Porto: Portugal’s Cultural Polestar

Places covered in this article: Porto and its attractions. This article is a part of the ongoing series Portugal: The European Utopia! Subsequent articles in this series focussing on other destinations in Portugal will be released soon. Stay tuned!

Porto is rightly called the cultural polestar of Portugal. This was the first city of my week-long trip to Portugal and our plan was to spend just around a day and a half here. On day one, we landed in Porto, having taken a cheap Ryanair flight from Munich. Once out of the airport, the pretty easy-to-understand metro system took us to our hostel in less than an hour. Being the second largest city in Portugal, this city has plenty of transport options. A network of metros, trams and buses make it fairly easy to reach every nook and corner of Porto. We reached our hostel just in time for dinner, quickly made a plan for the next day and dozed off!

Travel tips – Porto has good air, rail and road connectivity with important cities in Portugal as well as the rest of Europe. On good days, Ryanair offers as cheap as €30 return ticket!

Artwork showing the highlights in Porto, Portugal.

Porto is known for its sublime cobblestone pavements along the Douro river, and the stunning sunsets that come with it. Honestly, when we started in the morning from our hostel, I didn’t have the slightest idea what this city holds in store. All I had was a list of places, a phone with Google Maps and a heart full of hope. And boy did Porto deliver on its promises!

Get lost in Ribeira, the Old Town

The colourful narrow lanes of Ribeira, Porto's old town.

To get started, my recommendation would be to first explore the colourful avenues of Ribeira, Porto’s old town. The narrow streets, their cobblestone pavement, together with the vibrant surrounding buildings truly represent the opulence brought about by the simplicity of Porto. On the sides of these streets are countless shops, shrines and snug cafes serving all variety of food. This medieval downtown, with its archaic roads and structures truly highlights the historical significance of Porto.

After spending an hour sojouring through the labyrinth of Porto’s streets, we wound up at the Porto cathedral. This is Porto’s main church, and is visible from every highland (as we will see later). The impressive centuries-old church also offers a good chance to see this city from above. However, as we had planned to visit Torre dos Clérigos later, which is the highest vantage point, we decided to skip this one.

View of the Porto cathedral from one of streets in Ribeira
The Porto Cathedral is a 300 year old super-structure in the heart of Ribeira, Porto’s old town.

This 300-year old shrine might not be much different than most churches across Europe, but this is by far the one that best veils in the soothing ambiance of the downtown. This cathedral plays an important part in Porto’s history. The construction of this church started in the 12th century AD. Gradually, the Roman architecture gave way to Baroque styled conceptualisation in Porto starting from the 15th century. During this time, this church was repeatedly tweaked till it got its present appearance in the early 17th century.

Did you know? – Porto has been inhabited since as early as the 8th century BC. Ruins of that period have been discovered in several places across the city!

After making our way past the Porto cathedral, our next stop was the Clérigos Church and Torre dos Clérigos – the tallest church tower in Portugal!

Visit the Clérigos Church

Amidst the assemblage of sloping tiled roofs, this church complex stands out conspicuously. The soaring citadel besides the church is a 250-feet tall bell tower of the church of the same name. Back in the early years, it served the purpose of being a navigation landmark for seafarers, much like a lighthouse. Not surprisingly, the Italian Baroque styled Clérigos church and tower are classified as Portugal’s national monuments.

View of the Clérigos Church and tower in Porto.
Torres dos Clérigos is the highest Church bell tower in Portugal.

After buying the ticket, we first entered the Clérigos Museum, which is just besides the church in the same complex. The ticket for the complex (which includes the museum, church and the tower) is €6 per person (further discounts apply if one has the Porto card, Porto’s single/multi day pass); and take my word, the experience is worth every penny! The Clérigos Museum exhibits a collection of age-old ritualistic objects from the 13th century. It is a small museum, but worth a visit nonetheless.

View of the Clérigos Church from the inside.
The Clérigos church depicts the rich cultural heritage of Porto.

After spending some time in the museum, we headed for the church. Clérigos church displays stunning stone and metal artisanship. It was constructed in the 18th century and the main façade is decorated with baroque motifs such as shells and garlands. Based on what I understood from the museum and the marginalia in the church, this was one of the first Portoguese churches to adapt an elliptical floorplan. In company with the iconic ‘Torre (Tower) dos Clérigos’, this church was built by the renowned Florentine architect Nicholas Nazzoni, one of the most influential figures in Portuguese Baroque architecture.

Travel tips – In Porto, credit and debit cards from all over the world are accepted in most places. So, no need to carry a large amount of cash!

Climb up Torre dos Clérigos

After seeing the church, we finally geared up for the renowned Torres dos Clérigos! To reach the viewpoint at the top of this tower, one has to climb 240 narrow steps made of stone and wood. There is no elevator or escalator of any sorts and grinding your way up the staircase is the only option. At the top, however, a head spinning 360° view of the city of Porto waits charmingly to greet you!

360° view of the city of Porto from the top of Torre dos Clérigos.

I was taken aback by this view; who wouldn’t be? This viewpoint provides a completely different perspective of Porto. Since morning, we were walking through the streets surrounded by buildings in all directions. And then, seeing the world from 250ft. with blue, velvet sky in the backdrop is indeed surreal! The sheets of beige and brown tiled roofs, the Porto cathedral in the distance and Duoro river next to it paint a picture worth a thousand words!

360° view of the city of Porto from the top of Torre dos Clérigos.

