Much of old Porto can be described with a pronounced 18th-century accent. Extravagant Baroque churches and stately Neoclassical buildings punctuate the skyline, their most valuable contents displayed in world-class museums set in picturesque squares.
Meanwhile, the city’s contemporary character is evident in its thriving modern arts scene and an alarmingly futuristic music venue. Crossing the sweeping bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia is a sightseeing highlight, as is a guided tour around one of the port lodges.
A cruise along the Douro should be considered, and for a truly memorable city panorama take a ride on the cable car that glides from one end of the quayside to the other.
1 Torre dos Clérigos
The soaring Clérigos Tower punctuates Porto’s skyline like a monumental needle. This is the city’s most visible landmark, a 75-meter tall, 18th-century granite-hewn rocket, and visiting this historic structure should be high up on the “things to do” list.
You’ll need a stout pair of legs to climb the 240 steps to the top of the tower, but the effort will be rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the river, the coastline, and the distant Douro valley – a bird’s-eye-view of Portugal’s second largest city, and an inspiring way for first-time sightseers to get their bearings.
Commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Clergy (clérigos) and designed by the Italian-born Nicolau Nasoni, the Baroque tower complements the adjoining Igreja dos Clérigos, which is also Nasoni’s handiwork.
Built between 1732 and 1750, the church itself is a wonderful example of the architect’s affinity with the Baroque and features an elliptic floorplan, one of the first churches in Portugal built in such a way.
But the tower remains the highlight and, day or night, its tapered profile stands as an historic beacon visible from most parts of the city.
2 Palácio da Bolsa
Dating from the mid-19th century, Porto’s former stock exchange contains a wealth of historic interest.
Built on the site of a Franciscan monastery, its sumptuous interior is divided into several rooms and salons, each one singular in its appeal and worthy of close scrutiny.
Pretend you’re a wealthy merchant visiting on business as you wander through the Portrait Room with its gallery of uniformed monarchs, and then cast your eyes skywards after entering the Golden Room to admire its gilded stucco ceiling.
You’ll be ready for your meeting with the boss in the lavishly furnished Chairman’s Room before joining fellow merchants in the richly decorated Court Hearing Room to witness mercantile law acted out in due process.
You may want to pop into the adjacent Juror’s Room before gathering in the magnificent Hall of Nations to mingle with the great and the good.
But you’ll want to leave the best for last by sneaking off to the astonishing Arabian Room, inspired by Granada’s Alhambra, and the one place that really sells a tour of the Bolsa.
Incidentally, the building is the headquarters of the Porto Chamber of Commerce, and its members still gather in the classical General Assembly Room.
3 Porto Bridge Climb
One of the more unusual things to do in Porto – and certainly a radical departure from the traditional sightseeing options – is the chance to climb the arches of the Arrábida Bridge, set downstream away from the more familiar Ponte Dom Luís 1.
The Porto Bridge Climb conducts guided tours of this iconic structure with participants attired in harness and secure lifeline in order to scale the lofty heights safely and comfortably.
Following a narrow pedestrian staircase and connected by cable to a parallel handrail, visitors slowly scale the yawning arches to reach the top of the span, 65 meters above the River Douro.
The panoramic views of the outlying city and the mouth of the river are truly memorable. Descending the 262 steps reveals the size and elegance of this 20th-century engineering marvel, inaugurated in 1963 and currently the only bridge span in Europe that can be accessed this way.
4 Igreja de São Francisco
Visitors are shrouded by gold as they enter the beautiful church of St. Francis. Its 18th-century Baroque interior is encrusted with a gilded veneer so dazzling and exuberant that most agree this is one of the best examples of worked gold anywhere in the country.
Indeed, this is a priceless sightseeing experience. Gilt carving embellishes the high altar, columns, and pillars, with barely a single patch of stone left visible.
Look out for smiling cherubs and dour-faced monks as you edge towards the north wall and São Francisco’s Tree of Jesse, a family tree in gilded and painted wood depicting Christ’s genealogy.
An extraordinary and beguiling artifact carved between 1718 and 1721, the tree boasts fine detail seen in the expressions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and other figures, including King David, Solomon, and Jesse himself, which leaves onlookers speechless.
A tour of the ancient catacombs underneath the church helps bring visitors back down to earth, but there are more treasures from the church’s monastery to behold in the museum afterwards.
5 Cais da Ribeira
Porto’s riverside quarter is an alluring labyrinth of narrow, winding streets; zigzagging alleyways; and low-slung, sun-starved arcades.
