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Gorgeous Porto: top 20

Have you already been to Porto, Portugal?

By Anna Purpurpurpur

Porto, the second largest city of Portugal that gave the country its name, has long been high on my bucket list, and now I’m happy to provide you with my list of things to do there!

Many other activities were not included but I’ve chosen the most essential attractions for you here.

1.Admire Sé do Porto 

Sé do Porto, or the Porto Cathedral, is the first in my list because it’s undeniably the place you can’t miss! Its construction started in the 12th century but it’s been rebuilt numerous times and the final result is a mix of different styles such as Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque. And two mighty towers make it look like a fortification!

My favourite part of it was undeniably the 14th century Cloister decorated with blue tiles azulejos. The Cathedral is located on a hill so you’ll get the most beautiful views from there too!

2. Climb Clerigos tower

The 75 metre high Clerigos tower (tower of the Clerics) that belongs to a Baroque church of the same name is frequently believed to be one of the main symbols of Porto. It dates back to the 18th century – upon its completion it was the tallest building in the city – and was designed by Nicolau Nasoni who eventually was buried at the Church of the Clerics too.

You can also climb to the top to observe the views, but we didn’t dare to conquer over 200 steps with a baby – but what we did was enjoying the stroll along the modern park on the top of a shopping centre right on front of the tower!

3. Cross Dom Luís I Bridge

The Dom Luís I Bridge is probably the most famous industrial spot of Porto dating back to 1886: a two-level 172 metres long metal bridge across the Douro River connecting Porto and Gaia. It was designed by Téophile Seyrig. 

Lower part of it is under reconstruction right now but you can still go across it. It provides fantastic views at any time of day and night, so make sure you go to the top of the arch at least once (it has Porto Metro passage as well as passage for the pedestrians). However, bear in mind that if you have a fear of heights, you might feel uncomfortable because it rises up to 45 metres. 

By the way, another pretty similar bridge nearby is called Dona Maria Pia bridge (opened in 1876) and it was designed by famous Gustave Eiffel. Both bridges share not only the similar frame: they were named after Luís I, Portugal king at that time, and his wife Maria Pia of Savoy.

4. Igreja do Carmo, Igreja dos Carmelitas and Casa Escondida 

Why do I put all three locations together? Well, that’s easy: actually two churches, The Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitas, stand side by side and Casa Escondida, or Hidden house, is squeezed between them!

Carmelitas Church dating back to 1628 was used by Carmelite nuns. The Carmo Church dating to 1768 was used by the Carmelite monks and is famous for its exterior tiles. Actually there I had one of the strangest experiences of my life: you can proceed to the altar of Our Lord of the Steps: the passage was constructed for religious persons to venerate the statue’s feet, – and observe the church from the point of view.

The 3-storey and 250 years old Casa Escondida (“Hidden House”) is worth popping in too. It not only fills the gap between the churches but also gives you a nice insight into the daily life of people who lived there, from various chaplains to artists and physicians working for the Order or its hospital. And probably it was also a source of inspiration for the world of Harry Potter!   

5. Shop at Rua de Santa Catarina

Rua de Santa Catarina, or St Catherine street, is one of the main shopping streets in Porto. Zara, Sephora, United colours of Benetton and all other similar shops are located here as well as shopping malls such as Via Catarina.

The street is pedestrianised and is worth visiting even if you’re not into buying anything because some important landmarks are also located here such as Chapel of Souls and Cafe Majestic (see below). We visited around noon and were lucky to catch the Musical clock on the FNAC building too!

6. Have a coffee at Café Majestic

Majestic cafe is frequently named one of the most beautiful cafes in the world: it’s located on Santa Catarina street and dates back to 1921 (it was titled ‘Elite’ back then).

It was an impressive place for famous writers and politicians to gather up and a magnificent example of la Belle époque style: you got it right if it reminds you of Art Nouveau vibes in Paris! It fell in decline later and was restored to its initial glory in 1994.

