The picturesque Ribeira is Porto’s historic centre. During peak season, it’s a mini-festival every day with artisans lining the streets and impromptu live music. This buzzing hive is an ideal spot for having a drink by the river, popping a few fresh olives in your mouth, and soaking in the sun.
Portuenses have this routine down to a T, as Porto is of course recognised internationally as the birthplace of port. Traditionally made from grapes grown in the fertile Douro valley, there are myriad varieties of the fortified wine waiting to be sampled.
For those curious about the wine-making process itself, it is possible to visit the distilleries located on the South bank of the Douro. The tours are scientifically informative and surprisingly captivating; If you are not a port connoisseur already, you will certainly leave with a thirst to find out more. Of course, sampling a few varieties of the product is utterly necessary. Your new knowledge will only improve upon the sensory experience.
As you would expect, the Ribeira neighbourhood also has lively nightlife. But if you do plan on heading out, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bars only start to fill between midnight and 3 am so the clubs become busy from then on.
To the East of the Ribeira looms the Dom Luis I Bridge, constructed in a style remniscient of the Eiffel Tower. The tall, elegant structure links Porto on the Northern bank with the town of Vila Nova de Gaia to the South. It is also an exceptional vantage point for views of Portugal’s second-largest metropolis.
Life moves at a leisurely pace in Porto. Many aspects of city life have remained the same over the past century. Toffee-coloured, vintage tramcars rattle along the streets, clanging at every junction…
In fact, it is worth familiarising yourself with public transport in Porto; tram tickets cost peanuts but you can still feast your eyes on the sights outside as if you were on an expensive tourist bus. Line 1 offers a particularly picturesque trajectory along the coastline.
Plus, in this city, even the train stations are a testament to Portuguese ceramics, with the cavernous vestibule of São Bento railway station depicting the nation’s history in hand-painted tile panels.
Whimsical design is never too far away in Porto. Take the bookstore Lello & Irmao which inspired the shops of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. This is Art Nouveau on another level; with the swirly staircase seeming to defy the logical principles of gravity, you’ll feel as if you’ve plunged into the wizarding world.
You may also find yourself gobsmacked on entering the Church of St Francis. which is absolutely dominated by gilded wooden carvings. They are not just the centrepiece of the decor – they are the decor! The catacombs below are also open to visitors—hunt carefully for the pit of human bones amongst the passages of neatly labelled coffins.
The altogether more minimalist Sé Cathedral is perched further up the hill. From the parapet in front of the Cathedral’s main entrance you can look down on the terracotta roofs of Porto extending out into the distance.
The belfry of Clérigos Church, towering 75m high, also provides an exquisite viewing point, for those who can cope with the 240 steps, that is.
Visitors with a penchant for the Arts—and particularly Romanticism—certainly won’t be forlorn in Porto, home to the Portuguese Centre of Photography and the Romantic Museum. The latter is nestled in the ornate landscaping of the Crystal Palace Gardens. During the day it is a glorious place for a picnic. Or you can explore the garden at night for a serene twilight stroll, when the jasmine flowers release their perfume and the peacocks are heard but seldom seen.
Palácio da Bolsa, another romantic landmark located in the heart of the city, is the former stock exchange converted into a museum. The rather grey and officious exterior may discourage some visitors from paying the small entrance fee. But it would be a shame to miss the lavishly-decorated interior, a highlight being the celestial Arab Room where intricate motifs emblazon every square inch.
Rest assured that sumptuous wining and dining in Porto is compatible with a modest budget without compromising on quality. Thanks to a long coastline, many national dishes are based on seafood: cod (bacalhau), scabbard fish (peixe espada), and octopus (polvo). Locally-run restaurants in the Ribeira district tend to cook fresh fish to perfection with the priciest dish rarely exceeding 17 Euros (and it is possible to eat out for considerably less).
And here a word to the wise about the indomitable francesinha (little Frenchie), a dish that originated in Porto. Comprising bread, ham, sausage, steak, melted cheese, and tomato and beer sauce all served with chips, it is certainly not for the fainthearted. On ordering it, the waiter may give you a look which says “are you sure this is your final decision?”
In Porto you get a sense that the locals are, generally speaking, a happy bunch with an easy sense of humour. This comes across in their willingness to assist and engage with foreigners, although English only tends to be spoken by those who work within the tourism industry.
You can sample this friendly hospitality and openness as I did in Gallery Hostel. Here, the smiley staff members are proud to accommodate you. Kitted out with unexpected perks such as a guitar room and terrace garden, this former townhouse is beautifully decorated – full of thoughtful touches – and spotlessly clean. Solar panels on the modern extension serve as an example for other hostels to follow.
For Porto is a city of transiency and tradition. Perfectly cut-out for leading ‘the good life’, it is nigh-impossible to leave without the conviction that you will return some day.
Direct flights to Porto leave frequently from London and transfer from Porto airport to city centre could not be easier.