Porto, Oporto, whatever you want to call it. The city is a hub of culture, a meeting place for everyone that likes history, beauty, art, sun or just for those that like having fun. This is the Beginner’s Guide to the “Noble and always Invictus” city of Porto. One of the oldest cities in Europe, it recreated itself during the last decade after the Porto Capital of Culture 2001, when the city’s identity clearly understood its passion for arts and music.
But Porto isn’t just Porto, its metropolitan area comprehendes 17 cities well connected by metro and bus. However, as most visitors, you’ll start your journey in the train station that will give you a first great feeling. São Bento railway station is one of the most beautiful in the world, not only for its monumental architecture, but mainly for the amazing entrance where you’ll find the walls covered in tiles picturing important events throughout the history of the northern region of Portugal.
Leaving the station you’ll find yourself in the heart of the city, right next to Avenida dos Aliados, a long open square surrounded by beautiful 18th century buildings and, on the top, the imposing city hall. Be ready to go up the hills, cause that’s how Porto is, whether on your left or right side, everything seems to be really up! And when facing the city hall you can go up to your right where you’ll end up reaching Rua de Santa Catarina, the main shopping venue with all the usual shops, but also small typical shops selling traditional souvenirs like canned sardines or handcrafted cork agendas. Next to it, the most well known fish and fruit market Mercado do Bolhão where you’ll meet the smells, colours and tastes of Porto.
On the other hand, if you go up on your left, your eyes will catch right away Clerigos, a 76 meters tall granite tower, the tallest in 1763. In fact, you’ll notice that most architecture is made out of granite, the stone is very common in the region and along with the foggy, rainy winters it gives the city a mysterious grey atmosphere contrasting with the colorful tiles covering most of the buildings façades.
When walking around Clerigos you see two other emblematic buildings, the University Of Porto’s Rectory and behind it the Portuguese Center of Photography, originally a prison it still preserves the cell of the well known portuguese romanticism Camilo Castelo Branco as it also hosts several photo exhibitions, the entrance is free everyday till 6pm.
But as all streets that go up, they also go down. And if you go down through any of the narrow ones you’ll end up in Ribeira, where Porto meets its soul, the river Douro on a beautiful view right next to the D. Luis bridge, a two levels iron structure designed by the belgian Téophile Seyrig that had previously worked on Maria Pia bridge with Gustave Eiffel. Being a very touristic area you can find lots of bars and restaurants, but mind that they will be clearly more expensive than the average, still the best view while tasting a nice Port wine.
Going back to the center, you can head to the Stock Exchange Palace, right next to secularized St. Francis Church, the palace is one of the few places with any kind of Arab influence, built in the 19th century its Arab salon is likely the city’s most beautiful room. Few meters after you’ll see a big red concert hall, Hard Club, where you can stop anytime for a drink and enjoy the view over the river, the place was previously a fish market deactivated for some time and converted, but keeping the same structure. Continuing walking and you’ll reach Rua das Flores, a pedestrian street rebuilt only 2 years ago and, as the name says, it is known for the colorful flowers on the windows, but also by its non stop movement of tourists and locals that enjoy the picturesque shops and restaurants.
If you are a lover of sunbathing or simply want to see the ocean, you can’t skip Matosinhos, walking distance from the Casa da Musica, the main concert hall, it is just a 30mn straight walk through Boavista where you’ll also have the chance to find small palaces mixed with some modern architecture. But if you are willing to go a bit further try Espinho ou Póvoa de Varzim, both are usual holiday spots for locals and have long white sand beaches. Any of the options are easy to get to, there are several metro connections every hour from the main station, Trindade.
As you can feel already Porto definitely is a city that will make you walk, there is something to see in each corner, and the more up, the best views you’ll get. You can go up the D.Luis bridge and be stunned by what you find or, next to Clerigos you really must go to miradouro da Vitoria and Virtudes, right next to a small and mostly unknown park wall to wall with Crystal Palace, also having an amazing view and a weird but cool UFO shaped building.
Connecting the first street of the city with Palacio de Cristal Park, an artsy place filled with art galleries and studios from one end to another, a lively but still waiting to be discovered place with local restaurants and pastry shops where you can enjoy your lunch and grab a good espresso, enjoying the vibe of the city given by mostly everything around you. All the galleries are marked with a small blue flag, with free entrance and bi-monthly exhibitions. Here you’ll also find CCB (Centro Comercial Bombarda) where you can do some shopping of handcrafted products, unique decorations, souvenirs, organic products and have the best chocolate cake in town at Pimenta Rosa. And on the perpendicular street to it, Cedofeita, you can walk through and find really affordable places to eat as well.
And whether you are, or not, a fan of a good portion of contemporary art, Serralves Museum is the perfect place. A spot of modernism on the grounds of Serralves Estate, a private residence at the beginning, the property ended up being purchased by the Portuguese state in 1987 that used the site for a future museum of modern art, which took shape and was officially opened in 1999 as Serralves Museum. It includes the actual museum building designed by the architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, the Villa which is a perfect example of Art Deco architecture and the Serralves Park which has a diverse fauna, a farm, tennis courts and a tea house. Serralves Museum presents a wide range of activities, an interesting collection, exhibitions, educational programs, performances and a yearly much appreciated festival including everything related to contemporary art and its connection with the community. They are pen for visit from Tuedsay till Sunday between 10:00H-19:00H and you have a free entry, if you’re a student or if you go on Sundays between 10.AM and 1.PM.
When it comes to food, the offer is just as tasty as all the rest, like the amazing Francesinha, a sandwich packed up with different kinds of meat, lots of cheese and a spicy sauce, you can find it in most of the places as the traditional Golfinho, where the owner prepares his own secret sauce recipe in a traditional small restaurant. Or you can try any other of the other portuguese delights. For some sweets like the best eclair in Porto you should definitely try Leitaria da Baixa, or Padaria Ribeiro for a nice breakfast or brunch. If you want to have a coffee in a cool place try the Lomographic Embassy, they are open all the time and to start the night they always have some theme party. After you can head to Era uma vez no Porto for one more drink, or join the people in the street of Galerias de Paris, where a bar with the same name hangs a real car on the wall, or Cafe au Lait for some good music. Right on the next street try Plano B, maybe the best place in to have fun till the morning.
In terms of accommodation, Porto has a huge amount of hostels, from film themed Rivoli Hostel till Gallery Hostel, which is half hostel and half art gallery, you have where to choose from and at reasonable fares. You also have a big friendly Couchsurfing community, eager to help you with a place to sleep and give you some tips about the city and its hidden gems. Keep an eye on their Facebook group and maybe you’ll catch one of their weekly meetings in Porto, a good chance to meet some locals and other travelers.
Be sure, Porto will never get you bored and the locals are known for their cheerful hospitality, people are extremely friendly and keep in mind, if you notice them swearing a lot, that’s just how Tripeiros are, it isn’t offensive, it is just a way of expressing themselves.
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