São Bento Station
In much of the world, train stations are utilitarian buildings, the kind of place you want to get in and out of as quickly as possible. That’s definitely not the case in Porto, where the city’s main central station is a destination in its own right.
São Bento station lies close to the cathedral, town hall, and riverfront, and if you arrive in Porto by train or take a day trip to the surrounding area, you’ll likely walk through its grand entrance hall. 20,000 beautiful azulejos (blue painted tiles) cover the walls there, telling the story of many of the most important historical events in Portuguese history.
Before rushing for your train, take a few minutes to appreciate the work and artistry that’s gone into the decoration—it took the painter over a decade to complete!
São Bento isn’t the only place in town to appreciate azulejos, of course—in fact, you only need to walk a few minutes up the road to Porto’s cathedral to see many more. With some sections dating back to the 12th century, the building is an imposing, fortress-like structure, built at the highest point in the city, and dominated by the large rose window above the main entrance.
Entry to the main part of the cathedral is free, but you’ll pay a 3-euro fee to visit the cloisters and museum. It’s worth parting with the cash, not only to view the azulejos in the cloisters, but also to be able to step out onto the terrace for one of the best views in Porto.
Note that while you'll still be able to visit if a service is taking place, photography during that time is strongly discouraged.
Church of Saint Frances
While the cathedral is the most important religious building in Porto, it’s São Francisco church that’s the most beautiful. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, it’s no longer an official place of worship, but has been fully restored as an attraction for visitors. The relatively plain Gothic exterior gives little clue of what lies inside.
Estimates suggest half a ton of gold was used to decorate the interior of the church, a remarkable amount even by Baroque standards. Most of the decoration dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the intricate gilded wood carvings covering the walls and ceiling are considered some of the best examples in the country.
Once you’ve had your fill of sumptuous gold leaf, be sure to visit the museum and eerie catacombs as well. Part of Porto’s central city UNESCO World Heritage site, entry to the church costs 6 euros. Note that photography of the interior isn’t permitted.
Stock Exchange Palace
Right alongside the church of Saint Frances lies the Stock Exchange Palace (Palácio da Bolsa). Building work started in 1842, but the interior wasn’t completed until nearly 70 years later. No longer functioning as a stock exchange, this grand building is now used mostly for official events and ceremonies.
Designed in Neo-classical style, the large dome covering the central Hall of Nations has the coat of arms of many European countries painted on its lower section. Join the other visitors craning their necks to see how many you can identify, although you may want to bring your glasses—the ceiling is nearly 60 feet high!
The highlight of the palace, however, is its Arab room. Decorated in sumptuous Moorish fashion, and taking nearly 20 years to build, the level of detail in the artwork is quite remarkable. These days, the room is used mostly to house classical music concerts—if there happens to be a concert playing there while you’re in town, it’s well worth splashing out on the experience.
As befits a monument to commerce, you’ll need to pay to enter the building. Adult tickets cost 9 euros, students and seniors pay 5.50 euros, and children aged 12 or under are free. The stock exchange palace is open every day, from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during summer. During winter, it closes at 5:30 p.m. and also for lunch between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.
Walking up and down Porto’s hills and cobbled streets all day can be exhausting, especially in the height of summer. Don’t feel like the sightseeing has to stop just because you need a coffee break, however—just head for Café Majestic instead.
Dating back to 1921, the cafe has been the second home of some of Porto’s most influential artists, politicians, and philosophers over the years. Decorated in art nouveau style, the cafe eventually fell into disrepair, but was restored to its original glory in the 1990s.
With uniformed waiters, plush leather chairs, and even a resident pianist in the evenings, a visit to Café Majestic feels very much you’ve stepped back in time. It’s a popular place, though, so expect the prices to be a little higher and service to be slow in peak times. Dropping in for a coffee or wine mid-afternoon, rather than a full meal, is likely your best option.
Lello Bookshop and Cafe
Regularly voted one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, it’s worth visiting Livraria Lello for the wonderful spiral central staircase alone. Supposedly the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts library, the stunning art deco interior certainly wouldn’t be out of place at a wizard’s university!
Dating back over a century, the store has become extremely popular with visitors, so be sure to get there near opening or closing time to avoid the worst of the crowds. Grab tickets from the office on the corner of the street—you’ll pay 3 euros for them, but they entitle you to a discount of the same amount when you make a purchase from the store.
Torre dos Clérigos
If you don’t mind stairs, climbing up and down the 225 steps of Torre dos Clérigos (Cleric’s Tower) in the heart of downtown Porto gives spectacular views over the city. For those who aren’t so keen on the trek, however, even the exterior of the building is well worth checking out.
Building of the baroque-style bell tower began in 1763, and the 250-foot-high column dominates the surrounding neighborhood.
If you do make it inside, tickets to the tower and museum are 4 euros for adults, and children under 14 enter free. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. year round, other than the Christmas and New Year period.