It was in the Porto and in the North regions that Portugal was founded in the 12th century and the Portuguese became a people and a nation.
Porto, a World Heritage city, is the gateway and departure point for a journey across the natural and cultural diversity of the region. It is known for the Port wine which is shipped from here all over the world, but also for a heritage which combines ancient churches and monuments, such as the Cathedral and the Church of São Francisco, and modern buildings, such as Casa da Música and the Serralves Museum. And also for its School of Architecture which bred names like Álvaro Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto de Moura, both winners of the Pritzker Prize.
The region is crossed by the River Douro which enters Portugal between the ravines and mountains of the interior to flow through the entire World Heritage landscape where the Port and Douro wines are produced. It is from here that the wine is sent to the lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, as the cruises touring the region make their way upriver.
In this area of mountains and natural parks, the region’s heritage is seen in its castles, such as the one in Guimarães, and the shrines and churches which are the stage for pilgrimages in the summer. You will find the Baroque architecture of Northern Portugal in its stone and gilded carvings side by side with rural chapels. In its cities, which retain a human scale, such as Viana do Castelo, Braga, Lamego, Chaves and Vila Real, and in the manor houses and stately halls, you will find the genuine Portuguese people, who like to share their table, their customs and traditions. In Porto and Northern Portugal, the joy and gratitude for all we have and are is experienced in the most spontaneous way.
Porto in a few days
On a brief visit to Porto, there are some places that cannot be missed. In the words of many visitors, this city has something mystical that are difficult to describe and which varies according to the place, time of day and light.
Whatever it is, it certainly has to do with its people, known to be generous and easy-going, as well as the River Douro and its heritage on both banks, with its bridges and monuments, the tiles, the flowering balconies and the shopping streets. The historic centre of Porto and the River Douro on the Gaia side, where the Port Wine lodges are located, are classified as World Heritage.
S. Bento Station, with its atrium lined with tiles, is an ideal starting point. Just ahead is the Cathedral, not to be missed, whose precinct offers the first view of the river, the cascading houses and the opposite bank. From there you descend by steps and mediaeval streets to Ribeira, with its café terraces and picturesque corners. It's worth staying a little to get a flavour of the atmosphere and take in the river with the D. Luís Bridge and the opposite bank, before going on a cruise under Porto’s six bridges. Once you’ve seen the outline of the cascading houses and church towers, you will want to see the gilt interior of the Church of S. Francisco. Nearby, you can see more tile-fronted churches and monuments, and visit the Palácio da Bolsa (former Stock Exchange palace). The tram leaves from next to the river for a trip that goes to Foz (the mouth of the Douro), where you can take a stroll and fill your lungs with the sea air. Avenida da Boavista starts here, and not far away is Serralves, with its gardens to stroll or rest in and its contemporary art exhibitions. The museum is the work of Álvaro Siza Vieira, one of the foremost architects of the Porto School of Architecture, and winner of the Pritzker Prize.
The architecturally imposing Casa da Música, with its full programme of cultural events, is on Rotunda da Boavista, an area that is good for shopping. There are also good shops to be found around Avenida dos Aliados. In between are the Crystal Palace gardens, with another panoramic view of the river, and the Soares dos Reis Museum. Another garden, full of sculptures, is Cordoaria, surrounded by churches and other monuments. It’s worth climbing the Clérigos Tower for a different view of Porto. Immediately nearby is the Lello bookshop that inspired some of the Harry Potter stories. Continue walking towards Aliados, past the shops and art nouveau buildings. After exploring this broad avenue, it’s worth strolling along the pedestrians-only Rua de Santa Catarina for more shopping. Then pop in to the Café Majestic for a break.
There‘s still a visit to be made to the south bank of the river to go to a Port Wine lodge and taste some Port in its unique setting. From Ribeira, cross the D. Luís foot bridge and you’ll see them. One of the most beautiful views over Porto can be had from Gaia. And you can also take the chairlift, which follows this side of the river.
In terms of gastronomy, this side of the river is a good option, but Ribeira also teems with restaurants and café terraces, as does Foz, which also has beautiful views over the sea. Portugal’s cuisine is always a winner with tourists, but this is even more true in Porto and Northern Portugal. You can be sure of a good meal, accompanied by fine wines from the Douro or the fresh Vinho Verde typical of the region, in any restaurant, from the finest to the most popular.
Porto by night
Porto is a vibrant city and its nightlife is famous beyond borders.
In this cosmopolitan city, you will find all kinds of restaurants, from traditional cuisine to the latest fusion cuisine created by prestigious chefs. It is a given that you can eat very well in northern Portugal and Porto is no exception. From the simplest tavern to the most sophisticated restaurant, it will all depend on your choice criteria. One of Porto’s specialties is the famous francesinha, a sandwich with various fillings, bathed in sauce, which is hard to find elsewhere in the country. But fresh fish and seafood dishes also abound and are highly recommended, as are cod dishes or meat dishes of which the highlights are tripe Porto style and kid. As a starter, a typical caldo verde (potato purée-based soup with finely sliced kale) is always welcome.
