If you are near Portugal and seeking an authentic travel experience I recommend going to Porto! Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and it feels significantly more livable and less touristy than Lisbon. Not saying I don’t like Lisbon, it’s wonderful, but Porto is a north-western land of delicious port wine, working class locals, environmentally friendly artisan crafters, hip, pop-up stores and last but not least, sardines… so many salty sardines.
We flew in to Porto expecting the typical gray skies and chilly river atmosphere, but we lucked out when we were greeted with sun. We got to the city center easily by taking the metro from the airport. On the way in we spotted some rebellious teens playing on the train tracks, some stay dogs scampering in the streets and old men working hard on their farms. The ivy creeps up the metro walls made of stone, as the scene was already being set for the city. Porto has this strange, run-down, sort of industrial/apocalyptic feel, which unfortunately has to do with the unbelievable industrial decline and unemployment of the city. However, it also creates a strangely beautiful, grungy personality that is unique to Porto.
We stayed in a chic and quiet hostel called Garden House Hostel on one of the main shopping streets of the city. It wasn’t ideally placed in the medieval center of town (called the Ribeira) but Porto is a pretty small city, so the farthest walk was around 25-30 minutes. Close to our hostel along Rua de Santa Catarina are two of the most visited spots of the city, the Majestic Café and the Chapel of Souls. Majestic Café is a ornate, 1920s gold and wooden cafe that is included in UCityGuide’s list of “Top 10 Most Beautiful Cafes in the World”. The Chapel of Souls, or Capela das Almas de Santa Catarina, is one of the most beautiful churches in Portugal, with a massive blue and white-tiled facade. It dates back to the 18th century.
While Porto is sprinkled with many beautiful churches, the main cathedral/fortress, the Sé do Porto, acts as the protective mother of the city, overlooking from the top of a hill. This cathedral started being built in the 12th century, so it is one of the city’s oldest and most important monuments. You can get great views of the city from up here.
Continuing past the main cathedral, we walked through a residential neighborhood with narrow streets, colorful apartments with stray cats at the door and clean laundry on the line. While meandering throughout the city, I made a point to try to discover the most beautiful tiles (called azulejos), which wasn’t difficult considering that Portugal’s architectural trademark are these small porcelain tiles. These azulejos first appeared here in the 15th century when the Iberian Peninsula was still mainly under Moorish rule; however, most of the existing tiles in the city were reconstructed in the 20th century in an aim to revive Porto’s intrinsic, artistic personality.
The narrow, cobblestone streets will wind you through plazas, past small corner markets and will spit you out at the most charming, tourist street of Porto that is nestled parallel to the River Douro. On this street there is the iconic (yet oh so beautiful) view of deeply colored apartments next to the black iron, double-decker bridge, Ponte D. Luís I. There are bustling cafes, fisherman sitting on the edge of the walkway, men playing the accordion and people shopping at tents with local crafts and trinkets.
You can grab a drink, or walk across the bridge to ride the cable car, take a tour of one of Porto’s many fine wineries, or simply to get a wonderful view of the downtown from across the river. We chose to eat in the Praca de Ribeira, a busy, sunny plaza, where I had some port wine and a croquette da bacalhou (Yeah I know… when in Rome!).
Heading back inland, there are countless other sites to see. The São Bento Railway Station rivals Grand Central in being one of the most gorgeous train station that I’ve ever seen. Once again, here Porto brings in the colorful tile motif to convert a potentially lifeless and practical place into essentially an art museum and tourist attraction.
One of my favorite things about Porto (forewarning: my inner-nerd is about to come out) is that part of the Harry Potter series was written here! JK Rowling lived in Porto for two years while outlining her ideas for the Sorcerer’s Stone. She was a frequent visitor at a popular cafe/bookstore called La Livraria Lello, a neo-gothic bookstore has a grand wooden staircase and stained glass windows. Livraria Lello has since become a major city attraction. You can pay 3€ to check out Rowling’s hangout, which is the rumored inspiration of Flourish and Blotts. Much of her inspiration came from the artsy city vibes. It is rumored that Salazar Slytherian is actually named after Portugal’s dictator from the 1930s, António de Oliveira Salazar. Not to mention – all of the school students wear long, black, caped robes… Curious. Unfortunately, I was not able to find Hogwarts or Diagonal Alley. Sorry to disappoint.
Near the Livraria Lello there is a gorgeous church to stop by, the Igreja do Carmo, another blue and white tiled building. This 18th century church has a beautiful garden, a golden organ and an elaborate, Rococo designed facade. Another must-do in Porto is a visit to the Torre dos Clérigos, a tall 18th century look-out tower, which provide a great city skyline view – providing you survive the 240 stairs climb. There are some cool artifacts inside, and a description of other city monuments.
While we lucked out with sunny weather, like I mentioned, Porto is usually known for its rainy and moody disposition. Thankfully, not only does Porto have the charm of the old tile churches and small medieval streets, it also has a variety of up and coming areas with shops and cafes so you can stay occupied in the case of cloudy weather. A Vida Portuguesa is a hip concept store to buy natural soaps, local foods and thick, hand-woven rugs. Casa Oriental is a sardine store built in the 1920s with brightly-colored, vintage tin cans. Even if you’re not a sardine fan, it is pretty comical, so it’s worth a visit. And Mercador Café has a charming minimalist vibe, great food and hot chocolate if you’re looking to cozy inside and chat with a friend for an hour or two.
My main advice for visiting Porto is to just enjoy getting lost out in the city! Porto doesn’t have a ton of major attractions or monuments, and for this reason it is not such a well-known European travel destination. But I promise, you will not be disappointed. Porto is an endless scavenger hunt of ivy-covered walls, colorful tiles, mysterious old sardine shops and gorgeous antique cafes that will surely keep you busy and leave you feeling as though you stepped back to a different, magical time.