Every city has its own personality, its own rhythms, its own beating heart that keeps it distinctly unique. Often this je ne sais quoi is impossible to articulate. It’s just something you feel. A culmination of the locals, the visitors, the culture, the customs, the architecture, the traffic, the things there are to do, even the weather – a melting pot of everything that makes it a city.
Some cities have a stronger heartbeat than others – a character that cannot be replicated. For me, Porto was undoubtedly such a place.
I was in Portugal’s second largest city (after the capital Lisbon) for less than 48 hours, but I feel like in that short time I got a bit of a feeling of what Porto is really about. Porto epitomises European charm without being like any other European city I have visited.
Sure, I mostly hit up the tourist attractions, and also ate and drank prodigious quantities, but my overwhelming affection for the city was summed up in one interaction with a local:
It was raining, and I was in the street, staring at my very large, touristy fold-out map. A gentleman came up, speaking Portuguese. He was well dressed with shiny shoes, probably in his 60s or early 70s, looking like he was on his way to or from church (there is no shortage of churches in Porto).
Common sense told me that he was probably trying to help me find my way. I told him where I was going (using a mixture of English and the few words of Portuguese I could manage) and he proceeded to walk me to my destination. He had an umbrella, which I did not, and he held his brolly over my head as we walked. He spoke animatedly in Portuguese to me the entire time, fully aware that I didn’t understand a word, but totally unfazed.
He pointed out the buildings of note, talked excitedly and then every now and then, threw back his head and laughed at what he had just said. He was truly one of the warmest people I have ever encountered, and in the entire interaction, we didn’t understand one word the other was saying. It didn’t matter. When he got me to my destination, he bowed and took off his hat, and then I kind of bowed and thanked him (‘Obrigada’ was the one word I knew how to use) and that was that. But I think this man was the highlight of my 2 days.
But I digress. I wanted to share my top things to do if you find yourself with 2 days in Porto.
Take a port tour
Porto is most famous for, you guessed it, their port. Port is a fortified wine that comes from the Duoro Valley and is being produced in cellars in the city. Situated in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is just across the river from Porto itself, you will find the famous port caves where the drink is made and stored, and of course, plenty of places to drink it.
There are so many port houses offering tours, varying in price, and usually including a few glasses to taste in the ticket price.
My tour was with Quinta dos Corves which was fantastic, and a bargain at 5 Euros. The guide was very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about port. She talked through how it was made, the effect of the oak barrels, the difference in taste as the drink ages and depending on the year.
You get to see the barrels doing their thing, and the differing colours of the ports as they mature.
At the end of the tour, we sat in a bar area and got to taste 4 small glasses of different ports. The 10 year tawny was an absolute dream – so drinkable. I wanted to try the 40 year old vintage, but that cost extra.
There is plenty of opportunity to buy bottles of port, and even travel sized ones for those travelling hand-luggage only. I managed to resist, but now that I am home and portless, I slightly regret this decision.
Visit Livraria Lello
This wasn’t a mission I managed to fulfil on my trip, but Livraria Lello, Porto’s most famous bookshop, had to go on the list. Opened in 1906, and recently voted worlds third most beautiful bookshop, I was desperate to see this place. If the beautiful pictures weren’t enough to tempt me, the store is also rumoured to have been J K Rowling’s inspiration for her descriptions of the Hogwarts staircases and corridors.
Photography is strictly forbidden, but according to the internet, if you get there a bit before it opens to the public and tap on the window, the cleaning lady will let you go in and take some pictures. I tried to do this, but unfortunately had no luck, and there was a ticket-only event on in the shop that day, so I couldn’t even go in once it had opened.
Peering through the glass though, it was like something out of a fairy-tale. And missing out on seeing the beautiful staircases has given me a bone fide reason to return to Porto.
Climb the Torre dos Clérigos
Porto is home to a plethora of stunning churches, but the Clérigos Church may be the most well-known. It’s vertiginous bell-tower was once the tallest building in Portugal, and is the place to go for the most spectacular view over Porto.
Climbing the 225 steps to the top can be broken up by the many windows en route, as well as some exhibition spaces on the lower storeys that depict a timeline of Porto’s architectural history.
The viewing platform was cramped with tourists, so I’m glad I was there in the off-season as I can imagine in summer it’s a bit much.
However, it’s worth squeezing past the other punters from the dazzling cityscape on offer. Take your time and take lots of pictures. I was there at bell-ringing time which was an added bonus.
It costs 4 Euros to go up the tower and see the exhibition.
Enjoy the restaurants and cafes
For someone who only had 2 days to explore a new city, I spent an awful lot of time in restaurants, bars and cafes, peoplewatching, reading my book, and writing endless notes on the things I was experiencing.
It seems a bit counter-intuitive with such limited time, but café crawling is one of the best ways to get a sense of Porto’s vibe.
There will be another blog post coming soon about the best places to eat and drink, so I’ll keep it brief in this one, but there is an understated hipness to Porto’s café culture (not to mention some exceptional food and drink).
This time, I didn’t do an organised walking tour. There are plenty of these in Porto, and I often find it a great way to learn about the history of a city and its quirks, but I decided to map a route and do a self-guided walk so I could amble at my own pace.
Before long, I realised sticking to my planned route was futile, as at every turn there is an unassuming alleyway or a narrow staircase just begging to be explored. I wanted to follow my adventurous whims, which really paid off as I stumbled across some astonishing little nooks.
While heading to the area of Sé, I came across the striking train station with blue and white tilework covering its high walls. Who knew a train terminal could be so inviting?
Ribeira, with its winding, narrow lanes and cute houses, was the real highlight. The streets were deserted and as I delved deeper into the maze of passageways, I would be greeted by what I thought was a dead end, only to discover a tiny staircase behind someone’s home, or a little alley I hadn’t spotted before. People in the neighbourhood were clearly house proud, and the abundance of plants and colours brought the area to life.
Along the Duoro river, there is a really relaxed atmosphere, as people drink wine on outdoor tables with parasols, and locals go running and walk their dogs on the waterfront. It had almost a beach-vibe to it. Of course, the enormous bridges, designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel, are prominent as you look out over the river.
No matter where you are in Porto, there is something that will make you smile. Whether that is the most ornate church, a tile-work mural, or even just one of the decrepit buildings with smashed windows and graffiti that give the city its charm.
Porto is a very special city. I heard another travel blogger recently talking about the difference between a tourist city, known for its landmarks and museums and attraction, or a lifestyle city, which may not be about flashy monuments but would be a wonderful place to live. Porto sits somewhere in the middle. It’s the kind of city I could spend a very long time in, despite its small size, but there are still things that inspire awe at every turn.