If you are looking for a base in the North of Portugal then Porto is a great place to start. As you’d expect of the country’s second-largest city, there are a great many things to see and do in Porto. It also makes an excellent base to see some of the other amazing places nearby, all within just an hour or two’s drive. To the north are Guimarães, Portugal’s first capital and Braga, home to the pilgrimage site of Bom Jesus do Monte. To the east, you will find the beautiful Douro Valley, heart of the country’s winemaking industry. Finally, in the south are the canal town of Aveiro and the beautiful beach and striped houses of Costa Nova. For lovers of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, four of these, including Porto, fit the bill.
Porto is a city that offers many opportunities for sightseeing. My time was limited in the city so I’ve picked just a few of the sites that I feel deserve a visit. Sadly there wasn’t even time to stop for a tour of the wine cellars, although I understand it is definitely a worthwhile side trip.
Porto is full of churches and whilst you could spend several days visiting them all I’ve picked a few that, I feel, are certainly are worth seeing.
Carmo and Carmelitas Churches
Looking at this building you could be forgiven for thinking, despite the different styles, that it is one large church. In fact, there are two, separated by a house just one metre wide. One tale says that this was built to stop the nuns from the Carmelitas convent having any contact with the monks next door. Another less interesting simply says that churches can not share a wall. I know which one I prefer to believe. Surprisingly, the house was occupied until the 1980s. I guess the occupants either loved bells and church music or had to be deaf.
The church on the left is the Carmelitas Church, built in the 17th century and originally part of a convent. On the right is the far more ornate, Baroque style, Carmo Church which dates from 1756. On the outside wall is a wonderful example of the blue and white tiles, or Azulejos, for which Porto is famous. Added in 1902 it shows the legend of the formation of the Carmelite Order.
The inside of the Carmo church is equally as ornate as the outside with an intricate golden altar piece the main attraction.
The Clérigos Tower is only a 4-minute walk from the Carmo Church and is hard to miss. The bell tower stands 75m tall and towers over the surrounding area. It was completed in 1763 and at the top of the 225 steps is said to have an excellent view of the city. Like so many other tourist sites it gets incredibly busy and I was ‘towered out’ by this point so can’t comment on the veracity of that claim. Even from the outside however it is worth a visit and is another great example of Baroque architecture in the city. The tower is open from 9 am – 11 pm and costs €5.
Capela das Armas – The Chapel of Souls
If you appreciate the Azulejos tiles then one other church that it is worth seeing is the Chapel of Souls on Rua da Santa Catarina. This building is almost completely covered in the blue and white tiles depicting scenes including the death of St. Francis of Assisi and the martyrdom of St. Catarina. Entry is free, though it is the outside that demands your attention.
Judging by the queues outside, one of the must-see places in Porto is the Livraria Lello on Rua das Carmelitas. This bookstore opened in 1906, but it is more than just a bookstore. It was voted the 3rd most beautiful bookstore in the world, and it isn’t hard to see why. The outside façade has an attractive neo-Gothic style but it is the inside which is truly captivating. It is a whirl of Art Nouveau style with Art Deco detail. Centre stage is a winding, crimson stairway surrounded by what appears to be intricately carved wooden balustrades. In fact, the decoration is actually painted plaster. In the ceiling is a stained glass window which allows natural light to filter down, illuminating the store. Look out too for the little plaster heads on the bookcases that separate authors.
JK Rowling used the bookshop when she lived in Porto and it is said the bookstore inspired her designs for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels.
The bookstore is so popular with tourists that you now have to buy a ticket to go in. A bookstore where people only come to take photographs will not survive long as a bookstore. Tickets can be bought online here or bought from an office further along the road, not at the bookstore itself. If you buy a book the price of the ticket is deducted from the price. But don’t worry if you can’t find a book you want as there is a small pamphlet book on the history of the bookstore that is the same price as admission! The bookstore does get incredibly busy inside, mostly with tourists taking photographs.
