Climbing up a steep cobbled laneway in the centre of Porto, I paused outside the open doorway of a windowless carpenter’s shop, partly to rest and partly to look inside. Piles of lumber rested against the bare walls, old wooden crates full of sundry items littered the concrete floor, and the room was illuminated by a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. A man in his early seventies was pressing a chisel against a stick of wood spinning on a lathe, making what looked like giant candlesticks, his grey cardigan flecked in wood chips and sawdust.
It was just the kind of old-worldy place you expect to find in an ancient city such as Porto. But in Portugal’s second-largest city, the old mixes with the new in an exuberant mishmash on almost every street. Wandering the narrow, hilly streets in the old quarter, I saw a woman wearing plastic bags inside her shoes hawking fish outside a boutique selling artisanal wallets made of cork.
Just around the corner, I wandered into A Vida Portuguesa, a quirky kind of department store that sells everything from gardening tools to stationary to shaving cream to smoked sardines. Traditional Portuguese products packaged in a way that make design lovers swoon mingled with products so inventive and clever they make you smile. Housed in a gorgeous Art Nouveau building with a stunning wooden staircase, it’s a metaphor for Porto itself—honouring tradition, while blazing the trail forward.
One of Europe’s most underrated destinations, Porto has somehow managed to preserve its traditional character while also embracing bohemian cool, something like a mix of Barcelona and Bordeaux. And equally surprising, tourism hasn’t spoiled it yet. There are blessedly few international chain stores, but also quite a few old, beautiful buildings that lie abandoned. The younger generation, however, hasn’t moved away they’ve moved in, converting the skeletons of old glory into fresh and modern shops and restaurants right alongside the old ones. Granted, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s going in the right direction.
After a coffee on the stately Liberdade Square, lined with grand baroque buildings made of granite and the Palacio das Cardosas, now a five-star InterContinental Hotel, I walked over to the Sao Bento railway station, regularly voted one of the most beautiful in the world. The magnificent vestibule is decorated with over 20,000 tiles painted in exquisite detail by Jorge Colaço in the early 20th century, a work that took 14 years to complete. The soaring murals celebrate seminal moments in Portuguese history, as well as the history of transportation.
“The Spanish sent Columbus to find India but instead he found the Dominican Republic,” I overheard a tour guide say. “The Portuguese sent Vasco de Gama to find India,” she said with a smile, “and he did.”
The Portuguese are rightly proud of their history, but the station’s metro system itself is no slouch, either. Located two levels down from the vestibule, the trains are as efficient and modern as any in Europe. I took the D train to cross the Duoro over the imposing double-decked Dom Luís I iron bridge.
This side of the river is no longer the city of Porto, it’s Vila Nova de Gaia, or as the everyone there says, just Gaia. There’s a healthy rivalry between the two cities. Portuenses say with a wink that the best thing about Gaia is the view of Porto. I have to admit, from the top deck of the Dom Luís I bridge, it is impressive. The multi-coloured houses of Porto decorate the hillside like Lego blocks, and the wide, flat Douro snakes around the city in an elegant curve on its way to the Atlantic, just visible on the horizon.
From the station I took a cable car down to the riverside in Gaia, flying over the tiled roofs of winery after winery. The British made port famous around the world, as well as the city synonymous with the wine, Porto. But ironically, port never even enters the city of Porto, except to be drunk, of course. The grapes come from the vineyards upriver, and all the wineries, without exception, are located in Gaia. Go figure.
As tourists lounged in the sun along the river, I walked my way past the flotilla of rabelos, the flat-bottomed river boats that once brought all the grapes to Gaia in the days before the dams that now block the way. The ritzy facades of wineries exuded wealth and tradition, and there were plenty of café tables on the sidewalk to sit down and let the history seep into your bones. But I decided to cross back over into Porto on the lower deck of the bridge. In the postcard-perfect Ribeiro neighbourhood, I stepped over a massive iron mooring ring dating back to when fisherman brought cod back from the Grand Banks, and sat down at a table to enjoy a Porto Tonico. A new take on an old wine, it’s a refreshing mix of white port and tonic water, served with ice.
Suitably primed for lunch, I was ready to tackle Porto’s iconic dish, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Francesinha sandwich. Legend has it that a Portuguese chef in Paris was inspired by the French classic croque-monsieur ham-and-cheese sandwich (Francesinha means little Frenchie in Portuguese). He took what was already a hearty sandwich and turned up the decadence to 11. Best had at lunch for digestive reasons—though it’s also a favourite coup de grâce for late-night revellers—the Francesinha boasts layers of thick ham on top of sausage on top of steak, enrobed in melted cheese surrounded by a moat of sauce involving beer and tomatoes. With french fries on the side, naturally. I confronted a half of one at a local favourite slightly off the tourist path called Alfândega Douro, and marvelled at how anybody could finish a whole one.
Strolling back towards the Ribeiro district, I stopped at Miss’Opo, a cavernous concrete warehouse filled with an eclectic collection of modern art and antiques, where you can buy everything from 19th century silverware to Royal Enfield motorcycles to surfboards. A haven for designers and artists who come to sip coffee at the bar, or sprawl out on the rustic wooden benches outside in the afternoon sun, Miss’Opo resists an easy label. It’s a restaurant, a café, an exhibition space, a store, and, oh yeah, they’ve also got rooms for rent.
I could have taken one of the cute, antique street cars back to the centre of town, but they were sardined with tourists, and besides it was a nice day and a short walk. Past tiled houses decorated with laundry lines bowing under the weight of wet clothes flapping in the breeze, I came across the dour Gothic exterior of the Church of São Francisco, built in the 15th century. As if to make up for the outside, the inside is adorned with an extravagant ceiling of gilt wood work, suggesting they had so much gold at one point they didn’t know quite what else to do with it.
From there, I started the ascent back to my apartment up the charming Rua das Flores. Nothing is very far in downtown Porto, but leg-burning elevation changes are always involved. The hills add an undeniable beauty to the city, but boy, you pay for it. It helps you understand why the many calories of the Francesinha are so important here. But when you consider both sides of the deal, I think you can safely call it a win-win.