As I inch closer to retirement age, I have been on a mission to find a place that I would like to call home, a place to retire outside of the United States. My husband and I have traveled to several cities such as Cuenca, Ecuador, Malaga and Seville, Spain, and many more to determine whether they meet our criteria. Things such as low cost of living, quality health care, low crime rates, outdoor activities, dependable public transportation and various amenities that add to the quality of life are on our list. Our most recent trip in the fall of 2018 was to Porto, Portugal.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest city. Full of charisma, a collection of cultural attractions, a foodie’s paradise, and excellent port wine we knew we had to see it for ourselves. Porto resides near the ocean with contrasts of gorgeous tiled buildings, new and ancient structures side by side, and lots of European charm. Porto is celebrated as the city with blue “azulejos” tiles that are designed in various patterns. These tiles depict historical scenes that are blue in color. From art galleries, picturesque landscapes, vintage bookshops, and countless cellars tucked away into the hillside, the city of Porto ranked high on our list of qualified cities for retirement.
One aspect we both loved about Porto is its walkability. The terrain is very hilly and most of the streets are narrow which yields to more walking than riding in a car. Most people in the city ride public transportation but other forms of transportation are available such as Uber.
I think what attracts most people to this city is its excellent climate and it certainly was perfect for us because we are from South Texas on the Coast. A few northern Europeans expressed that it was a bit humid, but we didn’t mind. The weather was perfect during our entire stay in Porto.
Anytime we visit a city for the first time, we try to see as much of the highlights recommended by tour companies as possible, but we also partake in local activities. One unusual local experience we witnessed was a protest on the street in front of our apartment. It had something to do with government pay to their employees. We tasted a variety of unique foods at a food festival and witnessed a wedding ceremony at the Monastery of Serra do Pilar.
There are so many places to visit in Porto, so I would like to share my personal favorite places with you and hope that you will consider visiting Porto on your next vacation.
Where to Stay
When traveling on long trips to one particular destination, I find it more comfortable to stay in an apartment or small home that allows us to prepare a few meals and spread out our belongings. I am a die-hard fan of Airbnb and our apartment in Porto was directly across the street from the Sao Bento Station. The apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows, which allowed us to enjoy the fresh air. It was decorated in light grey and white which made it feel spotless and tidy. It was obvious that the apartment building had been recently renovated and was equipped with all the modern appliances. Overall it was perfect for our seven day stay in the city. The location allowed us to access public transportation service very easily as well.
How to Get Around Porto
If you fly into Porto, I recommend taking an Uber to your hotel or apartment. At the airport, you can purchase a 3-day Andante Card with unlimited access to public transportation for 72 hours from the time of the first validation. Remember to validate your card before every trip (You will be checked). This is a walking city. Although it is very hilly and can be difficult to walk, I suggest walking because you will see so many interesting places along the way.
Paper tickets can be purchased on the buses and the trams. The Porto card is not accepted on the trams. Taxis and Ubers are readily available.
Hunt for Azulejos
Once you begin to research Porto, you discover that the city is known for the elegant blue tiles called “azulejos.” Azulejos date as far back as the 13th century, when the Moors invaded the land that now belongs to Portugal, but the tiles secured their foothold in Portuguese culture between the 16th and 17th centuries. The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning “small polished stone.” Simple in structure and cut into geometric shapes in neutral tones, tiles were used to cover large spaces of blank walls of the plain ordinary buildings during the Gothic period.
Portugal is famous for azulejo tiles as they should be because each tile is a work of art in itself, which makes this city’s artistry very fascinating. Once you start making yourself aware of the colorful tiles, you will notice them everywhere throughout the city.
It is easy to spot these decorative tiles throughout the city but here are some recommended spots we stopped to see:
In addition to the beautiful blue tiles, you will see many other homes and buildings with colorful tiles in green, red, and yellow, too.
Explore Gothic Churches
I am not a religious person, but I love to visit churches, cathedrals, temples, mosques and all other houses of worship. In Porto, however, there are lots of cathedrals and each one has its own history. They are all ornately decorated with some of the most intricate stained glass windows, along with elaborate altars. Visiting the churches of Porto is an excellent way to understand some of the most critical moments of Portuguese history. Most of these churches were designed by the most respected architects of their time.
