Before boarding the #125 Alfa Pendular high-speed train, I’d never even heard of Porto, Portugal. Yet when we arrived in the city’s train station about three hours later, I was stunned by what I saw, flabbergasted even—and I’m not normally any kind of gasted, flabber or otherwise.
I felt like I’d just arrived at Hogwart’s, Westeros, Middle Earth, or some other stupid fantasy-themed Young Adult novel setting populated by shape-shifting dwarves, telekinetic fairies, or bisexual warlocks. This Medieval town looks so much like a fantasy movie set, I kept looking for the craft services table.
Unlike tourists, change hasn’t visited Porto, Portugal in over a millennium.
After you take the three-hour train ride north from Portugal’s largest city to its second-largest city, you can be forgiven for thinking that you time-traveled somewhere along the way. That’s because you disembark at Porto’s train station, centrally located in Old Town, an area of Porto that looks much the same today as it did in the 1800s. Or the 1500s. Or, hell, even the 1300s.
Frankly, the biggest giveaway that you’re not back in the Dark Ages is the widespread use of electric lighting and the odd ZARA clothing store. If someone were to magically get rid of all the iPhones, Smart Cars, and folks in “athleisure” wear, you wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the Crusades were still ongoing or that the Black Plague was “getting worrisome.” The place looks seriously old.
Yet it’s not the case that over the last several centuries, the citizens of Porto never thought to bring their city up to 21st Century building standards (or, hell, even 18th Century standards).
It’s just that everything structural in Old Town is either carved from, constructed with, or built on solid rock, most likely granite. And that shit isn’t going anywhere—ever—so the locals just had to learn to just work with it, or more typically, work around it.
Porto, Portugal is deceptively modern considering it’s so Medieval.
While the city doesn’t look even remotely modern from outward appearances, Porto has all the interior amenities of a new and contemporary city, including central heating and air-conditioning, trendy track lighting, and even high-speed internet. So, even though Porto is very Baroque on the outside, it’s very bougie on the inside.
Porto is as Euro-hip as any larger metropolis like Paris, Madrid, or London. The city has trendy bistros with tiny-type menus you can’t read, ironically named bars and clubs you can’t find even with the address, and universal healthcare for every citizen, not just the rich ones—if something’s in Europe, it’s probably in Porto, too.
Porto’s Old Town isn’t just car-unfriendly, it’s car-hostile.
The only thing Porto doesn’t have to offer is ample parking. If you bring any rental car that’s larger than a Fiat 500 into the middle of Porto, you will quickly regret it.
The historic center of Porto—known as the Ribeira—is a maze of narrow streets and alleys that really test your rental company’s allowance of bodywork scratches.
The roads are Medieval-tight, and you can generally only get one car through a two-lane road, or two cars through a four-lane road—anything more than that, and at least one of the cars is going to need a new side-view mirror.
Instead of driving a car, use Porto’s clean, efficient public transit system instead. Like most European cities, there’s the Metro, buses, trams, and even funiculars. Or just walk everywhere like we did.
Getting around Porto, Portugal using only your legs and feet.
Walking around the Old Town area is like being on an extremely slow roller coaster. The entire city of Porto was built in the valley between two steep hills extending up from the Douro River which cuts through town.
Outside of Lisbon or San Francisco, few other cities can compare to Porto when it comes to topographic torture. After only a few hours of walking around, your calves will be en fuego from climbing its steep 45-degree gradients. Luckily, a few hours is all it takes to see most of Porto, so you can walk most of this town quickly if you don’t stop to eat, drink, shop, or enjoy yourself at all.
Invaded once, but never conquered.*
Two of the reasons Porto is in such good condition after literally a thousand years is that 1.) Unlike Lisbon, Porto has never had an earthquake, and that 2.) Porto has never been successfully conquered.* (Mostly because it wasn’t called Porto back in 711 when the area fell under Moorish control for 150 years or so.)
