As the local saying goes: “Coimbra sings; Braga prays; Lisbon shows off; and Porto works.” The city’s fascination lies very much in the life of the place, with its prosperous business core surrounded by smart suburbs and elegant villas, side by side with a heart of cramped streets and ancient alleys that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Classified Area. Together with Rotterdam, Porto was declared European City of Culture in 2001.
The stifled streets of the old town rarely permit any sort of overall view, so it’s a good idea to climb the 250 steps to the Baroque Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos to get your bearings.
Not much goes on in the daytime at the waterfront since the big ships stopped coming through, but this is definitely the center for nightlife. To the west, a statue of Porto-born Henry the Navigator faces the glass-domed former stock exchange and the back of São Francisco, perhaps the most extraordinary church in Porto. Outside it looks like an ordinary Gothic construction, but the interior has been transformed by an unbelievably ornate attack of eighteenth-century refurbishment. Don’t miss the church’s small museum, which consists largely of artifacts salvaged from the monastery that once stood nearby.
The Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis at Rua de Dom Manuel II, over to the west behind the city hospital, was the first national museum in Portugal. Its collection includes glass, ceramics and a formidable array of eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings, as well as the late-nineteenth-century sculptures of Soares dos Reis (his O Desterro, The Exile, is probably the best-known work of its kind in Portugal). Follow the road past the museum, or take any bus from the Cordoaria stop except #6 and #18, and you’ll come to the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, a peaceful park dominated by a huge domed pavilion which now serves as an exhibition hall. In summer the park is home to a vast fair. On the far side, across Rua Entre Quintas, stands the Solar do Vinho do Porto, where you can sample one of hundreds of varieties of port in air-conditioned splendor – a good prelude to visiting Vila Nova.
Information courtesy of Travelnow and Rough City Guides Lda.