My affection for Porto grew slowly. Its faded and irregular appearance left me disoriented at first. I didn’t know what to expect actually: I had heard the name of Porto just a few times before and never even seen a picture of this city, probably. In a word, I never cared about it. Yet when I went there, it was Porto which took care of me.
Porto (Oporto to foreigners) puts the word “Portu” in Portugal and is the second biggest city of this wonderful country. Built on the mouth of the river Douro (Foz do Rio Douro), it rises on several hills so – as it often happens in Portugal – be prepared to walk a lot. Take your time to stroll along the charming riverside with the old port-wine boats, explore the steep alleys and climb the shadowy stairs spread all around the city, and I’m sure you will be amazed day by day.
The truth is that Porto is not a common city; it has a beauty all its own, a brawny allure and decadence that fascinates you in a subtle way. Here are the highlights of the city that you don’t want to miss.
The city centre
- Livraria Lello: with its Neo-Gothic façade and Art Deco style, it is one of the most emblematic bookshops in Portugal and in the world. This place was opened in 1919 by the Lello Brothers and rumor has it J.K. Rowling found inspiration here for writing the Harry Potter’s saga. Its remarkable architectural details include a massive curving staircase, stained glasses, a plaster ceiling imitating wood and wooden balusters. Even if usually packed with people, I’m sure you will get the atmosphere.
- Torre & Igreja dos Clérigos: you may wonder what is that tower that can be seen from every part of the city. Dating back to the 18th century, the “Tower of the Clergymen” is 76mt high and has become one of the most characteristic symbols of Porto. Climbing its 225 steps is worth to get atop and enjoy a beautiful view of the city. Right next to the tower is the Baroque monumental church of Clérigos.
- Palacio da Bolsa: facing the green Praça Infante Dom Henrique, the previous Stock Exchange Palace is a splendid Neoclassical building and a monument to Porto’s money merchants. To visit the Palace you must join one of the guided tours that set off every 30 minutes (given in Portuguese, English or French). The most famous rooms are the Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations) and the Salão Árabe (Arabian Hall), a sumptuous ballroom covered with Islamic designs and golden plasters.
- Ribeira: Ribeira is the alluring riverside district of Porto and the touristic centre of the city’s nightlife. The view from Ribeira is dominated by the traditional boats used to ferry port wine (but now put at the quayside for touristic and advertising purposes). Cobbled passages, hidden courtyards and colourful houses are typical of this area. A stroll along the Douro river at sunset is one of the most enjoyable things you can do in Porto. Besides, the renovated Casa do Infante (Rua Alfândega 10, Ribeira) is the building where Henry the Navigator is said to have been born (in 1394). It later served as Porto’s first customs house and now hosts its historical archives.
- Ponte de Dom Luís I: one can say that bridges (pontes) are Porto’s most distinctive landmarks; this immense two-level bridge connects Ribeira to Vila Nova de Gaia. When I approached the bridge of Dom Luís there were some teens in bermuda shorts standing beyond the railing, hesitating and searching for the courage to jump in the river, to prove themselves brave and daring. I couldn’t even get myself to look at them.
While the azulejos of Lisbon are more diversified in colours and variety, these wonderful handmade tiles are more typically blue in Porto. They are displayed all around the city as a widespread decoration and an open-air gallery:
- Igreja do Carmo: smothering the outer wall of this church in Praça Gomes Teixeira, a large and stunning panel illustrates the legend of the founding of the Carmelite order.
- Igreja de Santo Ildefonso:
- Estação de São Bento: the entrance hall of São Bento train depicts scenes of daily life and historic battles.
- And many other buildings…
The best views
- Miradouro da Vitória: located in Rua de São Bento da Vitória and reachable after a series of steep stairs, this viewpoint is basically a neglected terrace covered with grass and surrounded by buildings in ruins. Nonetheless, the landscape over the city looks beautiful.
- Jardim do Palácio de Cristal: named after a long-gone 19th-century crystal palace, this park hosts nowadays a sport pavillion and the high tech Biblioteca Municipal Almeida Garrett. It develops thorugh gardens, ponds and winding paths, offering beautiful views down to the river and over the city. With its faded and romantic atmosphere, this place is a cool shelter from the burning sun of Portuguese summer days.
- Sé: the cathedral of Porto dominates the city from its highest hill and can be reached after a quite challenging series of steps from the bridge of Dom Luís I. It dates back to the 12th century but was rebuilt and altered several times; on the side it has a cloister decorated with blue azulejos.
- Porto Tram: the old and slow Tram No 1E departs from opposite the Igreja de Sao Francisco (Rua Infante Dom Henrique), travels past the riverside and out to the mouth of Rio Douro. It’s a rather touristic 25-minute trip but it’s worth it, Bianca and I chose it to reach the Atlantic ocean.
I can’t forget the feeling I got while stepping on the golden sand; it was the first time I saw the ocean and I was both thrilled and extremely relaxed. The sight of that deep blue expanse and the freezing water touching my feet struck me completely and filled me with childish joy.
Across the river: Vila Nova de Gaia
Vila Nova de Gaia is the other half of Porto’s historic centre and home to the famous port wine caves (the city’s biggest attractions). The tradition of port wine blooms in the harvest of the Douro valley which make its way to Porto to be matured, blended and bottled (if you’re interested in a very well narrated history of port wine, check here).
You can choose among several warehouses across the river to taste port, you will see them by the huge signs spread over the hills. Almost all of the lodges offer tours and tasting: Taylor’s, Ramos Pinto, Sandeman, the small and independent Calém… Bianca and I stumbled upon Offley’s warehouses: I recommend it because we tasted three generous glasses of different port wines (white, ruby and tawny) at about 4 €, after a guided tour of the cave.
If you want to know more about Porto’s ancient wine tradition visit the Museo do Vinho do Porto (Port Wine Museum, Rua do Monchique 45-52).
I feel like I talked about Portugal’s delicious food hundreds of times, to anyone. So please forgive me if I’m repeating but Porto is no exception. We ate in many different places, all of them absolutely satisfying. This is the list of our favourites:
- Petiscaria (Rua São Bento da Vitória 80) Under the shadow of Tower of Clérigos lies a cozy restaurant specialized in “modern tapas“. Everything on the menu looks enticing: just ask the waiter to have a selection of their best delicacies. We tasted olives, lupins, black eyed pea salad, goat cheese with honey, Portuguese chorizo and presunto (Portuguese curred ham).
- A Sandeira (Rua dos Caldeireiros, 85) A small hipster corner which offers a delicious 5 euro-menu including the soup of the day and a sandwich or salad. You will have to queue a bit.
- Casa Lopes (Rua da Fonte Taurina 44-46) My very favourite spot. Located among dozens of touristic restaurants in the riverside district of Ribeira, this typical family-run place is filled with locals and fishermen at lunch time, ready to attack the cheap and generous dishes of the Portuguese tradition. I loved the food, the 80s atmosphere and the blue and white tablecloths.
- Na Cozinha Com Elas (Rua de Miragaia 54-55) This restaurant is a little hard to find but serves excellent food. I just wanted to show you the baked rice with duck, cheese and bacon. So beautiful it hurts.
How to get there
Our dearest Ryanair lands in this charming city, don’t let the chance go by.