After dinner, you can try the bars and night clubs offering music for every taste. But if you prefer to attend a concert in an ambience beyond compare, do go to Casa da Música, whose wide-ranging offerings cater for every audience.
Porto has nightscapes that cannot be missed. One of them is, of course, the view over the river, which reflects the lights of Ribeira and the Port Wine lodges, on either side. It is an almost magical view, so a good choice would be to dine on one of the banks, with a view over the opposite side and the Luís I bridge as a backdrop. Ribeira is buzzing in the evenings, especially in good weather, with terraces and bars for all tastes.
Among the places that are famous for their bustling nightlife, besides Ribeira, Foz, some bars and emblematic places in downtown Porto and, for students and the younger public, the area around Clérigos and the Lello bookshop stand out. Here, the Galeria de Paris and Cândido dos Reis streets are known for their range of bars and restaurants, as is Praça Filipa de Lencastre, also in the city centre.
High spirits are the hallmark of Porto’s nightlife which hums with continuous activity until the small hours, especially at weekends.
Porto Top 10
A good number of reasons are at the top of peoples’ preferences when visiting Porto. But they are many, so here’s a Top 10 list of the main points of interest, that are almost all within Porto’s historical centre, classified as World Heritage by UNESCO.
1. Avenida dos Aliados
This is the main hub of the historic centre of Porto, topped by the Town Hall and framed by the most traditional commercial area of the city. Nearby, Café Majestic is a must see.
Besides the church, which was begun in the 12th century, it is worth visiting the tile-covered cloisters. The precinct, with its pillory and other monuments, has a superb view over the river and the houses on both sides.
This is one of the most attractive districts of Porto, in which you get a feel for the ancient vernacular ambience. You can start a cruise on the Douro from here.
4. Church of S. Francisco
The most important Gothic church in the city, whose Baroque interior is completely covered in gilt carvings.
5. Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange)
A beautiful 19th century building, whose highlights include the famous Salão Árabe (Arab Hall), the Hall of Nations and a remarkable grand staircase.
6. Clérigos Tower
One of Porto’s iconic landmarks, designed by Nicolau Nasoni, the most renowned architect of the Baroque period in northern Portugal. It’s well worth climbing to the top of the tower for the view over the city and river.
7. Lello Bookshop
Known the world over, among other reasons, for its staircases that inspired the author of Harry Potter, Lello is considered one of the best and most beautiful bookshops in the world.
8. Casa da Música
The bold design by Rem Koolhaas and the diverse musical programme make this an icon of Porto.
The site of an extensive, very well maintained and pleasant park, a Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira and a house in Art Deco style that gave its name to the Foundation.
Besides the beaches, Foz (river mouth) is a place of recreation and terraces by the sea, with a pergola which lends it a special charm in photographs.
The Douro Valley
The Douro Valley could as easily be called the enchanted valley, such is the beauty and magic that its landscapes offer.
Departing from Porto, where the river flows into the sea and where the Douro wines (table wines and Port wine), produced on its hillsides, also end up, there are various ways to get to know this cultural landscape, listed as a World Heritage Site: by road, by train, on a cruise boat and even by helicopter. None will leave you indifferent.
Following a route between the viewpoints that offer the best vistas, you need to cross the river from north to south and back again. But along the way you can admire breathtaking landscapes over the river and visit vineyards, towns and villages until you reach Miranda do Douro, the point at which the river enters Portugal.
Start at Vila Nova de Gaia with a visit to the lodges where Port wine is aged. Here you will get to know this wine a little better, taking the opportunity – how could you do otherwise? - to taste the precious nectar. And you can still see the old rabelo boats on the river, the vessels that carried the wine from the quintas where it is produced to the mouth of river, before the various dams that made the river navigable were built.
In Peso da Régua, the Douro Museum will provide a different perspective on the region and wine growing. Not far away, on the south bank, is Lamego, one of the most beautiful cities in Northern Portugal, located at the base of an immense blue and white tiled flight of steps leading to the Shrine of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. In Pinhão, right by the river, the railway station is a must-see to admire its ancient tiles dedicated to the cultivation of vines.
Before arriving in Pocinho, you can make a detour on the south bank to visit the castle of Numão and enjoy the view over the skyline. A little further to the east is the Vale do Coa Archaeological Park, an open-air rock art gallery, classified as a World Heritage Site, and the attached Museum in Vila Nova de Foz Coa.
Once you get to Barca de Alva, you enter the International Douro Natural Park, as the river from here to Miranda do Douro makes the border between Portugal and Spain. At this point, the course of the river narrows, running between tall escarpments until it reaches the small border town on entering Portugal.
The Douro Wine Region Valley, up to Barca de Alva, is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. First, the river carved the deep valleys out of the land and then Man transformed the schist mountains into soil and walls and planted the vines, green in summer, flame-coloured in autumn. With knowledge handed down from generation to generation, he inclined the terraces to expose the vines to the rays of the sun which give the grapes the warmth that the wine craves. It was from the fruits of the land and Man’s labour that this unique wine and landscape were made.