DOROTA´S OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Welcome to Porto, the city that is so much more than the riverbank and the cellars. However, so many people just scratch its surface. This is why Airbnb is so cool: if your host decides to share their insights on the city, you can have a totally different and more genuine experience. Below follows my list of favourite places and things worth seeing, eating and drinking that most people miss. If you take a note of the addresses that interest you and create your own plan, I’m sure you’ll have a great time!
This little fishing village on the other side of the river is one of my favourite places to hang out, have a glass of wine and eat fresh fish. Since for years the access to the village from the city was difficult due to the lack of a good quality road, this place still preserves its identity. Well, the road exists now and it is great to walk or bike, so follow my footsteps and you will fancy some seafood! Cross the D. Luís Bridge on the lower deck and, if you feel like it, visit one of the cellars. For great views you can also go to the Cruz Port building and take an elevator to level 4 where they have a lovely terrace: if you want you can just take pictures, but there is also some cool options for drinks with Port wine, in case you haven’t tried them yet. After you’re done, just continue walking in the direction of the ocean – it should take you about one hour till you reach Afurada, where you will be welcomed by the statue of Saint Peter, the patron who the villagers are devoted to.
Afurada is tiny, and it is possible to see it all in less than half an hour. I love taking my time there observing the widows of the fishermen, sitting in front of their houses, all wrapped in black; or the interaction between the locals and the azulejos (hand painted tiles) with religious motifs on the houses.
Also, if you go during the Portuguese lunch hour (12:00-14:00) or dinner hour (19:00-21:00) you can see a lot of families preparing and grilling their fish in front of their houses. I’ve eaten in Afurada numerous times, mostly in a restaurant called FC Porto, but the best meal I’ve had there was bought on the street from older ladies that had a big frying pan and pots with food at the entrance of a tiny bar, so if you ever see them again, that’s the place to be. They led us inside, where we drank wine and ate amazing food, bread and olives that were included, for as little as 4 euros a person! Remember not to leave without checking out the place where the ladies wash their clothes together and hang them by the river. It is quite a sight to see the socks of the entire village dancing in the wind by the river … one of my favourite Afurada views.
If you arrived by walking here, you might take the Flor do Gás boat that crosses from Afurada to the Porto side and either walk back to the city center or take the bus #500 that will leave you in front of the São Bento railway station. If you take the bus in the other direction you will end up by the ocean. It is also just a half an hour away if you have the time and prefer to walk.
If you came by bicycle, you might continue on to the ocean. On your way, you will see a yacht dock, a bird sanctuary and in my opinion, the best beaches in the area. If you keep on pedaling you will get to Miramar, where you can see another hidden pearl: a beautiful chapel on the rock in the ocean. Going back you can take your bike on the Flor de Gás boat that crosses from Afurada to the Porto side and, in case you rented the bikes close to the house and you want to avoid going up the hill, you can bike to Foz and take Avenida de Boavista, which is a flatter way to get back.
BAIRRO HERCULANO – a little village behind the wall
Bairro Herculano is a true, hidden island in the city, and since even some Porto inhabitants don’t know of its existence, once you find it you’ll know one of the city’s best kept secrets. See, behind a lot of buildings you pass by on your way to the river there is a totally different world – the world of “ilhas”, islands in English – which are groups of tiny, simple houses, some of them with restrooms and showers outside, normally inhabited by the poorest of Porto. The story of their construction is quite simple: normally it would be the owner of a factory and/or a building facing the street who would let his workers and their families construct houses behind it. Most of the “islands” further from the center are easier to find, but the ones closer to it normally have gates, that look like the doors to the building, that protect their peculiar, simple life, (as well as the animals their inhabitants very often breed) from the passersby. So yes, you can live in the heart of Porto and wake up to the singing of a rooster, which, unfortunately, you’re not the owner of.
The story of Bairro Herculano is a bit different, as the owners of the land it was built on, Maria Augusta and her husband Manuel, thought of it as a way of investing their money, having asked for 3 loans to complete the construction of 129 houses they were planning to rent. Even though those one or two story buildings had communal restrooms and showers, at the time they were built (between 1880 and 1886) they were considered to provide amazing living conditions comparing to other working class suburbs in Porto, as the houses were bigger than on other “ilhas” and they had a food store, a communal place to wash clothes and even a chapel among them. So, you may ask, it is a simple suburb, why would you like it so much? It is simple, actually. Find one of the two entrances from the busy streets of Alexandre Herculano or Rua das Fontainhas and it will be like walking into a village. Compliment the ladies on the flowers that decorate the entrances to the houses, often creating a mini jungle, and be careful not to get caught in the clothes that are hanging to dry between the windows. Take some turns, greet the locals and last but not least, try to find the communal bathrooms that, believe it or not, were used by the inhabitants for 128 years, until quite recently. The countryside atmosphere of this hidden gem behind these walls, in the very center of today’s Porto; should set you in the zen mode for the rest of the day.
If you want to continue exploring off the beaten path Porto, cross the Ponte do Infante bridge and turn right directly at the end of the bridge and on your way, you will see not only a more “rural” part of the city, but an abandoned church, that right now is inhabited by local squatters in the main part of the church and in its tower. If you take Rua Casino Ponte, a steep street going up to your left, you will end up very close to Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, which has an amazing viewing point. However, if you continue going down you will end up at the bottom part of the Ponte D. Luís I bridge and can enjoy the Gaia side of the riverbank.
PORTO STAIRCASES – from the top of the hill to the riverbank – the local way
Unlike Lisbon, with its 85% of the buildings destroyed during an earthquake that happened in 1755, Porto never suffered such a catastrophe, which is why there are parts of the city that are still medieval. Fountains, tiny houses and parts of the wall that used to protect the strict center of the city – to discover them you need to get off the popular tourist streets like Rua das Flores or Rua Mouzinho da Silveira. My favourite part of the old town are the hidden staircases!
- Escadas do Codecal – this staircase will take you from the top of the bridge (it starts behind a Chinese restaurant) to the riverbank, close to the tunnel. I love it because of the washing machines outside the houses and the local life that you can see while going down, or climbing up, if you feel like a workout.
- Escadas dos Guindais – this staircase takes you from Rua de Augusto Rosa, behind the São João National Theatre, to the riverbank. In the middle you will see a bar called O Guindalense (opening hours: 14:00-19:00), which was actually founded in 1976 as a neighbourhood association that organized sport events. Right now it consists of 155 members that each pay 50 cents a month to keep their meeting point alive, and as every penny counts you can contribute by having a beer and a snack there. A big plus is that their terrace has one of the best views of Porto, so I wouldn’t miss taking this staircase as that one view alone makes it totally worth it.
- Escadas das Verdades – this staircase will take you from the Cathedral (look for it on your right side while facing the Cathedral) to the riverbank. Its top end is much easier to find than its bottom end, so it is easier to walk down than to climb.
- Caminhos do Romântico – this set of staircases from the 19th century is a bit further from the center and connects Palácio do Cristal with the riverbank. It is a bit trickier to find but totally worthy it once you do. Ask me and I will steer you in the right direction.
PORTO CEMENTARIES – boo hoo the Portuguese way
How hardcore is that? The old Portuguese graves have windows and you can see coffins through them. If you think you’ve seen a lot, wait until you see this!
Where to go?
- Cemitério de Agramonte – close to Casa da Música
- Cemitério do Prado do Repouso – close to Ponte do Infante
- Cemitério de Lapa – close to my house
FADO VADIO – the street Fado
Imagine you’re at a restaurant. You are just about to finish your caldo verde (kale soup) – heaven on earth, isn’t it? Your patanisca (strips of cod fried in batter) is already waiting for you on the table. Looks like another delicious Portuguese meal, but somehow this time you feel something in the air. And you are right – all of a sudden the old man that a while ago was enjoying his papas de sarrabulho (a popular soup in NW Portugal) stands up and heads to the front of the restaurant. You hear a guitar and the man starts to sing, his voice filling up the whole room. “Oh wow” and you think, “is that for real? What is happening here?”
