Top things to do in Porto

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, food, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. We call them our Big Five and they’re everything you'll need to experience the essence of a new city. Here, Emily McAuliffe checks in from the historic northern Portuguese city of Porto, where traditional port wine is just one of the many charms...

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto

Top things to do in Porto


Thanks to an increasing number of flights touching down at Porto’s international airport, Portugal’s second-largest city is fast becoming one of Europe’s must-see destinations.

Porto comes with a warning: many fall in love with its ramshackle charm and don’t want to leave. Steep streets twist past centuries-old buildings that seem to sigh with every breath; washing flaps against rusted railings; cats peer out from splintered doorways; and wild, purple-studded vines tumble down the hillsides.

And then beneath this rustic surface lies a city finding its groove, with trendy bars, hotels and boutiques popping up like mushrooms.

Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Porto.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto. Image: Emily McAuliffe

Culture

For a taste of Porto’s flourishing cultural scene, start with a visit to the city’s ‘House of Music’, Casa da Música. The building’s modern architecture is an attraction in itself and the venue offers a schedule of (sometimes free) live performances.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto: Casa da Música

Then for a look at Porto’s contemporary art scene, head to Rua Miguel Bombarda, where on a Saturday afternoon every two months the street’s galleries simultaneously change their exhibitions and entertainment takes over the street. As you stroll through the city, also keep your eyes peeled for works by two of Portugal’s best known graffiti artists, Costah and Hazul.

Things to do in Porto

If festivals are your thing, you might like to time your visit with Porto’s São João Festival in late June – an all-in celebration of the city’s patron saint. Along with eating, drinking and dancing, people wander about hitting each other with giant plastic hammers. A strange tradition, yes, but certainly a lot of fun!

History

There’s no shortage of historical things to do in Porto, and in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre, the streets themselves tell the story of the city’s rich past. For example, the Sé Cathedral in Porto’s oldest district presents a fusion of architectural styles from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Remnants of the old city walls can be seen nearby.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto: Parts of Sé Cathedral date back to the 12th century.

A visit to the city’s gold-laden churches, such as the neighbouring Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas (connected by an astonishingly narrow house), gives an appreciation of the country’s former riches, and the giant tiled murals inside the São Bento train station illustrate stories of Portugal’s past.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto: Admire the azulejo tiles on the Igreja do Carmo. Image: Emily McAuliffe

For a more detailed look at the city’s history, visit the free museum Casa do Infante – the city’s former Customs House and supposed birthplace of one of Portugal’s most historic figures, Prince Henry the Navigator; and the history museum and church Misericórdia do Porto.

Things to do in Porto

A tile mural inside Porto’s São Bento train station. Image: Emily McAuliffe

Food

For the most part, Porto’s culinary offering is very traditional, which is perfect if you want to feel like a true ‘tripeiro’ (a nickname used to describe the people of Porto, meaning ‘tripe eater’). But never fear, there’s far more to tempt you!

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto. Image courtesy of Museu d’Avó

To sample a selection of typical Portuguese tapas, Museu d’Avó is a great choice, with its playfully cluttered interior reflecting its name ‘Grandma’s museum’. Or for a more sophisticated take on Portuguese cuisine, Tapabento offers big share plates and good service at a reasonable price.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto. Image courtesy of Tapabento

For exceptional value you can’t beat Comme Ça, where a delicious lunch of bread, salad, a set menu main and a coffee will set you back a mere €4.80.

To escape the city centre, make the pleasant journey along the Douro River by foot, bus or tram to the river mouth suburb of Foz and try Bar Tolo (Rua Senhora da Luz 185). The intimate three-level restaurant serves a range of flavoursome dishes and includes a small rooftop bar.

Further along in the beachside area of Matosinhos, you’ll find smoke billowing from outdoor barbecues as the catch of the day is grilled on the street. Pull up a chair at one of the many restaurants to enjoy the freshest of seafood.

Things to do in Porto

Back in the city centre, seafood lovers will also enjoy Moules, where you can share giant buckets of mussels and crunchy chips in an outdoor courtyard.

Shopping

Porto’s main shopping strip is Rua de Santa Catarina. Amid the pedestrian bustle you’ll find street vendors selling ceramics and Portugal’s famous cork products, such as pencil cases, bags and necklaces. Nearby is the colourful and chaotic Bolhão food market, where you can also pick up a range of Portugal-themed souvenirs.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto: Shop up a storm on Rua de Santa Catarina.

For a more unique (and edible) souvenir, check out Oliva & Co, which offers a selection of Portugal’s finest olive oils. Ask for a free tasting to learn about the different flavours, producers and olive growing regions across the country.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto. Image courtesy of Oliva & Co

Parallel to the city’s main avenue, Avenida dos Aliados, take a stroll down Rua do Almada and scope out funky clothing, jewellery and knick-knacks at stores like Almada em Branco and Workshops Pop Up (here they also run Portuguese cooking classes).

Things to do in Porto

Image courtesy of Workshops Pop Up

Continue down the street to the boutique clothing and shoe store, The Feeting Room, and enjoy a quality brew at the store’s onsite cafe, The Coffee Room.

Things to do in Porto

Image courtesy of The Feeting Room

Relaxation

The Portuguese have long known the relaxing properties of a good port wine, so try the city’s famous tipple with a visit to one of the many wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, or just ‘Gaia’, directly across the river from Porto. Good choices are Graham’s, Ramos Pinto and Croft.

Things to do in Porto

Things to do in Porto: Try the city’s famous tipple with a visit to one of its many wine cellars.

When the sun sets, make your way to Porto Cruz’s rooftop bar to taste the city’s signature cocktail, the Port Tonic, with an incredible view across the city and river.

For peace and quiet, wander through the beautiful Palácio de Cristal gardens or Parque da Cidade, which at 83 hectares is Portugal’s largest urban park.

Things to do in Porto

Image: Emily McAuliffe

If it’s time to give your feet a break, join a cruise down the Douro River. You’ll learn about life on Porto’s working waterway and its fascinating (and enormous) bridges.

Do you have any tips for top things to do in Porto? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.

Additional images: Bigstock

 

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About the writer

Emily McAuliffe is an Australian travel writer and photographer based in Portugal. Her work has featured in national publications such as the Qantas, Jetstar and Tigerair inflight magazines, Get Up & Go and Women’s Fitness. Subscribe to Emily’s blog for stories and images that will make you want to visit Portugal tomorrow!

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