Those who return from Porto can’t stop raving about it. Stunning geography combined with a rich history, culture and cuisine – and all at the cheapest price in Western Europe.
I had an interesting feeling when a taxi driver dropped me off on the Gaia side of the Dom Luis I bridge in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Confused by the route and the price, I accidentally overpaid the driver. Looking at the Euros I had just placed in his hand, the driver looked at me strangely and handed me back five, pointing out my mistake and adding, “It would be wrong for me to take all ten.”
Having been shaken by taxi drivers so many times in New York, Prague and Istanbul – including one who simply stepped on the accelerator after I got out and handed him a large handful of bills for money through the window – such honesty seemed almost miraculous. I took it as a good omen.
The next shocking sight was 100 yards away in the centre of the metal arch span of the bridge. Below, the Douro divides the Porto cinematically into two main parts, just as the Bosphorus did for Istanbul. Terracotta-roofed buildings climb the sloping banks, while on the flatter parts, fishing and tourist boats bob on the shimmering waters. The air is still laced with subtle Middle Eastern and African spices that were deeply imprinted in Porto’s DNA during the 157-year Moorish occupation. You can hear it in the tunes of the guitars, see it in the weave of the carpets, and taste it in the exotic flavors of the cuisine.
From the bridge, you can also see one of Porto’s top tourist attractions, Ribeira, whose vibrant façade stands out from the surrounding neighbourhoods. It’s a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and features on many Porto postcards, which was my main goal for the morning, and I wanted to arrive before the dense crowd of tourists.
Sé do Porto
The road down from the bridge first passes Sé do Porto, a Romanesque cathedral that has existed in some form or another since the 12th century. Considering its rich history, its décor is as humble among Portuguese cathedrals as the wide square outside. However, the view of the city is invigorating, or at least romantic, with at least one couple nestled in the corner, and my heartbeat only quickens as I jump into the narrow, sloping streets below, aiming roughly for the Ribiera.
Poking my nose at every curious angle in the narrow, winding alleyways, I spotted a Christian shrine in the corner of a building with a painting of two women – the first seemingly passing a baby to the second – sitting on a throne of cherubs and flowers. As I was trying to decipher the meaning, a rough-looking man, probably drunk, came swaying hurriedly towards me. In the absence of anyone else, I stiffly tried to fight it, or at least an uncomfortable burst of pleading.
Instead, he simply pointed a trembling finger at the shrine and said in a convulsive voice, “Santa Ana.” Then, almost as quickly as he’d arrived, he disappeared with a smile and a “Bom Dia,” leaving me with a heavy feeling of Christian guilt that was quickly replaced by the warmth of this man’s selfless kindness, as warm as that of the taxi driver. That funny feeling became distinct now. I fell in love with Porto.
The rest of the morning only intensified the infatuation, starting with the Ribeira, where I arrived around 9:30am to find the shopkeepers and restaurant staff extending awnings, opening windows, and dragging out tables with a certainty of rhythm brought on by routine and a culture steeped in music. Even the man in charge of the public toilets sang, as if oblivious to the putrid odors swirling around his mop. But the real color came from the gold, aquamarine, and ruby tiled buildings dappled by the reflective glitter of the passing Douro River.
Although Porto can’t compare in tourism numbers to cities like Paris, Venice, and Barcelona, the crowds are still great enough to make accessing the most popular sights a significant challenge by late morning. With Ribeira beginning to fill, I ducked quickly into the baroque and gothic Church of Saint Francis, then made a beeline for the Clérigos Tower, which you can climb for one of the best views of the city. Unfortunately it was two-hour wait. The rules required staying on the premises (ideally in the gift shop) the entire time.
A block away at Livraria Lello, one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, it was even worse, with one line all the way down the block just to get tickets, and a second line down the opposite side of the street to actually enter.
Thankfully, such clots are few and far between in Porto. A wander around the surrounding neighborhoods – particularly the arts district along the Rua de Miguel Bombarda – proved memorable and refreshingly free of competition.
Crystal Palace Gardens
Where the street ended, Crystal Palace Gardens began, embracing more than eight acres of sculpted and terraced parkland. Just inside the entrance, five big blue letters spell out Porto, while tourists scramble for photos in front, on top, inside, and below. However, this commotion largely dissipates after rounding the domed pavilion. Here, French-style gardens step elegantly down the hillsides overlooking the Douro River, with secluded spots along the way, where couples actively embrace the romance. Indeed, if anyone got on their knees and proposed marriage, it wouldn’t be out of place. I was sorely tempted at this point to tear up my plane ticket and stay in Porto till death do I part.
My stomach brought me back to reality with a mighty rumble, and I promised it a feast for the ages if it would hold off until reaching the Mercado do Bolh?o, which had been recommended by several locals as one of the best lunch spots in the city – and a cheap one.
They did not lie. The somewhat ramshackle quasi-restaurants, squeezed inside the indoor-outdoor market, cook up the fish, meat, and vegetables sold at the adjacent stalls and serve them speedily. All three courses—potato croquettes, salad, and fish fillet—plus a large carafe of sangria totaled a mere nine euros. Once more, I was ready to drop a knee.
On that wave of romance, I headed over to the nearby Majestic Café, where J.K. Rowling supposedly sketched out the first Harry Potter book and possibly even wrote a few chapters, while working as an English teacher back in 1991. From one struggling writer to a former one: although there’s definite inspiration in the curvaceous Art Nouveau interior of glass, marble, wood and sculpture, including rosy-cheeked gods and goddesses smiling down on you, it’s hard to imagine it was ever that affordable to one who claimed, “I was as poor as it’s possible to be.”
Nonetheless, six euros is not a shocking investment for a glass of good port and actually a small price to pay for a passionate dedication. To Porto—count me now among the gushers. Muitas saudades.