Travel tales

Getting lost in Porto’s old town

Porto's Ribeira old town

Porto might be Portugal’s second-largest city today, a modern metropolis home to 240,000 people, but the heart of it still lies in the medieval old city – the Ribeira. The Ribeira district begins along the banks of the River Douro and spreads up into the hills behind. Straddling the River Duoro, the arching ironwork of the Dom Luís I bridge dominates Porto’s waterfront. Porto’s known as the ‘city of bridges’ and this is one of six linking it to the Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank, where many port lodges are based.

Read more: Just a drop: A port wine tasting in Porto

Port barge under the Dom Luis Bridge in Porto

Port barge under the Dom Luis Bridge

It’s a imposing sight, whether you’re looking at it or looking out from the top of its 45-metre-high arch. The Dom Luís Bridge was built by Téophile Seyrig, the business partner of France’s Gustav Eiffel, who’d already worked with him on the similar-looking Maria Pia Bridge in Porto, Eiffel’s last project before his Tower. It stretches over 170 metres between the river banks and was the longest arch bridge in the world when it opened in 1886. Today the lower level is used by cars and the upper one by the metro and pedestrians soaking up the views across Porto and Gaia. From the top of the bridge you get a bird’s-eye view down onto the Ribeira’s maze of streets and colourful buildings, and I couldn’t wait to get down there to explore.

On an unseasonably warm, sunny February day, the cafés and restaurants that line the waterfront were packed. We took a walk along to the main riverfront square, the Praça da Ribeira, which is surrounded by tall narrow buildings covered in tiles glazed in pastel shades of red, yellow and blue. The square is filled with café tables which overflow with tourists in the summer. But as you move away from the bustle of the square by just a few streets it’s like you’ve suddenly stepped a few centuries back in time.

Porto's Ribeira old town, Portugal

The colourful buildings in the Praça da Ribeira

The Ribeira has been the commercial centre of Porto ever since Roman times, when the shipping port which gives the city its name was set up here. Over the next 2000 years it grew as into a major hub for shipments from across the world, and the mix of architecture that developed over the years means it’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But today the Ribeira has a feeling of decaying grandeur, with the elegant buildings that cascade down the hillside towards the river falling into disrepair.

From the Praça da Ribeira we headed up steep stone stairs cut into the hill. Pathways twist and turn through narrow alleyways and buildings towering above almost block out the light, so it doesn’t take long to get completely disorientated, but that’s the best way to see the Ribeira. Many of the buildings are deserted, left to crumble as younger residents leave Porto to live in the suburbs. It’s estimated a fifth of the old town’s buildings have been abandoned, but there are signs of life even in the most dilapidated-looking streets.

Narrow alleyways in Porto's Ribeira old town, Portugal

Steep alleyways leading to the Dom Luis Bridge

Washing lines stretch across the alleyways, wrought-iron balconies are filled to bursting with plant pots and there are satellite dishes perched on the tiled frontages. And then you come across hidden gems, like a tiny neighbourhood restaurant tucked away down a side street. Or a Baroque church with an beautifully tiled frontage. Or a viewpoint where the buildings drop away and you can see out over the terracotta-tiled rooftops across the city, down to the Duoro river and on towards the sea.

You also come across construction sites, where parts of the Ribeira are being restored and redeveloped. The district’s layout and medieval buildings are being preserved so repairing the Ribeira is a slow and pricey process. But until then its a place to wander and lose yourself – until you suddenly find yourself at the top of the hill and you’re back among the people, the cars, buses and trams of twenty-first century Porto.

Tram in Porto's Ribeira old town, Portugal

One of Porto’s vintage trams

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Wandering through the streets of Porto's medieval old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with crumbling buildings cascading down towards the River Duoro.

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  • Reply
    jpilkington09
    April 5, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Porto has been on my wishlist for a while now, but I think it’s moved a big higher up after this. Would you recommend Porto over Lisbon?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      Porto was fantastic, though I haven’t made it to Lisbon yet so I can’t do a comparison, but that’s high on the list for a visit soon!

  • Reply
    beyondlisbon
    April 5, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I’m honestly surprised that, unlike a lot of other bloggers, you actually got your info right and can see the charm of Porto for what it is! Kudos to you! 😀
    Being a Portuguese I’d just like to say to jpilkington09: Porto and Lisbon are very different places! 😉 Different types of things to do/see and different environments, as well.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      Thank you, glad that I managed to get across a bit of the feel of the city, I really enjoyed my trip and hope to explore a bit more of the area sometime soon.

