Despite being the second largest city, Porto is perhaps not what springs first to mind when you say Portugal. It is however a gem, ripe for exploring. With a distinctive mediterranean feel, this, the home of Port wine, majestically occupies both banks of the Duoro river and is striking, yet not too smooth.
Porto is a working city and this shows in daily life. There is a Portuguese saying that in Braga they pray (a city north of Porto with a church on practically every corner), in Porto they work, in Coimbra they study (it is home to a famous university) and in Lisbon they play. This rhymes in Portuguese, which would of course roll off the tongue better – if you speak the language that is!
Seeing Porto can be done on foot in a couple of days without rushing - if you’re happy doing just the highlights. Saying that, public transport is easy and worth using if you can feel those pesky blisters coming on! You certainly don’t need a car – that is more likely to hinder you than anything else.
For an authentic market experience, visit Mercado do Bolhão, run almost entirely by women who have clearly held court there for decades. They sell bread, fruit, meat, fish, flowers and and assortment of bits and pieces and souvenirs. It has a somewhat run down, dusty atmosphere, yet the colours and smells are vibrant and the whole experience feels genuine rather than touristy.
From there you can take a stroll down Rua Santa Catarina, the main shopping drag, refreshingly free of the usual chain store suspects. I saw Zara, C&A and H&M but apart from that none of the biggies. Halfway down, take a pit stop at the Majestic Café which really is quite regal, complete avec pianist, golden décor and a touch of Vienna high society.
Cutting across a few blocks from there you can find the Lello & Irmão bookstore, a perfect little Harry Potter pod. Walk through their doors and it’s hello Hogwarts, goodbye real world.
Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the bookstore – alledgedly due to a snap happy tourist getting carried away, hurling themselves down the spectacular swirly staircase in the process. You can however take a sneaky peek with this video, courtesy of Britoca.
Meandering down towards the river Duoro through the zig zaggy narrow streets of the Old Town is a bit like navigating a dilapidated film set. Sadly many of the buildings are in desperate disrepair and I wouldn't like to imagine what the apartments are like inside. Maybe residents have made the most of it, but serious renovation is needed.
Bursting out from the labyrinth of narrow streets into the sunlight of Quay de Ribeira on the Duoro riverfront you get a spectacular view of the Ponte D. Luís I, designed by Gustave Eiffel. You get one guess what tower he is most famous for.
The Cais da Ribeira feels like the natural naval of Porto and I spent a couple of hours here on a sunny Friday afternoon, just chilling and watching the city wind down for the weekend. Apart from the occasional waft of sewage, it was very pleasant and scores of local boys provided a constant source entertainment by diving from the bridge into river.
A good way to see the city from another perspective is to take a sunset cruise on the Duoro. This will set you back around 10 Euros for a 50 minute round trip and a lovely way to chill out and get your appetite up after walking around all day.
I haven’t touched on food in this post, as that is a whole other chapter in itself. All I can say is, try to have lunch between 12 and 2pm to avoid getting stuck with a dry sandwich or some unidentified deep fried concoction! If you want to know more about food in Portugal, check out this post by the lovely Jai from Savoirthere.
Accommodation and transport can be done relatively cheaply, whether you decide to go for a hostel, a hotel or maybe booking an apartment from a local through a letting broker, like Housetrip. The weather is warm from April until October at least, but in winter there is a fair bit of rain.
For more information go to VisitPortugal's site.