Capital and gateway to the north of Portugal, Porto is both the city that provided a nation with a name and a fortified wine known world-wide: port. With its splendid geographical location on the mouth of the river Douro and an architectural heritage of exceptional quality, the historic centre of Porto was declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1996. Porto is the capital of the North and the second largest city in the country; its hard-working inhabitants are noted for their commercial enterprise, always standing firm against outside impositions and foreign invaders, which explains why Porto has become known as the «unvanquished» city.
In addition to its history, any visitor to Porto will be quickly impressed by the forceful character both of the city and its inhabitants. Seemingly hewn out of granite near the mouth of the River Douro, Portugal’s second city, known locally as Porto, dazzles with a rich collection of cultural attractions. Porto’s historical heart is the Ribeira. This waterfront bairro positively insists you lose yourself amongst the maze of narrow streets and seek out some of the city’s most cherished architectural treasures. In fact, so rare and precious are the buildings that make up this venerable neighborhood that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
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. These are the best monuments to see and visit in Porto!
1. Clérigos Tower
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. Bolsa Palace
Opposite the side wall of Hard Club, Palácio da Bolsa deserves a special chapter. Built between 1842 and 1910, the building, which belongs to Porto Commercial Association, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city and offers guided visits. The visit starts at the beginning, in the old cloister of Convento de S. Francisco – named today as Pátio das Nações – , whose ruins were donated by the Queen D. Maria II to the association founded in 1934, so that the town businessmen might have a place to meet. Leave the best to the end.
The Salão Árabe was built as an Arab balls danceroom, very fashionable in the 19th century, and inspired by Palácio de Alhambra in Granada. Leave the palace and cross D. Luís bridge towards the Port wine cellars. The 19th century monument was designed by some students of the famous French engineer Gustave Eiffel and started to be built in 1888. On the southern bank of River Douro there is a viewpoint with stone benches which will offer you a privileged view to the bridge and where you can see and take some photos of the houses at Ribeira do Porto before leaving to discover the wonderful world of Port Wine.
3. São Bento Railway Station
The Estação de Comboio de São Bento (Train Station of São Bento) is one of the must-visit places if you are in Porto. This station was built during the 19th century over the remains of an old convent. Its stately façade attracts passers-by, but the interior is even better, with a hall adorned with more than 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles portraying the history of Portugal.
Due to its incredible location in the city centre, it’s almost certain you will go by it several times a day, but don’t just see its façade, go inside! From this station depart trains towards the vineyards of Douro and nearby towns such as Braga, Viana do Castelo, or Guimarães.
4. Church of Congregados
There are so many beautiful churches in Porto. In fact, there are many churches and it is hard to choose the most beautiful one. The church is dedicated to Saint Anthony, who was born in the 12th century and became a Franciscan priest. As a missionary, he eventually found his calling in Padua, Italy. The building was constructed during the late part of the 17th century and it replaced the original church which stood on this land for several hundred years.
The curent church was designed by the popular and world renowned architect of the time, Joaquim Jaime B. Ferreira-Alves. The facade has elegant Baroque features including the fabulous tile work, created by the famed artisans, Jorge Colaço and João Baptista Ribeiro. The tile work tells the story of St. Anthony and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The church is just across the street of Sao Bento station, city centered and can be seen from far thanks to its great location.
5. Episcopal Palace
The Paço Episcopal (Bishop’s Palace) is adjacent to Porto’s cathedral (Sé) but is not open to the public. It was first built in the 12-13th centuries as the residence of the bishops of Porto before a complete overall by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni in the 18th century. The building’s facade is known for its fine workmanship and the interior for its superb Baroque staircase.
The palace is part of the UNESCO World Heritage old town of Porto. The Paço Episcopal was the seat of the Municipality of Porto from 1916 to 1956. The main facade of the Paço Episcopal is painted white with granite stone work around the windows. The interior is known for its staircase, which is attributed to Nasoni, a central courtyard and many fine wood-panelled rooms decorated with paintings. The Paço Episcopal is located in the center of Porto’s old town close to Sao Bento Station.