Fado, which in Portuguese means “destiny” or “fate” is a traditional Portuguese style of music with origins difficult to trace. Although first rejected by the Portuguese intellectuals, as it was associated to society’s most marginal spheres and took place in locations visited by prostitutes, sailors and coachmen; Fado began to gain popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, becoming a national cultural icon thanks to the famous and internationally recognized Amália Rodrigues. Since 2007, it is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and you surely shouldn’t miss a Fado evening during your visit in Porto. But just like trying a 3 year old basic Tawny Port, it is not quite the same as trying a 30 year old Tawny. Your experience with Fado can be very different, depending on where you go. And I truly recommend you to follow my steps on this one – let me take you to one of the hidden spots where Fado Vadio takes place, and I promise it will be something you won´t forget!
Why Fado Vadio? Because places with street Fado are the only spots where you can experience the scene described above, where the person sitting at the table by your side will enchant the room singing a song or two, followed by another stranger, who has just stepped in to sing his share of Fado before rushing home for dinner. Who knows, it might be a lady who sold you bread earlier in the day, or a man you saw on a tram, and this is exactly what makes it so special – it can be anyone, even you, as there are parts where the whole restaurant is encouraged to sing together. Every singer will be introduced to the crowd by a host, which is a true master of ceremonies, and will consult the theme he wants to sing with the guitarists – if they feel like they can play it through, he is free to go. Normally one person sings two songs, during which, by special signs, it is agreed who will be the next one up. There are times when somebody might be surprised to hear his name called, but he will clean his mouth with a napkin and rush to the front anyway. The youngsters, trying their luck for the first time, are helped by the entire group of veterans, and what makes it all extra special is the fact that none of the singers is paid to participate – they just go to see their friends, eat, drink, sing and enjoy their time.
Even though in many places the regulars have known each other for over twenty or thirty years, you will be welcomed like a special guest, if only you follow a set of basic rules. Remember to be silent while somebody is singing – the respect that the participants have for Fado can be seen even in the language they use to describe it: they will not say “Fado is sung here”, but use the phrase “Fado takes place here”, underlining the importance of the situation. Also, try to wait until the end of the song to visit the restroom, and until the cigarette break to leave, to avoid distracting the singer. Hats are also not appreciated while Fado is sung, so take yours off before you enter. And most importantly, since the entrance to Fado Vadio is free, try to show your appreciation for the show by ordering local wine and snacks, as for the restaurant or bar you’re at this is an important evening when it comes to their weekly income.
It is not difficult – most of those places make fresh and delicious petiscos, (Portuguese tapas) which can easily satisfy your hunger in those usual Fado Vadio hours between lunch and dinner. Caldo verde soup and codfish treats – bolinhos de bacalhau and pataniscas – are my personal favorites, but the waiter will normally tell you, sometimes with the help of the locals if language is a problem, what they have available. Very often, in the places with shared tables, you might be invited to taste your neighbor’s snack or, if you´re a woman, receive a rose made from a napkin as a sign of gallantry. Careful, next thing you know, there is somebody dedicating you a Fado song!
Where to go? Fado Vadio takes place in different places on different days of the week, so you can see which one best fits your schedule during the days you will spend in Porto. Below you will find my secret list. Please remember, that it is always good to be there a little bit before the locals begin to sing, as in the most popular places if you arrive on time or later you might have problems getting a seat. Once you’re there relax, close your eyes and imagine it is Maria Severa, a 19th century prostitute that would sing Fado in taverns, that is performing, surrounded by sailors and coachmen. Allow yourself to feel the Portuguese “fate” for a while, and don’t be surprised if somebody sheds a tear, as the lyrics, very often concerning the struggles of life, love and family issues, can be very emotional. And if you like the performance of any of the singers in particular, don’t be afraid to express it – using your language skills, palms or even a napkin rose. Respect, appreciation and the willingness to integrate are big parts of those events and your hosts will be really happy to see that you’re enjoying what they put their heart and soul into.
