The Heart Of Porto
Start: Terreiro de Sé.
Finish: Estação de São Bento.
Time: 2 1/2 hours.
Best Times: Any day between 10am and 4pm.
Worst Times: Monday through Friday from 8 to 10am and 4 to 6pm, because of heavy traffic.
The only suitable way to explore the heart of the inner city is on foot. Nearly all the major monuments are in the old part of town, and the major sights are close together. The streets are often narrow and sometimes confusing to the first-time visitor; even armed with a good map, you're likely to get lost from time to time. Long accustomed to entertaining foreigners, the people of Porto are generally friendly and hospitable, and will point you in the right direction.
Begin your tour in the heart of the old town, at:
1. Terreiro de Sé
This square is dominated by the cathedral, founded as a fortress church in the 12th century and greatly altered in the 1600s and 1700s. Square-domed towers flank the main facade. "Cathedral Square" is also bordered by an 18th-century former Episcopal palace, now municipal offices. Noted for its granite-cased doors and windows, it contains an exceptional stairway. Also on the square are a Manueline-style pillory and a statue of Vímara Peres, the warrior of Afonso III of León, who captured ancient Portucale in A.D. 868.
To the rear of the cathedral is one of Porto's most charming streets:
2. Rua de Dom Hugo
If you continue along this street, you'll pass the Chapel of Our Lady of Truths. It's invariably closed, but you can peek through the grille at the gilded rococo altar, with a statue of the Virgin at the center.
Along this same street at no. 32 stands the:
3. Casa Museu de Guerra Junqueiro
This white mansion, now a museum, was the home of the poet Guerra Junqueiro (1850-1923). The Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni designed this mansion.
Continue along Rua de Dom Hugo, a narrow street that curves around the eastern side of the Sé, until you come to some steep steps. These were carved through remaining sections of the town walls that existed in the Middle Ages. This brings you into one of the most colorful and poverty-stricken sections of Porto, the:
4. Ribeira district
The back streets of this historic neighborhood have much charm. The area abounds with arcaded markets, churches, museums, monuments, and once-elegant buildings.
Regardless of which alley you take, everything eventually merges onto the:
5. Cais de Ribeira
The quayside section of the Ribeira district opens onto the Douro. Locals come here for the low-cost tascas (taverns) and seafood restaurants, which were constructed into the street-level arcade of the old buildings.
The center of the district is:
6. Praça de Ribeira
Locals sit in the sun here telling tall tales. From here, visitors can take in the port-wine lodges across the Douro at Vila Nova de Gaia.
Now head north to the:
7. Ponte de Dom Luís I
This is the middle of the trio of bridges over the river Douro. The iron bridge was designed by Seyrig, one of Gustave Eiffel's collaborators, in 1886. It has an upper and a lower span, both of which funnel traffic to Vila Nova de Gaia.
After viewing the bridge and the river, retrace your steps to Praça de Ribeira. At the west side of the square, walk up Rua de São João to the:
8. Feitoria Inglesa (Factory House of the British Association)
This is the headquarters of the Port Wine Shippers' Association. One of the most fabled buildings in the Ribeira district, it stands where Rua do Infante Dom Henrique crosses Rua de São João. British consul John Whitehead designed the "factory" in 1786.
Follow Rua do Infante Dom Henrique to the:
9. Casa do Infante
The Casa do Infante lies at the corner of Rua de Alfândega. Porto-born Henry the Navigator, who launched Portugal on the Age of Discovery, reputedly was born in this house.
Follow Rua do Infante Dom Henrique to:
10. Praça do Infante Dom Henrique
A statue of Prince Henry the Navigator graces this square. Here you can visit a big covered food market, where tripe is sold in great quantities. Although shunned by much of the Western world (except by Florentines), tripe is said to be the favorite food of the denizens of Porto.
The highlight of this square is the:
11. Igreja de São Francisco
Originally this was a Gothic church. Its adjacent museum once was the property of a Franciscan monastery. This church boasts the most lavish, spectacular church interior in Porto -- and the competition is fierce.
Behind the church, facing the square, is Porto's:
12. Palácio de Bolsa (Stock Exchange)
It takes up a great deal of the site of what used to be a Franciscan monastery. It's known for an oval Arab Room whose stained glass and arabesques are said to imitate the style of the Alhambra in Granada, built by the Moors. The Stock Exchange stands at Rua de Bolsa and Rua Ferreira Borges.
Follow Rua Ferreira Borges west, veering north to Largo de São Domingos. At the top of this square, continue northwest along:
13. Rua das Flores (Street of Flowers)
Some visitors consider this the most romantic street in Porto. It has long been known for the quality of its silversmiths, but what makes the street so architecturally striking is its wrought-iron balconies.
This street eventually opens onto Praça de Almeida Garrett, named for the famed Portuguese writer. On this square is the:
14. Estação de São Bento
This is the most central of Porto's railway stations. Its grand main hall is decorated with large tiles tracing the history of transportation in Portugal.