Porto is very different from Lisbon. I enjoyed Lisbon, but Porto has more of a European feel. The Ribeira is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Porto. It is filled with narrow medieval streets that are enchanting to walk. One of the areas that I enjoyed was the Cais da Ribeira, the waterfront along the river. You will find old warehouses turned into shops and restaurants, some with music to while away a pleasant evening. From any of the restaurants, you can see across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the port-wine cellars and sampling restaurants are located. This neighbourhood is located at the lowest point in Porto. If you do not feel like walking up the hills, you can take a taxi or the Funicular dos Guindais.
To get to Vila Nova de Gaia, you can take a taxi, train or walk across the iconic Dom Luis 1 bridge. The bridge has two decks, one for trains, one for vehicles. Both have pedestrian walks. The top deck has excellent views of Porto.
Once in Gaia, you can cellar-hop at several of the lodges or do sampler at one of the many lodges’ bars/restaurants. Four of the most well-known lodges are Calem, Taylor’s, Sandeman, Dow’s and Graham’s. I spent a couple of afternoons exploring this area.
If you enjoy shopping, also across the bridge is a vast department store. El Corte Ingles (The English Court) think Eaton’s if you are Canadian. There are at least six floors, each with its specialty. There are some good quality restaurants and a big supermarket — everything you want in one.
Back in Porto, there are so many things to see and do. Watch for all the Azulejos (colourful tiles) all around the city — the most famous being the Sao Bento Train Station. The mosaics which cover the walls were designed by Jorge Colaco, which depicts famous battles.
Another masterpiece by Colaco is the façade of the Church of Saint Ildefonso.
The Palacio de Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) was built to be the seat of Porto’s Commercial Association. It truly is built like a palace and is very impressive on the inside. Well worth a visit.
Whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not, a visit to Livraria Lello, one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, should be on your must-see list. JK Rowling lived and worked in Porto in the early ’90s. It is said that she was inspired to base the Hogwarts Library and the Flourish and Blotts shop on this library. It would be best if you arrived early to get a chance to see this very busy bookstore. You need to buy your ticket – 5 E – at the corner of Rua da Carmelitas and Armazens do Castelo. The store will open about 15 minutes before the bookstore does. The cost of the ticket will be taken off any purchase you make at the bookstore.
Another visit should be made to MacDonald’s restaurant. That’s right, MacDonald’s. It is in a historical building. When MacDonald’s bought the building, they kept all the architectural elements, including the chandeliers. It is amazing. I think MacDonald’s should step up the design on all their other buildings.
Some of the food that Porto is known for include the Francesinha. You need an appetite or someone to share this. It is a sandwich with ham, sausage and steak covered with melted cheese and a gooey egg. It is delicious. Another dish is Tripas a Moda do Porto, a trip stew with beans and rice. I did not try that one. Another specialty is dishes made with Bacalhau, which is dried codfish. There is a restaurant across the river in Gaia called Bacalhau, where they only serve dishes made with the dried cod. I had a lovely meal there.
There are amazing little restaurants tucked away all over Porto. I had some fantastic meals and was entertained by street musicians.
A visit to Igreja de Sao Francisco is not for the faint-hearted. Beneath the church are the catacombs where the Franciscan monks and Porto’s wealthiest families are buried. There are also thousands of human bones. You can view some of these through a glass window in the floor. In the church, there is the Tree of Jesse, a wooden sculpture depicting the family tree of Jesus.
Getting around in Porto is quite easy. The local transportation is excellent. Depending on where your accommodations are, it is easy to walk around, but having said that, it is very hilly. I got a lot of exercise.