Porto Historic Center Walking Tour, Porto

Porto Historic Center Walking Tour (Self Guided), Porto

The Historic Centre of Porto, dating back to the Medieval times, is the oldest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Despite all the changes over the years, it has maintained the unique urban characteristics, which are a world apart from other European cities, and preserved much of its legacy from the times gone by.

Firmly set on the hillsides overlooking the mouth of the River Douro, with its thick flagstones and delicately-moulded façades, Porto’s old quarter, without a doubt, boasts one of Europe’s most astonishing cityscapes. Replete with multiple historic locations, it attracts a fast-growing number of culture-hungry tourists year on year.

Renowned for its unpretentiously charming atmosphere, the historic heart of north Portugal's gracious capital is a warren of narrow, crooked alleyways, worn smooth by countless generations. Here are some of the prominent local sights not to miss:

São Bento Railway Station – integral part of the historic city center; constructed in 1904.

Church and Tower of the Clergymen – one of the most recognizable symbols of Porto, dated from 1750.

Rua das Flores (Flowers Street) – established in the 1520s; now a pedestrian zone, full of beautiful homes with iconic embellishments.

Casa do Infante (Prince Henry's House) – built in the 1300s; believed to be the first home of Prince Henry the Navigator.

Cais da Ribeira (Ribeira Waterfront) – a captivating district of medieval streets and alleys, ending in a busy waterfront square.

Like all ancient cities, historic Porto is best explored on foot. To visit its monuments of incalculable value, in your good time and at your own pace, take this self-guided walk.
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Porto Historic Center Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Porto Historic Center Walking Tour
Guide Location: Portugal » Porto (See other walking tours in Porto)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.6 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: ChristineS
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square)
  • São Bento Railway Station
  • Church and Tower of the Clergymen
  • Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore)
  • Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy)
  • Rua das Flores (Flowers Street)
  • Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral)
  • Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace)
  • Igreja de São Francisco (St. Francis Church)
  • Casa do Infante (Prince Henry's House)
  • Cais da Ribeira (Ribeira Waterfront)
Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square)

1) Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square) (must see)

In the lower town or Baixa district of Porto, on the south side of the Avenue of the Allies, lies Liberty Square. This is a largish area of more than three square miles. Originally called New Square, Liberty Square is a product of the 1718 urbanization movement of Porto.

In 1788 the religious order of Saint Eligius, Patron Saint of veterinarians, horses, goldsmiths and blacksmiths, built a convent on the south edge of the square. They demolished part of the medieval wall of the city, replacing it with the convent, an impressive neoclassical building, still standing as the Cardosas Palace.

In 1866 a monument honoring King Peter IV was erected in the square. Peter IV was not only King of Portugal as Peter IV, he was also Emperor of Brazil as Peter I.

As each of the two Peters, he fought to preserve the liberal constitution in Portugal and liberty in Brazil. His monument, designed by sculptor Anatole Calmels, is a statue of Peter IV mounted and holding the constitution he had fought for in the Liberal Wars.

The square underwent a change in 1916 when the modern Avenue of the Allies was pushed through to the north of the square. The buildings around the square today are banks, hotels, offices and restaurants. The monument to Peter IV dominates the huge square. Other notable sights would include the Bank of Portugal and the Cardosas Palace.
São Bento Railway Station

2) São Bento Railway Station

The São Bento Railway Station is an integral part of the Historic City Centre of Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Monument of Portugal.

The building took roughly a dozen years to construct, starting from 1904, and was designed by the architect, José Marques da Silva. Its vestibule is richly adorned with large panels of azulejo tile, created by Jorge Colaço. Framed by pilasters, these panels were completed in 1916, just in time for the station inauguration.

There are approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles there altogether. The large ones depict historical moments in Portuguese history, such as the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez, the Conquest of Ceuta (1415), the meeting between the knight Egas Moniz and Alfonso VII of León in Toledo (12th century), the entrance to Porto by King John I and Philippa of Lancaster, on horseback, to celebrate their wedding (1387), and others.

