On the slopes above the Douro Estuary, Porto is a historic mercantile city with business and trade written into its very name. The centre is a World Heritage site, and you’ll be struck by how rich and varied this heritage can be: There are medieval walls, gleaming Baroque churches, the compact streets of the Ribeira district, the Romanesque Cathedral and that’s just the beginning.
Fortified port wine is still stored in warehouses on the south bank of the Douro, and if you track the river to the ocean you arrive at the stylish Foz do Douro district for beaches and hip restaurants.
Lets explore the best things to do in Porto:
1. Cais da Ribeira
A little chaotic and great fun to explore, Porto’s riverside area is a very picturesque piazza where tourists and locals mingle.
There are bars and restaurants around every corner, and these line the riverside walk too.
You’ll have a perfect shot of the iconic Luís I Bridge from here, and if you duck through the arcades there’s a confusing maze of steep streets and stairways between pastel-painted houses in varying states of repair.
The Cais da Ribeira has been spruced up a little in the last few years and information boards have been installed to tell you about this district’s characters and businesses when it was Porto’s hive of commerce.
2. Serralves Museum & Villa
In the west of Porto there are several elements to Serralves that makes such a great day out.
First there’s the villa, Casa de Serralves, a graceful Art Deco property built between 1925 and 1944 and with designers like Charles Siclis and René Lalique recruited to craft the interiors.
The villa looks out on sumptuous terraced grounds with tree-lined avenues, topiaries, regimented lawns and pergolas.
Then on the other side of the park is the Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in 1999 for high-profile temporary exhibitions.
There are normally four or five on at the same time for present and past luminaries of modern and contemporary art, from Joan Miró to Liam Gillick.
3. Luís I Bridge
An industrial symbol for Porto, this twin-level metal arched bridge opened in 1886. It was conceived by the German engineer Théophile Seyrig who cofounded the Eiffel Company.
The bridge crosses the steep, rocky banks of the Douro and rises to almost 45 metres.
There’s a bird’s eye view of the Cais da Ribeira from the top level, which is also used by Porto’s light railway.
After that you could board the Funicular dos Guindais to get down to the waterside.
And if you still haven’t seen enough, cross on the lower deck for pedestrians and local road traffic.
4. Church of São Francisco
The last Gothic monument in Porto is this church completed in 1425. Wander around to the apse to ponder the long lancet windows and then head back to the main facade where an ornate portal is crested by a lovely rose window.
The interiors were redecorated from the 1500s to the 1700s and have some of the most lavish gilded woodwork you could hope to see.
The old Gothic vaults, walls and pillars are covered up by intricately carved panels representing birds, cherubs and foliage.
5. Palácio da Bolsa
Porto’s old stock exchange was built next to the Church of São Francisco after its cloisters burned down during the Siege of Porto in 1832. The exterior was finished by 1850 and has a Neoclassical design, while the eclectic interiors were decorated right up to the start of the 20th century.
You have to go in to comprehend the richness of the sculpture, decorative carvings, plasterwork, frescos, chandeliers and tiles.
The stuccoed Moorish Revival Salão Árabe is almost overwhelming, while the monumental Pátio das Nações courtyard is lit by an octagonal metal and glass roof.
6. Clérigos Church
The 75.6-metre-high tower of this Baroque church can be spotted from most parts of Porto and was the tallest building in the country when it was completed.
It’s a beautiful monument, with delicate carvings all the way up and a clock so high you need to take few steps back to be able to read it properly.
This was the last section of the church to be completed and dates to 1763, with a design inspired by the campaniles of Tuscany.
If you don’t mind the queue and the 240 steps you’ll be rewarded with a complete panorama of the city from the top.
7. Praça da Liberdade
The grand open spaces of this square and boulevard in Santo Ildefonso feel a world away from the narrow streets of the Cais da Ribeira.
The Praça da Liberdade was plotted as a new urban layout in the 18th century and bounded to the south by the Neoclassical Palácio das Cardosas, an 18th-century convent turned hotel.
There’s an equestrian statue of Pedro I of Brazil, remembered as a democratic reformer.
The streets around are some of the poshest in the city, with imposing civic buildings, designer boutiques and the Belle Époque Majestic Café on Rua Santa Catarina.
8. Casa da Música
A treasured modern addition to Porto’s cityscape, the Casa da Música is a concert hall that opened in 2005. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas oversaw the design along with high-tech scenography and acoustics firms.
This is one of the rare music venues that is also worth seeing when nobody’s playing.
You can go in for a tour of the 1,300-seater venue, which tore up the rulebook on auditorium design and has two walls composed entirely of glass.
