A sip of this lusciously sweet wine gives me memories of this rustic port city this wine is named after. Also, the azulejos, these distinctly patterned blue-and-white porcelain tiles adorned in most buildings, the enchantingly winding Duoro river with dotted ships, the sumptuous Portuguese cuisine marked with their love for bacalhau, tripes, pastries, port wines, Madeira – all these remind me of Porto.
Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal located along the Duoro River in the north of the country. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, and a mercantile one as it has always been, Porto as a city offers a various architectural mix of medieval and modern living side by side.
The town center showcases soaring bell towers, monumental baroque churches, and stately Art Nouveau buildings. Many of its colorful buildings are built into a cliff face overlooking the river, with narrow lanes and zigzagged staircases running up and down along the cliff. Across the river, the attractive cellars and warehouses of port wine companies are located in this suburb of Gaia.
Porto is also believed as the best place to go to eat. It has some of its finest restaurants in Portugal and their cuisines are generous and divine.
The historical center of Porto was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
Porto Up Close
A short vacation or long weekend in Porto does offer the right combination of enjoyable things. Its gastronomy is a mirror of its cultural diversity and passion for good food. The port-wine stands out from other wines thanks to its huge range of variety. There’s also the eclectic hodgepodge of architectural styles – from the Neoclassical to Art Nouveau. And of course, the comfortable Iberian weather anyone will surely enjoy.
There are so many nice things to see, from the beautiful churches, iconic buildings, and rustic houses, nevertheless, here are some highlights I recommend not to miss.
Sao Bento Railway Station
The best way to start exploring this historic city such as Porto is by simply walking through its streets. Centrally located in the city and standing proudly at the crossroad is the Sao Bento railway station, where you can feast on a century-old traditional azulejos or Portuguese tiles.
Dating back to the 16th century, the train station was built on an old Benedictine monastery, which was originally burnt down in 1783 and its replacement found itself in a serious state of disrepair at the end of the 1900s.
With the ongoing expansion of the railways, it was decided to turn the site into the new home of Porto’s mainline station. With King Carlos I supporting the project, Porto’s architect Jose Marques da Silva was designated to design the building in French Beaux-Arts style. The Sao Bento train station was finally inaugurated in 1916.
Between 1915 and 1916, the most renowned tile painter in Porto, Jorge Colaco is commissioned to put up these 20,000 azulejos. These blue and white tile panels depict scenes from Porto everyday life and history, from King Joao I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster standing by the cathedral in 1387 and Prince Henry the Navigator conquering Ceuta in Morocco, to a representation of the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez and the meeting of the Knight Egas Moniz and Alfonso VII of Leon in the 12th century.
Get ready to be mesmerized on one of the magnificent book shops one can ever imagine. Built in 1906, the Lello bookstore was built by the Lello brothers, Antonio and Jose, who also formerly owned another bookstore a few streets away.
Livraria Lello is considerably one of the most ornate bookstores in the world. Much of the interiors and its façade are decorated mix of Neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau.
Carved wood ceilings, an opulent red staircase, a stain-glassed roof, a built-in wheelbarrow on rails used to move hundred thousands of books around – all these will make you feel like coming into a fantasy world. Bookworms won’t go elsewhere any longer!
You may somehow think that the interiors, along with the inviting presence of books, remind you of the movie Harry Potter. Interestingly, JK Rowling, the famous author of the Harry Potter series, taught English in the university in Porto and is reported to have gotten inspired writing her book while frequently visiting Livraria Lello.
Alongside that, a few blocks away from the bookstore is the University of Porto where you find students donning their traditional uniforms.
A classy getup of black pants or skirts paired with long, knee-length black capes draped around their shoulders – does it now look very familiar to you at all?
If you fancy having coffee in one of the greatest historic cafes in the world, visit the Majestic Café. It was built in 1921 along Rua Santa Catarina, one of the busiest streets in the city center.
The café was originally a place where the city’s most elites meet – politicians, artists, writers. Recently, prominent personalities like JK Rowling and Kubitshek (Brazil’s former president) used to visit the coffee shop frequently.
Its Art Nouveau façade is an inviting sight indeed, but since it has been brought as a spot of public interest, its status as a sought-after tourist attraction can make the café a bit too packed and busy, and its food a bit pricey.
If you get lucky when the café is more relaxed, the Majestic Café can give you an incredible old-feel ambiance you can surely enjoy.
Bolhao Food Market
Mercado do Bolhao is known as a colorful and lively market in Porto that sells basically everything, from household goods to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Located in the city center, along the street of Rua Sa da Bandeira, the food market is a two-level covered establishment where you’ll be warmly greeted by flamboyant sellers, along with their huge variety of goods, which that makes this market popular in Porto.
Torre dos Clérigos
Built in the beautiful Baroque style between 1754 and 1763, the Clerics Tower or Torre dos Clerigos provides the perfect centerpiece in the historical city of Porto.
The tower is very visible, as it is high above the rooftops from many vantage points throughout the city. At 76 meters in height, the ships coming into the Duoro waters on trading routes between Portugal and the rest of the world used this tower as a guide.
Cais da Ribeira
Located on the waterfront and in the center of Porto, Cais da Ribeira is the most picturesque part that offers a myriad of medieval narrow streets and alleyways, with ancient buildings in some stage of decay, old homes of multiple hues guarding over the waterfront and the harbor filled with typical Porto boats.
Around the corner on Rua da Alfandega is Casa de Infante or House of the Prince, the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator. Not so far away, you will see Dom Luis I bridge, a double-decked metal arch bridge spanning between the Duoro River between the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The bridge was completed in 1886 by a student of Gustave Eiffel.
The Cais da Ribeira comes alive as the sun sets, when numerous cafés, bars, and restaurants bring up the nightlife in the area. Here you can start enjoying local cuisine to get a taste of Porto.
Porto Wines & Cuisines
Porto is one of the best destinations to enjoy Portuguese traditional cuisine. In Porto, not only I enjoyed seafood and fish specialties, but the Porto locals and I have developed the same liking for tripe stew – as such that they’ve become known as “tripe eaters.” It’s called tripas, an iconic local cuisine in Porto, and there are all sorts of versions!
In the Philippines we have this we call callos, a Spanish-influenced stew with tripe, sausages, and chickpeas. I missed it terribly that I ordered that right away as soon as we got a dining table. Call me a full-fledged tripe eater as well.
I also came to enjoy bacalhau, another Porto specialty that consists basically of dried salted codfish, cooked in centuries-old traditional recipes.
The Port wine is the most prestigious local produce of Porto, and we had a good time coming up close and personal with it, by visiting the cellars of well-known Port wine producers. The Port wine is basically a fortified wine usually served as a dessert. It comes both in reds and whites, but the reds are commonly referred to as the typical Port wines.
Other Porto dishes to be enjoyed of course are francesinhas, sardinhas, caldeirada de peixe, ameijoas à Bulhão Pato, lampreia, porco preto, caldo verde, egg tart…then sip with equally refine Portuguese wines!
Would you like to visit Porto someday?
Have you visited Porto before? How did you find it?