O Porto dos Gatos
Not a tourist attraction but a great place to unwind after a day walking the city. O Porto dos Gatos, on Avenida Rodrigues de Freitas, is a vegetarian cat cafe with some gorgeous food. I didn’t ask if the cats were also vegetarian. I love a cat cafe and wherever you sit, whether it is inside or out, you’ll find plenty of cats sleeping their way through the day.
An hour south of Porto is the ‘Venice of Portugal’. These days it seems that every country with canals will have it’s own ‘Venice of…”. Here are just a few others you can find in Europe! When you arrive you’ll quickly realise that this vision of the city is dramatically oversold. Venice is a beautiful city crisscrossed by many canals. In Aveiro, you’ll find about 5. It is, nonetheless, an attractive town with an interesting history.
I certainly wouldn’t dissuade you from a ride in one of the Moliceiro but they are no gondola. They do let you see the town from a different perspective and rest your weary feet. A 45-minute trip will cost about €10 and show you several of the canals, with a multilingual commentary to describe what you are seeing. It will take you past just some of the colourfully painted and Art Nouveau buildings that make the town so popular for tourists.
These colourful boats weren’t always here for the tourists though. In the past, they had a far more practical use. The sailors used them to collect seaweed from the lagoon. This was then used as the main source of fertiliser on the farmland surrounding the town.
Historically, salt extraction was also a big part of Aveiro’s economy. In the past over 400 saltworks operated in the area, but now just 9 remain. At the Marina da Troncalhada on the edge of town, if you are lucky, you may see marnoto harvesting salt in the traditional way. These salt pans are an eco-museum where you can learn not only about the salt extraction but also the plants and animals the salt pans support. The salt pans are delicate and so you should stick to the designated paths.
The salt pans work by allowing the seawater through a series of ‘tanks’. Over time the water evaporates and the salt crystalises allowing it to be scraped off and collected. It is dirty, hot, hard work and clearly not as economically viable as it once was. Its importance to the town though is recognised on the bridge over the central canal where statues of traditional salineira stand.
Ovos Moles de Aveiro
Food and cake, in particular, are never far from my mind and Aveiro is worth a visit just to try the Ovos Moles de Aveiro. These sweet treats are made from egg yolk and sugar, wrapped in a rice paper case that often has a nautical theme, for example seashells and barrels. They are incredibly sweet and delicious. Originally they were made by nuns who used the egg white to starch their white habits. In 2008 the European Union awarded them ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ which means they can only be made here and the town even has a statue of them in the park.
If you want some downtime then the beautiful seaside resort of Costa Nova is the place to stop. Just 10km from Aveiro it has a gorgeous sandy beach that seems to stretch for miles. Backed by sand dunes and with a boardwalk to stroll along it offers a great escape from the crowds and heat of the city.
Stroll away from the sea into town and you will find what Costa Nova is famous for – the beautiful striped houses, fronting onto the lagoon. Once just a fishing village these palheiros, or haystacks, were used by the local fishermen to store their nets. Nowadays, they are more likely to be a family residence or beach house. Newer buildings within the town continue the stripey theme.
Just 45 minutes north of Porto is the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães. The fledgling country’s first king, Afonso I, was born here in around 1109 and the city became the capital in 1146. It only stayed the capital for about 20 years before being moved 170km south to the more central Coimbra.
Because of the significance of the town to the establishment of a distinct Portuguese identity and its well preserved medieval town UNESCO listed the area as a World Heritage Site. You can find more information here.
Guimarães Castle was originally built to defend the local monastery and surrounding area in the 10th Century. Standing atop Largo Hill it offers excellent defensive views. It truly looks like an archetypal medieval castle with a central keep, towers and battlements. But it wasn’t until the late 1300’s that it took its current form. That said, the castle fell into disrepair and many of the stones were reused for other construction. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that efforts were made to repair the damage done. Thank you to About Portugal for the insight into the recent history of the castle. Whilst the castle has seen better days you can go inside and climb the walls. The main keep also has a museum covering the history of the castle. The entrance fee is just €1,50.
The Old Town is centred on several large squares, surrounded by many winding, cobbled streets. Largo da Oliveira is just one example of these lovely squares. There is still an olive tree in the square. Whether it is the same one the square was named after or a replacement I don’t know.
