Porto is much more than a sum of streets, houses and people to simply describe and visit. It is a presence to experience and feel from day to day. In the inhabitants’ own opinion this city, on a river near the ocean, often humid and hazy, has always been traditional in its opinions and tastes (notably culinary!). Less dramatic and cosmopolitan than Lisbon, it has an indefinable austerity and melancholy, reflected in its granite walls and narrow streets that descend the hill above the Douro river…
Yet Porto is a fascinating and lively city that is both medieval and baroque, working-class and bourgeois, hardworking and laid back, which lends itself to wandering and daydreaming. To explore it, we propose not a pre-established tourist trail, but a gallery of images and places that seem to us to express its quintessence.
On the banks of the Douro
The first thing that strikes you on arriving in Porto is the Douro river, which rises in Spain and crosses the city before flowing into the ocean. Its often steep banks are connected by several spectacular metal bridges. The Dom Luis I bridge, built in 1886 by disciples of Gustave Eiffel, with a span of 172 m (564 ft), is the most impressive, with its two decks that serve the high and low districts of the city. At the foot of this structure all you need to do is follow the cais da Ribeira, which offers one of the most beautiful walks in the city since its restoration in 2001. This quay, dominated by multicoloured 18th century houses, harbours a terrace which is one of the hot spots of gastronomy and night life: the Don Tonho restaurant.
Opposite, you will see Vila Nova de Gaia, on the left bank of the Douro, where the prestigious storehouses of the 58 big wine houses of Porto have been concentrated since the 19th century: Ramos Pinto, Taylor’s, Sandeman, Niepoort, Burmester, etc. This is where the grapes harvested on the slopes of the Upper Douro Valley were once brought on board barcos rabelos (flat-bottomed sailboats), after a 150 km (93 mile)-long journey. We recommend a visit to the wine storehouses and museum of the Ramos Pinto House, founded in 1880, which did a lot for the quality and commercialisation of the wines of Porto in the early 20th century. Here you can admire a magnificent collection of posters and azulejos tiles from the Belle Époque, whose sensuality was long deemed scandalous.
In spite of tourism, historic Porto – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has retained its authenticity and working-class life, reflected in its noisy, lively tascos (bistros), its tiny markets improvised on street corners, its flower-filled balconies where washing is hung out to dry, and its barbeiros and cabeleireiros (traditional barbers and hairdressers) shops, real living museums that are part of the city’s emotional heritage...
So don’t hesitate to climb the narrow streets that overlook the Ribeira quay, such as the rua das Flores which heads up towards the Belle Époque station of Sao Bento: lined with 18th century residences and traditional shops, it was once the street of goldsmiths and jewellers. Just above, near the Torre dos Clérigos (a baroque tower over 75 m/246 ft high, which offers a panorama of the city), rua da Estrada da Assunçao is home to one of Porto’s oldest shops, Casa Oriental, with a mural evoking Portugal’s colonial past. Here you will find some of the best cod in the city, oranges and lemons from Portugal, and rare spices. The whole surrounding district is worth a look, with its wrought-iron balconies and old azulejos tiles; at a bend in the street, a small square with a palm tree offers a bird’s-eye view of the banks of the Douro. Many of the residences certainly deserve to be restored, but for the time being it is a district full of life, not a showcase for tourists; unlike in other city centres in Europe, property inflation has not yet driven out the lower classes here…
São Francisco church and the Foz do Douro district
Above Ribeira quay, the Gothic church of São Francisco is one of Porto’s historical attractions. Its sobriety corresponded to the spirit of poverty of the Franciscan order. However, this order became very powerful in the 17th century and was granted privileges and material goods. Thus, inside the church, the bare walls were covered with exuberant baroque decoration: still today, the altars, walls and vaults are literally buried beneath a profusion of carved and gilded wood (17th and 18th centuries). A definite must-see!
In the far west of Porto, the residential district of Foz is a magical place where the waters of the Douro flow into the Atlantic Ocean. To get there, we recommend taking the old wooden tramway from Ribeira quay, under São Francisco church. You will follow the river for 20 minutes and pass under the da Arrábida bridge, built in 1961, whose single arch (270 m/885 ft) offers a superb panorama of old Porto, and under the Dom Luis bridge. Foz is known for its bourgeois villas, its hotels, palm trees, sandy beaches and trendy restaurants, such as the Cafeina, rua do Padrao. Anglers gather on the quay near the Castelo de S. Joao, which is also home to a famous tennis club. A bar set on the Praia da Luz (“beach of light”) has a row of deckchairs on a wooden platform all year round; after a swim, you can watch the sun set here as you enjoy a glass of old port...
The art of doing nothing in Porto
The 270,000 inhabitants of inner Porto display a remarkable taste for lounging about and idleness… Here people like to take their time, whether having a strong coffee, reading a newspaper or going into one of the city’s many bookshops. Two places are symbolic of this art of living in Porto.
First of all the Majestic Café, located in the city’s busiest and liveliest shopping street, rua Santa Catarina. Inaugurated in 1921, the Majestic has kept its fine Art Nouveau facade, its black leather seats, and its richly decorated walls and mirrors. This cafe, where you can spend hours reading or daydreaming, is an institution which hosts numerous cultural events: poetry sessions, exhibitions, concerts and book launches.
The other main place is the Lello & Irmao bookshop, rua das Carmelitas. Created in 1881 by man of letters José Pinto de Sousa Lello, this bookshop was also at that time a prestigious publishing house in Portugal. In 1996, the Spanish daily El País dubbed it “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. Lello & Irmao is in fact a monument of neo-Gothic architecture, with its decorated white façade, large stained-glass window, stuccowork, woodwork and double staircase evoking the solemn atmosphere of an old monastic library... A unique place where you can also have coffee on the first floor.
Two attractions in the heights of the city testify to Porto’s cultural and architectural vitality.
The Casa da Música, the city’s new concert hall, was inaugurated in April 2005. The project dates back to 2001 when Porto was named European Capital of Culture. It is the most recent work by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, working together with Ellen Van Loon. The shape of the Casa da Música (a large irregular polyhedron) symbolises its openness to all forms of music. Its detractors and defenders of old Porto have nicknamed it “the boulder”...
Nevertheless, it has been successfully integrated into the urban environment, since the building is located near the large Praça d'Albuquerque, a strategic crossroads with respect to both traffic and urban architecture. Here we are between the historic city, the bourgeois 19th century districts and the modern north and west business districts. But it is, above all, inside the Casa da Musica that Rem Koolhaas has given free rein to his pop imagination, directly inspired by the 1970s! The main hall, rectangular in shape and open to external light, was designed with the help of Japanese acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota. Perfectly soundproofed glass boxes give onto the hall, where parents can leave their children while they attend a concert.
But Porto is also the city of the architect Alvaro Siza Vieira, winner of the Prizker Prize. This designer of contemporary shapes, prone to using the most advanced technologies, came to the attention of the general public during the 1998 world fair in Lisbon, for which he created the Portuguese Pavilion. In the 1990s, Siza Vieira was commissioned to design the Museum of Contemporary Art in Serralves Park (near the district of Foz). The architecture of the building, both imposing and open to daylight, on the other hand fits harmoniously into the park’s 18 hectares (44.5 acres).
Considered the most beautiful garden in Porto, this romantic park dominating the city originally belonged to the Count of Vizela. This art lover also had a house built here (now open to the public) which is typical of 1930s architecture, and entrusted the interior decoration to the greatest names of the time: Lalique, Brandt, Perzel and Ruhlmann. It is fascinating indeed to compare these two avant-garde architectural creations, separated by a large French-style garden!