Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and has been voted the Best European Destination for the third time in 2017, and that’s no surprise at all. Under the shadow of Lisbon travellers often skip Porto. However, it offers medieval history & architecture, eclectic culture, traditional gastronomy, modern nightlife, and lots of hidden discoveries. There are certainly a lot of fun things to do in Porto.
It truly is the “Cidade Invicta” (unvanquished city) as it’s called in history. I loved every minute I spent in Porto discovering the many gems hidden in the pretty lanes of this small city, and the best part for me was that the city is still undiscovered, which means fewer tourists creating crowds.
The name Porto comes from the Latin name Portus Cale, which means Port of Cale, and the name Portugal evolved from this. Since this region produced a special wine, they simply named it Port wine instead of coming up with a fancy name – no complications. If their nomenclature connotes the Portuguese way thinking, I love their simplicity.
As a traveller, it’s the effortless blend of rustic simplicity and the modern vibe of Porto that makes is so charming. At times it felt like I was living in a medieval small town while walking through its cobbled streets and the matchbox houses, and in within a few moments, I felt this youthful modern side of this city which is trying to come out of a recent downturn & making its voice heard. I would really encourage you to go beyond the tourist trails in Porto, and try to understand the journey of recovery and impact of tourism on this city to really appreciate it.
For example, one thing I noticed all over the city was street art that comes suddenly out of nowhere on some buildings – on asking a local, I found out that during the financial crisis, a lot of residents of Porto left the city leaving behind their properties and possessions, and over a time the buildings dilapidated. Slowly some street artists started painting on these buildings and when the mayor realized it, he actually commissioned street art projects all over the city to make the dilapidated buildings look colourful and fun.
Porto like any European city has its share of beautiful towers, churches and squares, which are definitely worth visiting, however, what stood out for me in Porto is slightly more than that. Here are some of my top picks of Porto
Going gaga on the tiles
The Azulejo tiles are the first thing I noticed in Porto – they are everywhere – on facades of buildings, on churches, in shops, as paintings, I even saw the patterns on some vehicles. The primary colour is blue, but residential buildings are covered with reds, greens, yellows and many other colours. Sometimes its patterned tiles and sometimes the tiles are actual paintings, and my favourite display of these tiles is at the Sao Bento railway station. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful station in the world.
The interior of the station is adorned with tile paintings that tell the entire history of Portugal. It’s a mesmerizing experience to visit a station that is actually an open art gallery and you can spend hours craning your neck and understanding the scenes on the tiles. I landed up going there twice – once to just visit and a second time to catch a train. and as expected I got so engrossed in the tiles that I almost missed the train!
The Harry Potter bookstore & More
Porto is home to the 19th-century bookshop Lavraria Lello – the oldest bookshop in Portugal and among the 10 top bookstores of the world. J. K. Rowling spent a lot of time in Porto teaching English and this was said to be one of her favourite places. It is said that she got inspired to write the Harry Potter series at this store. A lot of her descriptions seem to be taken from here.
The Gothic and Art Nouveau styles that inspired Hogwarts can be seen all over the store. The grand staircase right in the middle of the store and definitely succeeded in transporting me to Hogwarts. It’s a beautiful shop and a must visit whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not. The Majestic Café is another landmark known for its architecture and heritage and it’s almost mandatory to go and have a coffee there.
The back alleys and viewpoints
Porto’s main streets, which have most of the restaurants, and bars, shops, are few in number since the city is so small. However, to see the local way of living, walk away from these big streets and a different Porto emerges. The real old town of Porto a hilly area around the Duoro river and has extremely narrow lanes with houses on both sides. The fun is getting lost in these alleys, viewing some candid scenes of local life, getting some beautiful photo ops and discovering some great hidden view points.
The city by the river
The walk down the old town leads directly to the riverside. On one side of the river is the old town and on the other side are all the famous Port wine cellars. Just sitting by the riverside and observing the local life there over a glass of wine is an experience in itself. Running across the river is the Dom Luis Bridge, which was built by Gustav Eiffel before the Eiffel Tower.
I took a boat ride to experience the city from the river and got some of the most beautiful views of the city from the boat. The riverside is also dotted with lots of restaurants and bars, but my recommendation would be to avoid them and walk along the river to find more local and affordable places. Do try the local Porto dish called Francesinha which is available almost everywhere.
The Port Wine experience
No trip to Porto can be complete without a (or many!) Port wine experience. It’s possible to go to one of the many famous and old-timey Port Wine cellars across the river, or another way is to go to a Wine Tasting room – I preferred the latter, as it gives the option of tasting a variety of wines across cellars and comparing them. I have to confess, before going to Porto I thought there was one type of Port wine – the red sweet one, and it took me a while to realize that Port wine itself has many variants – red, white, rosé – the whole hog! I loved the experience, however, I still maintain that Port wine is too sweet for me.
Other than these, the nightlife is buzzing and you can see it on streets in the party districts – I suggest you take a nap one of the days in the afternoon to experience it fully. The food scene is really world-class and there are all types of world cuisine available in all sorts of price ranges. There are many parks and squares in the city where I spent hours just sitting and sipping coffee and observing local life. Simply put it’s a perfect city that exemplifies the phrase “big things come in small packages”