To know the soul of the Portuguese people is to know its history, its myths, and its stories. History seeps in the stones of the buildings that make a city, a town, or a village. If you want to discover Porto, you should first explore the core of the city. The hard stone and delicate gold that makes up the heart of Porto. Keep reading to uncover the fifteen Porto architecture jewels you cannot miss on your next visit.
Cathedral of Porto
The place where Porto was born is called Morro da Sé, a hill on what is now the historical center of the city.
At the top of the birthplace of the city stands the cathedral of Porto. Built during the 12th century, the Cathedral is an important artifact of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. The original construction and subsequent additions – most notably by Nicolau Nasoni – have turned it into a treasure hunt for architecture lovers.
But the striking thing to consider is how much of Porto’s history the cathedral stones have absorbed. A wedding, for example. A royal wedding, between King John I and Philippa of Lancaster for which the city was strategically chosen as ground and the cathedral as the venue.
The whole city stopped for fifteen days for the celebration. And all the cleaning as well. If you ever visit it, stop and think about all that has happened between those walls.
On top of that, the views from its main entrance’s terrace over the city are so stunning that a visit to Porto would be well worth it just to admire the sunset from there. If I were you, I’d start looking for deals on Justfly immediately.
São Francisco Church
A national monument, São Francisco church is a treasure of Baroque architecture.
The magnificent gild woodwork from the 18th century is more than a cover for the Medieval structure of the church, it is an art and transcendental beauty that enraptures all who look upon it.
Finished in 1410, the São Francisco church is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture and the structure itself has suffered very few alterations. The interior of the church, however, exhibits mainly Manueline and Baroque additions.
The church has fifteen exuberant retables and altarpieces. A fine example of this is the Tree of Jesse, a representation of the family tree of Jesus. One of the most elaborate pieces that deal with this theme and it is an absolute wonder to behold.
If you enjoy your visit to the São Francisco church, be sure to visit Santa Clara church. It’s equally gorgeous!
The ex libris of Porto, Clérigos Tower is a must-see in the city whether you are on an architecture binge or not. Commissioned to Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni by the Clérigos Brotherhood in 1753, the Tower began construction the next year.
A masterpiece of the Baroque, the Tower is a building full of movement and beauty. With its highest point at seventy-five meters, it is the most visited sightseeing point and the 360º view of the city and the Douro river is stunning.
Beware of its two hundred and twenty-five steps and rainy days. Good calves are required but the experience on the top surpasses all difficulties.
São João National Theatre
The first building in Porto created specifically to be an entertainment venue, São João National Theatre was originally designed by Italian architect Vicenzo Mazzoneschi.
One of the quirks of the building is that it is situated where Porto’s medieval city walls used to pass through. When the theatre was created, the walls were used in the construction of the theatre.
The ancient walls can still be seen today at the back of the stage, even after the building went through two major reformations. The first after a fire in 1908; the second in 1995 when it reopened in its present incarnation.
A staple of the art scene in Porto, São João National Theatre is a marvel of color and shape. The outside evokes the muses of the classical period and in its façade lurk the passions that feed theatre. Pain, Hate, Kindness, and Love look upon those who enter and bless the goings-on within.
Stock Exchange Palace
Trade and the bourgeoisie have always been at the forefront of life in Porto. And there have been many instances in history where the charisma and perseverance of the city’s merchants, liberal workers, and intellectuals have determined the course of the nation.
It is of note that there has never been a Royal Palace in Porto. We have a Stock Exchange Palace, and that tells you a lot about the city’s obstinate will. Porto is a city quite literally built on trade.
An exuberant mix of architectonic styles from the Neoclassic to the English Palladian, it is an astounding repository of the best decorative styles from the end of the 19th century to the 20th century.
Luiz I Bridge, the most iconic Porto architecture piece
One of the many bridges that connect Porto with Gaia, the city on the other side of the Douro river, Luiz I bridge is one of the most easily recognizable structures in the city. If you have ever seen a picture of Porto and the Douro river, this bridge was undoubtedly pictured as well.
A UNESCO World Heritage site along with the historic center of Porto and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar, it was inaugurated in 1886 on King Luiz I’s birthday. From that point until 1898, it was considered the longest arch bridge in the world at 172 meters.
It was designed by Belgian architect Théophile Seyrig and not Gustave Eiffel as it is popularly believed. Eiffel designed the D. Maria Pia Bridge, another of the Porto-Gaia bridges.
Many people, quite understandably, mistake Luiz I bridge with D. Maria Pia bridge. The two bridges are not only similar in design but their names are also something that unites them as King Luiz I and D. Maria Pia were married.
Bolhão Market is a landmark of Porto’s day to day life. Certainly, it could be argued that the very soul of the city lives within its walls. Owing their livelihood to the Douro river and making commerce their main trade, the people of Porto are at home in the Bolhão market.
The exterior structure, façade, and turrets are its most prominent features. The style is rooted in the late neoclassical with the turrets placed in the corners of the rectangular building. In the south-facing façade, there is a pediment in which is carved a coat of arms adorned by two sculptures representing Commerce and Agriculture.