6. Lello Bookstore
Lonely Planet considered Lello & Irmão Bookstore as the third most beautiful library in the world. The store has an excellent neo-gothic façade, where you can see two figures painted by José Bielman, representing the Science and the Art. This facade is only surpassed by its stunning interior, designed by Xavier Esteves. The building was inaugurated on January 13th, 1906, in an important social event for both Portuguese and Brazilian societies, attended by famous people from different spheres – among them Guerra Junqueiro, a renowned Portuguese writer.
As you walk through the doors of this bookstore you’ll notice that there is a marvelous stairway and the wooden walls are also very exquisite. The stained glass ceiling adds an amazing detail with Lello’s motto “vecus in labore”. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling’s inspiration to write Harry Potter has begun in Porto, particularly at this library. The well-known writer lived in Porto for 10 years working as an English teacher in the early 1990s and she used to drink a cup of coffee at the second floor of Lello’s bookstore. There are indeed great similarities between Lello’s bookstore staircase and the one described in Hogwarts.
7. Chapel of Souls
Built in the early eighteenth century, the Chapel of Souls is one of the most beautiful churches of Porto. Its exterior is beautiful. It was covered in 1929 with tiles representing moments in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine. The tiles of this monument, which is located near the Bolhão Market and metro station, were restored in 1982.
Although simple, the interior is equally interesting, ‘hiding’ the image of Nossa Senhora das Almas, (Our Lady of the Souls), which dates back to when the chapel was first built. Note that the Chapel of Souls is in the middle of the Rua de Santa Catarina, one of the best known shopping street in the city.
8. Church of Saint Ildefonso
The Parish Church of Santo Ildefonso was built in the first half of the 18th century, on the site of a former place of worship, namely, a chapel dedicated to a certain Santo Alifon, historically mentioned for the first time in the late 13th century. The chapel was brought down in 1709 due to its poor state, which gave way to the construction of the present Parish Church of Santo Ildefonso. Most of the construction works were completed in 1730, but it was not until 1739 that the edifice was completely set up and inaugurated.
Sundry restoration and modification works were carried out in the course of history, such that at present the Parish Church of Santo Ildefonso is a fine example of the Baroque style brightening up the surroundings of Praca da Batalha with its blue and white ceramic tiles which adorn the facade. Other highlights refer to the mid 18th century retable by Nicolau Nasoni, the Italian architect who also contributed to the design of various parts of the Porto Cathedral and of the Clerigos Tower. Also of note are the two fairly decorated bell towers which flank the facade.
9. Freixo Palace
Dated from 1742, Palácio do Freixo is one of the most beautiful monuments of Oporto (the capital of the north of Portugal). In its baroque style, this wonderful Palace was projected by the famous architect Nicolau Nasoni –the most important baroque architect in Porto and North of Portugal. Nicolau Nasoni is responsible for the Oporto ex-libris – Torre dos Clérigos. In 1850 the Palace was sold to Mr António Afonso Velado, one ofthe most rich merchant of the city, who was nominated by King D.Luis as Freixo`s Baron and Viscount.
Mrs Velado used the palace as his residence for years. Later the building was sold to Companhia Harmonia, which has created a “moagem company”, side by side of the Palace. The company was enlarged during the 50`s and 60`s. Palácio do Freixo was classified as National Monument in 1910 and in 1986, the State acquired the palace to the Moagens Harmonia, which has installed a Professional training center. Later the Mayor granted the Palace to Group Pestana, for the construction of the biggest Pousada de Portugal – Pousada do Freixo.
10. Church of Lapa
Construction for the Church of Lapa began in the second half of the eighteenth century, but the Neoclassical style building went through minor modifications over time. It belongs to the Brotherhood of Nossa Senhora da Lapa, which was established in 1755. Construction began the following year, but the towers were only completed in 1863. Inside, the church keeps the heart of King Pedro IV. It was given by the monarch who was keen to leave it to the city of Porto as a way to recognize the support that its population provided during the Portuguese Civil War.
