Porto No Frills

Porto’s pristine riverside throngs with tourists sipping port, manteros making easy sales and cable cars invasively sailing over Airbnbs. But, climb the steep valley slopes for just a few minutes to where the street cats reign, and breath a sigh of relief – Porto’s no-frills soul is alive and well.

It didn’t take too much digging to find Porto No Frills and all its no-frills bars, touchable portals to Portugal’s darkest past and a lot of ghosts. I also found the Lavapiés of Porto – gentrification, resistance and all. But in just three days, I could only scratch the surface, though what I did find is so special enough to share with you so that if you ever visit Porto (again), you can take me with you in spirit.

So, gather round for story time one Friday evening in August…


We had a tip-off about a no-frills sunset spot on the river bank, so we dumped our bags in our very no-frills hostal and made a beeline for the view. We picked up a bottle of vinho verde (green wine) and a family bag of crisps from a corner shop on the way, and found a cosy spot along with a few dozen Portuenses on the grassy verge, imitating them as best we could.

Like meerkats on a cliff edge, we watched the sun set until it dipped below the water, and our no-frills souls quickly settled into the rhythm of Porto’s.



Exploring the romanticised Porto we saw the sun set over last night almost felt like a mistake. Maybe we should have skipped this one and kept it as a fun memory because the bubble of last night’s no-frills charm suddenly detonated with the hounds of street hawkers, zipping of cable cars, and tourist-trap frills – everywhere.

Being a fan and advocate of the less beaten path, I knew Porto was going to challenge my no-frills comfort zone, but this was way beyond Madrid’s Plaza Mayor levels. The thronging riverside promenades were a shock to the no-frills system so we quickly escaped, darting deeper into the narrow streets and out of view of the cable cars…

Wandering through the tapering, wonky streets, we spotted that every third or fourth building had been shelled – either demolished or seemingly caved in – quite a contrast to the “perfect” promenade just around the corner. And the crazy thing is that only a fraction of tourists on those pristine riverside terraces know this side of Porto exists.


The claustrophobia of the centre became too much and we decided to make an escape for it: to the gorgeous Gondarém beach.

We’d done some research and knew that there were a few places to eat but, at 3 pm, they’d closed their kitchens! You can take the adopted Madrileña out of Madrid but you those late lunches are ingrained. ‘Hanger’ was setting and we knew we needed to act fast, so we dug deep into our 21-year-old ‘broke traveller’ skillset and headed to a supermarket to buy bread, cheese, lettuce, mustard, bananas, a packet of crisps and a bottle of vinho verde (this stuff goes down like water). Just €4 for lunch on the beach felt like a real turnaround.

We were now out of the ‘hangry’ zone and explored the rocky shorelines, which is when I realised that all those clusters of black seaweed we were gazing at were actually mussels…

After exploring the tidal ecosystems and being enamoured with the pebbly sand (it’s like gems), we explored the Gondarém area and found this abandoned palace…

We saw dozens of ostentatious bricked up buildings around Porto, matching up with the city centre’s even peppering of abandoned buildings.

On the bus back to the centre, we got stuck in traffic. But, when a city of pop-up book houses is your slow-rolling view, it’s hard to complain (more about this spot later)…


After spotting this area of pop-up-book houses from the bus, we meandered back down the steeply sloping cobbled streets to see if we could escape the tourists and, when we found one of the most magnificent ghost buildings yet, we realised that we were probably on the right track…

Old tiles were fixed to the stone wall of its host building that appeared to be hundreds of years old. Just around the corner, within one of the river-level arches at the base of the pop-up buildings was a no-frills bar called Café Mariana, where we caught the last of the football game between two Portugal teams over a beer and, you guessed it, a glass of vinho verde

And then dinner in Refúgio 112, run by a wife and husband duo. We spoke Spanish and they spoke Portuguese, and we fumbled through well enough to hear their story.

They both lost their jobs in the recent financial crisis and, six years ago, decided to open up this five-table restaurant, decorated fanatically with football memorabilia and photos of their regulars. And there’s no menu…

Tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.

We had the classic Portuguese salad (dark-green lettuce, sweet onion, tomatoes and black olives) – so simple but so good – followed by fish and chips. Yep. And more vinho verde


We started the day by walking past this pretty dark phenomenon: capitalism meets fascism in one fell (eagle) swoop…

Portugal was under a dictatorship until 1974 and, just like Franco, the dictator Salazar died a regrettably timely death. The dictatorship lives on in Portugal’s architecture and, of course, people’s memories.

The dark discoveries continued emerging as we explored the ‘Lavapiés’ of Porto, Fontaínhas, with many more colonial-style, abandoned buildings precariously straddling the riverbanks…

We climbed and roamed, stopping a lot and gazing with both curiosity and sadness at all of the abandoned and disused structures everywhere. This used to be a shelter for homeless children, which was abandoned last year with plans to turn it into an art gallery…

Local people argued that in an area of such high density, buildings need to stop being taken off the poor, as so many have in this area in recent years due to gentrification. They argue that the building should be given back to the people and turned into a shelter again, for children, the elderly and homeless people.

Fontaínhas really did feel like the Lavapiés of Porto. There were squats, such as the one below, as well as protest banners hanging between balconies warning of evictions and the very real nightmares of gentrification in the area.

Continuing deeper into Fontaínhas, we took a short walk through the Cementério do Prado do Repouso, where skull and crossbones seem to feature every now and again…

I’m particularly fascinated by graveyards because they aren’t just a place for the dead, they’re quiet, living museums of the people of our past, who continue to express their personalities beyond the grave.


We took the river taxi to the neighbourhood of São Pedro da Afurada on the southern side of the mouth of the river Duoro, where we had a fabulously no-frills lunch at Restaurante Vapor. It looks like any one of the these indoor/outdoor seafood restaurants will serve you a delicious grilled lunch for around €7, vinho verde included, of course.

Also spotted: washing drying on traditional Portuguese clothes lines made of branches, rocks and wigwam-style supports…

After lunch, we hired bikes and launched ourselves south for 10 km until we reached a beach that was other-worldly…

Madalena beach‘s soft, fine sand sits level between giant boulders, creating coves and natural shelters from the Atlantic winds that blow in straight from outer space.

Arses pummelled by hard bike seats over cracked tarmac, we decided it would be a standing-up dinner (Madrid-style) and we headed to the nearest no-frills bar to our hotel and flicked through all the wonderful memories we’d made in Porto, determined to return.

The next morning, we took the train to Aveiro, but that’s a story for another day…


At first, I felt guilty being a tourist in Porto. Every day, I see how irresponsible tourism destroys my neighbourhood, Lavapiés, and I desperately didn’t want to add to the problem in Porto. So, we did our best to make as little impact on the city as possible by blending in and imitating locals as best we could (except for staying in a no-frills hostal and once trying to eat lunch at 3 pm).

After three days in Porto, I felt welcome, and I feel like I’ve seen the sides of this city that it wanted me to see: beautiful and decaying, wealthy and poor, neighbourly and touristy. It’s a city that is evolving, but in two opposing directions with a widening gap between. Buildings are being restored while others are being evicted and left to decay, the wealthy are getting rich off the backs of the poor (sound familiar?), and a new tidal wave of gentrification is extinguishing their fighting spirit.

Porto is a city in transition for better and for worse, just like Madrid. Far beyond the architecture, food and history, it amazes me how many similarities there are between Porto and Madrid, which is probably why Porto nearly stole my no-frills heart.

If you’d like to see more of my no-frills Porto locations, including view points, no-frills bars and restaurants, ghosts, living museums and where rebel communities meet, I’ve marked everything on my Map.

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