Before planning our first visit to Porto, I only knew a few things about the city. First, Porto is located in northern Portugal. Second, its architecture features traditional Portuguese azulejos (ceramic tiles). And third, Porto gave its name to the acclaimed Port wine. Throughout our two-day trip to Porto, I learned that its attractions go far beyond my previous knowledge.
Similar to Lisbon, Porto is one of the oldest European cities in Portugal. Its historic center was classified as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 1996. Porto is compact, with a maze of steep, narrow streets filled with colonial buildings, beautiful plazas, churches, and houses with tiled façades. We could have spent a week there and never have been bored. However, our two-day visit turned out to be plenty of time to see the main highlights without any rush.
Are you planning to visit this second largest Portuguese city? Read on because this two-day trip to Porto guide includes a list of the best things to do, where to stay, how to get around, and more.
Two-day trip to Porto: where to stay
Stay in the historic city center. Since it is compact and has most of the city’s iconic attractions within walking distance from each other, your visit will be a lot easier.
Here are a few suggestions for you:
Top-notch: Maison Albar Hotels Le Monumental Palace is a 5-star hotel located in a beautifully renovated, 1923, historic building in the center of the old town.
Mid-range: We stayed at the beautiful Eurostars Porto Centro and I highly recommend it. Steps away from Avenida dos Aliados, the location couldn’t have been better. This modern and spacious hotel is a great place for families.
Budget: Downtown Colosseum Apartments is in an old but fully renovated building. It is spacious, bright, and provides a keyless check-in. No elevator. Excellent value for your money.
Two-day trip to Porto: how to get around
Depending on your stamina and how much of the city you want to see beyond the historic center, you may not need public transportation at all. However, Porto’s hills can make sightseeing tough, especially when it’s hot. If a boost is needed or you have enough time to adventure in different areas, here are a few alternatives:
- Uber: convenient and inexpensive way to travel within Portugal in general.
- Public transport: low-cost and efficient. If you’re making multiple journeys save time and cash by investing in a 24-hour pass (€7). The pass covers the entire network except for trams. Check www.stcp.pt for timetables, routes, and fares.
- City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off: A fantastic way to enjoy panoramic sea and city views while you learn about points of interest through an informative audio. The ticket (good for 24 hours) covers two different routes (€18 adult, €9 kids between 4 – 12) or 48 hours (€20 adult, €10 kids).
Two-day trip to Porto
We arrived in Porto by noon, checked into our hotel, and headed back out. The plan for the rest of the day was to wander around Baixa and Cais da Ribeira to get the feel of the city. We knew Porto is smaller than Lisbon. Yet, we were pleasantly surprised to find out the tight boundaries of the historic center. At each turn, we spotted the attractions we had on our list. We felt compelled to check off some of them right away.
Here is our two-day Porto itinerary. Follow it or adjust to the length of your visit to make sure you don’t miss any of the fun and cultural highlights in this magnificent city. We had a blast and hope you will too.
Two-day trip to Porto – Day 1 (half-day)
A stroll from Avenida dos Aliados to Cais da Ribeira
Avenida dos Aliados was built to impress. Located in the heart of the historic Baixa district, this short but wide thoroughfare displays a harmonized combination of neoclassical, French beaux-arts, and baroque architectural styles. Because Baixa is home to many of the city’s most famous landmarks, several tour groups make it a meeting point. It was bustling.
A 15-minute stroll connects Avenida dos Aliados to Cais da Ribeira. The walk itself was an attraction. The network of charming cobblestone streets and alleys led us downhill until we reached Praça da Ribeira (Ribeira Square). Historically, the Ribeira district was the docks and trading center of Porto.
Today, it is one of the most glamorous sections of the city. On one side, we faced ancient, pastel-colored buildings occupied by cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops. On the other side, we had the Douro River. From almost anywhere we stood, we had a postcard view of the double-decker Dom Luís I Bridge. And on the opposite bank shone the Vila Nova de Gaia, a city south of Porto.
Note: Both days we were in town, we walked to Cais da Ribeira for dinner. After sunset, the narrow streets got busier, and the atmosphere changed. Instead of curious eyes seeking aged architecture, folks now looked for the most authentic dishes at restaurants that overlooked the river or sat on the back streets of the medieval neighborhood.