Based on our own observation, churches are still very much a focus of family and community life in Porto. Here are my top six most beautiful churches in Porto – I hope you like them all!
The Clerigos Tower and Church are some of Porto’s most important landmarks. They were built in 1754 and were designed by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect. From the Clerigos Tower, you can see a 360-degree view over Porto. While visiting, we were entertained by an organist playing some hymns as visitors sat in the pews listening to the music.
The line is a bit long, so be prepared to wait or skip the line and buy your ticket online in advance. The pathway up the tower is very narrow and the temperature can be warm inside the tower (if you are going in the summer) so prepare for that ahead of time. It costs approximately $4.00 per person to enter.
Visit Clerigos Church on TripAdvisor here.
Just a short walking distance from the Clerigos Tower & Church, you will see a striking architectural design with blue tile on the façade. This church dates back to the 17th century and has an extravagant rococo altarpiece and expresses a great example of the Baroque architecture.
Tickets: Free entrance.
Check out this church on TripAdvisor here.
Located next to the Church of Carmelitas is the Church of Carmo. Because they are so close, they look like one church from the outside. Now, these churches are connected by what is one of the world’s narrowest houses. Church of Carmo was built in the 18th century and it was designed in the baroque architecture with seven elegant altar carvings. You will find a panel of blue and white tiles outside. Look closely at the details of these tiles which were designed and created in 1912 by Silvestro Silvestri.
Tickets: Free entrance.
Check out the Church of Carmo here on TripAdvisor.
Atop on a picturesque hill that overlooks the city, the Porto Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Take plenty of time to admire its varied styles from Romanesque to Baroque to Gothic. Although we did not get to go inside due to a wedding ceremony, we walked around on the terrace that overlooks the terra cotta colored rooftops and the city of Porto below. Right next door you can find the Medieval Tower and the Church of St. Lawrence.
Tickets: Free entrance.
Find out more about Porto Cathedral here on TripAdvisor.
The Church of Sao Francisco is one of the earliest Gothic-style churches in Porto, dating back to 1245. The exterior of the church is very plain in comparison to all the other churches we visited, but the interior is one of the most exquisitely detailed, if not a bit flashy. It was the most gold-decorated church we had ever seen. Here you will find over 800 pounds of gold, Rococo style, which was used to decorate the lavish woodwork inside the church. One story we were told is that when Napoleon’s troop invaded, the French were notorious for looting these decorative gold interior pieces and so to prevent such looting or even destruction, the monks painted a whitewash over the gilded interior and this seems to have worked.
Next to the church is the museum and catacombs where the Franciscan monks and members of Porto’s wealthiest families are buried. The catacombs also house an ossuary with thousands of human bones, which you can see through a glass floor.
Entrance fee is required.
Learn more about this experience on TripAdvisor here.
Church of Saint Ildefonso is an amazing 11,000 tile decorated church created by Jorge Colaco. These tiles depict scenes from the life of St. Ildefonso and the Gospel. During our visit, this church was going through restoration, but it was still an amazing church to see both inside and outside. Stained glass windows are all around the inside of the church and the images are illuminated by the sunlight at different hours of the day.
Check out this church on TripAdvisor here.
Tourist Hot Spots
Although I had seen tons of pictures of The Majestic Café on Pinterest and other articles about Porto, I didn’t get as much out of it. The Majestic Café is located on one of Porto’s busiest shopping streets, Rua Santa Catarina. Built in the 1920s, the art nouveau style café is filled with mirrors and detailed, magnificent old world photos. The tables are very crowded here, and the service isn’t that great. It can get stuffy inside so I recommend that you get a table outside for the fresh air and to people watch.
Read more reviews of The Majestic Café here on TripAdvisor.
