A Cidade Invicta: The Unconquered City
Over 6 years have passed since our first and only time in this incredible city, and still not sure how so much time have passed to return only for the second time. There are certain cities in Europe where does not matter how many times you return, there is always a fun in coming back and always something new to see and enjoy. Porto is one of them for sure, and now that there are better and more frequent choices of airlines and timings, will be easier to find another good deal in the near future. However, as pretty much everywhere else in Europe, during high season it is generally cheaper to fly farther away to more exotic destinations to the rather “around the corner” Porto. Anyway, this was about time to revamp the guide for this city, since what I wrote years back was not so complete and already getting obsolete.
Have in mind that a weekend for this city can be short. There is simply too much to see and do, and our plan this weekend also included visiting the nearby cities of Braga and Guimaraes, or at least that was our initial intention, if not both, then just Guimaraes. On literally every corner there are sights and amazing buildings everywhere. The old town core is very large considering the overall size of the city, one of the most historic cities in Portugal, no wonder it is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet despite this fact, it is unfortunately in much need of restoration. Many buildings falling apart and many others totally ruined. Thankfully the city is slowly revitalising and regenerating bit by bit which surely in few years time will make a huge difference. It does already in these 6 years lapse, nothing to compare to the rather run down city we once knew. The current gentrification is perhaps too fast, with trendy and chic shops, cafes and bars popping everywhere but with an ideology I don’t quite share: skyrocket prices.
While distances in the city seems “small” on a map, they are not in truth. The city was built among steep hills, and the up and downs are considerably, not to mention the gorge the river Douro marks along its length, cutting the city in 2 and connected by high bridges. Among them, the iconic and symbol of Porto, the Ponte Dom Luis I, and the Maria Pia Bridge by Gustave Eiffel. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and Porto this masterpiece of a bridge.
The best views of both bridges itself are on either banks of the river, while for a grand view over the city you need to walk on the upper level of the Dom Luis I bridge towards the middle and southern end, from here you can admire the Episcopal Palace on top of the hill and all the way down to the Ribeira houses and port wine cellars by the river with the traditional wine boats docked along.
The Avenida dos Aliados is the main thoroughfare of the city, which together with Liberdade Square, they form the main core of the city filled with grand 19th Century buildings in all styles, notoriously modernist and art-deco jewels. Even the McDonald’s along the avenue is housed in an art-deco masterpiece. No need to order anything but give it a go inside to admire the original interiors. And talking about admiring, what a best way than taking one of the historic old trams. These are an attraction on their own, the same as are in Lisbon. The line on the shores of the Douro (Passeio Alegre-Infante) is by far the preferred by tourists. Walking across the entire city is the best way to visit every sight, and as mentioned before, a weekend might be too short if this is your first time here, however easy to manage without any rush.
Of course there is no visit to the city without enjoying one of their world renown wines. The best option is heading to the many bars in the Ribeira neighbourhood, all of which truly traditional and old, but careful where you go. Check some price lists before ordering to avoid a tourist trap. The same applies to the delicious food you will get in all those places, especially cod, famous in the whole of Portugal. But something more unique to Porto, although it’s more of a snack rather than a proper sit down dish is Francesinha, literally translated “little French lady”. This is a toast with layers of meat inside, covered with cheese and a spicy sauce.
Something you MUST be very careful in any restaurant and bar in Porto is their unacceptable behaviour of placing in your table a piece of tart or a snack (generally cod croquettes or similar). You might think this is a free tapa, after all, they gave it to you with your port wine you ordered; which if in Spain, it will for sure be free. Bur here not, they do this deliverately on purpose for you to take, and then surprise! It’s there added to your bill, hand-written over the officially printed bill of what you really ordered. Don’t be fool of this, and it’s best if you ask beforehand if what you are getting extra is free or not, while if you have already fallen into this trick, do not hesitate in just paying for what you ordered. After an unnecessary argument, all you will get is an insult, “fils de pute” (yes you guessed the meaning). Not nice at all, but thankfully this is an isolated habit just for this city and nowhere else in Portugal where they treat you nice and don’t fool you around.
Be sure to have as dessert, at any patisserie or coffee place, pasteis de nata, which are an egg tart pastry; the most famous pastry from Portugal which originated in Lisbon’s neighbourhood of Belem, hence why you might find them named pasteis de Belem.
