The best free things to do in Porto
Comparatively speaking, Porto is one of Western Europe’s most affordable tourist destinations, but travel bucks are precious, so it’s always worth sniffing out the local freebies. From fish markets to concerts to chilled sunset sessions, here are some ways to see Portugal’s beautiful northern city for nada. Put your walking shoes on and get your cloud photo storage ready…
Take one look at Porto and you’ll appreciate the city’s affinity for tiles, known locally as azulejos. Many heritage buildings are sheathed in repetitive pops of colour or impressively detailed murals, with the latter doubling as open access history files.
The foyer of the São Bento train station takes the cake with 20,000 hand-painted tiles depicting scenes from Portugal’s past – from industrial milestones to wartime victories. Other Insta-worthy contenders include the traditional blue and white tiled churches Capela das Almas, Igreja do Carmo and Igreja de Santo Ildefonso. Then there are all the less prominent, but equally endearing tiled façades scattered across the city. Start an azulejo photography journal and you could lose yourself for days.
2. Jardim do Morro
Porto’s golden sunsets have a magnetic pull. Come late afternoon, hordes of sun worshippers find a river-fronting patch of turf to watch the sun make its steady descent into the depths of the distant Atlantic. Grab a Super Bock beer, a picnic rug and a wheel of Portuguese cheese and follow the crowds to the slopes of Jardim do Morro (from where you’ll see the romantic postcard picture of Porto), or the thin sliver of grass commonly referred to as ‘Virtudes’ – not to be confused with the nearby, larger park of the same name. Ask any local where to catch the Virtudes sunset and they’ll know exactly where you’re aiming for.
3. Street art
Urban art is a feature of many cities, but Porto’s street art scene has an interesting backstory. At an economical low-point in the not-so-distant past, Porto was dominated by crumbling buildings steadily being swallowed by vines. With a bleak cityscape and scarce job prospects, local art students began taking their talents to the streets. The artists’ work became so prolific the government established an anti-graffiti brigade in an attempt to curb the ‘vandalism’, prompting a game of cat and mouse with the creatives. Walk around the city today and it’s easy to see who won.
The colourful exhibition ranges from storeys-high murals to tiny cartoon characters hiding down laneways, making the hunt half the fun.
4. Mercado Municipal de Matosinhos
Located outside the city centre, Mercado Municipal de Matosinhos is geared towards locals rather than tourists, making it an attractive option for those who relish the simple spectacle of everyday life. The indoor market is well regarded for its fish, which is fitting given its seaside location, but also has fruit, vegetables and, uncomfortably for some, the odd caged chicken.
Wander the surrounding streets and you’ll see the market’s saltwater produce put to good use on smoking streetside barbecues. Note the market is closed on Sundays.
5. Cemitério do Prado Repouso
Ambling alongside the dead might not be at the top of every holidaymaker’s hit list, but Porto’s ten-hectare Cemitério do Prado Repouso is an unconventional attraction with an alluring calmative quality. Rows of magnolia and camellia trees shade the tombstones of everyday folk as well as former mayors, physicians, actors and writers (identified in both Portuguese and English). There is also a monument that honours those who lost their lives in Porto’s 1891 revolution, which triggered Portugal’s republican movement.
6. Jardins do Palácio de Cristal
The Jardins do Palácio de Cristal provide a serene and sizeable patch of inner-city greenery. Stepped terraces offer delightful views across the Douro and cross-river city of Gaia.
These days, the nineteenth-century‘ crystal palace’ is decidedly absent, having been replaced by what appears to be a giant green UFO. While the domed 1950s-built sporting facility is perhaps less elegant, it’s an eye-catcher nonetheless. Use it as a beacon to find the garden entrance, then set off across the eight hectares to discover a medley of landscaped gardens.
7. Torre dos Clérigos
The baroque spire of the Torre dos Clérigos is one of Porto’s most recognisable features. The 76m-high tower is the focal point of the city’s money shot and tourists queue to climb the narrow staircase for a peek from the top. What many don’t know, however, is that every day at noon the church adjoining the tower fires up its eighteenth-century pipe organ for a free 30-minute concert. Listen out for the delightful chime of the midday bells as a reminder.
8. Centro Português de Fotografia
Two minutes’ walk from Torre dos Clérigos, browse free exhibitions in the eerie enclave of an old prison at the Centro Português de Fotografia. There are both permanent and temporary expositions displayed across the three storeys, showcasing a mix of contemporary and historical works from both Portuguese and international photographers. Thick granite walls and windows fixed with forbidding iron grates remind of the building’s function before its decommissioning in 1974 following the Portuguese revolution and revival as a gallery space in 2000.
9. Igreja da Lapa
The gallant figure on horseback in Porto’s main square denotes King Pedro IV of Portugal and first emperor of Brazil, who, despite hailing from Lisbon, had a particular affinity for Porto. He therefore requested that his heart be bestowed to the city upon his death (the scene shown at the base of the statue symbolises this moment) and it landed in Igreja da Lapa in Porto’s north. While there’s no science-lab jar of preserved remains to ogle at, the Catholic church is a worthy attraction off the main tourist trail – not least for its place in Portugal’s historical timeline but also for its neoclassical architecture and tranquil demeanor. It also has one of the largest pipe organs in Europe.
10. Farolim de Felgueiras
While there’s certain appeal to clacking along the Douro River in one of Porto’s quintessential old trams, taking the same route by foot can be just as rewarding and undoubtedly less crowded.
Set off from the Ribeira district and head west for six kilometres. Pass tangles of fishing nets and boats bobbing with the tide before reaching the point where the river dissolves into the ocean. Continue out to the jetty to watch the ocean throw its weight against the Felgueiras lighthouse, but stay alert or resign yourself to a soaking from a merciless wave.
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