Porto – 12 tips for Sustainable Tourism and Luxury Travel in 2024
Porto has charm written all over it. The alluring pictures of the Douro riverside banks reveal a city climbing on both sides, awash in red tile roofs. Most travellers know Porto as the birthplace of port wine, and Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Ribeira, doesn’t disappoint, with more cellars than you can count. During our month long stay in Lisbon last November, we quickly booked train tickets for Porto and came away with a solemn promise to stay for 3-4 weeks next time around. Despite rainy conditions, love blossomed. I chalk it down to a marriage between tradition and modern flair. Cobblestone streets wind through colourful neighbourhoods in historic UNESCO listed Ribeira, leading to iconic landmarks like Dom Luís I Bridge and the ornate São Bento Station. Yet, Porto also sports architectural marvels such as the House of Music (Case de Música), designed by legendary architect Rem Koolhaas. We got Bilbao vibes because of it. And in our book, that’s a fantastic compliment. But how would Porto do on sustainable tourism?
Porto rising – positive and sustainable tourism
Porto has committed itself to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, but the sustainability journey goes beyond emission targets. To add to the plethora of terms floating around, Porto is driving towards what they call positive tourism. It’s another word for sustainable because of the aim for the same three impact areas; environmental, social, and cultural, turning Porto into an attractive destination for tourists and residents alike.
Part of the strategy is to discourage mass tourism and instead appeal to a more discerning crowd that appreciates both the traditional and authentic, but also the creative, modern and international vibe on offer. To attract the premium segment, luxury and sustainability need a masterful blend to stand out, as cities compete for this high-spend traveller. Longer stays mean fresh experiences and places to explore. Officials are keen to avoid Porto’s historic core becoming a soulless, depopulated area with big chains, and less diversity. To make it easy for visitors to journey to new areas of town, the city has invested in digital tools to reduce friction. Accessibility maps, transit suggestions, walking tours, and buy local campaigns are designed to keep a healthy flow in and out of the centre.
Blessed with stand out gastronomy, pre-Roman roots and jaw-dropping nature, there is something for everyone in the wider region, and this encapsulates our desire to come back and do the city justice. For here and now, enjoy our tips for sustainable and deluxe tourism in Porto, ranging from sights, culture, food, and accommodation.
Sustainable Restaurant and Food Experiences in Porto
Considered a top dining choice in Portugal, you find the Michelin star Pedro Lemos in the Foz do Douro district, close to where the river unloads into the sea. The establishment prides itself on its use of traditional, seasonal, and local produce. The wine cellar is famous for stocking unknown gems from small producers throughout Portugal.
Chef Vitor Matos leads Antiqvvm, another Michelin star restaurant. It has a striking setting, within a museum complex housing the Porto Municipal art gallery. The view towards the Dom Luís I Bridge and the Douro river is outrageous, especially at sunset. Two tasting menus, one with organic and seasonal focus, centres around Portuguese classics, spiced up for a modern palate.
Mercado do Bolhão
Not a restaurant but a heaven for foodies, this food temple is beautiful on the outside and savoury on the inside. It occupies an entire block in downtown Porto, the commercial district, and is arguably one of the most iconic buildings in town. With over 100 years of history, this fresh produce market serves up vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and desserts in a dizzying array of choices. We had a blast eating and drinking our way through the stalls. Highlights include the white Porto Tonico drink, sardines and mussels, both served with unrivalled precision and passion by the stall owner. The local goat cheeses also deserve a mention.
Sustainable Hotels and Accommodation in Porto
Porto Royal Bridges
Superbly placed in the thick of the action, Royal Bridges is situated near the famous Livraria Lello bookshop and Clerigos church, offering modern comforts amid historic grandeur. Beyond lavish accommodations, the hotel takes pride in a multi-pronged approach to sustainability, including energy efficiency, solar power, and clear communication about its efforts directed both towards guests and suppliers.
