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Seven wonderful ways to enjoy Porto

Punita Malhotra

Contributor

Porto, 4th-century port and commercial centre founded by the Romans, actually lent its name to its country. The hilly town is the epitome of gritty glam with its magnificent mansions, opulent churches and a picture-perfect riverside. Colourful building facades, vintage trams and iconic black-white mosaic pavements, synonymous with Portugal, are just a few of its charms. The two focal points are the crumbly old Ribeira district, a Unesco World Heritage site, perfectly preserved from the Middle Ages and the Dom Luís I Bridge designed in the 1880s by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel. Here are seven other wonderful ways to immerse in the soul of Porto.

Be a viewfinder

The unpolished appeal of Porto makes it a photographer’s delight. Go in search of lesser-known spots and reward yourself with fabulous views. One of the most epic locations to scout for is at the castle walls of Muralhas Fernandina's ruins. The historic Ribeira district, flatboats, River Douro and the city, are all within lens reach.

Another fabulous find is the wide-angle scene of town from the upper deck of the Dom Luis Bridge. Early evening is the best time to catch mellow light here. And finally, the courtyard of Se Cathedral lends itself well to candid street photography, shots of grimy mansions, and even close-up shots of seagulls.

Stunning views of the Dom Luis Bridge

Credit: Zhukova Valentyna

Time travel to the 20s

Number 112 on Rue de Santa Catarina, the city’s main shopping street, is a well-known landmark connected to the history of Porto in the twenties. The oldest, most atmospheric cafe in the city, Majestic Cafe, still rings of the times where politicians, writers and intellectuals met and indulged in spirited debates, a-la-Parisian style. 1921-vintage, Art Nouveau decor, Antwerp crystal, Indian marble flooring, plush leather-engraved upholstery, fashionably tainted wall mirrors, even a piano and a winter garden recreate the Belle-Époque era with panache.

Drool over a scrumptious cake and elevate your caffeine fix with fine bone china cups. The price tag is worth it. After all, you’ve time travelled to 1920s Porto.

Shoppers stroll on Rua Santa Catarina pedestrian street

Credit: Sean Pavone

Witness a live painting

Wander the maze of the cobbled streets in the Unesco heritage tagged Ribeira district at the Douro riverside. Once the hub of river trade, the old quarter has been reduced to a jumble of run-down, abandoned mansions, and therein lies its ceaseless charm. Traditional eateries, lively bars, decorative arcades, a famous fountain and the house of Porto’s greatest son, Prince Henry the Navigator, will steal your heart.

Across the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge, designed by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel, lies Vila Nova de Gaia, synonymous with port wine and port producers including Sandeman. Find a spot by the river beside the docked Rabelo flatboats that once transported wine barrels from Douro Valley vineyards. Watch the molten gold spread at sundown. It is a live painting in progress and the show is free every day.

Ribeira district

Credit: Sean Pavone

Hunt for a book

The lineage is 1906, but it’s not a museum or a palace. Queue up for a 5-euro entry ticket to browse in the oldest bookstore in town. Raised eyebrows are inevitable as you cross the threshold into an unexpectedly sumptuous interior. An ornate Neo-Gothic façade blends with delicate art-deco features. Rich wooden walls, a magnificent stained glass ceiling and a palatial stairway decked with luxurious red carpet complete the effect.

Lello & Irmão Bookstore is possibly the most royal bookstore a bibliophile can dream of. Harry Potter fans may break into an invisible jig, remembering the stairs from Hogwarts. Distractions are aplenty, but don’t forget to eye the books!

Interior view of Lello & Irmão Bookstore

Credit: Nido Huebl

Seek romance

Board a quaint old tram from Ribiera for a lovely 30-minute coastal ride to Foz. Complete the experience with a long stroll along a fashionable tree-lined promenade. Remind yourself that the resemblance to Nice Promenade in the French Riviera is not coincidental.

Your search for a Portuguese romance will culminate at an all-white neoclassical structure, built during the early 20th-century by the mayor for his wife. The curved balustrade and elegant columns are an ideal location to enjoy a delightful sunset with someone special.

One of the only six electric trams that still circulate in the city of Porto

Credit: Marcos Campos

Creep out

Ornate, even ostentatious and overloaded with gold is the best way to describe Igreja de São Francisco. The estimated 400 kg of gilt-covered wood carvings and statues in the cathedral are in stark contrast to the underground catacombs. Thousands of dead bodies, possibly whole families across generations are buried here under creaky, serially marked floorboards. An eerie experience, especially if you go unprepared for such a discovery.

In one corner of the crypt, if you peer through a glass, grated window in the floor, you will spot a pile of human bones. Back in those days, a Friar was entrusted with the responsibility of collecting the bones and depositing them here safely. 

Porto Catacombs and crypts

Credit: Sandra Moraes

Get the blues

The large blank walls of monuments in the city are dressed up with intricate and detailed murals. Look closely and you will realise that they are antique hand-painted ceramic tiles (Azulejo, meaning ‘small polished stone’) in blue-white tones, the fashionable colour palette of the Gothic times. This Moorish tradition from the 13th-century found a permanent home in Portugal and is the pride and joy of most cities, including Porto.

The detailed artwork narrates stories from history, religion, and culture. Some of the best examples can be found at San Bento train station entrance lobby, the Santa Catarina church and the outside cloister of the dramatic twin-towered Se Cathedral.

Mural Artwork at the Chapel of Souls

Credit: Noppasin Wongchum

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