For more information about Porto check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Portugal’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Porto
- Baixa – The Downtown One of the oldest areas of the city, with elegant avenues and charming streets. Among the notorious places to see are, from north to south:
-Trindade Square Meaning Trinity, here you can start your sightseeing tour. A nice square at both sides of the church, transport heart of the city.
-Trindade Church Built in the late 18th century, has faces to both the station and the back of the City Hall.
-Câmara Municipal It is the City Hall. One of the most representative buildings in Porto, right at the beginning of Avenida dos Aliados. Built in the 20th century, its clock tower is 70 meters high.
-Avenida dos Aliados The most elegant avenue flanked with art-nouveau, art-deco, classical and other styles, many of which bank headquarters.
-Banif Bank One of the art-deco jewels, although only its facade is been retained.
-Caixa General Across from the Banif Bank, in classical style.
-Santander Bank The next along the street heading south.
-BBVA Bank Characterized by its corner tower and white stone.
-Espirito Santo Bank Right across from the BBVA, another grand building also with its tower.
-Bank of Portugal One of the most elegant buildings, at the section towards the end of Avenida dos Aliados, named Liberty Square.
-McDonald’s The former Cafe Imperial in Liberty Square is one of the most famed art-deco structures in the city, which interiors are entirely preserved.
-King Peter IV Statue In the middle of Liberty Square, offering the best views towards the City Hall at the far north and the Cardosas Palace right at the front (nowadays the Inter Continental Hotel).
-Vitoria District Parallel to the west of Avenida dos Aliados. Starting from the north, near the City Hall towards Praça de Lisboa at the south near King Peter IV:
-Carlos Alberto Square Very cosy and charming, with the Carlos Alberto Theatre at one of the sides.
-Church do Carmo At the southern edge of Carlos Alberto Square. Noteworthy is one of its facades entirely covered in painted blue and white ceramic tiles.
-Praça de Gomes Teixeira With the Rectorate of the University of Porto the main sight and the Lion’s Fountain in the middle of the square.
-Livraria Lello In magnificent art nouveau style it is one of the most beautiful bookstores in Europe. It inspired many of the stairs you see in Harry Potter movies. Meters away from the Rectorate.
-Cordoaria Gardens Right behind the Rectorate, offers nice views of the buildings around.
-São José das Taipas Church Another of the many everywhere, at the southern edge of Cordoaria Gardens.
-Cleric’s Church At the eastern edge of Cordoaria Gardens, along Rua dos Clerigos heading towards Liberty Square. One of the most symbolic in Porto, combining Baroque and Rococo architectural styles, with its famous tower you can climb up offering great views of the city.
-Morro da Sé This next district is the oldest in Porto, starting just south of Liberty Square and extending towards Ribeira and the Douro River.
-São Bento Railway Station Magnificent for its over 20000 traditional ceramic tiles (azulejos) adorning the entire vestibule inside with images depicting the history of Portugal.
-Intersection of streets From the south corner of the train station you get to see one of the most known images of Porto, the confluence of the streets with the narrow and colourful houses.
-Cathedral (Sé do Porto) Is one of the oldest city monuments dating back to 1100. It retains majority of its Romanesque style, and it is located on a higher elevation offering nice views from the top.
-Episcopal Palace Located in the same square of the cathedral, is the former residence of the bishops of Porto built in Baroque and Rococo styles.
-Pillory In the middle of the square at the front of the Cathedral is this Manueline column, symbol of the power of justice. The hooks where criminals were hung are still there.
-Torre da Cidades Also in Sé square, is a reminder of the citadel built by the Moors.
-Convent of São Lourenço ou dos Grilos Opposite the Cathedral, built atop the former Moorish fortifications.
-Avenue Vimara Peres Returning back to from where you accessed the Cathedral, this street heads directly to the top of Ponte Dom Luis I.
-Ponte Dom Luis I One of the industrial engineering marvels in Porto (together with the Maria Pia Bridge). It is the most symbolic landmark in the city, and the views of the bridge, the old town in the foreground and the river in between is your most memorable. Cross the bridge to the other side (Vila Nova de Gaia), there you find the best viewing point.
-Maria Pia Bridge Farther ahead along the river from Ponte Dom Luis I where you can see it from, was designed by Gustave Eiffel. The best view are from Ribeira and of course, if on a river tour.