NH Collection Porto Batalha
Another central location with luxurious rooms. Housed in a former 18th century palace, NH Collection has earned Level 3 on Booking.com’s Travel Sustainable grading meaning it has channelled significant resources to issues such as energy conservation, water efficiency, waste reduction, and support for the local community.
Palácio do Freixo
Three km outside the city centre, directly by the Douro river, you find Palácio do Freixo, a five star, baroque style palace, already classified as a national monument in 1910. Nicolau Nasoni, the architect, was instrumental in the design of Porto’s historic old town, now a World Heritage Site. Enjoy over 10 000 square metres of gardens and breathtaking views of the river, comforted by the fact that the establishment is Green Key certified.
São Bento train station
Chances are this is your first port of call in Porto. Pun intended. São Bento is not a run-of-the-mill transportation hub, but a true architectural gem, a living museum dedicated to the city’s rich history. The mesmerising interior is covered in intricate azulejo tiles, which depict historical scenes and captivating landscapes. As you move from the platform into the main hall, you are transported back in time, surrounded by a visual feast of blue and white manifestations of Portugal’s heritage.
World of Wine
When in Porto, touring a few wine cellars, followed up with tastings of different Port wines, is a no-brainer. We suggest taking it a step further. Venture into the World of Wine, a cultural district housing six museums, restaurants, shopping and educational experiences such as the wine school. Our favourites were the Chocolate Story (the ins and outs of cacao), Pink (everything you want to know about Rosé wine) and Planet Cork (the manufacture of this fascinating Portuguese natural wonder). In short, the World of Wine is a wow experience to savour for hours at end.
Walk the Dom Luís I Bridge
Wrought metal never looked so good. A marvel of engineering, this double-decker bridge shoots out from the side of Ribeira’s diminutive historical buildings, crosses the Douro river and connects with Vila Nova de Gaia, uniting the past and present in a single graceful structure. Gazing upon its intricate lattice-work design and towering arches, you won’t be surprised to learn it was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s protégé, Théophile Seyrig. We walked across both on the upper (mind the tram) and lower levels to get the full experience and highly recommend doing the same. There is a cable car to bring you back to the top if you don’t fancy stairs.
sustainable tourism Sights in porto
Palácio de Cristal (Crystal Palace)
Want a serene place to take a break from the sightseeing? Venture to the most beautiful gardens in Porto and indulge in magnificent views over the river and the Atlantic. It’s a charming spot with fountains and a couple of galleries, specifically the Romantic and Port wine museums. How can you wrong with a combination like that? The term Crystal refers to a former palace in the area. Now a pavilion for events and concerts occupy centre stage.
Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis)
Here’s a safety tip for you. Wear sun glasses because all the gleaming gold will blind you. Ok, a slight exaggeration, but in earnest the gilded wood is a scene stealer, one of Portugal’s most outstanding churches, of which they have many. The 14th century masterpiece is Gothic on the outside and baroque on the inside. The decorative richness stems from the 18th century, covering the window frames, roof, pillars, and chapels, obscuring the mediaeval architecture underneath.
Palácio da Bolsa
Near the Church of Saint Francis, you will find the imposing Bolsa Palace. Built in the 19th century, the neoclassical building served as the stock exchange for Porto. To enter, you need to go on a guided tour, which we recommend, as the guides provide a fast-paced history lesson about the city’s wealth and power during the golden age of trade. The interior of the Bolsa is impressive, with halls adorned with intricate details, magnificent chandeliers, and exquisite artwork. The pièce de résistance is the Arabian Hall, characterised by an opulent Moorish-inspired design. If you saw nothing else, the prices of admission would be worth for this room alone.
Attracting the green traveller
Porto is on the rise, determined to avoid the mistakes other bigger cities have made in terms of what type of tourism they attract. Awareness coupled with thought-out strategies has resulted in a city pulling together in the same direction, building on its strengths. Carbon reductions schemes, protecting the vitality and authenticity of the historic centre, and sustainable transport improvements are a few examples of the ongoing positive transformation. If you read this far, you’re more than likely the sort of traveller who would love Porto.
Have you been to Portugal? Did you visit Porto? Let us know in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel.