In 1996 UNESCO declared Porto, Portugal’s historic area a World Heritage Site, and in 2001, Portugal’s second city was selected as Europe’s capital of culture. As a result, authorities spent significant money to revitalize the city, creating pedestrian-only areas and opening a metro system allowing for easier passenger movements, all the while preserving the historic nature of the city. With a storied history that dates back as far as the 8th century B.C., Porto, known as the Granite City and the home of port wine, has become one of Europe’s growing tourist attractions.
Sitting on the River Douro, with its famous bridges, this old town with its steep cobbled streets, outstanding Romanesque architecture, historic azulejos, world-class wine cellars, and gastronomy built around the sea, enjoys a year-round comfortable climate. From steep, tight alleyways to long stretches of sandy beaches, a modern metro system to rickety, historic trams, food for every palate accompanied by its homegrown world-class wines, Porto, and its incredibly hospitable people is a gem that is only now being discovered. Whether you visit for a long weekend or longer break, here are a few things for your “must-do” list.
Must-See Tourist Spots
1. Spot The Mistake In The Railway Station Estacao De São Bento
Built on the site of the former convent of S. Bento de Ave-Maria, today’s 100-year-old railway station draws tourists for its superb 20,000 azulejos (tiles) which adorn the foyer of the building. Depicting scenes from Portuguese history, the blue and white azulejos took 4 years to paint and install. If you look carefully, you may be able to spot painter Jorge Colaco’s slight mistake — clue: it involves children and proportion.
2. Find The Hidden House
Sandwiched between two elaborate churches (Igreja dos Carmelitas Descalços and Igreja do Carmo — for Carmelite nuns and Carmelite monks) is Porto’s Hidden House. At just over 3 feet wide, this three-story house is easily missed but, for a small fee, well worth a peek.
3. Take The Six Bridges Tour After Lunch
A short 50-minute boat ride along the River Douro takes you under all six of Porto’s bridges and provides an easy and unique perspective of the various designs of the river crossings. The tour is a relaxing way to sightsee while recovering from a perfect lunch and before setting off again on foot.
4. Capture That Instagram Ready Sunset At Gaia
For the best views of Porto’s Ribeira (waterfront), head to Gaia. Cross the River Douro on the Dom Luis I bridge on foot or take the metro to Jardim Do Morro station. This grassy hill is a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike to sit and watch the sunset down the River Douro and see Porto’s waterfront district light up like a Hallmark Christmas card.
5. Browse The Livraria Lello Bookstore
In a city rich in history, culture, and architecture, it’s something of a commentary on today’s world that the only place we saw with tourists queuing to enter was the Livraria Lello bookstore in the Vitoria district. Undoubtedly a spectacular bookstore with a twin helix staircase, the bookstore is believed to have been the inspiration for J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. There is a 5 euro entry fee redeemable against any purchase. Apparently, though, Rowling has stated she has never been inside the bookstore!
6. Take Afternoon Tea At The Majestic Café
One spot Rowling has been is the grand 1920s Majestic Café located on the old town’s main drag Rua Da Santa Catarina. (Apparently, she did spend time here working on her Harry Potter books.) With its crystal chandeliers, elaborate woodwork, and white-jacketed waitstaff, afternoon tea here is a throwback to the 20s and 30s when Portugal’s social elites would meet here for the best coffee and pastries in town and is an absolute must for that mid-afternoon pick me up.
Hidden City Gems
7. Bank Of Materials — No Cash Here
Located off the Praça Carlos Alberto, this is part museum and part bank for Portugal’s famous and historic azulejos. Over the decades, azulejos have become damaged, lost, or stolen and today’s building owners struggled to find azulejos in order to restore their buildings. The bank is a repository for tens of thousands of azulejos that have been recovered from damaged or demolished buildings and are available for free for the city’s restoration projects. It may sound boring, but it’s actually a cool visit.
8. Climb To The Miradouro Da Vitoria Lookout
One of the best spots to get panoramic views of the city is from the Miradouro da Vitoria lookout in the old Jewish area. (The Jews were expelled during the Inquisition, though a number continued their faith in secret.) The area is somewhat run-down now with abandoned houses (the site of a future hotel perhaps) but the climb along the narrow streets is worth it for the views.
