Porto has the enduring charm of medieval cities that grew from their river. Today its Ribeira (literally riverbank”) waterfront is a picturesque promenade that welcomes throngs of visitors who, after a day of scaling the steep cobble streets of the city on a treasure hunt for its elaborately gilded churches and public buildings clad in blue ceramic Azulejos, enjoy relaxing at one of the many café terraces. Here they can sip a leisurely glass of Port, while gazing at the far bank of the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia), where the word-famous nectar still ages. On the river, the traditional rabelos, the flat bottom boats that once ferried the wine from the vineyards some 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream now offer popular tours under the six soaring bridges of the city while seagulls glide overhead on the Atlantic breeze.
But step through one of the ancient arches that line this postcard-perfect riverfront, and you find the soul of Ribeira waiting for you up the winding streets. An unruly jumble of skinny houses clings like barnacles to the precipitous hills, their aged facades speaking of many generations of hard-working residents. The little wrought iron balconies are draped with fluttering laundry and flags that proudly announce support for the national football team (or soccer if you are in North America). Narrow storefronts display the stuff of everyday life, and the tantalizing scent of grilling sardines leads you to tiny family-run restaurants where you can feast on simple traditional fare, warm welcome included.
A Tale of Two Markets
Yet there are signs of evolution. A couple of blocks up from the waterfront, the renovated steel-and-glass structure of the Mercado Ferriera Borges, a grand Art Nouveau covered market built in 1885, was recently reborn as the Hard Club. Today, it houses art exhibit and concert spaces, a bookstore, a restaurant and bars. Events staged here can vary from photo exhibits to crafts fairs to indie rock concerts.
In stark contrast, a 20-minute walk away, little seems to have changed at the two-story Mercado do Bolhao since it opened in 1914. Dedicated mainly to fresh products, it is divided in specialized sections: fruit and vegetable, flowers, meat, fish (you can still hear fishwives hawking their catch), cheeses and deli products. In recent years, the inevitable souvenir shops have claimed a section as well. On the ground floor, there is also a sprinkle of stalls where you can eat fish so fresh it probably was still swimming in the Atlantic yesterday, and sample local cheeses and wines. Less than ten euros will get you lunch and a total immersion experience of the real Porto.
Art Nouveau Institutions
From “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” to “an Art Nouveau masterpiece,” guidebooks rival in hyperboles to point you to Livraria Lello, a Porto landmark since the turn of the 19th century. Behind the Neo-Gothic façade, a curvaceous two-story staircase with ornate woodcarvings that match the intricate columns and wall panels dominate the illustrious literary emporium. Rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling in her depictions of Hogwarts, the shop has become a pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans from all over the world. Crowds are such that Lello now charges a €5.5 entrance fee (to be credited toward your potential purchase) and urges on its website to purchase tickets ahead for a specified day and time to avoid the long lines. What of the books? They are still there, some 60,000 volumes in Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, stacked high toward the stain glass ceiling. But they seem an afterthought to the visitors who jostle for selfie opportunities on the famous staircase.
For a more laidback shopping experience through a general store of a bygone era, step right around the corner to A Vida Portuguesa (Portuguese Life) on the second floor of the venerable Fernandes Mattos (circa 1866) store. Once dedicated to fabrics and sewing supplies, Fernandes Mattos morphed over time into a funky gift shop where you can browse through all manners of funky stuff from cotton handbags to fun kitchen gadget, as you head toward the elegant staircase with its back wall covered with A Vida Portuguesa’s trademark ceramic sparrows. On the light-filled second floor, displayed on original 19th century store fittings, you will find every imaginable type of traditional Portuguese products from notebooks, pencils and cans of sardines in their retro-style packaging to lettuce ware china. And from the balcony you can enjoy a unique close-up view of Porto’s iconic Clerigos Tower.
The Gardens of the Crystal Palace
Regrettably, all that remains of the 19th century Palacio de Cristal is the name, the original glass and steel structure having been replaced in the 1950’s by a huge UFO-like domed sports arena. However, the eight-hectare (20 acre) park landscaped to complement the original building has fared much better. Today, it is a mosaic of luxuriant terraced gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures that reveal themselves along with stunning views of the city and the Douro, as you wander down toward the river. Under a canopy of giant magnolias and cypress trees, the sun-dappled lawns are favorite picnic spots for local families, and students of the nearby university neighborhood of Massarelos.
It’s impossible to speak of Porto’s daily life without mentioning the Franscesinha. When this Little Frenchie got its name vary from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, depending on whom you ask. But its origin is usually attributed to some returned immigrant from France who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. One thing is certain, there is nothing little about this cholesterol bomb of a sandwich that has by now found its way onto the menu of every eatery in town, from humble diners to posh epicurean venues. Order this Portuense right of passage and in between two thick slabs of white bread, you get generous slices of steak, ham and two different kinds of sausage in a shroud of melted cheese, on a bed of thick, spicy tomato and beer sauce. For good measure it is traditionally topped with a fried egg, (although some trendier establishments will replace it with a drizzle of Port Wine) and a mound of French fried on the side. Bom Apetite!
Good to Know
- Getting there –The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10 miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
- Getting around – The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the touristic center of Porto is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
- Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Hard Club ( previously Mercado Ferriera Borges), l Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, is open daily except Monday, from 11:00 am to midnight. Mercado do Bolhao, Rua Formosa, 4000-214 Porto, is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Saturday from 7:00 am through 1:00 pm. Closed on Sunday. Livraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, is open daily from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel.+351 22 200 2037. A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday and holidays from 11:00 am to 7 pm. Contact: Tel. +351 222 022. Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, Rua de Entre-Quintas 20, 4050-240 Porto, is open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm