Lisbon’s northern rival Porto is a dynamic riverside city with medieval lanes, sun-drenched squares and sublime vantage points overlooking the Douro. This is also a city with a love for the finer things in life: art, football and wine.
The city’s impressively diverse museums provide a helpful introduction to the unique facets of Porto, from its centuries-old winemaking traditions to more recent triumphs on the sports field, with detours to the city’s brightly painted trams and groundbreaking artworks.
You’ll also get a deeper insight into Portugal’s history through galleries packed with historical relics and daring interactive exhibitions aimed at satisfying the toughest critics (namely, the under-10s, who are well catered for in Porto).
The historic Ribeira district has the densest concentration of museums, but it’s worth roaming the city to see the best museums. Getting from museum to museum is part of the adventure and not awkward thanks to 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 entering the house, you will feel the paramount importance of this magnificent museum, located opposite the 19th-century Palace of the Carrancas and housed in one of the most beautiful neoclassical buildings in Porto. As you climb the granite staircase, you’ll be following in the footsteps of Arthur Wellesley (aka the first Duke of Wellington) and Dom Pedro IV, who both lived in the building for a time. Original frescoes and Italian plasterwork adorn the interiors, along with one of the finest art collections in Porto.
Architecture aside, Portugal’s oldest museum displays a wide range of art treasures, including paintings by the 16th-century Portuguese Renaissance master Vasco Fernandes and the 19th-century naturalist Henrique Pousão. Pride of place is given to works by the artist for whom the museum is named – sometimes referred to as “Michelangelo of Portugal”, sculptor Soares dos Reis created hauntingly realistic works, including O Desterrado (The Exile)exhibited alongside several other masterpieces by dos Reis.
World of Wine: the best for wine lovers
In the port-loving settlement of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, the Wine World isn’t one museum, but seven. Here you can not only learn about winemaking in Portugal, but also about other key industries that are an integral part of Portuguese identity, including cork harvesting, chocolate and textiles. There is a museum dedicated to Porto’s complicated past and another dedicated to drinking vessels – over 1800 mugs, bowls and goblets from around the world, offering a unique insight into this interesting facet of human history.
Museums are only part of the WOW experience. Visitors also have ample opportunity to partake in another popular Portuguese tradition: food. The complex includes a dozen different restaurants, bars, and cafes, each with a unique focus. You will find vegetarian fare, steaks, haute cuisine, tapas and desserts. Of course, good wines are everywhere, but if you want to delve deeper into local wine traditions, take a class or workshop at the on-site wine school.
Casa do Infante: best for history of Porto
If these walls could talk, the cacophony would be deafening given how much has happened in this 14th-century building over the years. Among others, the future Prince Henry the Navigator – the father of Portuguese exploration – was said to be born in Case do Infante in 1394.
As you step inside, you’ll learn all about the remarkable king who played a key role in Portugal’s maritime dominance and Portuguese colonization of Africa, Asia, and South America, while also getting an overview of Portuguese history.
Thanks to the fortuitous excavation of Roman ruins beneath the museum, the exhibitions go back even further than the Age of Discovery. Don’t miss the exhibition which reveals an impressively designed ancient Roman mosaic floor.
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves: the best for avant-garde art
Hop on bus 201 and take a 30-minute trip west of the center to reach Parque de Serralves. Here, tucked away amid manicured French-inspired gardens, is the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Portugal’s premier contemporary art museum.
The exhibitions change regularly and feature 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 architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, plays a supporting role – as does the garden outside, with oversized windows in the gallery framing the artful designs of nature outside.
World of Discovery: the best for kids
Dragging the kids to a museum can be a tough sell. However, the World of Discovery brings a touch of Disney-like excitement to the past with interactive, hands-on exhibits. Rewind to the 15th and 16th centuries and the days when Portuguese explorers sailed into the unknown and see the lands they encountered – including North Africa, Brazil, Macau and India.
There are rooms where you can roam the interior of a ship, learn about navigation via touchscreens, and view barrels of cinnamon and other spices that have been brought back to Europe. The highlight is a boat trip “around the world”, past life-size tableaux with knights, camels and jungle creatures.
Museu do Carro Eléctrico: the best for transport nerds
Porto’s beloved yellow trams take center stage at this delightful museum near the Douro River. Located in the cavernous interior of the former thermoelectric station that once powered the tram network, this museum displays about two dozen different trams, including curiosities such as an 1872 tram that was pulled by mules and the boxy Vagoneta 80, from which Fish were transported from the docks of Matosinhos to the markets in Porto.
No prizes for guessing the only acceptable mode of transport to reach the museum! The scenic tram line 1 rattles along the riverfront from the Ribeira district to near the museum entrance. It’s a memorable 10-minute ride, and after visiting the museum, you can continue to Passeio Alegre for another tram glory days.
FC Porto Museum: best for sports fans
Below the 50,000-seat Estadio do Dragão, the high-tech FC Porto Museum immerses you in the history of one of Portugal’s most popular football teams. Thoughtfully designed exhibits and interactive screens tell the story of FC Porto since its inception in 1893, covering its deep connection to the city, its most famous players and its greatest victories.
Don’t miss the exhibition dedicated to Rabah Madjer’s 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 a stadium tour and see some of the most important areas in the Dragon’s Den.