It was quite a surprise to be in Porto, I’ll tell you that for free. I was supposed to have left for home a few days earlier so when our ship docked at the port of Leixões, I made my way as early as possible to the closest tram station to enjoy a grand day out in a city I knew hardly anything about. When I say I knew hardly anything I mean: basically NOTHING AT ALL. I didn’t even know how to buy a tram ticket to be honest, so spent a good five minutes holding up the queue fumbling with all my change and trying to work out which ticket I needed (not even knowing the direction the city is in is, let’s face it, a poor start). But you guys, I only went and bloody made it there didn’t I!? And what a beautiful city it is, too. Located in Northern Portugal, Porto is Lisbon’s sleepier sister, still filled with nooks and crannies but with a slightly less urban feel. Despite my prior lack of knowledge about this beautiful city, I’m proud to say that with limited time I still managed to learn some stories and get a taste of what awesomeness Portugal’s second city has to offer.
Wander the oldest streets of the city
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best way to experience any place is by walking. (The only exceptions being I would say motorways and war zones) The two oldest districts of the city are medieval hotchpotches of gloriousness: Ribeira, the more commonly visited, and Sé, near the cathedral. The narrow alleys run up and down the steep hillsides like the patterns of a spiders web, crisscrossing over each other, some of them winding round and round for what feels like forever, others coming all of a sudden to a dead end and forcing you to do a swift u-turn. The streets are far too narrow for cars, which means that not so far from the bustling bigger roads of the city centre I got the feeling that I’d suddenly been transported back in time, navigating the cobblestones while in the distance all I could hear was a dog barking, a caged bird singing or some boys playing. Or- in the case of the houses in the photo below- two women having a full on blazing row in a back room. I never caught a glimpse of them but they were properly raging that’s for sure.
Appreciate the Azulejos
Oooh good word that- Azulejos! These are the tiles that cover many of the buildings in Porto (and in fact, across Portugal; they’re pretty famous), and they were brought here by the Moors hundreds of years ago; the word Azulejo derives from the Arabic word ‘az-zulayj’ which means polished stone. The most mind-blowing example of these that I saw was the outside of the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso- an 18th century church on top of a hill which is just full on STUNNING. There are around 11,000 tiles covering the exterior, and when you think about it it’s probs far more practical to have a building covered in tiles that you can just give a quick wipe-down, as opposed to something that’ll need a gigantic re-painting job every once in a while. Nice work, Moors.
I didn’t make it to São Bento station, but it has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful train stations in the world due to the tiles covering the inside and showing the history of Porto in beautifully painted images; painted by the same chap who did these lovely tiles on the church! Good one, fine sir! Very good job indeed!
Sample some real live port wine
In my ignorance I hadn’t realised that port wine (naturally) comes from Porto, but a lad at the Sé Cathedral kindly informed me that obviously that is what the city is famous for. Duh. From outside the cathedral you can get an awesome view of the Douro River and the Rabero boats breezing lazily along it…these are very cool looking flat-bottomed wooden boats which don’t exist anywhere else in the world, as they were designed solely to transport barrels of port wine from the Duoro vineyards upriver to the cellars along the riverbanks in the city. Nowadays the boats are also used for giving tourists a cheeky cruise through the city, but there are also many a world-renowned wine cellar in the vicinity, lots of whom will let you sample that sweet sweet port for free.
Visit the Sé Cathedral
This is one of the city’s oldest buildings and is pretty darn magnificent as cathedrals go. It sits in front of a square filled with buskers and tourists galore and overlooking the rest of Porto, right down to the river and beyond. So, even for just the view and people-watching opportunities it’s worth a trip.
Eat some chocolate
I managed to stumble across some of the nicest chocolate I think I have ever tasted at the Chocolataria das Flores, a cosy little chocolate shop and very tiny cafe in the city centre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that good-quality chocolate can be found across the world in many a place if you look hard enough, but I feel like as Portugal brought the humble cocoa bean back from South America when they were first sending explorers out in the 1600s, they really know what they’re doing with this stuff. Chocolataria Ecuador is another highly respected shop in the city- I walked past and it looks da bomb. Although at that point I had no more room due to my Flores escapade, shame.
Have a browse in The Most Beautiful Bookshop in The World
I noticed the sizeable queue forming outside the front door of Livraria Lello and decided due to the intriguing design that it was probably a place worth visiting. Founded in the late 1800s, this place looks like something out of a storybook itself- and in fact, J.K. Rowling is said to have got inspiration for the interior of the Hogwarts library from this place (she taught English in Porto back in the day so used to pop in here for a browse herself). I definitely thought a broom stick whizzed past my face at one point, but it turned out to actually be a selfie stick. That is the one downside. Probably due largely to it’s Harry Potter connection, the bookshop now charges entry (€3), and the amount of people that were there merely for the selfie opportunities and not the books was mildly awkward, though if it’s any consolation with your €3 ticket you also get given a voucher for €3 off of anything you buy.
- I arrived by boat at the brand spanking new building near Matosinhos(that’s the closest metro stop, anyway); from there it takes around 25 minutes by Metro to reach the centre of Porto.
- Meaning…it’s also very easy to get to the beach from the city!
- This possibly goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. Portuguese is not the same language as Spanish. Chances are if you speak some Spanish you’ll still not really get the gist of what the Porto folks are saying.
- The streets can be cobbled and steep so bear this in mind when choosing your footwear, folks. I saw some casualties on my strolls from women in slightly-too-high heels.
- I went in August when it was warm and sunny…but also rained. It happens. Be prepared.