Monday and Thursday: Porto Ginjinha – 2 stars
They say that going to this small bar by the National Theatre, visited both by actors and Fado singers, and not trying Ginjinha, (the drink the bar was named for) is like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican. Ginjinha is a Portuguese liqueur made by infusing sour cherries in alcohol, served in a shot form with a piece of the fruit in the bottom of the cup. But another famous drink to be tasted here is Eduardino, sweet liqueur with an anise taste. Both of them are nice digestives to have after you’ve eaten a lot for a small price, as for example, a delicious patanisca with olives and a very full glass of wine, cost just 2,5 euros. Fado Vadio here lacks the presence of a master of ceremonies, so it is much more informal than in other places, and the singers decide amongst each other who will be next and stand up and go to the front without being presented. If you can just experience Fado on a Monday or on Thursday, make sure you go – Ginjinha is a nice place to have a snack with a glass of liqueur of the same name. However, if you have more time in Porto, make sure to check out the other places, where you can have a fuller Fado Vadio experience with more singers.
Address: Travessa Cimo Vila 8
Tuesday: Adega Rio Douro – 5 stars
This little restaurant, founded in 1939, has been hosting Fado Vadio evenings for over 30 years, and, since it faces the river, it is perfect to connect this visit with a visit to the lovely fishermen village of Afurada. My perfect choice would be to go on Tuesday. Leave home early, visit one of the Port wine cellars and walk by the river on the Gaia side until you reach Afurada. Fancy some fresh fish for lunch? This is my number one place! After you’re done, cross back to the other side of the Douro River by the Flor do Gás boat, to the Porto side and have a little walk by the river. It won’t be long until the Fado starts. Once the show is done you can either continue by foot or bus to Foz and Matosinhos, using the bus number 500 one of the most popular options, or go back to the center of Porto by foot, bus or tram.
Address: Rua do Ouro 223
Time: 16:00 – 19:30
Friday: Maus Amigos – 3 stars
Maus Amigos means “bad friends”, but do not give up on this one because of the name. Some of the traditional Portuguese specialities served here are tripas enfarinhadas, tripe that is stuffed with bread and then deep-fried, or pica-pau, which is stroganoff style beef served with a mustard sauce. Another, less typical treat for meat lovers is prego com molho de Francesinha, a steak sandwich with the Francesinha sauce, which is a junction of 2 different traditional dishes – prego and Francesinha. I always have my favourite patanisca with a glass of chilled Vinho Verde, (a light young white wine from the north of Porto). It is a great place to step in and everyone is very friendly, but since it was just opened in March 2015, it doesn’t have the traditional feeling of the places with Fado Vadio in the district close to the Cathedral. This and the lack of ladies singing, (the times I came here, I just saw men performing) is the only reason I give it 3 stars. However, if your Friday evening is free, you can choose to go to both of the places and pick your favourite – if you like it there is never enough of fado vadio.
Address: Rua Das Taipas 111
Time: 17:00 – 20:00
Saturday: O Boteko – 5 stars
This is where I discovered and fell in love with Fado Vadio, so I always go back there with a big smile on my face. O Boteko is a small snack bar filled with big-hearted locals, that do a lot to interact with you. They make you feel very welcome even if it is a simple smile and thumbs up if they notice that speaking Portuguese is not your strong suit. For a perfect Saturday walk, visit Cedofeita street, then take Miguel de Bombarda street and visit the alternative shopping center – Centro Comercial Bombarda – located at number 285. If you feel like having a snack, inside, at number 12/14 you have Pimenta Rosa, a coffee place recognized for their amazing chocolate cake served in very generous portions, but if you prefer to take something sweet on your way, step into Casa Diogo, famous for its handmade biscuits baked in a traditional oven. Another hidden spot worth visiting on your way to Fado is Rota do Chá, which is a teahouse with a cool garden in the backyard. From there you are just minutes away from where the show takes place, but if you still have time before it starts visit the Palácio de Cristal gardens, where the views are particularly nice towards both the ocean and the city. If it is already 16:30 start heading towards the bar, because if you arrive there at 17:00 you might end up without a seat.
