Once you’ve decided to book flights to Porto, the next thing to do is choose the neighbourhoods you’d like to visit. The city is made up of many areas and each one has its own character. Some of them are more historic and others are crammed with fascinating cultural sights to explore. Others are bustling with restaurants and nightlife opportunities.
It makes sense that the areas you’d like to see during the day are likely to be different to where you go in the evening. Similarly, you will want to decide whether you’d prefer a quieter neighbourhood to stay in or somewhere with plenty of atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re in the thick of it. Discover the vibe of each neighbourhood to make a well-informed decision about where to base yourself.
The Ribeira district of Porto is the historic centre of the city, which has been an important commercial and manufacturing hub since the Middle Ages. While it is the most traditional part of Porto, it still has a fantastic atmosphere, with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to stop at to take it all in. Chez Lapin is a particularly good choice, as its classic Portuguese food is only enhanced by being enjoyed on the riverside terrace. And this is the real charm of Ribeira – its location on the Douro riverbank – allowing you to stroll its waterside walkways and discover its colourful and quirky buildings.
At the heart of the neighbourhood is Ribeira Square, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated a World Heritage Site. After a fire destroyed many of the buildings surrounding the square in 1491, a series of beautiful arcades were constructed, which can still be seen to this day. Take a closer look at the monumental statue in the square, which displays the Portuguese coat of arms and a sculpture by celebrated artist Joao Cutileiro.
Not far from the square is Casa do Infante, where Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. Since then, this historic building on Rua da Alfandega has had many different uses, including serving as a customs house. Today, it houses the city’s archives and among the fascinating documents inside is the certificate of Prince Henry’s baptism.
One of the nicest things to do in Ribeira is enjoy the glittering view of the river as night falls, complete with traditional boats and the port houses of Gaia beyond. This is when Porto is at its most atmospheric and you can almost feel the layers of history that make up the city being revealed.
Literally translated as Downtown, Baixa is the most exciting of Porto’s neighbourhoods, as it is jam-packed with landmarks and bustling activity. Avenida dos Aliados stretches through the district, with the striking Municipal Council building at one end and Praca de Liberdade at the other. It’s worth walking the entirety of this street, as it is full of stunning architectural gems and you’ll be met by the statue of Pedro IV on horseback in the square. He was a staunch supporter of the Liberalism movement and left his heart to the city, which is now housed in the Church of Lapa.
Among the elements that are particularly prevalent in Baixa are the iconic blue and white azulejo tiles that Portugal is famous for. While you can see various examples throughout buildings around this part of the city, it’s worth heading to the Sao Bento railway station to see some truly beautiful panels. You don’t have to be catching a train to take in the stunning craftsmanship!
Another fantastic opportunity that shouldn’t be missed in Baixa is the chance to see one of the best views of Porto. This can be achieved by climbing to the top of the Clerigos Tower. The 230 steps are worth the effort when you get to see the area from 76 metres up this ornate bell tower, which dates back to 1763. It’s a great way to get your bearings and look out over the rooftops of Ribeira.
There’s no shortage of fantastic places to stop for refreshment in Baixa, with the Café Majestic and Mercado do Bolhao among the most impressive. The former, located on Rua Santa Catarina, is said to be the oldest café in Porto and has charmed the likes of JK Rowling over the years. Even without taking the famous clientele into consideration, the opulent belle epoque interior is enough to make you swoon and its take on the local delicacy of the Francesinha is a marvel in melted cheese.
Maintain the feeling of having stepped back in time by making your way to the Lello & Irmao Bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas. From the neo-gothic façade to the organic curve of the central staircase, everything about this sumptuous building is truly stunning. You’ll want to factor some time into your visit to take it all in, as there are numerous little details to discover and that’s even before you’ve started to look at the titles on offer.
Once upon a time Miragaia could have been considered the suburbs of Porto, as it lay outside of the city walls and was predominantly home to Jewish and Armenian communities. These days it is very much part of the city proper and its location stretching up from the waterfront, as well as its historic houses, gives it a similar feel to Ribeira.
The buildings in Miragaia are all set below the level of the Douro River and protected by a huge wall. The reason for this is the ancient beach at this part of the bank acted as a natural place to construct boats during the medieval period and many of the ships that set sail in Portugal’s golden era of discovery were built in Miragaia. Also, notice the arches that are a common architectural feature of the houses in this neighbourhood, with floors built above them.