Despite that minor historical asterisk, this UNESCO World Heritage Site earned its nickname, “The Unvanquished City” by repelling Napoleon twice in the Peninsula War (1807-1814) thanks to an alliance they signed with the British some 500 years earlier—now, that’s what I call foresight.
The Portuguese people have never been super-keen on monarchies in general, nor kings in particular. To make that point clear, they’ve staged an astounding number of populist revolts throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Specifically, the Portuguese people revolted in 1820, 1832, 1891, 1910, and again in 1911. But the most recent revolt in Porto happened in 1919 and it happily resulted in the formation of the Portuguese Republic, a democratically elected form of government that, more or less, still exists today.
Find the best views of Porto by opening your eyes.
Unimaginatively, Porto is known as “the city of six bridges” because it has a lot of bridges…six, I think. We only saw one, but it was a doozy. The aesthetically appealing 600-foot long double-decker, metal-arch Dom Luís I bridge rises 150-feet over the River Douro, resembling a smaller version of Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge.
The Dom Luís I bridge was once the largest of its type in the world, but it’s since been dwarfed by more modern bridges, like Lisbon’s 7,000-foot long Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge, itself a knock-off of the Golden Gate Bridge. Regardless, Porto’s most prominent bridge does the job and looks good doing it.
The Dom Luís I bridge connects Porto on the north side of the Douro river with Vila Nova de Gaia on the south, a city that’s home to the region’s largest population, as well as seventeen blue flag beaches that I wish we’d known about in advance.
From the Porto side, it’s a short walk across to Gaia where you can get spectacular postcard views of Porto’s entire riverfront promenade, and take a tram-ride over many of the local port-producing companies.
Another great mirodouro is the Igreja dos Clérigos church near the center of Old Town. It’s an Italian-designed Baroque church with a 250-foot tall bell tower that provides an unobstructed view of the entire city. It’s a 200-step climb, but if you have enough energy left—and €6—it’s mostly worth it.
There are other mirodouros (or “viewpoints”), but with a town as Euro-attractive as Porto, pretty much everywhere is a mirodouro.
Is Porto the best damn city in all of Europe? Yes.
Passionate about Paris? Infatuated with Florence? Sexually attracted to Santorini? Well, you’re wrong…and weird, too. No, my friend, Porto is better than all of them. In fact, Porto won the European Best Destination award in 2012, 2014, and 2017—that’s practically a dynasty, yo.
Porto keeps winning that award because it’s almost too perfect to be real. It’s too small, too quaint, and if I didn’t know any better—and frankly, I don’t—I’d swear Porto was an artificial tourist destination created centuries ago by the ancestral families of the Marriotts, the Disneys, or the Sixflags.
Sure, much of Porto’s ancient architecture has since been renovated and repurposed as drone retailers and pop-up shops, but to all outside appearances Porto is a time-portal back to a simpler, more religious, racist, and rat-infested time.
For the record, we did not see any racists or rats.
Porto is everything you want in a European vacation—and less!
Lots of Europeans come here from other European countries, but I can’t for the life of me understand why. Porto isn’t all that much different from other European cities—they all have old buildings, parks, churches, etc—it’s just that Porto has all that stuff in a smaller, more walkable package.
So what brings Europeans here? Is it the warm climate and sandy beaches? Is it the €7 Aperol Spritzes you can get at any outdoor riverfront bistro? Is it the weird tins of sardines they sell everywhere?
Or is it the fact that Porto is just a dirt-cheap RyanAir flight away from basically any other European city? Yeah, it’s probably that.
Still, if you’re looking to get your fix of Ye Olde World Europe, don’t waste your money and time in haughty Paris or chaotic Rome. Just make a beeline straight to Porto and immediately start basking in all its glorious European ennui.
Before I forget, did I mention that drugs are decriminalized in Portugal? Because they totally are. Just something to consider.
Oh, yeah, and you don’t have to tell me that “Europeans use the metric system,” and that “the main headline should say centimeter instead of inch.” I only used “inch” because it made for a shorter headline, so there.