Within minutes, tables became occupied, and the noise from the clinking glasses, voices, and laughs added charm to the streets of Ribeira. Like many others, we celebrated the end of each day enjoying a traditional Portuguese dish (Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá — a casserole that is a specialty of Porto — was one of my favorites). Certainly, be sure to perfectly pair it with a glass of local wine. To seal the night, a glass of Port!
Carmo and Carmelitas Churches
Next on our list of places to see was Carmo Church. It was inevitable to also see Carmelitas Church, as they stand almost side-by-side on Carlos Alberto Square. Separating them is one of the world’s narrowest houses (about 3.2 feet wide). The purpose: to make all contact between the nuns of Carmelitas and the monks of Carmo impossible.
The interior of both buildings demonstrates baroque and rococo style with rich, golden, wood carvings; their exteriors are slightly different. Carmelitas has a simple façade with a single bell, and Carmo exhibits a modest example of baroque architecture. These contrast beautifully with the blue and white Portuguese tile that covers the entire side of the Carmo Church.
Both churches are open Monday to Friday from 7:15 am to 7:00 pm; Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 9:00 am to 6:45 pm.
Clérigos Church, Museum, and Tower
The Clérigos Tower is part of the Clerigos Church, and both are worth a visit. Dating from the mid-18th century, the Church of Clérigos is a baroque masterpiece. If the main façade seemed narrow and plain from a distance, a closer view revealed its delicate carvings. The interior is even more fascinating.
Its unusual oblong shape, entirely covered in granite, marble, and Baroque golden leaf carving, is stunning. In the background, there is a rococo-inspired altarpiece with the image of the Patroness, Our Lady of the Assumption. Plus, two marvelous Iberian organs (one on each side by the seats) complement the surroundings. Windows allow natural light, enhancing the splendor of the adorned carving, and creating a beautiful array of colors with the marble.
The tiny museum is located on the upper floor of the church. The exhibition, distributed across three rooms, shows a collection of sculptures, paintings, furniture, and gold smithery from the 13th century to the 20th century. One of the rooms, used as an infirmary for the treatment of sick clerics until the end of the 19th century, holds the Christus collection. Each piece in the museum celebrates the encounter of art with faith.
Although the entire site deserves a visit, what sets this attraction apart is its tower. The Clérigos Tower was at the time of its construction the tallest building in Portugal. Standing 249 ft tall, you can view it from several places in the historic center. It is one of the most visited places in Porto.
For those who dare to climb the 230 steep steps all the way to the top, the award will be a superb 360º view of the city. The south side, which faces the rooftops of Ribeira, Douro, and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side of the river, was particularly beautiful.
Note: The inner staircase that enables access to the top is very narrow. Visitors climb and descend the narrow stairs with you constantly. We had to squeeze into a tiny corner to allow passage to others. There is not a lot of space on the top level either. Additionally, the balcony wall is quite high, so young children won’t be able to see anything without help.
Visit Ticket Office for additional information about hours and fees.
San Ildefonso Church
San Ildefonso Church is a 10-minute walk from Clerigos Tower. Situated on a hilltop, this 18th-century church is nicely decorated with azulejo artwork. The tiles have been incorporated into its Baroque design, making the front of the building an interesting sight.
We didn’t see inside since it was not open when we visited.
Two-day trip to Porto – Day 2
Livraria Lello may not be the oldest bookstore in Portugal, but I’m pretty sure it is one of the most beautiful and famous in the world. Since 1906, this bookstore is well-known as a hangout destination for famed Portuguese writers. The store has carried that reputation through the years, Including when J.K. Rowling lived and taught English in Porto.
Lello’s architecture is so stunning that there is a rumor that it inspired the Harry Potter author to create the bookstore in Diagon Alley. As you may know, this is where Hogwarts students purchased their school books. When word spread, Lello’s popularity quickly spiraled out of control.
Because of its reputation, we stood in line for almost an hour to pay the 5€ entrance fee. You can use this fee towards the purchase of any book. A second line (shorter at least) allowed us to enter the bookstore. Someone standing in line next to us said that Lello began charging an entrance fee in an effort to control the crowds. True or not, it was by far the longest line we encountered in Porto.
Once we stepped inside, my first reaction was a big Wow! Although crowded, the entire hassle was worth it. The two floors are connected by a red, forked, spiral staircase with a wooden handrail. It was the visitors’ favorite spot for pictures. Furthermore, the ceiling is beautifully decorated with painted plaster. To complete the ambiance, natural light from the stained-glass skylight illuminates the wood carvings, rails, and books, making the place a sight to behold.