On some days you’ll be able to hear the orchestra rehearsing, and if that whets your appetite for high culture you can dress up in the evening to hear famous soloists and the Porto Symphony orchestra.
9. Foz do Douro
To blow away the cobwebs make for the Foz do Douro, a trendy district where the Douro enters the Ocean.
There’s a long promenade with palms and pines, and a pergola that you might recognise if you’ve been to Nice.
The Pergola da Foz was installed in the 1930s as the Mayor’s wife fell in love with the one on the Promenade des Anglais.
The Farol Molhe do Douro lighthouse meanwhile guided vessels in and out of the Douro for 120 years before being deactivated in 2009. New, modern restaurants pop up in this quarter by the week, and when the sun is setting you couldn’t ask for a more romantic backdrop for stroll.
10. Porto Cathedral
This stern-looking building calls the shots from the oldest part of Porto.
You’ll arrive on the Terreiro da Sé, an esplanade that lets you survey the city’s rooftops and monuments like the Clérigos Church Tower.
Despite going through a lot of changes over time, the cathedral has kept big pieces of its original 12th-century architecture.
When it was built it would have had a defensive role, as you may tell from the buttresses, arrow loops and crenellations.
Inside there’s a narrow Romanesque nave and choir, conducting you towards the apse, which got an opulent Baroque redesign in the 17th century.
With all your attention drawn to the Douro and the Ribeira you might neglect Porto’s beaches.
On a hot day you can dip your toes in the brisk Atlantic and clear your senses in the breeze.
If you want to include some of the outlying beaches a few minutes from the city you have at least 10 to choose from, many of which fly the Blue Flag every year.
The most convenient is Matosinhos, just past the Parque de Cidade and with a massive bay that seems boundless when the tide is out.
If you’re happy to travel a little don’t rule out the town of Miramar, which has a pretty 17th-century chapel on the rocks between its huge golden sandy beaches.
12. Muralha Fernandina
There’s a length of Porto’s 14th century wall just up from the Luís I Bridge and runs almost parallel to the funicular.
And although it belongs of the World Heritage Site, it’s an attraction a little underappreciated by tourists.
You can get onto battlements at Largo 1. de Dezembro, and at the entrance the wall is surrounded by a gorgeous little garden with orange trees.
As you walk the UNESCO signs will give you a little background on medieval Porto.
But best of all, the view of the Douro up here is unbeatable.
13. Jardins do Palácio de Cristal
This was the site of Porto’s Crystal Palace, which lasted from 1865 to 1961 and was modelled on the monument in London.
These gardens were devised to complement that palace and were landscaped by the German Émile David.
His design is still in place, and there are fountains and allegorical sculptures to the seasons.
The gardens are planted with gingko, pines, camellias, rhododendrons and beech trees, and your path might be crossed by a peacock or two.
At the centre of the park the old palace was replaced by the semi-spherical Pavilhão Rosa Mota, which has hosted exhibitions in the past, but is awaiting renovation.
14. Church of Santa Clara
Built next to the most prominent section of Porto’s medieval defensive walls, this church was completed in 1457 to replace a medieval convent.
It has a similar story to other religious buildings in the city, undergoing an extravagant update in the first half of the 18th century.
Shining against the red marble are gilded mouldings on the vaults, and gilded wooden carvings on the walls with such meticulous detail that it’s hard to take it all in.
In Portugal this style is known as “Barroco Joanino”, coming from the reign of John V when the Portuguese Empire was at the height of its prosperity.
15. Parque de Cidade
The Parque de Cidade is the largest urban park in Portugal, spreading out over 83 hectares and going as far west as the 17th-century Forte de São Francisco Xavier by the Atlantic.
After hours zigzagging through crowds, if you need somewhere to stroll or coast on a bike, come for these cool pine groves and abundant rolling lawns.
A motif throughout the park is stacks of rectangular granite stones that look like ancient foundations.
You also use the Parque de Cidade as a green detour on your way to the Praia do Matosinhos.
16. Soares dos Reis National Museum
This museum was founded in 1833 as an exhibition of religious art confiscated from Portuguese convents.
A lot of these pieces are still on display, while much of the earlier art was taken from followers of the deposed King Miguel I. It is named for António Soares dos Reis, a 19th century sculptor from Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro.
There are a few pieces by Soares dos Reis here as well as other vaunted Portuguese painters and sculptors like Silva Porto, Vieira Portuense, Domingos Sequeira and Miguel Ângelo Lupi.
17. Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha
At a wonderful location in Massarelos, beside the Palácio de Cristal gardens and with views of the Douro, this 18th-century mansion was a home for a succession of noble families.
