People say it’s Lisbon, minus the crowd.
We spent many hours climbing up and down the meandering streets, which are carved into the hills of Porto. It is a great way to burn off the calories from the delicious food and many beers and wines we’ve been enjoying during our stay. Our stay in Porto has been punctuated, a little too often, by drizzling rain and cool cloudy days. But that does not stop intrepid travellers – we bought an umbrella, zipped up our jackets and explored the cobblestone streets of Porto.
Here is a fun fact – the people of Porto are known as “tripeiros” (tripe eaters) a nickname that survives to this day. It came about because the high-quality meats were shipped out from Porto, leaving only the lower-grade cuts and tripe, for the local people.
If there is one word to describe Porto, it would be stunning. Porto sits at the mouth of the river Douro, and the city itself crawls up the steep banks. Our first views of Porto, from the Palacio de Cristal viewpoint, took our breath away. The gardens of the Palacio de Cristal make for the perfect stroll, even though it is a cool afternoon and threatening with rain.
The gardens, at one end, offer beautiful views of the city from lookout points. We walked the loop and had our first great view of the Gaia and the river. Vistas of the city up and down the Douro are stunning. But the real Porto opens up to you just walking around. Our aimless wandering led us to the waterfront.
The Douro underlines Porto along the right bank with Gaia on the left bank. Both sides slope down towards the river. It is the rambling old town which forms the heart of the city, with buildings adorned with tiles, and its streets sloping and cobbled. It is these cobbled streets which cling to the hillside that work us hard in our walking. Some of the streets and stairs are made for mountain goats – walking Porto is not for the faint of heart. Getting around can be slow because of all the hills, however, we quite enjoyed the slow pace.
It’s not hard to find a great viewpoint of the terracotta rooftops, the colourful mish-mash of houses that line the sparkling Rio Douro with its magnificent bridge structures and beautiful old architecture.
Essentially, Porto is small enough to do on foot, and you can walk across the Ponte Dom Luis 1 to get various different angles of the city.
Porto has six colossal bridges spanning the Rio Douro, with the photo-famous Ponte Dom Luis 1 dominating every post card and traveller’s photo album. The Ponte Dom Luis 1 bridge is the main feature of one of the most photographed views in Porto, possibly even in Portugal. It is a functioning double-decker metal arch that connects the Porto and Gaia. The views both of the bridge and from the bridge are utterly breathtaking. If you have a good head for heights, then a walk across the bridge is a must-do for any Porto sightseeing itinerary.
Walking into the São Bento station, I was really not prepared for one of the most visually amazing station entrance halls I have ever seen. The walls are covered in azulejo tiles, which are found inside and outside of all types of buildings, representing major historical and cultural aspects of Portuguese history. Azulejo tiles are the Arabic-influenced blue and white decorative ceramic tiles characteristic of Porto and the Iberian peninsula in general.
The Clerigos Tower is part of the Clerigos Church, a Baroque church. It was built for the Brotherhood of the Clergy. We climbed the really narrow corridor of the 75m high tower and enjoyed some of the wonderful views over Porto and its surroundings.
It was during the 18th century, following trade and export with Britain, that Porto established itself as the port wine capital of the world. Many of the port producers from this time still survive in some form today. All of the port wine lodges can be found around the same area, on the left bank of the Douro and are easily accessible by walking over the bridge. The famous port wine lodges are lined up along the riverfront. Our visit to the Ferriera port wine lodge (oldest established lodge still owned by the original family) was an essential part of our visit to Porto. Mind you, any one of the wine houses would be good! We got a deeper appreciation of how the history and culture of the entire area is inextricably linked to the port wine industry.
From the Gaia, we took the gondola up to the top of the hill – got to be one of the most expensive modes of transport on this earth at 1 euro a minute. But, from the gondola, we had final spectacular views of the best sights from our time in Porto. It finishes at the top of the Dom Luis 1 bridge.
The graceful twin-towered baroque church of Igreja de Santo Idlefonso stands out proudly at the top of a hill. Its eye-catching facade is covered in the iconic blue and white azulejo tiles depicting scenes from the life of St Ildefonsus .The stunning tile panels gleam in the bright sunlight. Inside the church, is beautiful baroque that is well worth exploring.
We enjoyed the Ribeira, not just for what it offered in terms of views and atmosphere, but the fact that it was flat walking! Away from the river, the small winding streets all lead towards the water. Along the riverfront, there are brightly painted houses that serve as a backdrop for the bars and restaurants.
It’s here that we found a great little restaurant, O Muro. The restaurant overlooks the Douro with a vista to Dom Lius 1 bridge and down the river as well as across to Gaia and the wine houses. It was the perfect place to sit and watch the rabelo boats plying their trade as tour boats.
Here’s something that we are particularly pleased to share: Matosinhos. This was a recommendation given to us by our accommodation host, Tomas, and the waiter at O Muro. Matosinhos is a few short kilometres from the centre of Porto and is where, we are reliably told, that Porto’s residents come to source the city’s fish and seafood almost straight off the boats. Fresh and reasonably priced seafood abounds in Portugal. If you are in Porto, love seafood and don’t mind going out of the way for an authentic, low-key dining experience, go to the harbour district of Matosinhos.
We took the bus and after hopping off the bus, we followed the smell of barbecue smoke to Rua Heróis de França where you will find a row of restaurants, each with its own outdoor grill on the street. The amount of restaurants will make your head spin. Every restaurant is apparently good and you can’t go wrong here. Just don’t go on a Monday as the fishermen don’t work on Sunday which means that the available seafood on a Monday would not be as fresh as on other days. At Dom Piexe, we had half a turbot, sardines with a huge serving of vegetables and potatoes as well as grilled squid, all that, together with 2 half bottles of vinho verde, for less than 40 Euro. Sardines in Portugal are great and different from what you would get in Australia. The ones caught off Portugal are fatter and more succulent. Portuguese sardines were on every menu across Portugal.
A Porto favourite, and a dish that can only be found in this city, is the franceshina…a sandwich of 3 meat types (ham, sausage and steak) topped with cheese and swims in a spicy beer/tomato/garlic based sauce. Finish that off with a portugese tart….fantastic!
After dinner on one night, our return walk took us from the Riberia, across the bridge to see the city at night, then return via the Placa de Liberdade for an evening night cap and a long return walk home to our apartment, near the Palacio Cristal. We felt safe throughout our walk. As we walked, we were amazed at how nice this city was at night, the tiles on the houses taking on a new dimension with the yellow street light glow and the old houses looking more elegant and mysterious in the shadows, hiding many of the imperfections that we saw during the day.
As you walk through Porto, you see areas crammed with photogenic alleyways, cobblestone streets and pretty balconies filled with flower pots, yet juxtaposed against this are houses that look ramshackle, unkempt and have laundry hanging outside their windows.
Everywhere you turn; there are colourful buildings with their tiled facades, dating back to a time Australia was only just being established.
There is something to see at every corner and up every laneway. We enjoyed our time in Porto, even though it was somewhat dreary in terms of weather.