Note: It is possible to purchase the voucher online in advance, but you will still have to wait in line to get into the bookstore.
Sao Bento Train Station
When we travel, it is not often that I see a train station listed as the main attraction. Skeptical at first, we couldn’t skip a visit to Sāo Bento station, since the building was repeatedly in sight when walking in the historic center. Named as one of the 11 most beautiful train stations around the world, Sao Bento is indeed stunning!
Dating back to 1905, decorated walls display approximately 20,000 classic blue tiles, all of which form beautiful panels. Moreover, the murals are a testimony of the Portuguese expertise of azulejo artwork back in the day. They make the station quite a sight to behold.
Sé Cathedral is one of the oldest and most well-known churches in Porto. Located within walking distance of the Sao Bento Station, it sits on top of a hill overlooking the historic center. As we walked around it, our attention switched from the main façade, with almost no decoration, to the side walls adorned with typical Portuguese ceramic tiles.
It was the inside of this medieval church that impressed us the most. Don’t miss the ostentatious silver altarpiece, the century-old images, the Gothic cloisters, and the chapterhouse that holds a collection of sacred arts.
Santa Clara Church
By now, you may be wondering how many churches we visited in Porto. The fact is that the city has no shortage of beautiful churches. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, they are must-see sites for those interested in history, art, and architecture.
Santa Clara Church, just to the east of Porto’s cathedral, is another place that deserves a stop. Small and boasting a fine Renaissance portal, the church’s interior is covered in gold and luxurious woodwork. Being classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO makes it a must-see.
San Francisco Church
Standing outside of San Francisco Church, we debated whether we should visit another church that day. We decided to check it out, and I’m glad we did. My jaw dropped when I walked through the front door of the San Francisco Church.
Its humble Gothic exterior with Baroque features seemed out of balance with the extravagant gold found inside. I have seen several churches marvelously decorated with baroque gold leaf, but nothing like this one. Truly glorious! In short, if you only have time to visit one of Porto’s churches, then I would recommend this one.
Note: At the time of our visit, tickets cost 4,5€. Visitors can only buy it on site.
Luís I Bridge
If you want to find the best vantage point in Porto, look no further than Luis I Bridge, a remarkable, double-deck, iron bridge that connects Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. As both cities lie alongside the Douro River and slope down towards the river, the far-reaching view is quite spectacular.
Walk along the Luís I Bridge. The lower deck is for cars, but sidewalks are available. The upper level is where you want to be, however. Although it is the route for Porto’s railway system, it offers an unobstructed view of the Douro River (an innate part of the city’s scenery) and the extensive hills on each side. While the north bank boasts Porto’s medieval architecture, including Cais da Ribeira, the opposite side has Vila Nova de Gaia, a city renowned for its port cellars.
Serra do Pilar Monastery
Once on the bridge, cross to the other side and explore Vila Nova de Gaia. Further down, on the left side, take a ramp that will lead you up to Serra do Pilar, which houses the monastery of the same name. Located in a privileged place, its terrace offers a unique view of the Douro and Ponte de Dom Luís I from above, plus the stacked, pastel-colored houses of the historic center of Porto and beyond.
This 16th-century construction is listed as Gaia’s most important landmark. Built in a typical Renaissance style (the only example in Portugal), the monastery is notable for its church and cloister, both of which are circular, with identical diameters. You can visit the Monastery and even go all the way up to its pinnacle.
Two-day trip to Porto – Day 3 (half-day)
Crystal Palace Gardens
I must start by saying that there is no crystal palace on this site. The park’s name comes from the Crystal Palace that once stood there. In 1956, it was brought down and replaced with a domed pavilion used for entertainment, cultural, and sports-related purposes. Nothing exceptional about it.
On the other hand, the gardens are special. It holds not only a wide variety of plants, but also pathways enhanced by fountains and statues that bring a touch of artistic beauty to the place. We had a great time strolling through themed gardens such as Garden of Feelings, Garden of Aromatic Plants, and Garden of Roses, just to name a few. Additionally, its location provides marvelous views of the Douro River.
The park had a delightful atmosphere. During our visit, we had the bonus of seeing peacocks wandering around, flaunting their tail feathers in the gardens. Gorgeous! There was also a farmer’s market and a yoga class taking place on the west side. The Crystal Palace Gardens is well worth a visit.