glittering heritage awaits you at the museum which can be combined with a stadium tour.
You’ll go down into the dugouts and get a coach’s view of this 50,434-seater arena.
If you’re new to the club the museum will walk you through those cup triumphs and present a pantheon of former greats like Deco, João Pinto, Jardel, Falcao, and the lineups that won the 1987 and 2004 European Cups.
11. Mosteiro de Leça do Balio
A brief drive through Porto’s northern suburbs, this church is a Portuguese National Monument and dates back as far as the 1000s.
Indeed, the site is much older than that, as there were Roman and Visitgothic temples at this place, but none are present in the current building.
It was given a Gothic redesign by the Knights Hospitallers in the 1300s, and that’s the appearance that remains.
Note the defensive tower with its turrets and arrow loops, and the crenellations that cap every wall on the building.
There’s an airy quality to the nave despite the narrow Romanesque windows, and as you browse you’ll spot curious carved figures on the capitals and the recumbent Gothic tomb of a 15th-century friar.
12. Zoo da Maia
Maia’s zoo is a must-do if you’re holidaying with littler family members, but grownups will also be pleased that its inhabitants are well cared for.
This attaction has more reptiles than any other zoo in Portugal, among them turtles, tortoises, geckos, iguanas, a whole array of snakes and caimans.
Many of the snakes are housed in the same creepy hall as the park’s scorpions, tarantulas and piranhas.
There’s a feeding demonstration for the zoo’s sea lion, and you watch the birds of prey in flight, both scheduled three times a day.
If you’re hankering for ocean breezes and rolling waves you won’t need more than 15 minutes to get to Matosinhos, There’s a Blue Flag beach at this spot, fully exposed to the Atlantic and with vigorous rollers that surfers adore when the conditions are right.
Matosinhos is also seafood-central , especially around the old fishing harbour, where grilled sardines, seafood platters (the crab is amazing here), rice with shellfish and any number of cod preparations await.
For a more remote beach environment you can journey up the coast, past the airport, to the protected, dune-lined beaches on the way to Vila do Conde.
14. Parque Nascente
It’s good to know that even if Valongo is almost in the countryside and at the foot of a mountain range, you can still get some serious shopping done.
That’s because the Parque Nascente mall is ten minutes away.
It’s one of Porto’s prime shopping destinations, pulling in 12.5 million people a year, and with Iberian brands like Oysho, Bershka and Zara that are taking Europe by storm.
This enormous complex opened in 2003, with 135 stores over three levels, as well as 35 restaurants and a cinema.
If you’re worried about language problems at the movies, most English films are subtitled and not dubbed.
And if you need provisions there are also a couple of supermarkets.
15. Food and Drink
Valongo has a baking tradition that is as strong as ever, with a few local delicacies to taste.
In bakery windows you’ll see doces brancos, a confectionery similar to meringues, and decorated with a lemon icing.
Traditional desserts here often make use of leftover bread.
So there’s sopa seca (literally dry souo), which is a bread soaked in port wine and lots of sugar, and flavoured with cinnamon, as well as pudim de pão, in which the bread is blended with milk, eggs and sugar.
As for beverages, there are vineyards around Valongo producing vinho verde, naturally light and fresh, and terrific with seafood.