Livraria Lello & Irmao Bookstore
One of Portugal’s oldest bookstores, which opened in 1906, became noticeably famous by tourists due to the writings about this bookstore in many of JK Rowling’s books. A short walk from the Clerigos Church, this art nouveau style bookstore is worth the line outside to see. The spiral staircase and the design of this bookstore is something I have never seen before. It is magnificent and because of its popularity, you will always find a long line outside to get in, but don’t worry, it moves very fast.
Entrance fee: approximately $5.00 per person which can be applied towards any purchase of books inside.
Learn more about this bookstore on TripAdvisor here.
Listed on the “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO, this exquisite historical building is near the Ribeira historic center. Inside, you will find much of Porto’s history as it has evolved into today’s most popular city in Portugal. Nowadays, the facility is used for some of the most prestigious events throughout the year. Built in the 1800s, it is one of the many buildings you can tour in Porto.
Learn more about the Stock Exchange Palace here.
If you are looking for colorful tin-canned fish products, such as sardines, you will find it here. We had a great time reading the labels and admiring all the colors of different tin cans. It is a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts for your friends.
Check out this fish market here on TripAdvisor.
A Vida Portuguesa is the creator of old-fashioned Portuguese home products such as soaps, dish towels, and tableware. Many of these products you may have seen in the States at stores like TJ Maxx or HomeGoods. We picked up a few flowery smelling bars of soap to lather up with when we returned home.
Find A Vida Portuguesa on TripAdvisor here.
Near the Ribeira district, this eclectic art studio is full of decorative hand-painted tiles, jewelry and much more. You will also find items made from cork.
For more about this art studio, find it on TripAdvisor here.
If you want to shop until you can’t walk, head over to Rua de Santa Catarina Street. You will find everything from shoes, designer clothes, handbags, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and more. It is a popular spot for the locals on the weekend, so expect it to be packed with people. Here, you will see street performances as well as vendors selling arts and crafts. We hit this street every day just to people watch!
For more information on this street full of shops, check out TripAdvisor.
A Perola do Bolhao
This quaint delicatessen has been in operation since 1917 and now operates as a mini grocery store. The bright color façade attracts shoppers as they are traveling to and from the central part of the city. Fresh cuts of meat, cheese, and so many other local products are available to choose from as you window shop.
Find out more about the selection here on TripAdvisor.
If you are looking for local wines or a variety of cheeses and meats, this is the store for you. We enjoyed the experience of the old-fashioned style grocery store. Many older locals still shop here today for their daily staples. On display at the front of the store, you’ll find local fresh fruit of the season.
Check this small grocery store out on TripAdvisor here.
Discover artisan products while exploring the historical center near the Clerigos Tower. We found book covers and purses made from cork, jewelry that was designed to look like the azueljos tiles, and so many other decorative pieces of art.
This market is one of Porto’s most significant markets in the city and is known for fresh produce, meat, fish, flowers and other goods. Dating back to 1839, the land on which this market sits was purchased by the city. This market had a small creek running through it and at the square air bubbles (bolha) began to form in that spot, hence the name Bolhao. Upon our visit to Porto, the building was going through major renovation and was moved to a temporary location up the street. We purchased some Porto wine, two different kinds of local cheeses, fresh fruits, as well as a freshly prepared fruit smoothie.
Find out more about this market on TripAdvisor here.
Visit the City Centre
Look no further for Porto’s centerpiece. This area is surrounded by lavish buildings, from the neoclassical to French Beaux. Some of the most elaborate hotels as well as numerous banks are located here. A tall bronze statue of King Pedro IV, dating back to 1862, stands in the center of the square. The Town Hall building is near one of the plazas, making for a great postcard shot. Also within the plaza is a sculpture of what is called the “Naked Girl” designed in 1929. Along the edges, are several restaurants and shops to visit.
Go to the Ocean on a Vintage Tram
To see where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, you will need to travel to the area called Foz do Douro. The most unique and fun way to get there is by Porto Tram. To catch the start of the tram, you will need to board in front of Sao Francisco Church. The tram comes along every twenty minutes or so and runs 9 am to 6 pm. The tram will drop you off at Foz do Douro.
The line was a bit long! The tram only has limited seating, so be prepared to stand once on board. I recommend waiting until you can have a seat because you really can’t see as much standing.