7. Walk along Avenida dos Aliados and Praça da Liberdade

The 18th century Freedom square, or Liberdade Square, is the main square of Porto and it continues to Avenida dos Aliados, or Avenue of the Allies, with a nod to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of Windsor of 1386 (yes, the 14-th century!). Basically, they almost share the same space, with Avenue of the Allies ending with the Freedom square to the south. It’s a beautiful landmark where you can find the monument to King Peter IV, 70 metre high Câmara Municipal, or the town hall, designed by Correia da Silva, a historical Macdonald’s (see below), lovely set of trees, a fountain, with gorgeous buildings on the sides where hotels and banks reside.

However, Praça da Liberdade is overpowered by a massive roadwork site now: I’ve been told by the locals that during the works for a metro station some important archaeological remains were found, so the project takes longer that it was planned (poor guests of InterContinental Porto hotel!)

8. Pop into McDonald’s Imperial

I’m not a frequent MacDonald’s goer, but I popped into the McDonald’s Imperial! Why? Because it’s probably the most gorgeous fast food cafe you’ve ever seen! It used to be a grand Art Deco Cafe Imperial dating to 1936 with an Eagle by Henrique Moreira guarding its entrance and magnificent stained glass images created by Ricardo Leone inside. Have a look even if you’re not hungry, this interior is worth seeing!

9. Buy a book at Livreria Lello

Famous Neo Gothic bookstore on 144 Rua das Carmelitas dates back to the 13th of January 1906 when it was opened by the brothers José and António Lello. The person who made Livraria Lello famous was Francisco Xavier Esteves, the engineer who designed the bookstore.

The staircase, carved wood and overall aesthetics truly makes it one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. I’ve heard the rumours that Livraria Lello has probably inspired J.K. Rowling’s descriptions of Hogward’s library (the author lived in Porto in the past) but I’d suggest you not to focus on this, this bookstore is worth visiting per se.
By the way, you can buy fastrack tickets online – and then you’ll get a book along with a speedy entrance! What can be a better buy? 

10. Spot Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar

Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, or the Monastery of Serra do Pilar, is an unmissable landmark located in Gaia, just across the river from Porto, just across the road from the Morro Garden. When you’re visiting Ribeira or crossing the Luis I Bridge, you just can’t miss this magnificent building (which is by the way a UNESCO World Heritage Site!). The monastery was first built on this site in the first half of the 16th century. It was named after the hill it sits upon, Serra do Pilar. And the views from it are said to be one of the best!

11. Take a photo of Сареlа dаs Аlmаs

Сареlа dаs Аlmаs, or Сhареl оf Sоuls, is a small church located  on Santa Catarina street, one of the busiest shopping centres of Porto. This church is famous for its gorgeous tiles аzulеjоs – there are about 16000 of them! – depicting S. Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine. Those tiles ornament the church’s exterior and were created by Еduаrdо Lеitе in 1929.

The church itself is a couple of centuries older: it dates back to the 18th century.  It has been named both after the image of Оur Lаdy оf Sоuls and the Вrоthеrhооd оf Sоuls .

12. Try local food

Francesinha is probably the number one local dish to try: it’s a sandwich filled with ham, fresh sausage, roast meat, covered in cheese and served in warm tomato and beer sauce. Another one is cachorrinho, it’s like a baked hot dog covered in melted cheese again and served with beer sauce too.

Of course, I had to try Tripas too: this is a traditional Porto dish that consists of beef tripe (edible lining from stomach), white beans, carrots and rice. I know it’s not for everyone but it was pretty tasty! And of course – Port wine is a must to try, I’m sure you don’t have to be reminded of that.

13. Explore flora and fauna of Jardim do Palácio de Cristal

Although the Crystal Palace, the 19th century palace built after the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London,  is no more, Crystal Palace’s Gardens can provide you with one of the loveliest strolls in Porto!

