Porto is Portugal’s second largest city. With roughly 200,000 inhabitants it is less than half the size of it’s rival city and capital of Portugal, Lisbon. But arguably Porto’s smaller size is part of its charm.
During your stay you will find a city with a rich history and fierce pride as it shoulders an economic crisis that shows its scars in vacant and crumbling buildings among expansive gilded churches. The contrast is intriguing and you will find yourself wanting to learn more while enjoying all of the amazing food, history and panoramic vistas that Porto has to offer.
Here are a few must-do activities that will help you get to know Porto and understand why a visit here is well worth your efforts.
1. Discover the Portuguese Tile – Azulejo
Azulejo are the famous tiles that adorn many of the interior and exterior of the buildings in Portugal. In Porto you will find samples everywhere you look. But don’t miss the interior of the train station. The tile murals are not only beautiful but they also depict important stories about the history of Porto.
2. Cruise down the Douro River
There are many operators that will take you for a tour of the Douro River for about 10 euros. You will be treated to a view of the 6 bridges in the area and magnificent views of the city. Most operators throw in a visit to a wine cellar for a sampling of Porto’s famous Port Wine. There is also an option to take a longer trip along the river to the Douro wine region where the Porto grapes are grown.
3. Meet the little French girl – Francesinha
Porto has a lively café culture. You will find several restaurants lining the major city streets and the majority of them will invite you to try Porto’s most famous sandwich — the Francesinha (roughly translated as the “little French girl”). But don’t let the name fool you, this “little” sandwich will cost you 2000 calories. It is piled high with sausage, ham, beef,, and cheese and is swimming in a slightly spicy beer sauce, usually surrounded with fries. For one of the best head to Cafe Santiago.
4. Taste the Wine
Or more accurately, the famous Port wine. You can get a sample at any number of restaurants in Porto, but interestingly all of the Port Wine is actually aged and stored across the Duoro River in Vila Nova de Gaia. Tours and tastings are available at each of the wineries. You can also view replicas of the boats (rabel0s) used to transport the wine from the Duoro Region where the grapes are grown and pressed.
5. Take a Free Porto Walking Tour
There are several tours available but we chose to join the Wild Walkers Tour. They actually divide the tour into a morning and afternoon tour highlighting different areas of the city. This is partially because you will need to be prepared to hike up some hills to see some of the cities most impressive sights.
Highlights include the ancient wall that once surrounded all of Porto, gilded churches, and one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Well, you be the judge.
6. Lose yourself in the side streets
There are stone steps and narrow cobbled streets that beg to be explored throughout Porto. Each neighborhood has a slightly different look and feel. It’s fun to just wander along listening to music and neighbors calling out to each other and smell amazing things coming from the kitchens (you can learn more about them by taking the walking tour).
7. Sample the fresh seafood
There are plenty of options as the Portuguese love their grilled fish. The area best known for seafood is Cascais, accessible by bus or metro. Or you can also head to the hundred year old Mercado do Bolhão.
There the chef will assist you in picking out fresh fish from the vendor next door and grill it for you. There are also restaurants grilling fish outside of their restaurants in the summer. Difficult to go wrong!
8. Discover the Street Art
There are examples of tagging on buildings in Porto, as in most cities. But if you look closer you will also find works of art. One of the best known street artist, Hazul, signs his trademark work, which often depicts wildlife or religious themes.
9. Take a food tour
What better way to get to know a city than to be guided to the best the area has to offer by a local? For 55 euros Andre of Taste of Porto Food Tours will introduce you to chefs, food vendors and restauranteurs and treat you to 6 different tastings.
Some options: Porto’s best slow cooked pork sandwich, Chaves pastries (flaky pastries that come in savory and sweet varieties) and local wines, pastries, cured meats and cheese. Andre’s passion for Porto and the food is infectious. And he’ll give you great recommendations about things to do and places to eat while in Porto.
10. Visit the San Francisco Church
The San Francisco Church of the most important and beautiful churches in Porto. It is thought that the interior is decorated with more than 400 kg of gold leaf. It also contains the catacombs where remains of Franciscan friars and some dignitaries of the city are buried. When Napoleon conquered Porto he reportedly utilized the gilded church as a stable for his horses as a way to mocking the city.
While wandering the streets it is hard to miss that Porto has suffered during the current economic crisis. There is currently 35.5% unemployment for those in the age range of 18-25 and 14% overall. And it doesn’t take too long to find an abandoned building or one that is in disrepair. We heard several reasons for this.
Owners of buildings in the historic center must adhere to strict guidelines before renovating making it financially unfeasible. If a building front is to crumble on its own, however, the owner is then free to make necessary changes. Also Porto has a history of utilizing very strict guidelines regarding rent control that has created disincentives for landlord’s to upgrade homes that are already a financial drain. Lastly we learned that many of the buildings in the downtown area are owned by foreign investors who maintain high rent on their properties and gain high tax advantages by leaving their properties vacant.
Despite these challenges things are improving. Employment rates are beginning to rise, some buildings in the downtown area are being renovated and turned into hotels and rent control and renovation restrictions are easing. The future of Porto is uncertain. But if you speak with the people who live there you will find a great deal of hope in the future and pride in all that Porto has to offer.
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