If you walk around Porto long enough, you will see beautiful houses covered in colorful glazed tiles, next to dilapidated uninhabited houses on the brink of falling apart, next to empty plots of land where houses once stood, as suggested by the ruins and debris on the ground, next to gated houses with beautiful gardens, next to facades covered with scaffolding that no worker has climbed for a long time. Porto is like that – full of surprises. It is gritty, messy, sometimes smelly, but at the same time, charming, different and beautiful. This city does not care what you think of it but lives its authentic life, for which you can love it – or leave it.
We walked a lot while in Porto. The city has an underground transport system, but we decided not to use it and instead huffed and puffed for two days while climbing up and down streets, alleyways and staircases. Although at times painful, this was the best decision we could have made, since it allowed us to see different faces of the city, get lost in hidden alleys and be awarded for our strenuous activities with amazing miradores (viewing points), where we rested our tired feet, caught our breath and enjoyed beautiful views.
Banks of the river Douro are the most relaxed part of an already relaxed city. Framed by the imposing Ponte Luis I used by pedestrians, cars and even trains to cross into Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other side of the river, this area is full of tourists, locals, souvenir vendors and street musicians. Many people were sitting on the ground next to the river with cold drinks, enjoying the throng, the weather and the beautiful view of the busy Douro, full of traditional dark boats carrying barrels of Porto wine, river taxis and touristic boats gliding on the glistening river surface.
Of course, there is no Porto without colorful tiles that cover doorsteps, facades, churches and interiors of public buildings such as Capela das Almas, Igreja de Santo Ildefonso or the famous São Bento train station. One of the most beautiful train stations in the world was completed in 1903 and its interior is covered in some 20 000 blue and white tiles depicting historic battles and history of transport. In San Bento, this art serves as a background for the loud, busy life of the station and as such appears much more exciting and lively then when seen in museums or palaces.
The symbol of Porto is Torre dos Clerigos, a tower located on the highest point of the city. 75 meters tall, it once provided telegraph and clock services to city residents, while today it serves as a touristic sight and the third most visited monument in Portugal. We didn’t climb the 250 steps of the tower, but the views from the top are said to be fantastic.
I almost passed on visiting Livraria Lello, the famous Porto bookstore. However, my sister, impressed by the information that this bookstore inspired JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, persuaded me to visit it, which I am glad I did. The bookstore was overcrowded; full of people hitting us with tablets and cameras, hardly allowing us to move through its two floors, but its interior really is something quite special, with wonderful wooden architectural and design elements, dramatic staircase and lovely stained glass ceiling. Despite the crowds, the atmosphere is historic, elegant and mysterious in a way, as if the bookshelves hide books of magic, wizardry and forgotten ancient knowledge.
At lunchtime, our tired feet brought us to Grupo desportivo Infante D. Henrique, located on a narrow riverside promenade full of cafes and eating joints. And as it often happens, this place that we stumbled upon by chance awarded us with one of the best experiences of the trip. It was like Portugal in small: simple, modest, unobtrusive at first, but the food was great, portions exceptionally big and in the cacophonic sounds of loud local guests and Amalia Rodriguez’s fado playing from the radio we could hear (and feel) joy, sadness, friendship and enjoyment in the simple things that were fascinating and so authentic. Just like Portugal itself, what at first seemed a modest and simple place turned into a full, encompassing, heartwarming experience. Looking out onto the sunny path and beautiful Douro, enjoying lovely food and good wine, this for me was one of the best experiences of authentic Portuguese life during the trip.
A few tips:
- I can’t stress it enough, walking is the best and most rewarding way of exploring Porto – forget about buses and the metro – just walk around and absorb the cool life of the city
- At the time of our visit, ticket for Livraria Lello was 4€, and if you purchased a book during your visit, its price was reduced for that of the ticket. There are many interesting books about Portugal in the bookstore, as well as lovely little books of Portuguese poets and writers which can serve as a beautiful, lasting souvenir
- Portugal is famous for its cork production so souvenirs made of cork are very common – we fell in love with key chains with stylized cork sardines (another iconic product or Portugal) and I am pretty sure that we bought every single one they were selling in Porto 🙂
- My final tip is the most valuable one: during our visit to Porto, we were staying in the cutest little bed & breakfast, Lindo Vale Guest House , run by kind, smiling people ready to help you with everything – parking, sightseeing, entering your room when you managed to lock yourself out of it. The guesthouse is located some 15-20 minute on foot (downhill) from the center and the first thing we did upon arrival was to sit down in their office, hear about why Porto is the best and receive a city map and lists of monuments and sights. We slept in a spacious two-bedroom, youthfully decorated suite on the ground floor, full of adorable details that made us feel like home. I also have to commend the breakfast which was always delicious and adorably served and presented, confusing us about whether we should eat it or just stare at it in awe.