Hope you’re hungry again, because the owner of Boteko, the tiny lady you will see entering and leaving the room with her hands full of steaming plates, is a very good cook. She is especially famous for her papas de sarrabulho – thick meat soup from the north of Portugal that contains, among other ingredients, pork, chicken, sausage, ham, cumin, lemon and … pork blood. The locals love it, but if it sounds too scary, try caldo verde – this potato and kale soup is also a Portuguese classic, and the meat lovers will be happy about the slice of chorizo sausage that gives it a final touch of taste.
Address: Rua D.Manuel II 172
Time: 17:00- 20:00
Caves São João – 4 stars
I always recommend you get off the remodeled streets, full of tourist stores and gourmet restaurants, and get lost in the streets of Se, (cathedral) where the city is still authentic. It is in this suburb that you can see how Porto looked not too long ago, before it became a popular travel destination. You can walk the riverbank up and down, see the wine cellars, Casa da Música and Serralves, but it is in places like Caves São João this that Porto whispers in your ear: “Look, these are my people, this is the real me…”.
Do you remember a small local tavern in your home town that doesn’t even have a name on the door? That is Caves São João for you. I would have never discovered it by myself if Zé Carlos, the host of the Fado evenings both there and at Boteko, hadn’t told me about it. A red staircase, decorated both with religious and Fado motifs, will lead you to the bar, which is actually in a basement that somehow looks like it’s taken from a movie about the U.S. prohibition. But don’t be thrown off – this place, even though it is much more simple than other Fado Vadio places is full of welcoming locals and has great Fado singers. Even the owner, Dona Otília, and her helpers sometimes sing a song or two, since the informality of the place makes everyone feel comfortable enough to give it a shot. Unlike the other Fado Vadio places the food options are a bit limited here, but if you order a jar or half a jar of wine (uma caneca de vinho/meia caneca de vinho) you are likely to get some peanuts or tremoços to go with it. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more “local”, here’s another fun fact: during the breaks between the Fado, the regulars sometimes dance kizomba or pimba, the last one being a type of Portuguese pop popular especially in rural areas, which somehow works well as a happy break between the rather sad and melancholy Fado music. Did I make you curious to try this mix? If your spirit is adventurous and you’re excited about discovering the “deep, real Portugal”, you will enjoy Caves Sao Joao as much as I do. But avoid this place if you’re allergic to smoke, as sometimes somebody might have a cigarette inside.
Address: Rua de Cimo da Vila
A Estudantina – 4 stars
Another option for Fado Vadio on Sundays, very close to Caves São João, so if you’re in a Fado mood you can check them both out! This little restaurant is in a tiny one level shopping center. It is a good place to listen to Fado and has a lot of space, so you will never have to worry about not getting a seat. This spaciousness makes it a bit less intimate than Caves São Joao, on the other hand it is much more clean cut and has a lot of food options. If you have a free evening, try both and tell me which one you enjoyed more!
Address: Centro Comercial Alexandre Herculano, Rua Alexandre Herculano 352, loja 5
Dona Otilia, the owner of Caves São João, singing her share of fado.
Sunday: ESPAÇO COMPASSO – a hidden music place you would have never found by yourself (neither would I!)
It is Sunday night and you don’t know what to do? Espaço Compasso is a cool way of getting to know the alternative side of Porto. It is a cultural association that organizes concerts many days of the week, but I normally go there on Sundays, when it hosts a Brazilian party, with live roda de samba or a DJ from 20:00 till almost midnight. There is a little bar that serves vegetarian food and the best sweet and strong drink, xivoquinha, as well as an amazing garden worth getting lost in. A fun factor is that it is in a normal building, with no big name from the front, so you just have to find number 113 and press the bottom that says Espaço Compasso. For more information on their activities you can check their facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/espacocompasso?fref=ts.
Address: Rua da Torrinha 113 Opening hours: 19.00-23.00