Despite its reputation for being Portugal’s commercial capital, Porto is far from lacking in the cultural department. In fact, in 2001 it was designated a European Capital of Culture in recognition of both its historic legacy and its dedication to the contemporary arts.
Walking through the winding streets of old town Porto is almost like being in a museum in itself. Ancient architecture dating back to medieval times sits side by side with elegant baroque decorations and cutting-edge glass structures that are at the very forefront of modern architectural design. For those with an interest in learning more about Portugal’s heritage, and specifically that of this grand city, there is plenty more to discover.
The Romantic Museum of Quinta da Macieirinha makes the perfect jumping-off point for your exploration of Porto’s cultural offerings. Located in a 19th-century mansion, the Romantic Museum of Quinta da Macieirinha is an authentic recreation of life in a Porto manor house in the 1800s.
The house was originally owned by a local merchant before passing into the hands of one of Porto’s leading port wine producing families. It is notable for having provided refuge for King Carlo Alberto of Savoy and Piedmont-Sardinia following his defeat against the Austrian empire at the Battle of Novara.
The King’s rooms are a fascinating display of opulence and wealth, housing important artworks and rich furnishings that define this era in Portugal’s history. Don’t miss the ballroom, billiard room, dressing room, dining room and guest room, and do take the time to enjoy the spectacular views that the museum affords over the Douro and the city skyline.
Art lovers will enjoy both the Soares dos Reis Museum and the Serralves Museum and Gardens. The Soares dos Reis Museum will appeal to those with traditional tastes in art and design. Established in 1911, it was installed in the Palacio dos Carrancas, an impressive neoclassical building, in 1940. The collection includes important paintings, glass, ceramics and jewellery from throughout the ages.
Given the collection’s provenance, which was to collect, store and showcase the many important artefacts that were confiscated from the dissolved monasteries in Porto, Martinho de Tibaes and Coimbra, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that many items date back more than 500 years.
For those with a more contemporary taste in the arts, a visit to the Serralves Museum and Gardens is a must. Opened in 1999, the Serralves Museum is one of the most important cultural destinations in the city. Focusing its collection on works generated from 1968 onwards, the museum embraces the contemporary art movement both in Portugal and overseas, taking in pop art, minimalism and major developments in photography and filmmaking.
The museum plays host to a huge festival in the late spring and early summer, with a series of events that are free to the general public. Do take the time to explore the expansive gardens during your visit, as well as the pink-hued art deco Casa de Serralves, which is in the grounds, and the main museum building itself, which was designed by the 1992 Pritzker prize-winning architect, Alvaro Siza Vieira.
Lovers of the performing arts are well taken care of in Porto with the Casa da Musica. Conceived as part of Porto’s activities as European Cultural Capital in 2001, the building was finally opened in 2005 to much acclaim. It is a feat of modern engineering, making an interesting addition to Porto’s skyline and offering superb acoustics and facilities within its two large auditoriums inside.
The Casa da Musica offers a lively calendar of events all year round. It has played host to some of the most important concert orchestras on the classical music scene and is home to the Orquestra Nacional do Porto. Its activities are by no means limited to classical music, however, with jazz, fado, electronic, and dance music all taking centre stage at one time or another.
For a taste of a different Portugal, head to the Museum for Transport and Communications. The Museum for Transport and Communications will take you back more than 100 years through the history of automotive brands, with a particular eye on the growth of the automotive industry in Portugal ― including the country’s first ever car produced more than a century ago.
No visit to Porto would be complete without a visit to the Port Wine Museum. Located in a warehouse dating back to the 18th century that once belonged to the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, the Port Wine Museum is the city’s leading information centre on Port wine, tracking this famous nectar from its invention to its boom as a major export industry.