The Dom Luis I Bridge is one of the most striking features of Porto. It spans the Douro River from the historic Ribeira neighbourhood of the city to Vila Nova de Gaia, where you will find the majority of the famous port wine cellars. The bridge is a stunning two-tier structure, which opened to traffic in 1886 and was designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel (of the Parisian tower fame) and is well worth exploring during a holiday in Porto.
Despite the bridge being the most well-known thing spanning disparate entities in Porto, the city itself does just that. It links the past with the future in a way that sees neither compromised and works for a harmonious relationship that offers so much to the inquisitive visitor. Porto is a destination that is deeply rooted in its past, with fascinating traditions, recipes that have endured centuries and architecture that reflects the periods in which it was built and the people that required it at the time.
While Porto has a strong sense of its history, time marches on and it is a city that refuses to stay stuck in the past. It celebrates all that has gone before, while firmly forging a strong future for itself. You only need to look at the geometric angles of Casa da Musica – a contemporary art space – to see the architecture of Porto evolving. And the concert hall is not the only building displaying modern design ideas in the city. Wherever you go – from Downtown to Boavista – innovative architecture meets you around the most unexpected of corners.
A world away from Lisbon
Porto may lie a mere 300 kilometres from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, but the two cities could not be much further apart in terms of atmosphere and outlook. When it comes to planning your time in Porto, it’s a good idea not to just think about visiting the sights, but experiencing the city itself, as wandering the Ribeira district at a leisurely pace is an attraction in itself.
While Lisbon has all the draw of a capital city, the tourism industry in Porto is in its relative infancy. What this does is offer up a more authentic look at Portuguese life and culture, with many of the best things to see, hidden gems as opposed to big ticket names. With so much history, a gothic influence and an alternative outlook, Porto is a great destination for those looking for something a little different. And if you’re an oenophile (a lover of wines), then there certainly is no contest – Porto wins hands down.
Often overlooked in the past, the world is beginning to open its eyes to the potential of Portuguese cuisine. Salted codfish is the national ingredient and is rehydrated and used in dishes throughout the country in so many ways it’s impossible to count them. When it comes to the ultimate dish to have originated in Porto, you need to look no further than the francesinha. This meat-laden sandwich is covered in melted cheese and served with a tomato and beer flavoured sauce for the ultimate in comfort food.
While trying traditional meals at tiny family-run restaurants is an absolute must while in Porto, like many other elements of the city, do not miss the cutting edge cuisine coming out of it while looking into the past. Porto has more than its fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants, with The Yeatman being among many pushing the boundaries. With an astonishing wine cellar and just as spectacular views of the city, it’s a foodie experience that is hard to beat anywhere in the world, let alone Portugal.
Suggested food itineraries
Deciding where to have your meals each day can be difficult, so take a note of these three sets of eateries to ensure you get the most of your culinary experiences in Porto.
Breakfast: Confeitaria do Bolhao on Rua Formosa
Lunch: Café Majestic on Rua Santa Caterina
Dinner: Pedro Lemos on Rua do Padre Luis Cabral in the evening
Drinks: Finish the day at Labirintho on Rua de Nossa Senhora de Fatima
Breakfast: The Traveller Caffe on Rua de Passos Manuel
Lunch: Indulge in a francesinha at Café Santiago on Rua de Passos Manuel
Dinner: ODE Porto Winehouse on Rua Largo de Terreiro
Drinks: Sip port in the shadow of the Dom Luis I Bridge at Bar Ponte Pensil
Breakfast: Antiga Leitaria on Rua de Passos Manuel
Lunch: Feast your eyes on the choice at Mercado do Bom Sucesso
Dinner: Eat salted cod in any number of ways at Bacalhau on Muro dos Bacalhoeiros
Drinks: Take in the views from Botequim Nostalgic on Praca da Ribeira
Port wine cellars
Despite the name, port wine is mainly matured in the cellars found on the Gaia side of the Douro River. A very pleasant afternoon can be spent touring the port wine lodges, finding out about the history of the tipple, how the British were involved in many of the brands during their earliest stages and of course, sampling a few. You’ll discover the differences between ruby, tawny, white and even rose port and develop a new-found appreciation for the fortified wine.
The British connection
Port is now considered a wholly Portuguese product, but it was the British who brought their love of fortified wine to the region. A few families were responsible for the trend and took advantage of the perfect grape-growing climate of the region within close proximity of the city. The helped the port industry to evolve and exported the resulting wines back home and to other parts of the world. It was an arrangement that proved profitable for both the British and the Portuguese and the legacy of this arrangement can be seen in the port wine cellars and other areas of Porto to this day.