Torres dos Clérigos is perhaps the most well known landmark in Porto. On every postcard, tourist guide and map, this tower usually gets a middle seat. As a result, do expect crowds in good numbers, especially during the peak hours of 10am-5pm. My suggestion would be to visit this tower early in the morning when the traffic here is sparse; that way, you can get the best views without being bothered. After spending nearly an hour and a half in the Clérigos complex, it was time to hit the Duoro riverside!

Take a stroll along the Duoro riverside promenade

The walk from Ribeira to the Duoro riverside is just shy of 20 minutes. The terrain in Porto is hilly, so even walking a kilometre and a half will make you gasp. The roads and streets, however, are impeccably beautiful; so in a way, those make up for it.

Ice cream as dessert from Amorino.
We had a quick snack in one of the roadside cafes and got some dessert along the way (by the way, an ice-cream in Amorino is highly recommended!)

Heading towards the Duoro river, the terrain gradually opens up. You will have to descend down a neat broad stairway (or take a funicular, if you like) for about 200ft. Cover that distance and the Duoro river greets you with its sluggish beryl waters. It was then that I noticed the huge Dom Luis bridge (more on that later) looking down on the river. The Duoro river with this metal girder bridge has been an identity of Porto. And wherever you go alongside the river, this bridge is always visible in the distance.

Travel tips – Stay options in Porto are more economical as we get away from the Duoro river. So try to find a hotel near Vila Nova de Gaia or Bolhao area. It’s cheaper and honestly, not very far from the main attractions in the region.

View of the beautiful Porto from Duoro promenade

The numerous wooden boats anchored here were once used to transport the Port wine barrels. Today, they are still kept to age the wine and make up for some fantastic photos. The promenade is very lively, buzzing with activity throughout the day. Musicians playing their melodies, a multitude of cafes serving food and wine, and innumerable tourists making their way through is a common sight.

This is the area where we spent a lot of time; and still, I find it difficult to think of any distinct things we did here! And for good reason, because all we did was walk down the promenade endlessly, soak in the lively atmosphere, click pictures and sit besides the river – low-key and elated.

Cross the Dom Luis bridge

In order to cross the river and go to the other side, the Dom Luis bridge has two levels. The lower level is for cars and pedestrians (this is the way to go if you are on the riverside promenade). On the upper level, trams make their way along with people standing at every inch along the fence for some surreal views. While coming from Ribeira, you can take the upper level to cross the bridge if you don’t descend the stairway in order to reach the promenade.

View of the Dom Luis bridge in Porto.

Dom Luis bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in Porto, is right next to the old town. It connects Ribeira with Vila Nova de Gaia. Due to its stunning location and architecture, it is one of the most popular sights in Porto. A walk on the upper part during sunset is a must! The scene from above is astounding – townhouses line the promenade, bustling restaurant terraces, and the distant harmony of street musicians below. The bridge, in itself, is a stunning view. And as the day comes to an end, instead of staying on the bridge for the sunset, we chose a better option. Don’t you just love it when you go against the crowd, and end up with better views?

View of the Dom Luis bridge in Porto.

On the other side of the bridge (towards Vila Nova de Gaia) is a park just overlooking the bridge. The Jardim do Morro park might not be the best of parks in itself, but boy does it provide some stunning views of the Dom Luis bridge and the Duoro river during sunset!

Sunset from the Jardim do Morro park

There are two ways to reach Jardim do Morro park. The easy way (and the one where you will have shell some cash!) is to take a cable car from the Duoro promenade for €6 one way. The other way is to walk, and climb up the streets from the promenade. Whichever way you take, it is absolutely worth it!

Sunset from Jardim do Morro park, overlooking the Duoro and Dom Luis bridge.

The sunset we saw from here overlooking the Dom Luis bridge and the picturesque riverside Porto was one of kind! The Sun paints the sky in a plethora of colours. The archaic townhouses below, the antique steel girder bridge and the scintillating Duoro river create a scene that seems straight out of a movie prop!

Sunset from Jardim do Morro park, overlooking the Duoro and Dom Luis bridge.

Throughout the day, I had seen different faces of Porto. In just a day, I had seen the narrow flashy streets in Ribeira, the stunning view of the city from Torre dos Clérigos, the festive Duoro promenade and now, perhaps, one of best sunsets I have experienced. For this trip, my time in Porto was short, and I do aim to visit it again. I am sure the more time I spend in Porto, the more I will fell in love in it!

Just like its Port wine, Porto keeps getting better as time progresses.

View of the Duoro river after sunset as seen from the upper level of Dom Luis bridge.

There are certain places which I could not visit in this trip; but if you are planning a trip to Porto, maybe you can keep aside some time for these.

  • Sao Bento Station is a historic train station, which is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
  • Livraria Lello is a prominent book library in Porto. When JK Rowling used to stay in this city, the bookstore became an inspiration for her stories.
  • A day trip to Duoro valley can also be planned if you have enough time to spare. The hilly region is known for its vineyards and is around 2hrs from Porto by car.

5 responses to “Porto: Portugal’s Cultural Polestar”

  1. So colorful…. Beautiful snaps.. Felt as if am in Portugal… 👌🏻👌🏻

    1. Loved the writing! Appreciate the wholesome itinerary!

      1. Thank you so much! Stay tuned for many more travelogues!

  2. […] this series focussing on other destinations in Portugal will be released soon. Read the article on Porto here. Stay tuned for […]

  3. Beautiful content and equally wonderful pictures to go with it… Great job buddy…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: