Founded in the 8th century BC by Phoenicians, the town of Porto, Portugal has a long and fascinating history. Before eventually coming under Castilian oversight, its rulers included the Swabians, Visigoths, Romans, Normans, and Moors.
Portugal’s second largest city, Porto is optimally located at the intersection of the sea and the Douro River and has long been a commercial hub for the country. Over the centuries, Porto became known for its rich traditional culture and deliciously sweet wine as well.
Porto’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the historic city center, the Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar. The historic Old Town is a medieval settlement located within the early town walls. They are called the Fernandino walls, after King Fernando, who had them rebuilt in 1376 to accommodate a rapidly growing city.
If you head along the Douro River, you can spy the ancient walls peeking around structures. One of the best places to do this is in the Morro da Sé district.
Here’s a look at some of the other aspects of Porto history you can see when you travel of Zegrahm’s incredible 16-day Iberian Peninsula expedition.
Did you know that most of the historic buildings in Porto are made from solid granite? In fact, one of Porto’s nicknames is Granite City. From the granite cliffs to the local mines (even the metro transportation system was cored out from granite), the city’s natural geological heritage is closely linked to its architectural heritage.
The city’s medieval granite buildings include the Fernandino walls, Cathedral, and surrounding landmarks. Some of these buildings have undergone at least 41 architectural transformations since they were first built.
Porto’s Gothic architecture includes the Church of Saint Francis. Baroque granite buildings include churches (including Church of the Carmo and Church of the Carmelitas) as well as the Tower of Clérgios, the most famous landmark in Porto. The city also boasts neoclassical buildings, such as the Hospital of Saint Antonio and the Stock Exchange Palace.
A visit to Porto’s twin-towered Cathedral is a must while you’re exploring the Old Town. It is the most important religious building in Porto’s history and has undergone numerous renovations (in varying architectural styles) over the centuries since it was built (its first written mention was in 1147). At this active Roman Catholic Cathedral, mass is celebrated daily at 11 am.
Porto has hundreds of churches, all with fascinating stories. Here are a few on the more significant ones you won’t want to miss:
Situated side by side and separated by a one-meter-wide house, the Church of the Carmo and Church of the Carmelitas are located in the colorful neighborhood of Miragaia. Each offers incredible beauty and a mix of architectural styles.
The Church of Santa Clara is a hidden gem with a gilded interior. The Clérgios Church and Tower are interesting for numerous reasons, but most unusual is the fact that it was built on a sloping hill! The Tower is actually the tallest building in all of Porto and has 49 bells in its bell tower.
Another great church to visit is the Church of Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Porto, a Renaissance-style building that was redesigned by architect Nicolau Nasoni in the 18th century. Of special interest is the church’s small, private museum, which is packed with the history of Porto portrayed through the experiences of a centuries-old charitable organization.
Historic Public Squares
Porto is a city filled with historic squares. One of its oldest squares is Ribiera (River), which is located in the city center’s Ribiera district.
The square spreads along the river and has been used as a marketplace since medieval times. Besides shopping and dining well, you can also see a very tall fountain (three stories high!), public art (including gorgeous, antique azulejo tiles), and a more modern cube fountain.
Near the Largo de São Domingos, visit Casa do Infante, a history museum located in the customs house where Henry the Navigator was born. He was a pioneer of Portuguese maritime exploration and expansion.
Port Wine Cellars
Of course, no visit to Porto would be complete without sampling the region’s famous port wine. Ancient wine cellars (caves) are located across the Duoro River, in the city of Gaia.
In 1756, the Douro Valley was demarcated as the only area in the world to produce Port Wine, which is a fortified wine made with local, native grapes.
Now centuries old, these aging cellars are critical to the taste and composition of port wine, and each one is surprisingly different!
Porto has six bridges that span the Douro River, connecting it to Vila Nova de Gaia. Porto and Gaia are the only European cities that boast six bridges.
The UNESCO-protected Dom Luiz 1 Bridge was built in 1886 and designed by Teophile Seyrig, who was a disciple of Gustave Eiffel. It features two levels: The lower level is trafficked by cars and pedestrians, while the upper level is utilized by the metro.
The Maria Pia Bridge was designed by Eiffel himself in 1877. The Infante D. Henrique Bridge is the longest concrete single arch bridge in the world and is named after Henry the Navigator.
The Freixo Bridge (the highest upstream) is actually two bridges, with the lanes located side by side in order to accommodate for the region’s seismic activity. Freixo is the longest and lowest (in relation to the water) bridge in Porto.
Monastery of Serra do Pilar
The third designee of Porto’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Monastery of Serra do Pilar is, in fact, located in Gaia.
Construction of the monastery began in 1538, and it took over 100 years to complete. The church has an unusual, circular floor plan. The cloister is also circular. Guests can climb the 100 steps to the top of the dome to get a panoramic view of Porto, including the Dom Luiz I Bridge.
Interestingly, this monastery is still a military barracks for the Portuguese Army. The church is open for Catholic mass on Sundays at 11 am.
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a Ph.D. in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published eight books about travel and intercultural learning, including guides to Cambodia and Vietnam. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators.