Illustration by Elda Broglio.
We all know what it’s like to plan a trip: Set a budget, find affordable plane tickets, search for and book a hotel, hostel or an Airbnb, and, finally, plan what you want to see. If you’re like me and you don’t want to spend your vacation in Portugal going from one guided tour to another, this mini-guide of things to do in Porto can help.
Portugal is one of my favorite countries because it offers all the best things in one place: the Atlantic Ocean, good weather, good wine, interesting history and delicious food. Porto is the perfect example of a city full of history that is still easy to enjoy. If you plan to visit the city, here’s a list of eight memorable things to do during your stay.
1. Muralhas Fernandinas (Fernandina Wall)
Start your exploration in the center of Porto with one of its most seen, but least-visited monuments: the Muralhas Fernandinas. These walls were initially built to protect the medieval city and formed a much larger structure, but now only parts of the walls remain.
The best way to access them is to walk along Largo 1º de Dezembro, go under the arch that takes you to the church of Santa Clara and climb the stone steps that reach the top of the wall. From the top, you’ll see the city of Gaia on the banks of the Douro River, the bridges of Maria Pia and Luis I, the Guindais Funicular and the beautiful rabelo boats.
These boats constantly cross the Douro River and are the traditional means of transportation for the barrels of Porto wine. By the way, if you like wine, you can visit the local wineries and taste a ruby cabernet (red and young), a lacrima (white, young and sweet), or a vintage (if you prefer mature and refined wines).
2. Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral)
The most striking aspect of the Porto Cathedral is seeing different Portuguese architectural periods (namely the Gothic and Baroque styles) all under one roof. This is because the construction of the cathedral began in the 12th century, but wasn’t fully completed until the 18th century. In fact, the funeral chapel and its famous gothic cloister were added in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the cupolas in the front weren’t added until 1772.
If you want to go further back in time, you can find the remains of an archeological site that traces back to the Roman Empire and the Iron Age at Rua de D. Hugo 5. This proves that the area had already been inhabited before Portugal even came into existence.
3. Majestic Café
Close to the beginning of the main street, Rua Santa Catarina, you’ll find the most famous (and beautiful) café in Porto: the Majestic Café. This cafe originally opened in 1921 under the name Elite and became a cultural meeting place for some of Portugal’s most influential thinkers. It was renamed two years later to align more with the republican values of the time, and the rest is history!
If you want an espresso, ask for um chimbalino, if you want a coffee with milk, ask for um galão, if you’re thirsty and prefer a beer, ask for um fino or uma imperial. To order a slice of cake, ask for um queque (masculine), but be careful! Don’t accidentally say queca (its female version) because you’d be asking for something else …
4. Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore)
At the end of Rua dos Clérigos you’ll find Lello, the oldest bookshop in Porto and one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Built in 1906, this bookshop has enjoyed international fame for quite some time. They even say that J.K. Rowling was inspired by this place for the world of Harry Potter!
As soon as you walk in, you’ll be greeted by some very impressive stairs and beautiful stained glass views. You absolutely need to wander around, have a look at the Portuguese editions of your favorite book, lounge in the library chairs, take some pictures, and hopefully buy a book!
5. The Gardens Of Palácio de Cristal
The Jardins do Palácio de Cristal de Porto is the perfect place for a break in the city (and yes, there’s another garden with the same name in Madrid). Don’t be scared when you walk in — the concrete dome at the entrance is not the original Crystal Palace. That was demolished in 1953 and replaced by the Rosa Mota Pavilion (A.K.A. the imposing dome). My advice is to ignore the dome completely and walk to the right towards the gardens.
Lose yourself in the middle of the green until you find a hidden lookout with a beautiful view over the Douro River. If you’re hungry for more gardens, go left towards Rua de Entre Quintas and follow the narrow path until you arrive at the Romantic Museum. If you have enough time, check out the museum and once you’ve finished your visit, walk through the gardens of Casa Tait that are directly opposite it.
6. Serralves Museum
The Serralves museum is the most important museum in Porto and has an extensive collection of contemporary art. It also enjoys regular exhibitions that draw some 300,000 visitors each year. Apart from the museum, I also recommend visiting the Casa de Serralves, an Art Deco building built in the 1930s. If you have the time, take a stroll through its vast gardens. If you walk to the very end, you’ll find a beautiful lake and a barn. Finish your trip with an espresso at the museum café.
7. Boat Ride On The Duoro River
If you have some time left (or if museums aren’t your thing), I recommend a one-hour boat ride on the Douro River. This way you can see all the bridges that you find plastered on postcards. The oldest bridge (which is no longer used) is the Ponte de Dona Maria Pia from 1877, built by Gustav Eiffel — the same Gustav Eiffel who built the famous tower in Paris. The next bridge, the Ponte de Dom Luís I, with its iconic metal structure, was built in 1880. Finally, you’ll see the Arrábida bridge, built out of concrete in the 1960’s.