It’s not surprising that the most important church in Miragaia was dedicated to St Peter, as he is the patron saint of fishermen. The Church of Sao Pedro is among the oldest in Porto, despite having been completely rebuilt during the 17th and 18th centuries. Stunning decoration is a running theme throughout the building, with fine azulejos on the outside and intricate carvings rendered out of wood in the interior.
Among the other interesting sights in Miragaia to explore are the Alfandega Nova do Porto and the Siren’s Palace, with its namesake stone sirens flanking its doors. The former is the customs house that was competed in 1879 in order to replace Casa do Infante in performing this important role. These days, it is home to the Museum of Transport and Communications, where you’ll find a fine collection of classic cars and exhibition space that hosts a variety of cultural events.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Despite Porto being famous for its port, most of the wineries are located on the Gaia side of the river. Luckily, it is easily accessible from the city and represents a chance to use the stunning Dom Luis I Bridge, which straddles the Douro in all its grandeur. Sitting on the riverside in Porto and admiring the view mainly means taking in the vista of Gaia and its port wine lodges, some of which have distinctive signage, such as that of the shadowy figure of the Sandeman branding.
A jaunt across to the Gaia area is an assault on the taste buds and as well as touring the port wine cellars, there are a number of fantastic restaurants to discover. If you fancy seeing how Portuguese cuisine has been brought right up to date, then Taberna da Villa is the place for you. Not necessarily the easiest establishment to find, it is hidden away on Rua Delfim Lima, but is well worth looking for. The array of tapas-style dishes means you can try many different things, but be sure to leave room for dessert, as it would be a shame to miss out on the tempting selection on offer.
Of course, the port wine cellars are the main attraction in Gaia and there are many to choose from. Each one has something slightly different in terms of explaining the history of the fortified wine, its production and flavour profiles. It’s worth visiting more than one to get a good overview of the industry, which is steeped in tradition, and most of the cellars offer tastings for the adults. Casa Kopke is the oldest port wine cellar, having originally opened in the 1600s.
For an alternative perspective on Gaia and Porto, take the cable car from next to the Jardim do Morro and descend over the rooftops to Cais de Gaia. The journey takes just five minutes, but from a height of 63 metres, you’ll get great views of the area, before disembarking into one of the most bustling parts of Gaia. Here you’ll find a great selection of bars and restaurants, as well as magnificent views back across to Porto from the quayside.
Foz do Douro
If you were in any doubt that Porto has it all, then Foz do Douro shows you that the city can do seaside attractions, as well as sightseeing and culture. Take the historic number one tram out to the coast and stroll under the Pergola da Foz, which dates back to the 1930s. This colonnaded structure, complete with monumental urns provides a section of shade on the Foz promenade and is a particularly romantic spot, with views out to sea.
For a day at the beach, Foz do Douro has a number of options, with Praia dos Ingleses and Praia da Luz having plenty of space to relax and swim. Stop by Confeitaria Tavi on Rua Senhora da Luz for a coffee and pastry with great views of the sea. Alternatively, arrive without breakfast and enjoy something from the extensive brunch menu, although the key lime pie is also hard to resist.
Anyone with rudimentary Portuguese skills will realise that the nearby Castelo do Queijo translates as Cheese Castle. While the official title of this landmark overlooking the beach is actually the Fort of Sao Francisco Xavier, it gets its nickname from the piece of rock it sits on, which resembles a big hunk of cheese.
Located between central Porto and Foz do Douro, Boavista is an area that has undergone plenty of change in the last 100 years. Many of the university’s faculty buildings are found in this neighbourhood, as well as a few sights worth seeking out as a visitor. These include the contemporary music centre, Casa da Musica, which was completed in 2005. Dreamt up by Dutch architect Rem Koohlas and undoubtedly a ground-breaking design, the guided tours of the building are fascinating if you can’t catch a performance. The Botanical Gardens and Planetarium are also in Boavista, making it a good destination for a day’s entertainment.
Among the quieter yet charming neighbourhoods of Porto is Barredo. Stretching across the hillside from the cathedral, this area feels like it has changed very little over the years. It is old and colourful, with weathered houses full of character hidden down narrow alleyways. While you’ll find there aren’t a huge number of sights to see in this part of Porto, it’s a great place to soak up the atmosphere and is just a short walk from the Ribeira district.