Porto is a city of contrasts. Buildings painted in bright colours or tiled in the traditional azulejo style shine at the water’s edge while the modern, steel Dom Luís I Bridge towers across the River Douro connecting Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia. On closer inspection the tiling on many of these buildings is cracked and the paint peeling away. Just streets away from the bustling harbour lie poverty stricken communities, untouched by the tourist dollar and affected by years of floods and soaring house prices. Yet this does little to diminish from the city’s charm and character.
Centuries of history, the river, the sea, port lodges, amazing food and wine, charismatic locals and street art make up Porto’s rich soul. From the moment I stepped out of the train station and into the sunshine I was hooked. The city is medieval at heart but possess a strong modern touch with its countless restaurants and trendy bars. I can see why J.K Rowling was always pulled back here.
If you’re travelling on a budget or up for shared accommodation, I can’t recommend Yes! Porto Hostel more highly. Rooms are clean, staff are friendly and nightly dinners and pub crawls will leave you with more friends than you left back home.
The first order of business on day one was heading down to the River Douro to get a taste of the waterfront, sunshine and UNESCO listed medieval town, Ribeira. From here you’ll see Gustave Eiffel’s iconic bridge, colourful facades of buildings, and rabelo boats which were once used to ferry port from the vineyards. Now they’re simply a tourist attraction and make for a neat photograph. The waterfront is littered with quaint cafes where you have to stop at for a pastel de nata (or three if you’re like me) and an espresso.
Sao Francisco Church is the city’s standout gothic monument. The interior is decorated in baroque style, with the most intricate wooden carvings and gold leaf. It’s STUNNING. I’ve never seen anything quite like it so I sat on a pew for at least 15 minutes trying to take everything in. It’s impossible but worth a try.
Next door is the Palacio da Bolsa, the city’s stock exchange. It’s still used in part today however with pre purchased tickets tourists can be guided through a selection of beautiful, richly decorated rooms. The highlight has to be the Arab room with its incredible stained glass windows and doorways and richly painted ceiling.
Stop for a pick-me-up snack and drink if you’re that way inclined at Majestic Café, an old Art Nouveau joint once frequented by many an artist and intellectual. It’s tastefully decorated in 1920s European style to transport you from the modern streets of Porto back in time.
This next stop is for all book, Harry Potter and architecture lovers. Further up the hill lies the Neo-gothic bookshop Livraria Lello – AKA the bookstore frequented by J.K. Rowling and the inspiration for the Hogwarts moving staircases. It’s beautiful to wander around while marvelling at the dark wood and red staircases. I couldn’t help but feel like a massive tourist as I tried to discretely find the English section as everything from Harry Potter novels to traditional cooking books were written in Portuguese. Tip to avoid the same embarrassment: the English novels are to the left as you walk through the front door.
Afterwards, wander a little further up the street to marvel at the azulejo tiles in the square around Fonte dos Leões. Igreja do Carmo – a baroque church opposite the fountain – has an amazing side façade which will stop anyone in their tracks.
Join Porto Walkers for a free walking tour of the city this morning. The morning’s tour winds through the city’s historical centre, starting at Liberdade Square. Our guide, Mafalda, was so entertaining, getting us to act out role plays at a few tour stops! Her acting background makes the tour really engaging and you walk away with so much knowledge about the city’s past. A fabulous way to understand the history of Porto and make a few friends along the way. A highlight is Sao Bento Railway Station. There, 20,000 painted tiles decorated the walls making a larger than life mural. Another (very delicious) highlight was stopping for some of the best deserts in the city – available only to Porto Walkers. This is as good an incentive as any!
The tour finishes at the waterfront so head across the river for some Port Tasting. This can be organised via tour groups however we found a small, family run bar to pop into. The waterfront is littered with Portuguese style restaurants with many serving the city’s famous pork rolls. They’re amazing, you can’t leave Porto without trying one.
If you’re up for more walking after this morning’s activity head up to Jardim do Morro and relax on the grassy hill while taking in a bird’s eye view of Porto.
Need more convincing this is a must-see stop in Europe? Check out the pictures below.