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Exploring Porto: Things to Do

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Porto is famous for stunning bridges and the sweet fortified wine that shares its name. It's the second-largest city in Portugal after Lisbon, built on the hills near where the Douro River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of Europe's oldest cities and the core has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history of this area is fascinating. The earliest settlers appear to have been Celtic, but over the centuries it has also been part of the Roman Empire, conquered by Moors, and was important in expanding Christian views. Much of the architecture of the city reflects this history.

The climate is moderate. Summers are dry, comfortable, and clear. Expect fog to roll down the river from the Atlantic most summer afternoons. Winters are cold, wet, and mainly cloudy, similar to my home in the Vancouver, BC area.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (Chapel of Souls) Mady and I started an epic tour of Portugal, Spain, and Morrocco in the city of Porto. We stayed down the street from the famous Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (Chapel of Souls). The exterior features a façade of 11,000 azulejo tiles. This distinctive style of tile is seen all over Portugal. The tiles were used for ornamentation and for temperature regulation in buildings. These tiles show scenes of Saint Ildefonso's life and religious imagery from the Gospels.

The church holds daily masses and welcomes worshippers but welcomes tourists outside of services, with no admission fee. Remember to demonstrate respect by dressing modestly with shoulders and upper legs covered (or bring a scarf).

One of the activities I enjoy the most when I travel is to meander. It is not unusual to walk 10Km+ in a day when I'm exploring a new place. This is how I get a feel for a place and it also helps me to orient myself. It's good for physical and financial fitness, too. In many cities, a good place to start is the main plaza. The main plaza is a typical European plaza, mainly surrounded by government buildings with statues of political, historical, or military importance. This is where a lot of tourist services can be found.

The Old City

From the plaza, it's an easy wander towards the port. I'm a sucker for architecture. I know next to nothing about it, but I love looking at buildings and homes in other countries. Mady respectfully takes photos of doorways, I tend to be more intrusive as I focus on windows, balconies and laundry drying on the line.

The boats are correctly called rabelo boats. These flat-bottomed boats are unique to this region and were developed to deal with the currents and flows of the Duoro River. They were used for centuries prior to the construction of dams. These boats were considered to be the most efficient way to transport the port wine from the Duoro Valley to the port for export and distribution. These boats are mainly owned by companies producing port nowadays and are used for demonstrations, festivals, and pretty photos.

Port Cellar Tour

It seemed important for our cultural education to take a tour of one of the riverside port cellars. We selected the Calem cellar, the most visited of the cellars. The tour taught us about the production of port wine from grape to glass. Most of the production of port happens in the nearby valley. This is where the grapes are grown along steep stone terraces. The initial stages of creating port is similar to most wine-making. After the first stage wine is produced, it is fortified with the addition of distilled 77% alcohol grape spirit.

The following spring, these oak barrels are transferred to Vila Nova de Gaia where they are then stored and aged according to each house's unique style. Typically maturing in oak barrels (small & large) and stored in caves (Portuguese meaning 'cellars'), before being carefully blended to the 'House Style' and bottled.The oak barrels are filled halfway and aged in the cellars. The barrels were stacked 3 high. They weren't on racks--the only thing holding them up were some wedges of wood.

After the tour, we got to taste the white, tawny and the red port wine. Not included was a rose port, so we also bought a glass to share. I had no idea there was such a variety. Prior to this visit, I had only ever known a red port. Sample tastes were generous. Each glass was a full glass but, because they had another tour coming right behind us, we were gently hurried along to finish all in about 15 minutes. Port is a sweetened, fortified wine with an average alcohol content of 20%. Needless to say, we were a tad wobbly when we left. Port has not become a regular part of my booze collection.