Top five world-class sights in Porto
There are plenty of places you are likely to want to include on your itinerary during your stay in Porto, but there are some that are truly unmissable. These are our top five must-sees to get you started.
Lello & Irmao Bookshop
Stepping inside the Lello Bookshop is like walking into another world. One where beauty and books are the only things that matter. A clue to the majesty of what lies behind the doors can be found in the stunningly ornate neo-gothic façade of the shop on Rua das Carmelitas. Dominated by a rich, curved wooden staircase at its centre, a stained glass ceiling and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls, it’s not surprising that the shop is said to have been an inspiration to J K Rowling. Follow in the footsteps of the Harry Potter author, who lived in Porto in the 1990s, and enjoy a coffee on the second floor while you take it all in.
Another location said to have been a favourite haunt of Ms Rowling in Porto is the Café Majestic. Its other credentials include being one of the oldest cafes in the city, which oozes with belle epoque style. You can visit for a coffee, but there are also some delicious dishes on the menu, meaning you can enjoy a leisurely lunch while soaking in the beautiful decoration that surrounds you.
Porto’s cathedral is held up as a shining example of Romanesque architecture, but what actually makes it more fascinating is the fact that in reality, it has a number of styles within it, even if Romanesque is the most obviously evident. You can trace the fortunes and influences exerted on the city of Porto from its cathedral, whose 12th and 13th-century origins have been added to over the years. Step inside and see everything from traditional azulejos – blue and white tiles – to the gothic cloister. As the place where Henry the Navigator was baptised, its historical importance cannot be over-emphasised.
Dom Luis I Bridge
Designed by Teophile Seyrig, Porto’s most famous bridge stretches for 172 metres and measures 44.6 metres in height. It is a beautiful iron construction, which replaced an earlier bridge, the granite posts of which can still be seen on the Porto side of the river. The Dom Luis I Bridge was named after the king of Portugal at its time of construction and one of the other crossing points of the Douro – the Maria Pia Bridge – bears the moniker of his wife.
Palacio da Bolsa
Constructed as the Stock Exchange over a 30-year period from 1842 onwards, the Palacio da Bolsa was a symbol of Porto’s standing as an economic power. With much of the furniture associated with its original purpose having been removed, it would be easy to think that the building was actually a royal palace. This also attests to the beauty of the decoration, which is mainly neoclassical but also has a number of other styles within it. One of the most impressive rooms is the Arabian Hall, which was inspired by the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra in Granada.
Grab your camera
It’s great to go home from your holiday with some fantastic snaps – whether they be to flaunt your trip on Facebook or show the family exactly where you went and what you got up to – and some classic views of Porto are a must-have. Luckily, this city is particularly picturesque and there are several places where you are guaranteed to get great vistas and the envy-inducing photos you are looking for.
The baroque tower of Clerigos Tower is beautiful to look at, but standing 76 metres tall, it also offers wonderful views of the surrounding city. Climb the 240 steps to the top and take advantage of the church’s central location to get a bird’s eye view of Porto. Snap away at the cathedral, the river and Gaia in the distance. Visit at sunset for some particularly spectacular shots.
Porto Cathedral Square
From the square where Porto’s cathedral is located, you can get a fantastic snapshot of life in the city. Not only can you peer over the walls to see the stunning old charm of the Ribeira district from a little distance away and photograph the houses, but you will also see the people of Porto relaxing and chatting with each other. From your elevated position, you may spot women playing cards in the street below, a pastime that has remained unchanged for years.
Monastery of Serra do Pilar viewpoint
Among the landmarks you’re bound to want to feature in your photos is the Dom Louis I Bridge. You can catch glimpses of it from all over Porto and Gaia, as well as get fantastic snaps from its upper level. For a wonderful perspective on it, however, be sure to head to the Monastery of Serra do Pilar viewpoint on the Gaia side of the river. Here you can see the bridge in all its glory and the city of Porto climbing up the hill behind it.
Queima das Fitas – May
Translated at the Burning of the Ribbons, this annual celebration has its origins in the academic world, with Porto’s students taking to the streets in their university colours. Representatives from each year wear a different type of typical dress for the parade and the whole city becomes involved in the various celebrations.
Festa de Sao Joao – June
Porto’s St John’s Festival is the highlight of the year and is held to honour the city’s patron saint. While the music in the street, drinking, barbecues and fireworks are all part of the fun, the most notable tradition is hitting fellow revellers over the head with a plastic hammer.
Porto Wine Fest – July
If your main reason for visiting Porto is to sample its namesake wine, then the Porto Wine Fest is the event for you. Over the course of five days, the cellars and lodges of Gaia host everything from special tastings to cookery demonstrations to help pair food with port. It all culminates in a huge sunset party on the riverside with stunning views across to Porto.