On the border wall, at the entrance, there are small panels depicting rural scenes, such as a cattle fair and pilgrim camp, vineyards, harvest, wine shipment down the river Douro, and a watermill. On the pilasters, separating the entry doors, there are series of smaller compositions.

Near the ceiling is a blue and gold frieze decorated with stylized flowers, while below them is another polychromatic, Art Deco-style frieze depicting the history of transportation in Portugal.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Church and Tower of the Clergymen

3) Church and Tower of the Clergymen (must see)

Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect and painter of the 18th century, did a lot of work throughout Portugal. His most memorable project is the Church and Tower of the Clergymen. His other works include the construction of the Misericordia Church, the Archbishop's Palace and the lateral loggia of Porto Cathedral.

Construction of the church was completed in 1750. The bell tower and divided staircase in front of the church were not finished until 1763. The facade is ornate with Baroque decorations such as garlands and shells and an indented pediment. The frieze above the windows has spiritual symbols. The sides show an elliptical nave.

The Church of the Clergymen (Clerigos) was among the first baroque style churches to have an elliptical floorplan. The polychromed marble altarpiece in the large chapel was done by Manuel dos Santos Porto.

The Tower is in a Roman Baroque style of Tuscan bell towers. It is 245 feet high and it takes 240 steps to reach the top for an incredible view of Porto. The tower is one of the recognizable symbols of Porto.

Nicolau entered the Clerigos Brotherhood and when he died he was buried in the crypt of his masterpiece, The Church and Tower of the Clergymen.
Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore)

4) Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore)

The Livraria Lello is considered to be one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. It is located in the heart of Porto on the historic Rua dos Clerics. Full of Art Deco elements, visitors to the metropolis will want to spend time exploring this famous structure. The store has been managed by the same company, Lugan & Geneliousx Sucessores, throughout its history.

The Art Deco style is known for its linear and symmetrical elements which drew inspiration from ancient Egypt. The building was first opened in 1906 and contains a fabulous stained glass ceiling, vivid wooden staircase and lavish embellishments. Designed by architect and engineer, Xavier Esteves, the bookstore has been built to withstand the wear and tear of time. The façade of the construction is a combination of Art Nouveau elements and Gothic Revival features. The wooden features, including the shelves are well worth the time to examine.

The shelves reach from floor to ceiling and are covered in phenomenally carved wood. The wooden staircase is filled with the same beautifully carved details. The glass ceiling provides and interesting element and casts warm diffused lighting throughout the entire building.
Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy)

5) Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy)

Church of Mercy is a fantastic church that can be found in the center of Porto on the Rua das Flores. It is a very popular attraction with visitors to the metropolis. The structure has a history which begins in the 1500s. Although the building has gone through several renovations over the years, there are still many of the original elements. The façade is reminiscent of the Baroque style of architecture and was added in the 1700s.

Visitors will enjoy exploring the museum inside the building which exhibits many 15th century artworks and artifacts. One, in particular, is the Flemish Fins Vitae that shows King Manuel I and his wife, Leonor, kneeling before the crucifixion. King Manuel I was a 14th-century ruler, under whose reign Portugal became a world power.

The street – Rua das Flores (Flowers Street) – where the structure is located has a history dating back to 1521. It is lined with beautiful homes with wrought iron balconies and iconic embellishments. For those who are fascinated with architecture and design, this street will be well worth setting aside some time to explore.

This stunning church is open for only a few hours a day, but you can get to see it as part of your entry to the adjacent museum (10am-6:30pm) that boasts a collection of sacred art.
Rua das Flores (Flowers Street)

6) Rua das Flores (Flowers Street)

Vegetable and lush flower gardens gave this street its name. In fact, the land used for the street was originally the gardens of Pedro Alvarez da Costa, Bishop of Porto. He was devoted to St. Catherine of Mount Sinai. The initial name for the street was "St. Catherine Flowers Street", opened in 1525 in the reign of King Manuel.