-Rua de Saraiva de Carvalho Head back from the top of the bridge towards this street which is just across the road from Avenue Vimara Peres,
-Church of Saint Clare of Assisi Along Rua de Saraiva de Carvalho.
-Fernandine Walls Just a street ahead from the Church of Assisi are some good remains of the second ring of defensive walls completed in the reign of D. Fernando in the 14th century.
-Funicular From this point on the Fernandine Walls you can either walk down towards Ribeira or take this railway down. The views over the Maria Pia Bridge are some of the finest.
- Ribeira – São Nicolau This is the quarter of the city directly along the Douro River and where to find lots of cafes, restaurants and bars and historical townhouses. On the shores of the river you will see the typical Port wine barges.
-Ribeira Square The largest in this area, very colourful with traditional porticoed houses all around. Plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes here, and the streets heading north uphill towards the Cathedral area.
-Largo do Terreiro The next square along the river.
-Chapel of Our Lady of Ò Very small in size, located at the northern side.
-House-museum of Prince Henry the Navigator On the street heading uphill towards the Infante Dom Henrique Square, next important area of Porto. Regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Portuguese Age of Discoveries.
-Infante Dom Henrique Square One of the biggest and most monumental in Porto.
-Palácio da Bolsa The Stock Exchange, built in the 19th Century is an unique sight on its own. Tours are available to visit the interiors, notably the impressive Arab Room.
-Church of São Francisco In Gothic style and Baroque interiors, attached to the southern side of the Stock Exchange.
-Ferreira Borges Market A great 19th century industrial landmark, now an exhibition hall.
- Vila Nova de Gaia Offers great views of the city from the south bank of the river.
-Serra do Pilar Monastery Literally across the Ponte Dom Luis I, also included as part of the classification of Porto as an UNESCO World Heritage city. It is best viewed from the bridge as it sits on the higher elevation of Gaia.
-Gaia Docks The same as Ribeira but on the opposite side of the Douro River, this area is full of restaurants, bars and cafes, and the traditional Port wine barges.
Francisco de Sá Carneiro International Airport lies 15 kilometres to the north of the city, and is connected to downtown by metro and buses. The AeroBus costs 6 Euros for a single ride and takes you directly to the heart of the city, Praça da Liberdade. However, the cheapest, fastest and easiest way is to take the metro for 1.80 Euros (plus 0.50 for the rechargeable ticket). Just follow the signs from the arrivals hall; but you need to know that there is no one at the station selling tickets, only automated machines, where if you do not have Euros, you will not be able to pay by card (only Portuguese cards are accepted), nor pay with a note higher than 10 Euros! A bit limited considering it is a brand new metro system with state of the art ticketing machines. The solution is easy if you cannot manage to buy a ticket: ride it for free (not that I am encouraging this to you, but only if you are left with no other option). There are no barriers, just pass through. Having no one to manage at least a ticket office in an international airport station is already bad enough, so why to hassle or loose time.
Arriving by train or bus from other cities in Portugal is straightforward along the north-south corridor. Frequent trains interconnect both Porto and Lisbon, and farther beyond towards the Algarve in the south. From northern Spain, the city of Vigo in Galicia, are twice daily trains to Porto and also train-hotels from Madrid and Hendaye/Irun. Long distance buses include many more destinations across the Iberian Peninsula, France and farther.
Within the city you can use the metro system, buses or the historical trams, but you can easily walk most of it without the need of public transportation. Nothing beats walking the big avenues and small streets and hills where you will see some hidden architectural gems of the city. A day travel card costs 6.20 Euros
Back in 2011 we only came here as a day trip from Madrid for what we did not have the need for search accommodation nor did not know how was the situation with the prices, if any good deal around, good choice or if overall was easy to find something nice. However on this occasion we came for the entire weekend, and as usual, a good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Hotel America, right in the middle of the city in Rua de Santa Catarina 1018, just few meters behind Trindade train station and short walking distance to Avenida Trindade, the heart of the city. The location could not be any better, meaning we never needed any public transportation to move within the city; as for the property itself, it was nice. Not a high expectations but not a disappointment, it was just right. Simple, family run business with spacious rooms, comfortable and quiet; and a good breakfast. Bearing in mind this is not a city where hotels come cheap nor are good deals, this was a great value for money and we can recommend to anyone on a city-break.