Its most venerated resident was Charles Albert of Sardinia, who spent the last months of his life in exile here in 1849. The house has been kept as a museum to open a window on 19th-century noble life.
This attraction opened in 1972, and Charles Albert’s great-great grandson was called in to help the city choose furniture and decoration to make it as authentic as possible.
18. Douro River Trip
The Douro has travelled almost 900 kilometres from its source in Castile and León to reach the Atlantic at Porto.
And most people who spend some time on or next to the Douro agree that there’s something special about the river.
Around the Ribeira hour-long cruises are offered for around €15, and your guide will give you some insights about the port warehouses on the south bank, the Porto landmarks that soar high on the north bank and the various bridges.
Upriver on the eastern limit of the city is the Maria Pia Bridge, ten years older than the Luís I and built by Gustave Eiffel.
19. Port Wine
It would be very easy, but probably not a good idea, to do nothing but drink port and tour cellars in Porto.
These are located on the south bank of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia.
A few, like Real Companhia Velha, Caves Sandeman and Taylor’s Port, have histories going back hundreds of years and come with museums documenting their story.
As for the wine, it becomes fortified by adding grape spirit, which halts fermentation and helps port keep its sweet flavour.
From them on it is stored in oak barrels for anything between two years and four decades depending on the style.
20. FC Porto Museum
FC Porto are the second most successful in Portuguese football, having won the league 25 times and the cup 16 times.
Add to that two Champions League/European Cups and two UEFA Cup/Europa League titles and you’ve got a legacy worthy of a museum.
If you don’t know much about FC Porto you’ll soon realise what the team means to the city, and if you’re already a fan you can take a trip down memory lane, recalling greats like Deco, Mário Jardel and Teófilo Cubillas.
The museum is in the east stand of the Estádio do Dragão and celebrates iconic players, matches and titles using interactive technology and multimedia.
Available tour: FC Porto: Museum & Stadium Tour
21. Casa-Museu Guerra Junqueiro
Guerra Junqueiro was an influential author and poet whose writing helped set the tone for the Portuguese Revolution in 1910, which abolished the monarchy.
In 1940 his estate in the medieval quarter was donated to the city and became a museum in his honour.
You don’t need to be an expert in Portuguese literature to enjoy this exquisite baroque house and garden.
Guerra Junqueiro also had a taste for the finer things, and accumulated fine ceramic dishes from Nuremburg, faience from Viana do Castelo, plush furniture and a variety of religious art including some wonderful silverwork.
22. Livraria Lello
You have to call in at this delightful bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas.
The building goes back to 1906, though the actual business is much older, and the shop is often touted as one of the best in the world.
A lot of this is down to the architecture: The Livraria Lello has an Art Nouveau design, with plenty of nods to the Gothic in its traceries, murals and pinnacles on the facade.
The sinuous wooden staircase, ceiling piping and stained glass skylight inside are all stunning.
And for a celebrity endorsement, J.K. Rowling was a fan when she lived in Porto as an English teacher.
23. Igreja do Carmo
A little younger than Porto’s elaborate Baroque churches, the Igreja do Carmo has Rococo architecture from the 1750-60s.
What dazzles the crowds though is the side facade on Praça de Carlos Alberto.
Save for the stonework trimming the windows and ground, this wall is covered entirely with blue and white azulejos.
These tiles form one large image conveying the origins of the Carmelite Order and Mount Carmel in Israel.
And if you can’t get enough of the Porto’s stunning gilded woodcarving there’s more inside this church in the side chapels and above the main altar.
24. Porto Bridge Climb
The Douro’s last bridge before the Atlantic is the Ponte da Arrábida, which opened in 1963. When it was finished it had the longest span of a concrete arch bridge on the world, and today 136,000 cars cross the structure ever 24 hours.
Now, while this information might be interesting, what has really put the Arrábida on the map is the new bridge-climbing activity.
You’ll be kitted out with safety gear will be attached to a safety line, before inching your way up the arch beneath the road crossing.
Once you get to the apex the Douro and the older part of Porto will be at your feet.
Suggested tour: Small Group Arrábida Bridge Climb Tour
25. Festa de São João
Short but sweet, Porto’s Festa de São João lasts for just one night on June 23rd (St John’s Eve). To commemorate their patron saint, people young and old take to streets hitting each other with mallets.
If that sounds sinister, these are light plastic toys that make a tame squeak.
So the air is filled with this noise as strangers attack each other, all in the name of good fun.
For grownups the party starts on the afternoon of the 23rd and may not end until sunrise the next morning after fireworks, grilled sardines, live music, drinking and lots of dancing.