In the historical centre of Porto, classified as world heritage, you will be dazzled by the monuments in clear sight, or those that suddenly surprise you around the corner. In Praça da Ribeira, how can you not notice the D. Luís I Bridge, a fine example of iron architecture spanning the River Douro? If you feel that it reminds you of another famous iron construction it won’t be a coincidence. This bridge was designed by Teófilo Seyrig, who was taught by Eiffel. Marvel at the slender buildings and the typical granite used in the Ribeira area, and explore the narrow streets. If you prefer, you can continue to walk along the river to Praça do Cubo. Porto was once surrounded by fortified walls, built in the 15th century, but this is the only part of those walls that has survived over time. The Postigo do Carvão was used to connect the boats moored in the river and Rua Fonte Taurina, one of the oldest in the city.
Continue to stroll along the waterfront and visit Casa do Infante/Municipal Archive, where D. Henrique, the driver of Portuguese discoveries, is believed to have been born. The Casa do Infante also has remains traces of Roman occupation and a model of Medieval Porto.
Walk a bit further and you will find the two jewels of the city: the Church of São Francisco and Palácio da Bolsa. The church dates back to the 13th century, but has been revamped on a number of occasions, and now features gilt-carved wood and Rococo decorative details. Everyone is awed when they walk into this Church entirely panelled in gold!
The Palácio da Bolsa is near the Church of São Francisco and its construction ended in the early 20th century. Built on the ruins of the former cloister of São Francisco Convent by the Porto Trade Association, the Palácio deserves a guided tour, especially its Arab Hall.
It takes you about 10 minutes to go from Palácio da Bolsa to Porto Cathedral, a walk marked by the history of Porto: the former Mercado Ferreira Borges, an example of iron architecture, the Gothic Convent of São Domingos, and the São Bento train station, with its famous glazed tile panels depicting historical events of Portugal. When you get to the Cathedral, walk inside and be stunned by its Baroque features. In Largo da Sé, save a few moments to see the magnificent Episcopal Palace designed by Nicolau Nasoni – the Italian architect with many works of art in Porto, including the ex-libris of Porto, the Torre dos Clérigos.
The Torre (tower) and Church of Clérigos also deserve a visit. Depending on your stamina, climb up the tower stairs and stand next to its bells to have a sweeping view over the city.
Leave behind the buzzing streets and visit the Portuguese Centre of Photography, a few steps from the Torre dos Clérigos. The Centre showcases temporary exhibits of photographs and a permanent exhibit of cameras and photography material from the 19th century to the present day. A curious fact: this building was once used as a prison until 1974.
The Soares dos Reis National Museum is one of the most important in town. It houses many of the works of the Porto sculptor who has given its name to the museum. Take your time and see the sculpture “O Desterrado”, his most famous piece of art, and also the decorative art and painting collections. If you like contemporary art, visit the Contemporary Art Museum at the Serralves Foundation and take note of the temporary exhibition programmes showcasing works of national and foreign artists. In the Foundation’s park, take some time to visit Casa de Serralves, the pinnacle of art deco architecture in town, and its exhibitions.
The Amadeo de Souza Cardoso Municipal Museum, in Amarante, features modern and contemporary Portuguese art, in particular the works of some avant-garde artists of the 20th century, for example, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, Júlio Resende and Vieira da Silva.
The D. Diogo de Sousa Vale Archaeology Museum is definitely worth visiting. Located in Braga, it houses a large collection of Roman artefacts. You can also visit the Costume Museum in Viana do Castelo, which promotes the traditions and typical costumes of the city and of Minho, and the Douro Museum, in Peso da Régua, where you can learn more about the history of the region and its wine tradition.
The Minho region has quite a number of religion-related monuments and museums. Braga, one of the oldest cities in Portugal and in the Christian world, is the pinnacle of Christian devotion, and has some of the most impressive religious buildings in the country. The Cathedral is a must-see, as are the Braga Cathedral Sacred Art Museum and the Episcopal Palace.
