Porto / May 13, 2018. By Susan Connolly
From a UNESCO heritage site to one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, eating a francesinha to a stroll over the Douro River. We’ve put together a first timer’s guide to Porto of essential things to eat, see and do.
You can take a bus tour or a trip on a tram to get a feel for the city, I prefer the tram, but you get better views on the bus tour. I always take friends on a river tour too, because you get a different perspective of the city from the river. There is also a cable car ride, which is amazing at twilight when the city looks so charming. One of the things I really like about Porto is that the city centre is so walkable, so if you have time potter around the side streets you never know what you’ll find. Porto is the most wonderful quirky mix of old and new.
Avenida dos Aliados, in the city centre (Baixa) of Porto is a good place to start a tour on foot. Some lovely buildings, statues and the town hall at the top of the avenue. At the opposite end of the avenue to the town hall is São Bento train station. It is easy to find and well worth a visit even if you don’t take a train. 20,000 hand painted tiles( azulejos) on the walls in the entrance hall. The art work represents scenes from country life such as pilgrimages and farming activities, as well as episodes from Portuguese history.
A great way to get to a spectacular view of the city is to climb to the top of the Clérigos Tower a monumental tower at the back of the Clérigos church. You need to be fit though as there are 225 steps to climb before you reach the top. From there you can see the terracotta roofs of the historic centre of Porto stretching down to the River Douro and across the river. Entrance tickets to the tower cost €5 book here to avoid the queues
Photo Courtesy José Paulo Andrade
Nearby is Livraria Lello one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. It was built in 1906 and is famous for its Gothic architecture and amazing winding staircase. This staircase has been the inspiration for many set designers and inspired the library in Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling lived in Porto in the early 90’s teaching English just before she published Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. It costs €4 to visit the bookshop and you’ll get your money back if you buy a book. You have to purchase your ticket from a kiosk at the other side of the street. The tickets are only valid on the day of purchase and sometimes it can get very busy. You can also buy vouchers online and book your slot to avoid the queues, online tickets cost €5.50.
Tip: Lunch time is usually quiet
Just down the road from Livararia Lello is a A Vida Portuguesa, well worth a visit. The shop showcases quality Portuguese brands everything from soap to toys, ceramics and food all with reto- style packaging intact. A great place to buy a gift for that someone special in your life, no kitschy souvenirs here.
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Francesinha is a typical snack from Porto which is really more of a meal. A sandwich layered with a cured pork sausage, ham, minute steak or roast meat, covered with melted cheese and a trademark tomato-beer sauce. The secret is in the sauce !. If you are really hungry you can add a fried egg on top and accompany it with fries. In the city centre, Capa Na Baixa in Praça Dom João I serves excellent francesinhas if you want to avoid the queues at Café Santiago and the service is very good too, though it can be busy at lunch time as it is popular with some of the local businessmen. No francesinha is complete without a nice cool glass of Super Bock. Lunch for two around €25.
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The bustling Ribeira with market stalls, cafés and restaurants is a UNESCO designated world heritage site. Don’t miss the square and the bronze sculpture by José Rodiques also known as the cube by the locals, it sits over the remains of a 17th century fountain. There is also a monumental fountain three storeys high.
Just around the corner on Rua da Alfândega don’t miss Casa do Infante (House of the Prince), where Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. Prince Henry is famous for his patronage of the voyages of discovery. Long before other Europeans braved treacherous seas, Prince Henry’s quest for rare spices, material wealth and new lands fuelled the Age of Exploration.
The two tier Luís I bridge stretches over the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia, it was built by a student of Gustav Eiffel. From here you will have great views downriver to the port wine warehouses that mark the opposite side nearly all offer tours but it is the views of Porto that are the most spectacular.
I’ve taken lots of friends on a tour of Porto and these are some of the things they most enjoyed. Are you inspired to visit Porto ? If you do visit be sure to come back and share your thoughts in the comments below.