Facing the River Douro, though, are terraces of lofty townhouses painted in bright mustard, tangerine, and tawny hues – the Ribeira is an adventure in color and flavor.
A plethora of restaurants and cafés set under the arches along the quayside makes this the most popular area in the city for relaxing and socializing. Praça da Ribeira, the riverfront square, is a popular and lively meeting point and buzzes with a young, friendly vibe.
This is also a busy commercial district, where grocers rub shoulders with butchers and fishmongers. Tiny, dilapidated shoemaker’s studios echo to the industrious tapping of cobblers’ hammers, and the rustic aroma of freshly baked bread collides with the Douro’s salty, briny odor.
Above it all, locals share gossip from balconies or open windows, shouting inexorably across lines of washing snapping in the breeze.
The Ribeira is also about history, and exploring this fascinating neighborhood is to discover medieval relics built over Roman foundations. UNESCO loves the place, and long ago declared it a World Heritage Site.
6 Ponte Dom Luís I
The grandiose Dom Luís I bridge is one of the most iconic structures in Portugal. Spanning the mighty River Douro to link Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, the bridge’s majestic sweep and two-tier aspect is a binding component in the city’s proud, social fabric.
The heavily riveted charcoal-grey ironwork has Gustave Eiffel written all over it, and indeed it was an assistant of the great French engineer who built the bridge in 1886. Commuters use the bridge on a daily basis – a road, Avenida da República, runs across the lower deck while the upper span accommodates a metro railway line.
Pedestrians can walk across using the narrow pavements set either side of the road, or be really brave and traverse the structure using the 60 meter-high top-tier footpath. An outstanding view of the bridge can be had from the terrace of the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, on the south bank.
From here, the entire city forms a fabulous backdrop and the panorama is particularly dramatic at dusk. Don’t forget your tripod!
7 Sé (Cathedral)
Sightseeing in Porto should always include exploration of the city’s cathedral. In fact, the sweeping panorama from the terrace over the old-town streets and the sleepy River Douro is a great curtain raiser and primes the senses for what lies ahead.
An imposing 12th-century landmark, the cathedral has the appearance of a fortress, such is the forbidding look of its towers and the shadowy complexion of its façade.
Redeeming features include a beautiful 13th-century rose window set in the west front, and the serene Baroque cloisters paneled with sky blue azulejo tiles.
Linger here a little to absorb the medieval ambiance and the tranquil locale. From here, a worn 18th-century granite staircase connects with the chapterhouse, which is wrapped in more stunning tile work.
Another standout attraction is the magnificent silver retable in the small chapel to the left of the chancel. Round off your tour by poring over the cathedral’s dazzling hoard of gold and silver held in the Treasury.
8 Vila Nova de Gaia
With its long, broad promenade and riverfront aspect, Vila Nova de Gaia is an irresistible diversion. Easily reached on foot by crossing the Ponte de Dom Luís I, the town’s landscaped quayside is fringed by a long line of stylish restaurants and cafés.
It’s also the departure point for numerous Douro River cruise boats. Adding a wonderfully nostalgic perspective is the fleet of traditional barcos rabelos moored alongside the esplanade.
These graceful sailing vessels were once used to ferry casks downriver from the Douro port estates, and with Porto’s Ribeira district providing a suitably romantic backdrop, sightseers are regaled with an atmospheric cityscape, a tableaux reminiscent of the 18th century.
For a truly dramatic outlook, take a ride on the Teleférico de Gaia, or cable car. This novel new sightseeing attraction runs along the Gaia riverside and connects the upper station, near the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, with the eastern end of the esplanade.
9 Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis (Soares dos Reis National Museum)
If you decide to visit just one museum in Porto, make sure it’s this one. The outstanding collection of Portuguese art spans from the 16th to the 20th centuries and includes sculpture by António Soares dos Reis, the country’s celebrated 19th-century sculptor after whom the museum is named.
The displays are wonderfully eclectic in their scope, with the gold and silverware particularly engaging. The collection of paintings showcase works by Portuguese and foreign artists, notably Dutch and Flemish.
Fine Portuguese glassware from the 18th and 19th centuries complement rare ceramic pieces that include porcelain from China, and examples of Delftware.
Decorative furniture from as far away as India and Japan lend the exhibition an exotic veneer, while the textiles collection is mostly derived from fabrics and other materials that were confiscated from dissolved monasteries and convents.
Allow a good couple of hours to browse the various galleries and then explore the garden, perhaps before a bite to eat in the museum’s cafeteria where the lunch choice includes vegetarian options.