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Top 10 things to do in Porto for first-timers

Porto is one of the most historically vibrant and picturesque cities I have ever had the pleasure of exploring and was the perfect surprise birthday trip by Mr Footsteps. With a great mix of historical sights, spectacular views, seaside walks and delicious port wine, Porto has a little something for everyone. Here are my top 10 things to do in Porto for all you first-timers out there…

1) Visit Clérigos tower for 360 views of Porto

Clérigos Church was the first place I visited in Porto and I’ve got to say it set the bar high right off the bat! The church itself is a stunning baroque style church dating back to 1732, however it is the church’s tower that is the real star of Porto. Clérigos tower offers one of the best views of the city at over 75 metres high and a eye-watering 240 steps! Pick a clear day with good visibility and if you can time it just right, you’ll catch a killer sunset.

2) Take the cable cars to the top of Dom Luís I Bridge

The Dom Luís I Bridge is a double-decked metal arch bridge that joins Porto and neighbouring city, Vila Nova de Gaia over the Douro River and the cable cars are the most scenic (and fun!) way of getting to the upper deck of the bridge. Enjoy walking along the bridge for the most amazing views of Porto’s historic harbour.

3) Visit the Church of São Francisco

This church goes way back. I mean waaaaay back! The actual Franciscan order was established in Porto around 1223 with the Church of São Francisco (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) being built between 1383 and 1410. The interior is seriously impressive, with extravagant and intricate decor dripping in 400kg of gold. Get ready for your jaw to drop because it is a one hell of a site to behold from its sheer grandeur.

The only draw back is you can’t take any pictures inside but it is so worth the visit. Don’t forget to check out the church’s basement catacombs holding tombs of members of the Franciscan order (allegedly where they are laid to await judgment day)…it’s creepy but a fascinating juxtaposition with the church’s opulent gold interior.

4) Go on the Porto Bridge Climb experience 

The Porto Bridge Climb is the only one of its kind, not only in Portugal but in all of Europe, which is exactly why you need to do it whilst you’re in Porto! As part of the guided climb, you’ll make your way up 262 steps (take it from someone who isn’t awfully fit, it’s not as tough as it sounds!) up the arch of the Arrábida Bridge to 65 metres above Porto’s harbour.

There is no view quite like this in Porto and when you reach the top, your guide will hand you a chocolate cup filled with sweet Port to celebrate as well as give you a low down on what landmarks and buildings are on the skyline. This unique experience is also really affordable at only €12 each, an utter bargain!

5) Go on a free walking tour with ‘Porto walkers’

There are a few free walking tours that you can take in Porto but after some research we chose the Porto walkers tour and found them to be excellent, especially our guide Daniel. He gave us a real insight into the history and culture of Porto as well as shared lots of local knowledge and fun stories as he showed us around the best spots in the city.

You start the tour in Liberdade Square (the main square in Porto’s city centre) and finish up on top of the Dom Luís I Bridge, stopping at points of interest such as São Bento Railway Station, Rua de Santa Catarina, Porto Cathedral and Porto’s Old Quarter. It’s a great tour and you feel like you really get to know Porto.

6) Have afternoon tea at Majestic Café

This little cafe is just gorgeous inside. It first opened in 1921 and was the meeting point of Porto’s elite including: well-known politicians, writer and artists of the time.

It is a perfect time capsule of the elegant and romantic belle époque period of the 1920s with its marble walls and gilded mirrors. I felt like I was on board the Titanic with the live piano music, fine china and staff serving us in crisp white jackets and golden buttons. Stay for afternoon tea and a bit of cake whilst enjoying the cafe’s unique ambience right in the centre of Porto.

7) Go inside São Bento Railway Station

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first went in São Bento Railway Station, the bright and detailed tiles done in the traditional Portuguese cobalt blue style were just amazing! There are over 20,000 tiles on the walls dating from 1905–1916, all depicting scenes from significant historical moments in Portugal’s history including the Battle of Valdevez in 1140 and the arrival of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster in Porto (on the wall shown the picture below).

It’s right off the main square so make sure to sneak in for a peek!

8) Take Porto’s old tram along the seafront

Porto’s old tram is one of the best ways to get around Porto but also one of the most fun! The cars are so well kept considering they have been running through the most iconic parts of Porto since 1895.

The tram runs every twenty minutes, from 9am to 5pm and are a great way to get along the seafront and also avoid those steep Porto hills!

9) Peek inside Livraria Lello

When I say, “peek inside” I really mean, pay €4 for the pleasure of simply browsing in this bookshop! Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m recommending, right? Well, I was so impressed by this bookshop, I felt it was a real throwback to the grand bookshops and libraries of centuries past (and was JK Rowling’s inspiration when creating Hogwarts).

Harry Potter connection aside, Livraria Lello is a serious beauty with its intricate plaster wood carvings, detailed stainless glass skylight and grand central staircase. It’s no wonder why Lonely Planet listed it as the third most beautiful bookshop in the world.

Head down first thing for this one as it gets preeeeetty packed with Potter fans later in the day.

10) Go on a Sandeman’s wine tour

If you’re not a big wine drinker, you will still enjoy learning a little bit more about the background of port wine because it is such an integral part of Porto’s heritage. But if you are partial to a little tipple you will particularly enjoy the wine tasting at the end of the Sandeman’s wine tour because it is one of the best tasting port wines you will ever try!

I must admit I like a nice glass of vino but I wasn’t convinced I would be all that taken with wine tasting. It was something that Mr Footsteps was keen on doing so I thought I would give it a try and I’m so glad we did because wine tasting is so much fun!

After getting a taste for Sandeman’s tawny port, we spent over €70 buying a couple of bottles to last us the rest of the trip as well as a keepsake vintage bottle which will mature in around 20 years time (which is also a sound investment ?).

Have you ever been to Porto? Is there anything on this list you would love to try? Let me know in the comments below ?

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