With the construction of the street came the end of prohibitions of Nobility settling in the city and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Flowers Street was a host to these historic developments. Exact regulations arose regarding the type of housing permitted. The fronts on the street were standardized, ensuring clear visibility of facades.

There was some urban aristocracy, but most of the street housed tradespeople. There were mechanics, cobblers, metalworkers, bricklayers and blacksmiths. There was a demand for skilled artisans to build for the developing middle class.

Today, the street is still in fashion. It is a pedestrianized zone, ideal for casual walking and sight seeing.
Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral)

7) Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral) (must see)

In 868, Vimara Peres, an Asturias nobleman born in 820, conquered Moorish held lands north of the river Douro. One of the towns he took went by the name Portus Cale. Portus Cale became Portucale, the county he would rule. The town became Porto. Penaventosa, the highest hill in Portus Cale, became the site of Porto Cathedral.

The hill was once the location of a Suebian Church. Work began on the Cathedral in the 12th century. There were fits and starts over the years, but the building was finally considered complete in 1737. It is the most impressive Romanesque style edifice in Porto. On top of Penaventosa it sits, fortress-like, overlooking the town.

The cathedral is flanked by twin square towers. Each tower is buttressed and topped with a cupola. The western façade has 15th century Gothic ornamentation. There is also an impressive Gothic cloister installed in 1736 by Nicolau Nasoni, an architect from Tuscany who settled in Portugal.

On the northern side of the cathedral is a baroque porch and a Romanesque rose window under a crenelated arch. The crenellations reinforce the impression of a fortress. The nave is not wide. It is covered with a barrel vault.

The baroque apse is decorated with paintings by Nasoni. The altarpiece of the chapel was designed by Santos Pacheco. The south transept is decorated with blue azulejo tiles.

Mass is celebrated every day at 11am.

Why You Should Visit:
You wouldn't want to miss the city's oldest and most visited monument! The square also offers impressive views over the city, the Douro River and the wine cellars on the waterfront.

While admission to the Porto Cathedral is free, there's a small fee to get into the Sacred Art Museum and the magnificent Gothic cloisters attached to the church. If you're feeling fit you can also climb the tower (steps are steep and numerous!) for amazing views, including at the bits of the cathedral you can't see from further down.
Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace)

8) Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) (must see)

The cloisters of St. Francis Convent were burnt during the Liberal wars in 1832. In 1841 Queen Mary II donated the ruins to the merchants of Porto. They used the site to build the new Commercial Association. Architect Joaquim da Costa Lima Junior designed a Palladian neoclassical palace that harmonized with previous structures of the city.

The Palace was generally completed by 1850 but details which include the staircase and the Arab Room, courtyard dome, and Tribunal were later added.

The octagonal dome has glass panels and the coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries trading with Portugal in the 19th century. In the rear of the courtyard is a sumptuous stairway, lined with busts by famous sculptors.

The star of the show however, is the Arab Room. Done in the Moorish Revival style, it is used primarily for receptions for visiting heads of state.

The Stock Exchange Palace is located in the Infante D. Henrique Square in the center of Porto.

Why You Should Visit:
The guided tour takes you through many of the exquisitely decorated rooms of this amazing building. Some are a little over-the-top but they are really something to see, each decorated in a completely unique way.

The Palace can only be visited on a guided tour. Upon arrival, there's a computerized screen telling you which tours in which languages are available. The guided tour lasts approximately 45 minutes.
Igreja de São Francisco (St. Francis Church)

9) Igreja de São Francisco (St. Francis Church) (must see)

In 1244 the bishop of Porto didn't like the Franciscans. Other religious orders and clergy didn't mind pushing them around. What was needed was a papal bull and they got one from Pope Innocent V. He chided the bishop and returned to the Franciscans the land the bishop had taken from them. The monks then built a convent and church.