The square encapsulates what UNESCO saw in Guimarães. There is a Gothic shrine commemorating the Battle of Salado from 1339, a church to Our Lady of the Olive Tree and a medieval building that once housed the town hall. Sitting atop the town hall is a statue that is said to resemble Guimarães. I assume it is meant as an allegory to the town’s strength and resolve.
Food and Drink
Many local bars and restaurants make use of the squares for their outside seating and it is certainly a relaxing place to sit, chill and enjoy a local beer. Super Bock brews their beer just outside of Porto.
If you are after something more substantial then Amu.Te on Praça de São Tiago offers great tapas. I highly recommend the pimentos de Padron com Chistorra e Ovo (Padron peppers with Chistorra sausage and egg).
Only a 45-minute drive from Porto, or 30 minutes from Guimarães, is Braga. The 4th largest city in Portugal, it is said to be the religious heart of the country. With over 40 churches, convents and monasteries it isn’t hard to understand why. Despite having all these to look at, including the oldest cathedral in Portugal, I came to see just one particular site, Bom Jesus do Monte. I’m not religiously minded but had heard enough about this site to want to see it for myself.
Bom Jesus do Monte
Sitting on top of a steep hill, just outside of Braga is one of the newest additions to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. There is evidence a church has been here for nearly 650 years but the current sanctuary was only started in 1722. But the site isn’t just about the church at the top of the hill. It is also about the staircase to get you there and the chapels, fountains and statues you see along the way.
There are two options to get you to the top of the hill. The easiest is to take the funicular railway that runs from a car park at the base of the hill. It costs €1,50 for one way or €2,50 for a return but then you will miss much of what makes the site special.
Alternatively, there are 575 steps, split into two parts, that you can climb. Pilgrims were expected to make the ascent on their hands and knees. I’m just glad I wasn’t making a pilgrimage. The first 325 are quite pleasant as you walk up through a wooded area with plenty of shade. Along the way you pass a series of small chapels with terracotta figures depicting the Passion of Christ.
It is the top 250 steps that the sanctuary is probably most famous for. Here you have a Baroque style, zigzag set of staircases, climbing 116 metres to the church. As you ascend you pass a number of fountains, some of which seem quite bizarre. The first 5 fountains relate to the 5 senses, but if you don’t know this they could look slightly macabre. Take the one below. Without knowing it refers to sight it could just as easily be someone crying or even more gruesome, blood flowing from its eye. The top three are dedicated to the three Catholic Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
The current Bom Jesus Church was consecrated in 1834 and was built in a Neoclassical style. Surrounding the church are several gardens, a restaurant and some hotels. These buildings appear to be newer additions and not built for the clergy of the time.
Inside, the church is beautifully decorated, although it was being renovated when I visited. The main altar is dedicated to the crucifixion with a large sculpture depicting the scene at Calvary. In the chapel of the Reliquias is the fairly gruesome remains of St. Clemente, a Roman soldier martyred in the third century.
The drive from Porto to Pinhão takes about 2 hours and leads you to another UNESCO World Heritage area. There is just no escaping them here in the north of Portugal! UNESCO recognised the Alto Douro wine region as a cultural landscape representing a traditional winemaking region. Archaeological evidence shows the Romans were making wine here nearly 2000 years ago. The drive from Sabrosa to Pinhão, in particular, is a beautiful area with winding roads and switchback turns. It offers up some amazing views of the surrounding area and you can clearly see where man has modified the hillsides with terracing for the vines to grow.
Once you get to Pinhão you have to take a boat trip on the Douro. Magnifico Douro offers excellent 1 or 2-hour trips along the river for €10 or €20 respectively. These tours are in traditional Rabelo boats that would have ferried goods and people along the river in the past. Before the hydroelectric dams were built, they were even used to transport the port wine from the Quintas in the valley to the storage cellars in Porto.
After you’ve enjoyed the wonders of Northern Portugal, you might want to head south and check out the amazing UNESCO sites in Central Portugal. Find out more about them here.
Portugal’s capital also has lots to offer and you can find out more here.