River Duoro Tour

I live in a fishing village and grew up close to a working river. I know how different places can look from the water and I jump at any opportunity to take boat tour where ever I travel. This particular tour, The Six Bridges Tour, began not far from the Calem cellar. As we approached Ponte Luis I a group of young lads were perched on the edge of thé bridge taking turns diving to the cheers of tourists. The dives were not pretty but they were certainly a feat of great bravery. It was a helluva long way down! I'm not sure how they collected any tips, but I'm sure there were some enterprising friends who had that covered.

I continued my nosy ways as I peered into open windows and balconies. It was a hot day, and these buildings did not have any obvious air conditioning, so all windows were flung wide open and many residents were seen leaning on window sills watching the river below.

The main attraction on the tour were the many bridges. We heard much about the history, height, and number of crossings of each bridge. To be honest, the part had little interest to me. The tour was as advertised, a tour of bridges, I just didn't understand what that meant, I suppose.

Cable Car, Jardim do Morro, Vila Nova de Gaia

Built in 2011, the Teleférico de Gaia cable car is a great way to see the port wine lodges and warehouses (caves) of Gaia from the air, and access Jardim do Morro and The Monastery of Serra do Pilar on the opposite side of the Douro River from Porto. We boarded at the Lower Station on the riverfront and rode over the rooftops of Gaia to the Upper Station. There is also a metro station to this area, if a gondola ride isn't your thing. After exploring, we returned by walking through the steep and winding streets of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The Monastery’s circular design is unique in Portugal. It was originally built in the 16/17th centuries but was destroyed by civil war in the 19th century. It was rebuilt and is now owned and operated by the Portuguese military.

The Jardim do Morro, located at the highest point near Upper Station, is a lovely green park with benches allowing visitors to linger and enjoy the stunning views of the Duoro River and Porto. We also saw a children's playground with many happy kids enjoying the equipment while on an outing with their family or school group. Together, the monastery, the Dom Luis I bridge and the old town were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996.

Mercado do Bolhão Public Market

Another worthy stop as you are meandering and discovering this marvellous city is the Mercado do Bolhão public market located close to Avenida dos Aliados. This is one of the most popular and lively markets in Porto. It was opened to the public in 1914 and specializes in meat, fish, fruit, flowers, vegetables and other colourful products.

The original building has been temporarily closed for renovations which have lasted twice as long as originally estimated, but anticipating reopening very soon (as of today's date). The temporary site of the relocated market is nearby in the La Vie shopping center on Rua Fernandes Tomás.

The Market has several floors packed with farmers and other vendors selling fresh produce and typical regional products from stalls surrounding a central courtyard. These vendors are constantly changing.

There are also more permanent traditional and authentic shops within the market, including butchers, fishmongers, spice shops, florists, etc. We were able to find delicious fruits, cheese and breads to tuck into our backpacks for mobile snacks to enjoy as we explored the city.

I always enjoy watching street performers. This fellow outside the market caught my attention, not because of his act but because of his adorable little dog. This dog had so much personality. The performer is obviously a very talented dog trainer, if not such a great musician. Notice that the dog is actually collecting the money in the little pouch held in his mouth. These two were raking in the money. Who can resist a cute dog with a purse? Not me.

Walk the Fernandina Walls

The Fernandina Walls are part of a medieval castle in the old city portion of Porto. Many of the structures, including walls and towers, are integrated into the buildings of the old town. The original inner walls (formerly incorrectly known as The Sueva Walls) were constructed during Roman occupations and the later Muslim occupiers added the outer walls to accommodate the larger population and city size.

We were treated to more magnificent views and had a good workout at the same time! Be aware that maintenance and reconstruction work is fairly constant and it isn't unusual for sections of the walk to be closed with little notice and few assurances of re-opening.

Casa de Musica

Casa de Musica is the home of the National Orchestra of Porto. In complete contrast to the old city, Casa de Musica is a modern building situated in fairly new park in the historic Rotunda da Bonavista.