  • Reply
    Julie Dawn Fox
    April 5, 2013 at 11:38 am

    One of my favourite things to do in Porto is wander around the streets, noticing little details and catching unexpected views. It really is a mix of old and new and full of character, especially in the Ribeira where time seems to have stopped for some of the residents who still use the stone washbasins in the street.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      When you see the old ladies chatting across their balconies while they hang out the washing it really was like going back in time!

  • Reply
    Shade of Red
    April 5, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Great timing! I am going to Porto for my birthday in June, and only just booked my flight from London. Thank you so much for the post, it is very useful, especially for someone who’s never been to Portugal before.
    http://www.shadeofredblog.com

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:21 pm

      Hope you have a great trip – should be nice and sunny in June too!

  • Reply
    aBitofCulture
    April 5, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I preferred Porto to Lisbon but they’re both world class cities. Porto seemed to me a bit smaller and more manageable and chilled for a weekend break. My favourite memory of Ribeira was the local scallies climbing on the bridge and jumping off to impress passers by.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      I think I’m going to have to take a trip to Lisbon soon to do a proper comparison! Did love the laid back feel of Porto though and as you say it’s a good size for a weekend trip.

  • Reply
    Andrew Petcher
    April 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Some great pictures that reminded me of my two visits there. Thanks.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks, it was such a photogenic place I took hundreds and had trouble narrowing them down!

  • Reply
    pinkpearline
    April 5, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Wow.. I never knew about this great place!! beautiful photos!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      Thanks, it’s well worth a visit, especially if you are interested in photography.

  • Reply
    holidayaddict
    April 5, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I’m off to Lisbon this weekend – it’s my first trip to Portugal and I know I’ll already want to return so I can go to Porto, too. It honestly looks amazing. I love your photos.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      Have a great time! Look forward to reading about your trip and seeing what you make of Lisbon.

  • Reply
    ff13newsreport
    April 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

    gee…I recongized immediatly ! Althought, for a while, after, I though it was Instanbul! It’s ok guys, I’m from Portugal 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      It does look quite similar to Istanbul – another great city!

  • Reply
    ducori
    April 6, 2013 at 1:08 am

    Reblogged this on Ducori.

  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    April 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    We found Lisbon to be full of what were once quite splendid decayed buildings, just like the ones you found in Porto, when we were there the other week, you can read about our firts day there here http://shipscooksstuff.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/lisbon-europes-steampunk-central/

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      It does look quite similar doesn’t it? I really liked the whole scruffy, faded look of the city.

  • Reply
    memographer
    April 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Great city overview, Lucy!
    I might be able to visit Portugal when in Spain.But I will not have time for more than one city. Have you been in Lisbon? Which city did you like better? Was Porto defected by 18 century earthquake? Thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 9, 2013 at 6:02 pm

      I haven’t been to Lisbon yet but would really like to next time. I don’t think the earthquake reached as far north as Porto so it didn’t cause any damage here.

  • Reply
    Tricia A. Mitchell
    April 10, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Lucy, enjoyed this background information and timeless photos. Your post transported me back to a 2003 summertime visit to Porto and Lisbon. In fact, we just enjoyed a vintage bottle of Port that had been aging all this time.

  • Reply
    Sofie
    April 18, 2013 at 9:48 am

    I’ll be in Portugal this summer and Porto is definitely on the list. Just not sure how much time I should spend there. A reccommendation?
    Thanks!:)

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      I spent three nights there which was enough for a full day exploring the city and a day port tasting, though you could probably squeeze that into two nights depending on your travel time. Enjoy your trip!

  • Reply
    Blogger of the Month: April 2013
    May 1, 2013 at 9:25 am

    […] what Lucy made of Porto’s old town when she wrote about its architecture and hidden gems, over at On the Luce. Wandering around the streets, Lucy discovered colourful buildings and something different around […]

  • Reply
    katafrass
    May 9, 2013 at 6:06 am

    I’m heading to Portugal in the fall (among other places) and up until I read your post, really didn’t have any ideas about where to go. Porto is definitely on my list now. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      Great, hope you enjoy it and the rest of Portugal!

  • Reply
    Algarve
    July 30, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Nice Post about Porto. It is really a nice City in Portugal, there are many, specially when you visit the old part, as you say, it is really like time has stopped there… Sadly, and considering the hard times Portugal is going through at the moment (financially) I would recommend to explore this beautiful country, and mainly its amazing old city centers, as long as they are this mystic: somewhere between majestic and ruins. I love this country!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 31, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Thanks I really loved Portugal and have already booked my next trip, to Lagis in the Algarve this October, so look forward to seeing more of the country.

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