9. Explore A Former No-Go Area
The spectacular Romanesque Cathedral is a starting point of The Portuguese Way (the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage) and another great spot to understand the role of religion in this area — you can see 10 churches from this vantage point. A walk down steep, narrow, atmospheric alleyways to the river would have been ill-advised years ago as this area was populated with drug addicts. Today, locals live side by side with Airbnbs and it is perfectly safe to explore.
10. Grab A Burger From The Most Beautiful Fast Food Joint In The World
The former Imperial Café (that is now McDonald’s) retains its 1930s grandeur. With art deco stained glass, sparkling chandeliers, and an eagle on the façade, waiting in line for a Big Mac has never been more pleasant.
11. Shop For Something Healthier At The Market
The two-story Porto market, Mercado do Bolhão, is currently being renovated but needs to be on everyone’s “must-visit” list when it reopens (hopefully by the end of 2021). Built in 1914 and classified as a “Monument of Public Interest” in 2013, this two-story architectural masterpiece looks like two small stadia combined, each with a central open forum housing individually roofed stalls. You can find everything here — from seafood to charcuterie, fruits, and vegetables, from flowers to linens, candies, drinks, and a number of cafes. Vendors from the Bolhão are temporarily housed in the clean and brightly lit La Vie Porto shopping center.
Food & Drink
12. A Cardiologist’s Nightmare: The Francesinha
No visit to Porto would be complete without experiencing Francesinha. Although popular throughout Portugal, this famous sandwich originates right here in Porto. Meaning “little Frenchie,” it is an upgraded version of the French Croque Monsieur. Between two slices of bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, sausage, and steak are packed together, covered with melted cheese, and topped with a spicy tomato and beer sauce. For the full deal, a fried egg is added on top and is typically served with french fries. One of Porto’s most storied Francesinha restaurants is Santiago.
13. People Watch Over Lunch In Vila Nova De Gaia
Crossing the Dom Luis I bridge over the Douro brings you from downtown Porto to Vila Nova De Gaia (or simply Gaia to the locals) — the traditional home of the port wine trade. With many waterfront restaurants and outdoor seating, it’s a great place to sip port and take in the views. Watch the traditional Rabelo boats bob on the water, vendors selling their wares from waterfront stalls (and see the unlicensed vendors scatter as soon the shadow of a policeman appears!)
14. Drop The Tourist Tag And Eat With Locals
We joined two young French people and had dinner hosted by a local couple in their apartment through “Eat With Locals.” This is an excellent way to stop behaving like a tourist and immerse yourself into the culture with hospitable locals. Our menu was pork-based (a taste of Porktugal) paired with delicious wines and culinary history. A very social, educational, and fun evening making new friends which provided a pleasant alternative to yet another restaurant visit.
15. Taste The Port
There are numerous Port tasting tours available — mostly located in Gaia. We chose the Burmester Caves just at the end of the Dom Luis I bridge. Joining a group of around 20, we learned about port — who knew the difference between “tawny,” “ruby,” and “vintage?” toured the cellars with their large oak barrels and, of course, got to sample two or three varieties. The tour, including tasting, was about an hour. We brought some home!
16. Stroll Along The Promenade At Foz Do Douro
Head to the mouth of the River Douro at Foz Do Douro — an upscale neighborhood just a 20-minute tram ride from the Ribeira. The yellow Tram 1 hugs the waterfront as it clatters along the rails offering Instagram-ready views of the waterfront. Upon reaching the terminus, linger a moment to watch the driver turn the Tram around for the return journey. She lifted her wooden seat and moved it to the other cab ready for the return journey, flipped each wooden bench so passengers continued to face forward then stepped outside to flip the pantograph around.
Then head out to watch the Atlantic waves crash against the foot of the lighthouse, get sand between your toes on the fine sand beach, or stroll along the palm-fringed promenade.
However you choose to spend your time, this understated city has something for everyone.
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