If you want to escape a bit from the centre of the city, climb up to the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte to breathe in the religious culture and have a sweeping view over the city of Braga. Tibães Monastery is about 6 km from Braga. Built in the 17th century, it is one of the largest in the country. Stroll around the four cloisters and be surprised at the luxurious decorations. On the Minho coast, more precisely in Viana do Castelo, visit the Basilica of Santa Luzia, which was inspired by the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris.
Head to the Peneda-Gerês National Park to visit the Sanctuary of Senhora da Peneda, climb the monumental stairs, and visit the 20 small chapels depicting episodes of Jesus’s life. In the Trás-os-Montes region, we suggest you go up to Monte Farinha, in Mondim de Basto (in the district of Vila Real), to visit the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Graça and enjoy the heart-stopping view of the mountains.
You can also visit the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios in Lamego. You’ll only have to climb the 686 steps of the Baroque stairs to see the granite and typical local glazed tiles! Just over 10 km away, in Tarouca, there is the Monastery of São João, built in the 12th century, the first one founded by the Order of Cister in Portugal.
If you admire contemporary architecture, you can also visit the Church of Santa Maria in Marco de Canavezes, designed by Siza Vieira, the Portuguese Pritzker prize winning architect.
Like a king
Most castles in northern Portugal are found near the border with Spain, as they served to protect the population from invaders. Bragança, in Trás-os-Montes, has preserved its castle and the medieval citadel, including the enormous castle keep. This keep houses a military museum that tells the story of the castle and displays light military weaponry from the 12th century to the First World War. If you drive along the border in the Trás-os-Montes region, you will find many other castles, such as the ones, in Miranda do Douro, Mogadouro, Freixo de Espada à Cinta and Numão (located in the Archaeological Park of Vale do Côa, where you can take a guided tour of the rock art engravings).
While you are in the Trás-os-Montes region, for you have to visit the Mateus Palace in Vila Real. The palace was designed by Nicolau Nasoni and is one of the crown jewels of Baroque civil architecture in Portugal. This palace, however, became widely known for being on the label of Mateus Rosé wine.
But the Trás-os-Montes region is not the only one to boast its castles. In Minho, many were once used to defend the Portuguese borders. Visit the Vila Nova de Cerveira castle with a view over the Minho River, and then head to the Castelinho Leisure Park, on the banks of the river, and visit the Water Museum to learn more about the local fauna and flora of the river. If you happen to be in town at the time of the biennial modern art exhibition (held every two years), you can also enjoy the contemporary art works by domestic and foreign artists.
Heading inland, stop first at Melgaço castle, built in the 12th century on the River Minho to monitor the crossing between Portugal and the Spanish area of Galicia. In the historical centre of Melgaço, visit Solar do Alvarinho, where you can taste the wine produced from this grave variety, widely-grown in this region.
Alvarinho wine is closely related to the history of Palácio da Brejoeira, in the Council of Monção. Built in the 19th century, the palace opened to the public and offers guided tours to its gardens and woods, vineyards and wine cellars. Tasting the typical Alvarinho wine will be the icing on the cake!
Leave the Minho region and head to Guimarães (about 110km away), to the most famous castle in Portugal. The history of the castle and of the foundation of the country are closely bound: the castle was the place of many battles between D. Afonso Henriques (the first king of Portugal) and the troops from Castile. End the visit at the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, which served as the residence of the Portuguese royal family and now houses collections of furniture, weapons and tapestries, and a small contemporary art museum.
Stay overnight at Pousada de Santa Marinha da Costa, a remarkable building in Monte da Penha, built on the renovated facilities of a 12th century monastery.
How to get there
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you choose to fly low cost, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Roma Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In the summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
At the Francisco Sá Carneiro International Airport take the Metro – ‘E’ line – this takes you to the city centre in just 30 minutes. To visit the Minho region, take the following motorways leaving from Porto: the A3 to Vila Nova de Cerveira, Melgaço and Monção, and the A7 to Guimarães. To visit Trás-os-Montes, take the A4. You can also take the train (from São Bento or Campanhã railway stations) or the buses leaving from downtown Porto to the various places in this region.