Foodies, culture vultures and adventurous types will all find plenty to keep themselves occupied in Portugal’s vibrant northern capital. Porto is characterised by its medieval, Unesco-listed old town, the mighty Rio Douro and the local wine that gives Port its name. Expect beach promenades, the world’s most beautiful bookshop, vibrant markets and some impressive neoclassical monuments. Planning a holiday to this charismatic coastal city? This is our pick of the best things to see and do in Porto.
Praia dos Ingleses
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If you prefer your beach visits to involve more promenading and people-watching and less salty water and sand, head to Praia do Ingleses. This large sandy beach, in the upmarket Foz do Douro district of Porto, features a long promenade lined with buzzing cafes that stay open long after dark. There’s even a popular cafe on the beach itself, where you can watch locals and tourists strolling by as the sun goes down. It can get quite windy, however, so make sure to bring a light jacket.
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This historic bookshop has a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores – and is rumoured to be an inspiration behind the Harry Potter series. Built in 1906 by engineer Xavier Esteves, the store was once a popular haunt for the city’s creative set and features a colourful, neogothic facade adorned with paintings. The interior is just as impressive, with a stained glass and carved plaster ceiling, a room for rare books and a famous double spiral stair at the heart of the store carved from timber and carpeted in striking crimson. Make sure to arrive early to avoid the long queues – the store receives up to 5,000 visitors each day.
Mercado Bom Sucesso
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This formerly dilapidated late-1940s market hall has been transformed into a bright and modern marketplace housing fresh produce stalls, a food court and the Hotel da Música design hotel. Stock up on fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, and flowers at the market, followed by lunch at the food court, which serves everything from traditional pork-filled pastel (pastries) to pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts). There’s also regular events, including live music and cooking demonstrations.
Zoo Santo Inácio
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Discover more than 200 species of animals – including rare snow leopards and southern white rhinoceros – less than 10 minutes from Porto’s city centre at Zoo Santo Inácio. The spacious green habitats housing more than 600 animals are set across 15ha (37 acres), making it the biggest zoo in north Portugal. Highlights include the Asian Lion Tunnel, the daily feeding of the Humboldt penguins – which includes an educational talk by a zookeeper – and a sprawling African Savannah populated by giraffes, rhinos, wildebeest, zebras and ostriches.
Câmara Municipal do Porto
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Porto’s imposing town hall, Câmara Municipal do Porto, is located at the top of Avenida dos Aliados and dates back to 1920, although construction was only completed in 1955. The palatial, neoclassical building is crafted from marble and granite and it features an impressive clock tower at its centre. The statue that stands proudly at the front of the hall depicts poet Almeida Garrett, known as the founder of Portuguese Romanticism. The popular restaurant Cervejaria Brasão Aliados is also nearby – try the hearty francesinha sandwiches and the fried onion in black garlic mayo.
Rua das Flores
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This historic 16th-century street takes its name, Flower Street, from the many gardens that once surrounded it. Today, it’s one of the city’s most charismatic – and busy – streets. Aristocratic homes from the 17th to 19th centuries still line the street, resplendent with coats of arms and ornate balconies, alongside the baroque Misericórdia Church. The area has been recently restored and is now classed as a pedestrian zone, making it the perfect place to while away an afternoon exploring its many cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Grab lunch at chef Luís Americo’s Cantina 32, or head to Mercearia das Flores for gourmet souvenirs.
Jardim do Morro
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Looking for a romantic spot to watch the sunset over the Rio Douro? Gaze down on Porto’s winding cobbled streets and pastel-hued houses from above at Jardim do Morro, a hilltop park in Vila Nova de Gaia. There’s a lake, a bandstand and an impressive variety of plants, including a grove of shady palm trees and linden trees lining a stretch of Avenida da República. The park can be accessed either by a cable car or by crossing the upper level of Ponte de Dom Luís I.
Igreja do Carmo
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Some of the most awe-inspiring architecture in Porto can be found in its many churches, which range in style from gothic to ornate baroque constructions. Igreja do Carmo – the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Carmo – was built between 1756 and 1768 and features a stunning, azulejo-covered facade that was added in 1912 and showcases the beautiful blue-and-white-tiles the country is well known for. It’s separated from the Igreja dos Carmelitas, a 17th-century convent, by a narrow, one-metre-wide house designed to prevent any relationship between the nuns and the monks who originally inhabited the twin churches.
Piscina das Marés
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Fancy a dip in the Atlantic Ocean without having to worry about waves and currents? Head to the iconic Piscina das Marés, a pair of tidal ocean pools – one for children and one for adults – designed in the early 1960s by architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. Built into solid rock along Leça da Palmeira beach in the town of Matosinhos, the pools appear to be a part of the landscape itself. After a refreshing dip, take a wander down the beach – it’s the longest stretch of sand in northern Portugal.