The Franciscans had their foot in the door and in 1383, with the patronage of King Ferdinand I, they built a bigger church. The church was complete in 1425. It was done in the plain Gothic style favored by mendicant orders of the time. To this day the Franciscan church is the best example the Gothic style in Porto.

In the 15th and 16th centuries socially prominent families made the Church of Saint Francis theirs. The Chapel of John the Baptist, for example, was built in the 1530s for the Carneiro family in the Manueline style. In the 18th century the interior surfaces were covered with gilt work in a Baroque style, including the apses and nave.

During the siege of Porto in 1832 the cloisters were destroyed. The Commercial Association built the Stock Exchange Palace in its place.

Why You Should Visit:
If you like seeing countless hours of opulent, very ornate wood carving covered in gold leaf, then this is the place for you.

Don't miss the little museum and the catacombs that are included in the ticket price.
Casa do Infante (Prince Henry's House)

10) Casa do Infante (Prince Henry's House)

Built in the 1300s, Casa do Infante – also known as Alfandega Velha or the Old Customs House – is a beautiful mansion located on Porto's periphery. Believed to be the first home of Prince Henry the Navigator, it has originally served as the residence of the royal family and, later, as a customs house due to its proximity to the river Douro. Prince Henry the Navigator, the fifth son of King John I, is famous for the many discoveries he made while at sea, including the opening of many trade routes which made Portugal a world power of his day, back in the 1400s. Today, it serves as the municipal archives and museum. The latter comprises three levels with exhibits on each floor.

Over the years, the building has been remodeled many times to fit the needs of new inhabitants, which in turn makes it an interesting mixture of architectural styles. More recently, it has been the focus of archaeological research which has revealed Roman foundations along with the incredible mosaics currently displayed at the museum, which features interactive displays in both Portuguese and English.

Why You Should Visit:
Compact but informative museum; gives a good insight to the building itself, which was used as a Customs House and coin mint, and also the growth and development of the city of Porto from Roman times onwards. A lot of the exhibits seem very new, with some audiovisual and interactive displays. Entry fee is very reasonable!
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Cais da Ribeira (Ribeira Waterfront)

11) Cais da Ribeira (Ribeira Waterfront) (must see)

The origins of the settlement along the Ribeira is not really known. A riverside settlement developed near the confluence of the Vila River and the Douro River. Some Roman mosaics from the fourth century have been found in the area. The Ribeira grew along with Porto in the 13th century. Especially by the river and Penaventosa hill.

Two settlements arose. One on the escarpment of Penaventosa by Porto Cathedral. The other appeared below in Ribiera on the banks of the Douro River. Until the last decade of the 14th century the settlements were connected by a web of narrow, constricting streets difficult to move around in. A new street was needed to pierce the labyrinth.

On the initiative of John I a new street was opened. In fact, it was called "New Street" (Rua Nova). It was a perfect contrast to the tangled web of passageways of Porto. It was straight, and wide for its time. It became a prestigious address for the bourgeoisie, clergy and business.

The Ribeira district lures the visitor on. It is a captivating place of medieval streets and alleys ending in a busy waterfront square, the Ribeira Square. The remains of the 14th century wall run next to the Ribeira Wharf. Beyond this point are the steep twisted ways of the Barredo.

In the evenings clubs on the Ribeira Wharf promise a stimulating nightlife to romantic strollers. In days gone by the district alongside the Douro River was a center of lively commerce and business.

The Ribeira Square has many shops and cafes. At the northern part of the square is a huge fountain. The Ribeira Wharf starts on the west side of the Luis I Bridge and it follows the riverside to Ribeira Square.

There is an upper walkway where there are more shops and cafes. The walkway is what is left of the old city walls, once patrolled by medieval soldiers on watch. Sit down, have a drink and watch the river with them. Time glides by like the river.

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