Unmissable activities in Portugal's most up-and-coming destination.
Not so long ago, you could hit Porto’s main attractions in a day or two: wander the Old Town, cross the Dom Luís I Bridge, sip some port, and voilà, Portugal’s second-largest city could be checked off the list. But in the past decade, Porto has reinvented itself, shedding its reputation as a staid wine town to become a travel destination in its own right. The city now boasts envelope-pushing restaurants, restored historic sites, and breathtaking beaches. Sure, you’ll still want to sip through centuries of history at the port lodges along the Douro River (Graham’s offers a particularly enjoyable tour), but after you’ve emptied your glass, seek out these ten activities to discover a different side of Porto.
Rise Above the Rooftops
When you arrive in Porto, there’s no better way to get the lay of the land than to ascend the Torre dos Clérigos, a belltower whose 360-degree views over the red-roofed houses and Douro River have remained second to none since the 18th century. A triumph in Baroque construction for its height and exquisite stonework, the torre has endured as a symbol of the city. The €3 ticket grants access to the sixth-floor balcony as well as the Clérigos Church itself, a must-see if only to explore pathways above and behind the ornate marble chapel. If you’re lucky enough to coincide with the church choir, your visit will unfold to stirring polyphonic harmonies.
Eat Tapas, Portuguese Style
Petiscos are to Portugal what tapas are to Spain, and thanks to their small size, you can taste a wide array of local dishes in a single meal. Although newfangled, innovative petiscos are becoming trendier by the minute, it’s worth starting out with some of Porto’s standby snacks. Start with a cauldron of fiery and satisfying pica-pau— a saucy, deconstructed francesinha—at Zázá, a gastropub by Aliados metro station. Then meander down to Cantina 32, a relative newcomer on the scene that could pass as a Williamsburg or Kreuzberg hotspot, if it wasn’t for its predominantly Portuguese cuisine that runs the gamut from bacalhau à bras (a salt-cod) and shoestring potato scramble to a surprisingly delicious amuse-bouche of country bread spread with banana butter. Wherever your petisco crawl my lead you, save room for one of Porto’s most heavenly mouthfuls, the pulled pork and sheep’s-milk cheese slider from Casa Guedes. The perfect pairing? A thirst-quenching bubbly rosé bottled specially for the restaurant.
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Spark Your Imagination
Legend has it that one of J.K. Rowling’s chief inspirations for the fantasy world of Harry Potter was Porto’s Livraria Lello & Irmão, a turn-of-the-century bookstore located in the Vitoria district. Although Rowling hasn’t confirmed these rumors, an undeniable fairytale-like magic permeates this place, whether you’re marveling at its Art Nouveau flourishes, painted-glass ceiling, neo-gothic façade, or crimson double-helix staircase. In recent years, the bookstore has become so overrun with tourists that there’s now a €2 entry fee, which is redeemable against any purchase in the store.
Stroll Along the Ribeira
The Ribeira, a medieval riverfront neighborhood and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Porto’s most iconic cityscape, with its shop-lined praça and colorful, postcard-perfect rowhouses. Try to snag a table at one of the many outdoor restaurants and take in the street performances, passing boats, and grand architecture with a glass of refreshing vinho verde (local white wine) in hand. Those wishing to delve deeper into the Ribeira’s 2,000-year past can embark on one of Roteiro do Douro’s informative riverboat cruises, whose hop-on, hop-off tours spanning Porto’s six bridges are a steal at 10 euros.
INSIDER TIPDon’t dine on the Ribeira—more often than not, you’ll be paying for the view.
Experience Michelin-Starred Dining
There’s the down-home side of Porto dining—the spit-blackened sardines and slow-cooked offal stews best enjoyed with big hunks of bread—and then there’s the cuisine of Michelin-starred chefs like Pedro Lemos, who serves elegant, understated dishes like milk-fed lamb with artichoke gnocchi at his namesake restaurant. For seafood lovers, it’s worth making the pilgrimage to chef André Silva’s Largo do Paço, set in a 16th-century palace in the township of Amarante, to savor edible masterpieces that revolve around the catch of the day (a recent tasting menu featured local crayfish fragrant with goji berries). But to experience Portuguese luxury at its finest, book a balcony table at the Yeatman Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property nestled among the port cellars of Vila Nova da Gaia that takes hospitality to new heights.
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Discover Contemporary Portuguese Art
Porto is home to one of Europe’s most renowned contemporary art museums, the Museu Serralves, housed within the Serralves Foundation complex. Striking in its minimalism, Serralves’s geometric, all-white structure—designed by architect Álvaro Siza Vieira—hosts a rotation of cutting-edge exhibitions of leading Portuguese and international artists such as Tobias Rehberger and Claes Oldenburg. Recharge after your visit with a Chemex-brewed coffee at the Serralves Tea House, whose homemade jams make nice souvenirs.
Go out on the Town
With study-abroad students comprising a large percentage of Porto’s population, there’s lots of nightlife to enjoy in Porto—well into the wee hours of the morning. For oldies fans, there’s Disco Swing, whose retro beats inspire crowds to dance and sing along to classics until past 4 am every night of the week. Plano B is the “it” spot for the younger set, all neon lights, disco balls, and heavy bass. But for a more sophisticated evening, start with cocktails and city views at Era Uma Vez before progressing to Maus Habitos, whose live performances range in style from house to guitar to fado (Portuguese folksong), depending on the night.
Take a Day Trip
Porto serves as a terrific base for any number of day trips. There’s Braga to the north, with its awe-inspiring churches; college-town Coimbra to the southeast, boasting a bustling nightlife scene; and Aveiro, known as the “Venice of Portugal” for its meandering canals. But if time is at a premium, the most worthwhile excursion from Porto is Guimarães, the cradle of modern Portuguese civilization, where the first king of Portugal was baptized in the 13th century. Spend the day hopping around the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), being sure to hit the key historic attractions, such as the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and the Guimarães Castle, along the way. As daylight begins to wane, let a cable car whisk you up to the mountaintop Penha Sanctuary, and relax as the sun sets over the surrounding foothills.
Learn to Surf
Downtown Porto may not exude beach-town vibes, but take the blue metro line due west and you’ll arrive at Matosinhos, a seaside enclave on the Atlantic famous for its surf culture. Its long beaches and big swells lure wetsuit-clad surfers year-round, in spite of rainy weather in the winter. Get in on the action, whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, with the help of Godzilla Surfcamp. Their individual and group lessons are straightforward, professional, and affordable.
Tuck into a Francesinha
You can’t go wrong with a croque-monsieur—buttery, golden, and oozing with cheese— but there’s even more to love about the francesinha, Porto’s signature sandwich. Gratinéed and stuffed with ham, garlicky linguiça sausage, and a variety of roasted meats, the francesinha stands out for its last-minute soak in spicy tomato-beer sauce. At the hands of an inexperienced (or penny-pinching) chef, the dish can be a stodgy belly bomb, but if you know where to look, there are plenty of excellent renditions to be found. The fresh-tasting version at Tasca Caseira, for instance, is bright with chili and light on the melted cheese, allowing the smoky, meaty fillings to take center stage.