One of the best ways to explore a town is simply to get lost. Walk unmarked streets, turn unknown corners, choose to walk left when everyone else walks right.
And one of my favorite places to get lost is in the winding alleyways of Europe’s old towns. There’s something about high walls, narrow pathways, and the curve of cobblestone streets that lends itself to an air of mystery.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason I found riverside historic district, Ribeira, in Porto, Portugal, to be so appealing.
In Porto, we took a free walking tour. After walking through Porto’s main city center, we got a bird’s-eye-view of Ribeira from the top of the two-level Dom Luis I bridge. Then, our tour took a sudden and steep dive into Ribeira’s narrow, maze-like alleys.
Local residents still live in Ribiera’s buildings, some of which are up to six stories tall. Despite tourists wandering the tangled old town, life goes about here as it has for centuries. Residents wash and hang their laundry from balconies. They hold conversations through open windows across the alleys. And they rinse the cobblestones down with buckets of hot water.
Watching people go about their daily lives, I always wonder what their homes look like behind closed doors.
Listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, Ribeira sits along the Douro River. Once a bustling commercial center, Ribeira is still one of the busiest — and most popular — parts of Porto. Only now it is tourists and not fisherman and merchants that crowd the streets.
Ribeira’s tightly packed buildings line the river’s edge. Sitting a few stories high, the buildings have homes on the upper floors and businesses and restaurants at ground level. Their kaleidoscopic tiled exteriors and small iron balconies reflect on the river with the perfect sunlight.
From the waterfront looking across the Douro River, you can see Vila Nova de Gaia, another town connected by the Dom Luis I bridge. Lots of people spend time along Ribeira’s riverfront area, dining at restaurant terraces, window shopping, and eating gelato.
After a cursory and curious wander along the water, we headed across the bridge to Gaia. And that’s when Porto revealed its exceptional charm from a distance. From Gaia looking back across the Douro River to Porto’s old town, the sight truly is breath-taking.
Because Porto is built on a steep embankment running toward the river, the buildings practically sit on top of each other, tumbling down the hillside toward the waterfront. In fact, the hill is so steep that reaching Porto’s main city center from the river bank requires riding a funicular or climbing a lot of stairs. Along the riverbank, Ribeira’s narrow buildings, each a different height and color, look like jagged, jeweled teeth lining the water.
Several port and wine cellars line Gaia’s bank. That’s reason enough to make the walk across the bridge. But the view looking back over the Douro River to Ribeira is an added bonus to make the trip and enjoy a glass of port at sunset.