Situated at the point where the Duoro River meets the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Portugal, Porto has been a mercantile city since its earliest days as a Roman outpost. As one of Europe’s oldest cities, it boasts a wealth of cultural and historical attractions too, including a recently revamped medieval district bordering the scenic waterfront. Beautiful examples of baroque architecture are scattered around the old part of town as well. Walking tours offers a great way to explore the city, as most of the major tourist attractions in Porto are located close to each other. Porto’s most celebrated contribution to Portuguese culture is port wine, the nation’s top export. Visits to Porto typically include trips to the port wine caves located just across the river at Vila Nova de Gaia.
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Porto has long been a haven for great artists and architects looking for work, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the city spawned its own unique architectural style. The so-called Porto School of the 1950s inspired a generation of architects, including Álvaro Siza Vieira, the designer of the Contemporary Art Museum at the Serralves cultural institution. The minimalist building and the surrounding park attracts as many visitors as the changing international exhibits showcased within its white walls. Outdoor art installations dot the landscaped park and gardens.
The 14th-century Igreja de Sao Francisco is the most prominent example of Gothic architecture in Porto. Originally part of the St. Francis Convent built in the 13th century, the church is the only structure that survived a fire in 1842. A steep climb from the riverside leads visitors to the massive stone façade, which is ornamented by a large rosette window. The interior of the church was given a baroque makeover in the 18th century when almost all of the aisles, pillars and chapels were covered with lavishly ornamented gilded carvings featuring cherubs, flowers and animals.
When it comes to contemporary architecture, the Casa da Musica is a standout attraction. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the new home for the National Orchestra of Porto opened in 2005 to great acclaim. With its innovative design inside and out, the structure has already been adopted by the city as an iconic landmark. Concerts are held in the hall nearly every night of the year, with shows ranging from rock bands and solo artists to full symphony orchestras. Guided tours of the facility are offered daily, and special packages include backstage passes and free samples of port wine.
The parents of Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques, are credited with the construction of the 12th-century Sé do Porto, but the cathedral has actually been rebuilt twice over the centuries. Offering a history of changing architectural styles, the reconstructions are now part of this famous structure’s appeal. From its Gothic rose window and cloister to the baroque chapel with its ornate silver altarpiece, the cathedral is a must-see attraction for anyone interested in history, art and architecture. A staircase ornamented with painted ceramic tile work leads to a second level where narrow windows offer impressive views.
The Ponte de Dom Luis I is the most famous of the several bridges that span the Duoro River. Built in 1886, it was designed by Téophile Seyrig, an engineer who worked with Gustave Eiffel. The massive iron bridge has both an upper and lower deck, both of which carried road traffic until 2003 when the top span was converted to accommodate a light rail system. A pedestrian walkway on the upper deck offers spectacular views as well as a direct walking route to the port wine lodges across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Located adjacent to the Sao Francisco Church, the Palácio da Bolsa is a massive Neoclassic structure constructed on the site of the former St. Francis Convent. Funded by the Porto’s commercial association, the palace was built as a stock exchange and was designed to impress Europe’s economic leaders. Several architects worked on the building during its nearly 70-year construction period. Designed in a Moorish style by Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves e Sousa, the Arab Room is a highlight for any tour of the palace. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Porto, the striking space is still used as a reception hall for visiting dignitaries today.
Along with an inventory of more than 60,000 books, an exuberant mix of Art Deco and Gothic Revival architectural styles makes the Livraria Lello one of the most famous bookstores in Europe. Rumored to have provided inspiration for author J.K. Rowling, who worked as an English teacher in Porto when writing the Harry Potter books, the bookstore is now visited by fans of the series from all over the world. In addition to books covering every nook and cranny, the century-old shop features a double helix staircase, a stained-glass skylight and a small café on the second floor.
Baroque exuberance is on full display at the 18th-century tower of the Igreja dos Clerigos, or Church of the Clergy. Designed by Italian painter and architect Nicolau Nasoni in 1754, the Torre dos Clerigos is a Porto landmark and a can’t-miss attraction. The ornate tower rises some 250 feet (76 meters) high, making it one of the tallest structures in Northern Portugal. Visitors who undertake the 255-step climb to the tower’s belfry are rewarded with panoramic views of the city and of the Duoro river estuary. Audio tours are available for an extra fee.
Many travelers to Porto begin their visit in the Ribeira, the medieval historic district located near the Duoro River. At the Praça da Ribeira, the narrow cobblestone streets spill out onto a scenic plaza where locals and tourists relax in the sun and enjoy views of the estuary. With its many seafood restaurants and taverns, the Ribeira Pier is a popular gathering spot too. It’s also a departure point for cruises on the river and for boat rides to the port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. For those traveling by foot or car, the Cais da Ribeira offers easy access to Dom Luis Bridge as well.
While technically its own city, Vila Nova de Gaia is situated just across the Douro from Porto and is woven into the city’s fabric both by a series of bridges as well as its shared history of port-wine making. The most popular tourist attraction in Gaia are the Port Wine Cellars, warehouses where the famous Port wine is stored. The Cellars are placed in Ribeira de Gaia, an area of the city located in the bank of River Douro opposite Porto. Ribeira de Gaia has also some excellent restaurants, particularly in Cais de Gaia. Even if you are not in visiting the cellars, you should visit Ribeira the Gaia in order to get some amazing views of Porto.