It occupies a large territory with terraces overlooking Douro river and the red tiled roofs of Potro look the prettiest from here. Geese, peacocks, chickens walk there freely, and the floral scents fill the air. There are a few museums there as well as Rosa Mota Pavilion (named after Portugues marathon runner Rosa Mota) aka the Super Bock Arena used as a concert venue.

14.Ride Gaia Cable Car to Jardim do Morro 

Jardim do Morro is a hill garden in Gaia just across the Douro river from Porto. It’s a nice piece of green which gives amazing panoramic scenery over the river, Dom Luís I Bridge and the  Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar. To get there from the embankment on the Gaia side, you can use Gaia Cable Car which has been running since 2011. The ride there is an attraction itself too!.

15.Get amazed by São Bento Station

São Bento (aka Saint Benedict) Railway Station is another gem within the Historical centre of Porto declared as a UNESCO World heritage site you must visit in Porto! São Bento Station that is named after a Benedictine monastery that used to stay on this site but was burnt down in 1783.

The station itself dates back to the early 20th century and is famous for the fantastic tiles inside (total number is about 20000!), both azulejos and multi-colored depicting different periods and characters of Portuguese history. The painter behind them was Jorge Colaço. The train station is still in use and you can catch a train from here to other Portuguese cities such as Braga.

16.Walk along Cais da Ribeira

Cais da Ribeira is one of the oldest areas of Porto that used to be the commercial centre of the city in the past. Walk along the riverside, pop into a cafe, watch the traditional Portuguese boats floating by, take a snap of the convent church and the bridge and of course listen to the local street musicians!

You can also visit Palácio da Bolsa, Porto’s old stock exchange, Church of São Francisco (now under refurbishment) and historical The Casa do Infante (House of the Prince). 

17. Eat at Rua das Flores

Rua das Flores, or Floral street, is a lovely pedestrianised street in central Porto. Once upon the time there were the gardens of Pedro Alvarez da Costa, Bishop of Porto, hence the name, a street was laid here in 1521, and many houses belonged to rich merchants. Now it’s a nice place to grab some food, buy a book or to shop souvenirs.

I’d suggest you pop into the courtyard of Casa do Campanha hotel for some food and to see the majestic interiors and a tree there! 

18. Observe Muralha Fernandina

Muralha Fernandina, or the Walls of Dom Fernando, is a part of mighty fortifications remaining in Porto since the Middle Ages. Try going to the top arch of the Dom Luis I bridge or to Funicular dos Guindais and Batalha area to get the best view over the watchtower.

19. Use Funicular dos Guindais

Tired going up and down in Porto? Cut your way and get some rest (not a very long though, just 3 mins) at Funicular dos Guindais! It opened in 1891, closed in 1893 due to an accident but was renovated and operates again!

It runs both ways from Batalha to the foot of Dom Luis I bridge along the old city walls and is a very handy way to move around the steep cliffs! By the way, initially it was used to lift cargo but now it’s happily moving the passengers. 

20.Fall in love with Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

Another blue-tiled church? Yes please! The 18-th century Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, or Church of Saint Ildefonso, is another architectural masterpiece of Porto built on s site of medieval hermitage – and with it I conclude my list.

It’s named after Ildefonsus, the 7th century theologian and the Bishop of Toledo. The church’s retable behind the altar was designed by Nicolau Nasoni, who also stands behind the Torre dos Clerigos. As per the facade tiles, there are about 11000 of them, and they were added by Jorge Colaço (the artist behind the Train station tiles) in 1932.

Where to stay in Porto?

We stayed in the Se Catedral Hotel (Hilton, the Tapestry collection) just in the historical city centre: everything is very close even considering the ups and downs of the city’s landscape.

It’s a new hotel that opened just in 2022 with a very modern interior which was simply admired by our little baby.

You might like my other blogs about Portugal:

Guide to Lisbon p.1 and p.2
Portuguese cuisine

Hope you liked my blog!
Anna xxx

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