Porto (Oporto) as a city, effectively challenges the age old theory that first impressions are everything. It’s hard to look beyond how neglected the city first appears. Hopeless and derelict buildings, and crumbling sidewalks, portray a weary and unsophisticated city. However, there is something very charming and beautiful about this neglect. Those who visit Porto with the willingness to look beyond its somewhat drab first appearances will be rewarded with a memorable experience of an enchanting, traditional and beautifully chaotic place, which is, after all, known to be “the invincible city”…
Here are 10 things to admire during your visit to Porto:
- The thousands of ornate Azulejo tiles & mosaics which embrace this city and add a much-needed element of color and vibrancy to the deteriorating buildings, walls… and floors! Take some time to notice the incredible patterns and artwork. Don’t forget to look down also – Portugal is known for its beautifully tiled pavements too!
- To say that the Mercado do Bolhão is simply an indoor market would do it injustice. This is an eclectic mix of little independent indoor stalls spread out over 2 levels and selling everything from fresh flowers to fruit, vegetables, mops or shoes. Watching the vendors is just as intriguing as seeing what’s for sale.
- Igreja dos Clérigos is a 76 meter high tower which can be spotted from most points in Porto, and the trek up its 225 steps to the 6th floor will offer a very gratifying view over the red-tiled roofs, which are piled together clumsily, and hugged by the Douro River. Small tip: your entrance ticket will come at a discount if you combine it with other museums – check into the local tourist office for more information!
- Food (of course). Having lived in a landlocked country (Switzerland) for four years, the choices of fresh seafood in Porto were enough to make my heart skip a little beat. Traditional dishes include tripe, for those who can stomach it (no pun intended) and bacalhau (salted cod fish) cooked in many different ways. The francesinha (little frenchie) sandwich is a Porto native drowning in a secret sauce, and locals will tell you that it’s not available anywhere else in the world, making this an inadvertent obligation to test out! Wrap up your Portuguese foodie experience with a stop into one of the many Pastelarias (pastry shops) and Pão Quentes (bakeries) for something sweet. Make sure to stop into Café Majestic for an espresso while you marvel at the interior.
- Vinho do Porto (Port Wine) is a dry and somewhat sweet, fortified wine which is traditionally enjoyed as a dessert wine, often accompanying a cheese plate, but also seen alongside chocolate or with a fine cigar. As a native to Porto and an important element of Portugal’s economy, a visit to the Port Wine distilleries (mostly located in Ribeira de Gaia, with a wonderful view of the Cais da Ribeira) is well-worth it, and often free.
- Dip your toes in the sand and relax on one of the many beaches in and shortly outside of the city. There is no shortage of options!
- Most boat tours will leave from the Cais da Ribeira which is the promenade area of Porto, lined with cafes, restaurants and spectacular people-watching opportunities. A stroll at dusk offers beautiful views of the waterfront area and the soon-to-be-alight bridges and distilleries which reflect their lights onto the river at night.
- Taking a boat tour is the best way to see all six of the bridges which grace the Douro. The Dom Luis Bridge is a true icon of the city and also my personal favorite as it affords spectacular views of both promenades from either of its two levels.
- Porto is becoming increasingly known and respected for its contemporary and minimalist architecture. The Vodafone offices in Porto and the Casa de Musica (worth a concert, and not just a guided tour) are just two famous examples. Meander down the ancient streets and admire how well contemporary and minimalist architecture exists alongside the ancient Gothic cathedrals, neoclassical masterpieces and Art Nouveau facades. When you’re walking past Igreja de São Francisco however, don’t pass it off as just another Gothic church. The true architectural gem lies in its ornate gold interior.
- Last but not least, for a true taste of Portuguese revelry, pack your inflatable plastic hammer (yes, really) and head to the annual Festa de São João do Porto (Festival of St. John the Baptist) taking place every year on the 23rd and 24th of June. Perhaps the most famous festival in Porto, it currently remains relatively unknown to tourists, and is truly a spectacle to be seen!