Porto’s iconic double-decker bridge, Ponte Dom Luís I, provides one of the city’s favourite photo opportunities – enchanting if you can catch it on mornings when the overnight mist is clearing. The bridge was inaugurated in 1886 to replace the short-lived Ponte Pênsil, part of whose obelisk-shaped pillars stand rather pointlessly beside it.
You can walk across either level to the port wine lodges, bars and restaurants of Vila Nova de Gaia – there’s traffic on the bottom level, the metro across the top – and the upper level crossing especially (a nerve-jangling 60m above the water) is worth doing at least once.
West of the bridge on the Porto side stretches the Ribeira – Porto’s waterfront – which has changed dramatically in recent years, from a rough dockside cargo zone to one of the city’s major tourist attractions. The arcaded quayside, the Cais da Ribeira, is one long run of restaurants and cafés, with hundreds of outdoor tables looking across the river to the port wine lodges on the other side. At the western end of the quayside is the sloping Praça da Ribeira, with more outdoor cafés, a floating cube fountain in the middle and a more traditional one at the rear bearing the Portuguese coat-of-arms.
It’s hard these days to look beyond the tourist cafés and souvenir stalls, but come down in the morning – before the parasols and blackboard menus have been put out – and the Ribeira still ticks along in local fashion. Between the postcards and touristy ceramics you’ll find grocery stores, a butcher’s, and a warehouse or two, piled high with bags of potatoes. Sections of the city’s medieval wall survive along the quayside, while behind the arcades and heading up towards the cathedral is a mazelike warren of stepped alleys that cock a snook yet at the riverside gentrification.
Ribeira is now a major nightlife destination, much of it centred on Praça da Ribeira and the surrounding alleys, like the delightfully poky Rua da Fonte Taurina and Rua da Reboleira – along the latter, at no. 59, is a medieval tower-house, lived in since the fourteenth century. Turn north instead up Rua da Alfândega for the Casa do Infante, where Prince Henry the Navigator is said to have been born in 1394. It’s an impressive mansion, constructed in 1325, which for over five centuries served as the Crown’s customs house. Miraculously, the building’s original fabric has remained largely intact and now contains the city archives (Mon–Fri 8.30am–5pm; temporary exhibitions here are free) and a museum (Tues–Sat 10am–12.30pm & 2–5.30pm, Sun 2– 5.30pm; e2) displaying finds from in situ excavations that revealed the remains of a large Roman palace.
Over on Rua Infante Dom Henrique stands the Igreja de São Francisco (daily: July & Aug 9am–8pm; June, Sept & Oct 9am–7pm; Feb–May 9am– 6pm; Nov–Jan 9am–5.30pm; e3), perhaps the most extraordinary church in Porto (now deconsecrated). It’s the city’s only truly Gothic survivor, dating from the fourteenth century, but the interior was completely transformed in the eighteenth century by a fabulously opulent refurbishment. Altar, pillars, even the ceiling, drip with gilded Rococo carvings, reaching their ultimate expression in an interpretation of the Tree of Jesse on the north wall. The church’s small museum is housed in the catacombs below, and here, beneath the flags of the cellar, is an ossário – thousands of human bones, cleaned up and stored to await Judgement Day. Until 1839, public cemeteries didn’t exist in Porto and the dead were buried in and around churches in an effort to bring them closer to God.
Adjoining the church, but facing the square, Porto’s stock exchange – the Palácio da Bolsa – is a pompous nineteenth-century edifice with a vast Neoclassical facade, whose keepers are inordinately proud of it. During the halfhour guided tours (daily: April–Oct 9am–7pm; Nov–March 9am–1pm & 2– 6pm, Wwww.palaciodabolsa.pt; e5) they dwell, with evident glee, on the enormous cost of every item, the exact weight of every piece of precious metal, and the intimate details of anyone with any claim to fame ever to have passed through the doors. The highlight is the Salão Árabe, an oval chamber modelled on designs from Granada’s transcendent Alhambra Palace; here the guide’s superlatives achieve apotheosis. However, you don’t need to buy a ticket to see the elegant iron-and-glass-covered courtyard, whose side rooms contain a craft/ jewellery store, wine bar and shop, and O Comercial restaurant – a rather grand space that is open to the public for a good-value lunch