Once we arrived at Foz do Douro, a district located near the mouth of the river facing the Atlantic, we walked across towards the water into a small park called the Passeio Alegre Garden. A Brazilian Festival with a small market was taking place the day we arrived. We walked through the festival towards the strand making our way to The Felgueiras Lighthouse (the Lady of Light).
The lighthouse is no longer in operation, but it is a historical reminder of the times when voyagers came ashore making Portugal their home. Today, you will find many local fishermen casting off the strand near the lighthouse, catching sardines five or more to a stringer. Make sure you bring your camera as it is a great place to capture some shots of the crashing ocean waves crisscrossing along the jetty.
Entrance Fee: Approximately $5.00 round trip to ride per person.
Learn more about this experience on TripAdvisor here.
Relax in the Park
Parca de Lisboa is located near the Clerigos Church. This well-manicured green space is a great place to take a break, relax, and enjoy the outdoors. Within the park is a small bar called Base Porto, which serves a variety of beverages. You will find tables and chairs as well as other outdoor furniture to relax on. Sometimes the park put on musical events, show films, or host other artistic activities.
Learn more about this park on TripAdvisor.
Jardim do Infante
This sculpture is the statue of Prince Henry the Navigator which is located near the Douro River and Ribeira Square. Surrounding this park you will find the Palacio da Bolsa on one side, Market Ferreira Borges on the north end, and many other local shops catering to the mass of visitors going to the Sao Francisco Church. Another Portuguese church to see is the Church of St. Nicholas built in 1671 with a blue tile façade and a unique mural on its other side.
Learn more about this sculpture and its surroundings by checking out the TripAdvisor reviews here.
Have Tapas on Ribeira Square
In this neighborhood of Porto, you will find dozens of restaurants, bars, craft shops, and entertainment venues. Ribeira is the place where most visitors gather in the evening for drinks as they socialize with friends, watch the sunset over the river, and listen to musicians perform along the water’s edge.
As we strolled along the banks of the river, we were entertained by a man performing a Portuguese dance with a woman mannequin. We stopped to watch how he and his mannequin moved in sync with each other to the music.
During the day, you will find artesian markets located near the Ponte Dom Luis I Bridge. We enjoyed browsing and finding homemade items such as table linens and aprons.
To visit the neighborhood of Gaia, where most of the wineries are located, you most likely want to experience walking across the double-decker bridge. Here you will have a spectacular view of the river upstream, the hillsides of Porto, as well as all the boats maneuvering up and down the river.
Sample Wines & Ride the Teleferico
Once you cross the Dom Luis I Bridge you will be in the Gaia neighborhood, which is peppered with wineries offering wine tours and tastings. As you walk along the river edge you will see street vendors, restaurants and café terraces offering fresh seafood, wine, and much more.
Wine tours are something everyone must do when visiting Porto. I also recommend checking out the “Half Rabbit” art piece created by Bordalo II made from recycled materials that form a gigantic rabbit on a building’s corner edge. It is such a unique piece of art that as you get up close, you can see how he used various pieces of hardware to create the image.
Not far from the “Half Rabbit” art piece is another blue-tiled church called Santa Marinha created by Nicolau Nasoni. This building has a very distinguished altar of the crucifixion of Jesus believed to date back to 1420.
Before you ride the Teleferico de Gaia cable car, visit the Mercado Beira Rio. In the center of the market is Super Bock beer, offering a variety of flavors for the beer lovers out there. Along the outer edge of the market are various restaurants serving traditional Portuguese dishes and in the center, there is a place to sit and enjoy your food. This place is not your typical food market but it’s still well worth the visit.
The main focus of our journey into this area was to ride the Teleferico. This short but scenic cable car ride puts you near the upper metro station near Jardim do Morro Park, a small neighborhood park.
Fee: Approximately $6.00 pp one-way.
Porto was an amazing vacation and we enjoyed every minute of our stay there. But, like all good things must come to an end, and sadly it was time to say goodbye to the eloquent, lovely city of Porto and head to the airport. I hope this blog inspires you to check it out and see the beauty Porto has to offer.