Lisbon’s northern rival, Porto is a dynamic riverside city of medieval lanes, sun-dappled plazas and lofty viewpoints overlooking the Douro. This is also a city with a love for the good things in life: fine art, football and wine.
The city’s impressively diverse museums provide a helpful primer on Porto’s unique facets, from its age-old wine-making traditions to more recent triumphs on the sporting pitch, with detours via the city's cheerfully painted trams and trailblazing artwork.
You’ll also gain deeper insight into Portugal’s history through galleries packed full of historic relics and swashbuckling interactive exhibitions aimed at pleasing the toughest of critics (namely the under 10 crowd, who are well catered for in Porto).
The historic Ribeira district has the densest concentration of museums, but it's worth roaming across the city to see the top museums. Getting from museum to museum is part of the adventure, and not a cumbersome one, given the city’s excellent public transport network. Plan your trip around these seven brilliant museums (and see unique parts of Porto along the way).
Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis: best for Portuguese art
Even before you step in the door, you'll feel the overarching prominence of this grand museum, facing the 19th-century Palace of the Carrancas and set in one of Porto’s finest neoclassical buildings. Walking up the granite staircase, you’ll follow in the footsteps of Arthur Wellesley (aka, the first Duke of Wellington) and Dom Pedro IV, both of whom lived for a time in the building. Original frescoes and Italian stucco work adorn the rooms inside, along with one of the finest art collections in Porto.
Architecture aside, Portugal’s oldest museum displays a wide array of artistic treasures, including paintings by 16th-century Portuguese Renaissance master, Vasco Fernandes, and 19th-century naturalist, Henrique Pousão. Pride of place goes to works by the artist for whom the museum is named – sometimes called the ‘Michelangelo of Portugal,’ the sculptor Soares dos Reis created hauntingly realistic works, including O Desterrado (The Exile), on display alongside several other dos Reis masterpieces.
World of Wine: best for wine lovers
In the port-loving settlement of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto proper, the World of Wine isn’t one museum but seven. Here, you can learn not only about winemaking in Portugal but also about other key industries integral to the Portuguese identity, including cork-harvesting, chocolate and textiles. There’s a museum that covers Porto’s complicated past and another devoted to drinking vessels – over 1800 beakers, bowls and chalices from across the globe that provide a unique window into this interesting facet of human history.
Museums are only one part of the WOW experience. Visitors also have ample opportunities to partake of another beloved Portuguese tradition: namely eating. The complex includes a dozen different restaurants, bars and cafes, each with a unique focus. You’ll find vegetarian fare, steaks, haute cuisine, tapas and desserts. Naturally, good wines are ubiquitous, though if you want to delve deeper into local wine traditions, take a class or a workshop at the onsite Wine School.
Casa do Infante: best for Porto history
If these walls could talk the cacophony would be deafening considering how much has transpired in this 14th-century building over the years. Among other things, the Case do Infante is where future Prince Henry the Navigator – the father of Portuguese exploration – was reputedly born in 1394.
Stepping inside, you’ll learn all about the notable royal, who played a key role in Portugal’s maritime dominance and the Portuguese colonization of Africa, Asia and South America, while also getting an overview of Portuguese history.
Exhibitions delve even further back in time than the Age of Discoveries, thanks to the accidental unearthing of Roman ruins beneath the museum. Don’t miss the display revealing an impressively designed ancient Roman mosaic floor.
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves: best for avant-garde art
Hop on bus 201 and take a 30-minute jaunt west of the center to reach the Parque de Serralves. Here, tucked amid manicured, French-inspired gardens, you’ll find the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Portugal’s most important contemporary art museum.
Exhibitions change regularly and showcase thought-provoking works by artists from Portugal and beyond. Recent hits include shows by Joan Miró, Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Manoel Oliveira. The striking modernist building, designed by famed Porto-based architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira, plays a supporting role – as does the garden outside, with oversized windows in the gallery framing nature’s artful designs outside.
World of Discoveries: best for kids
Dragging the kids into a museum can be a tough sell. The World of Discoveries, however, brings a touch of Disney-esque excitement to the past, with interactive, hands-on exhibits. You’ll rewind to the 15th and 16th centuries, and the days when Portuguese explorers sailed off into the unknown, and you’ll see the lands they encountered – including North Africa, Brazil, Macau and India.
There are rooms where you can roam around the inside of a ship, learn about navigation through touch screens and check out barrels of cinnamon and other spices brought back to Europe. The highlight is a "round-the-world" boat trip, passing life-sized tableaus complete with knights, camels and jungle creatures along the way.
Museu do Carro Eléctrico: best for transportation nerds
Porto’s beloved yellow trams get the star treatment at this delightful museum near the banks of the Douro River. Set in the cavernous interior of the former thermoelectric station that once powered the tram network, this museum displays some two dozen different trams, including oddities such as an 1872 streetcar that was pulled by mules and boxy Vagoneta 80, which was used to carry fish from the docks of Matosinhos to the markets in Porto.
No prizes for guessing the only acceptable mode of transport to reach the museum! Scenic tram line 1 rattles along the riverside from the Ribeira district to near the museum entrance. It’s a memorable 10-minute ride, and after visiting the museum you can continue out to Passeio Alegre for more glorious tram time.
FC Porto Museum: best for sports fans
Set beneath the 50,000-seat Estadio do Dragão, the high-tech FC Porto Museum immerses you in the lore of one of Portugal’s best-loved football (soccer) teams. Thoughtfully designed exhibits and interactive screens tell the story of FC Porto since its founding in 1893, covering its deep connection to the city, its most famous players, and its greatest victories.
Don’t miss the exhibit dedicated to Rabah Madjer’s back-heel goal in the 1987 European Cup final against Bayern Munich – which led to Porto’s first European Cup title. For a few euros more you can add on a stadium tour and get a look at some of the key areas in the ‘Dragon’s Den.’