The award-winning design by architect, Rem Koolhaas, includes two main auditoriums, rehearsal rooms, recording studios, public galleries, educational space and a rooftop restaurant. Most unusual, the main auditorium includes two walls made of glass, a material known to scatter sound randomly. To prevent sound issues, Koolhaas created ripples in the glass and set two glass panes a meter apart. Acoustic analysis confirms Koolhaas was successful.

Crystal Palace Gardens

An absolute favourite stop was a visit to see the gardens at the Crystal Palace, inspired by the famous British Crystal Palace. The original palace was replaced by a domed pavilion in the 1950s. The Crystal Palace Gardens are part of the park that also includes the Porto Romantic Museum and the Port Wine Museum.

There are different gardens and spaces and is yet another place with terrific views over the Douro river, Atlantic Ocean and the city itself. Walking through visitors are bound to see beautiful plantings, formal and informal gardens, topiary, and garden sculptures.

We enjoyed the freshness and shade of the treed areas. There were many benches encouraging visitors to sit.

There is no entrance fee, making this an absolute delight for budget travellers. There's also free WIFI available throughout, for travellers needed to check in. From the pond, which contains a small island with water cascading down the side, to the Concha Acústica (an acoustic stage shaped like a conch shell) and the Biblioteca Almeida Garrett, there’s plenty to keep your interest.

What truly delighted me was the peacocks. A large ostentation (isn't that a great word?) of peacocks live in this park.

Peacocks are magnificent. We've already established that I'm a bird nerd, but I could not believe anyone would be less than impressed by the sight of these incredible birds. I know the reality is quite different, as they make a sound that sounds like a child in great distress, create massive amounts of poop, and can be quite vicious when protecting their territory. That may all be true but look at this beauty....

Livraria Lello Bookstore

Somehow between Mady and I we made a huge research failure because we had no pre-knowledge of the absolutely fantastic Livraria Lello. We were simply meandering when we spotted a line up. Being curious and afraid of missing out, we soon realized that we were outside an absolutely magical book store. We were told that this store was part of the inspiration for the Harry Potter.

Of course, we joined the line-up, after purchasing tickets from the ticket shop next door. The ticket fee could be applied to any purchase. If a purchase isn't made, then the ticket can be exchanged for a history brochure upon exiting. Finding something to purchase in a bookstore was not a challenge for either of us.

We truly had no idea what to expect. As soon as we entered, we were stunned by the red and gold spiral staircase leading from the ground floor up to the first floor. The elaborate art nouveau style bookcases were full of books of every genre and language.

Livraria Lello was first opened in a different location by the Lello brothers in 1881 to sell and publish books. This site opened in 1906, with it's impressive Gothic façade. Everything inside from shelves to counters is remarkable, including the large stained glass window bearing the bookshop monogram with the Latin motto "Decus in labore" (dignity at work).

They even serve drinks!

Porto residents are relaxed, quiet and courteous. Life moves at a slower pace, especially in the heat of summer, so don’t expect express service. Many people speak English, especially the city’s younger population, and they are happy for a chance to practice. Tipping isn’t mandatory or expected but wages for waiters and hotel staff are low, so anything you can spare will be appreciated. Crime levels are low and walking at night is safe in most of the city’s central districts. Although Porto has an active nightlife scene, it’s is not a party town. The restaurants stay open late throughout the week, but it's much quieter mid-week compared to weekends.

Porto is a beautiful city with many things for every budget traveller to enjoy. We were able to easily move around the many areas of the city with a combination of walking and public transportation. It is a city worth your time.


Comment and tell us your favourite place to visit in Porto. What did we miss that needs to go on the "Second Chances" list? Share the link with someone who might find the information useful. Become a member to be notified of new content, gain access to ouir members' only forum, and to receive the monthly newsletter full of chatty news, useful travel links and more.

1 Comment

DeeDee Doyle
DeeDee Doyle
May 13, 2022

Lyn, what time of year did you visit Portugal? I'll be going in October and wondering what kind of weather to expect. Really enjoying your travelogues! DeeDee

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