It is also worth noting that Bolhão Market is in renovations as of September 2019 and a temporary market has been made available. The renovated Bolhão market is expected to retain the configurations of the original.
The Serralves House
Designed by the most famous French architects of the 1930s, Serralves House has one creator – Carlos Alberto Cabral. A textile industrialist, Cabral began working on Serralves House in the second decade of the 20th century. He desired to build something that reflected his sensibilities and which didn’t yet exist in Porto.
Greatly influenced by the art déco scene exploding in France, the outside is easily associated with 1920’s architecture except for a curious piece straight from the 19th century – the chapel which had remained from the house that had been demolished to give way to Cabral’s vision.
Lined with large windows that create a continuous feeling of connection between the interior and the gardens, the Serralves House’s atmosphere is both soft and strong for its hard and precise lines.
Bom Sucesso Market
Renovated recently, the project behind the new Bom Sucesso Market aimed to create a perfect harmony between past and present.
Inaugurated in 1952, Bom Sucesso Market began falling into disrepair in later years and efforts were made to bring it to the 21st century, by reinvigorating the purpose of the market.
The original project, upon which the renovations where built, was designed in 1949. The curved ceiling and the surrounding windows are an interesting sight, not only for those admiring it from the outside but to those on the inside as well.
The natural light that cascades in from the wide windows falls on the fresh produce market, the 44 food stalls, and several stores.
Related read: Porto food guide
Arrábida bridge is an interesting bridge to get to know by climbing it!
Since 2016, pedestrians can climb the bridge’s arch and enjoy the most wonderful view over the city and the river’s mouth.
Inaugurated in 1963, the Arrábida bridge was a feat of engineering because it was built without the resource of computers and contained the largest concrete arch in the world at the time. The architect of the bridge was Portuguese Edgar Cardoso and he admitted the construction created challenge after challenge.
It is said that there were even some architects who were fully expecting the bridge to collapse. It still stands though.
Boa Nova Tea House & Marés Pools
Álvaro Siza is one of Portugal’s most recognized and awarded architects. A winner of the Pritzker Prize, his works are spread all over the world and his mastery is undeniable.
Despite being an internationally praised name, many of his projects have been for his hometown and all are worth a visit.
He is the architect of several projects for the Serralves Foundation (to which the Serralves House belongs) such as its art museum and Manoel de Oliveira Cinema House – all in Porto.
One striking aspect of his work is the seamless incorporation of natural elements into his designs.
Boa Nova Tea House and Marés Pools are two magnificent examples of this aspect because both were built into the naturally occurring rock formations on the seafront.
Boa Nova Tea House is just two meters from the sea and a marvel of rock and wood standing defiant to the Atlantic Ocean.
With Marés Pools, Álvaro Siza had the objective to take the natural landscape of the beach and turn it into an artificial pool with seawater. Two pools were created that are naturally filled with fresh seawater by the tides of the sea.
Casa da Música
To celebrate Porto as the European Capital of Culture in 2001, a project began to construct a building dedicated to music. Rem Koolhaas took the helm of Casa da Música’s design after his conceptual art was chosen. One of the many curious things about Casa da Música is the fact that the project began as a family house, not what would end up becoming.
Inaugurated in 2005, Casa da Música was originally contested by the residents. The main grievance was to its disconnection from the surrounding area. Casa da Música is architecturally and spatially isolated from the buildings and spaces nearby, standing tall and imposing. However, it has become a staple of Porto and everyone has since grown attached to it.
The interior of Casa da Música is a pool of secrets that you should discover for yourself on a visit, but a hint: beautiful azulejo tiles.
Quite close to Casa da Música, the Vodafone Headquarters building in Porto shares some similarities with the former. The façade has undulating and spiked waves of exposed concreted and the shape is very modern.
Its unique shape had been equated to a rough uncut diamond. Some have derisively said it resembles crumbled paper.
No debate however on the uniqueness of the project as it has won several awards and been appraised as a very interesting choice for an office building.
Related read: Vodafone Paredes de Coura music festival
A lot of people find it difficult to believe but it is quite easy to see the major part of the most important buildings in Porto in a few hours – on foot!
Truth is, the must-see spots in Porto are all not that far from each other. Case in point: Lello bookstore is about a minute from Clérigos Tower. And smack in the middle of those two is another interesting Porto architecture site: the Lisbon Plaza.
An undulating structure in concrete covered with grass, the Plaza is a prime spot for taking a rest while taking a tour of the city. You can get some sun or relax with friends and maybe get some coffee or even a new outfit for your trip. Below the garden waves, you can find coffee shops, clothing stores, and even a parking lot. Truly a versatile place!
Leixões Cruise Port Terminal
We finish off our architectural tour guide with the most recent entry, the Leixões Cruise Port Terminal. A project finished in 2015 and designed by Luís Pedro Silva, it won numerous international awards.
The project aimed to better the commercial efficiency of the space and to create a seamless urban integration.
With clear nautical themes and a conch shape, the main building is an ode to the sea. Its shape evokes not only maritime creatures but also the ebb and flow of the tide and the swift movement of the waves.
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