The heart of Dom Pedro IV is kept inside an urn that opens with five keys and crafted to resemble the original urn that transported the organ to the city. It is examined every 10 years to check its condition and it was last seen in 2009. The eighteenth century image of Nossa Senhora da Lapa in the imposing altarpiece and the pipe organ designed by the German Georg Jann are other interesting features of this building, which was classified as Monument of Public Interest. The Portuguese writers Camilo Castelo Branco and Soares de Passos are buried in the Lapa Cemetery, contiguous to the church.
11. Church of Santa Clara
The Igreja de Santa Clara in Porto dates from the 18th century and is a fine example of the typical baroque style of northern Portugal, being particularly notable for the carved and gilded woodwork of Miguel Francisco da Silva. It belonged to the convent founded in 1416 by the king Dom João I, of which little now remains. The Igreja de Santa Clara Church is located on the Eastern side of the Sé (Cathedral) in Porto.
This church, humbler than the Sé do Porto Cathedral, was part of another Franciscan Convent. Its Gothic facade has a Renaissance porch. In the interior you might find gilded woodwork with many details. Also worthy of note is the Mannerist cloister, built at a later date, and other works that mark the transition to the 18th century, such as the dormitories, the main entrance and the two choirs. In 1729, work began on the transformation of the church that would result in the present-day building.
12. D. Luís Bridge
Completed in 1886 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, the bridge’s top deck is now reserved for pedestrians, as well as one of the city’s metro lines; the lower deck bears regular traffic, as well as narrow walkways for those on foot. The views of the river and Old Town are simply stunning, as are the daredevils who leap from the lower level.
The bridge’s construction was significant, as the area’s foot traffic once navigated a bridge made from old port boats lashed together. To make matters worse, the river was wild back then, with no upstream dams. When Napoleon invaded in 1809, scores were crushed and drowned in the rushing river as a panicked stampede proved too much for the makeshift bridge.
13. Carmelitas Church
Portugal, as an ancient Catholic country, has many churches, of all styles and of all eras. The church of the Barefoot Carmelites in Porto is one of the most beautiful. Viewed from the outside, next to his sister, Carmo Church, it is similar to many other churches, if we forget this particularity of having another church stuck.
The church reveals all its splendor when we are in the interior: we soon realize what Baroque means, and it is to cut off our breath. The church has three chapels, richly decorated. We particularly appreciated the church ceiling, all white, with architectural elements of Baroque style, of the most beautiful effect. This ceiling offers a special light to the church, aided by large windows that let in lots of light.
14. Carmo Church
This building’s full name is the Church of the Ordem Terceira de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. It was built in the second half of the eighteenth century. It is one of the most notable Rococo buildings of Porto, both for its architecture and its gilt wood carvings displayed inside. The façade on the side that leads to the hospital of the same religious order is of particular interest. It features windows with balustrades and was completely covered with tiles between 1907 and 1912.
The tile panels were designed by Silvestre Silvestri and executed by Carlos Branco in the Senhor do Além and Torrinha factories in Vila Nova de Gaia. The composition includes scenes of the foundation of the Carmelite Order. The church and the contiguous Church of the Carmelitas are classified as National Monuments. The churches are near the Rectory of the University of Porto, in the heart of the city’s Movida area known for its nightlife.
15. Porto Cathedral
The Porto Cathedral is one of the most important tourist sights in Porto and a historical and architectural landmark of the city at the same time. It is generally deemed one of the most impeccable embodiments of the Romanesque style, though, if truth be told, it is rather a mix of styles and influences with a notable overall Romanesque dash.
But this is no surprise, given the age of the cathedral. The edifice was built between the 12th and the 13th century and in time it suffered structural and decorative additions and alterations, reflecting, as some might tend to believe, the way the architectural tendencies influenced the development of Porto itself in time.