Porto is a working city, and always has been. It is the second largest city in Portugal and a large commercial and industrial centre and a busy port, though it has only around 300,000 inhabitants. Because it is a working city tourists should not expect a pretty and sanitised place – this is a real place, with real problems, real industry and real people who work hard every day to make a living. But Portugal’s second city is none the worse for that slight grittiness. In fact, arguably, Porto is enriched by its industry, which give it its distinct character. This port’s history of mercantile seafaring, industry and commerce have made it the fascinating place it is today.
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Until relatively recently, Porto was rather down at heel and in desperate need of some TLC, which, fortunately, since the year 2001 when it was declared a European City of Culture, it has received. Many of the areas of historic interest have been cleaned up, restored and reconstructed, meaning that in many ways, Porto rivals the capital city Lisbon for historic and cultural interest.
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Porto’s architecture has many points of interest. The city has one of the richest concentrations of the baroque style in the world. There are many churches throughout the city which demonstrate the style with great aplomb. Later buildings, from the second half of the 18th Century, were more neoclassical in style. Some buildings in this style have an Islamic influence, others, from the turn of the 20th Century, incorporate a more French Renaissance twist. In the mid 20th Century, Porto came into its own architecturally with the Porto School, centred on the School of Fine Arts, which produced many fine architects. Porto’s bridges are also architecturally interesting. The best way to see them all is to take a tour on the river.
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Walking around the city is an excellent way to get a taste of its unique flavour and to understand a bit more about its history and culture. The best place to start is the UNESCO listed Ribeira, the scenic river-front area from which you can explore much of the old town. If the steep slopes are a little much then you can ride the funicular railway from Ribeira to Batalha Square in the city centre and get amazing views while you are on it.
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As well as wandering the varied city streets, to get a true sense of this city, why not visit one or two of the markets? There is the Mercato do Bolhau, which takes place every day but Sunday, the flea market, Feira de Vandoma might be a good place for some bargains and there is also a thriving vintage and second-hand scene at the more down at heel end of Rua Santa Caterina.
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If you want to see Porto at its quirky and eccentric best then visit for the Festa Sao Joao, St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd-24th June. On this night, part of the wider celebrations of Festas da Cidade that run throughout June, Porto residents let their hair down, bash people over the head with plastic mallets, eat, drink and really let their hair down, showing that this hard-working city also knows how to have a laugh.
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