3 Unusual Places to Visit in Porto: a Bookstore, a Market and… Jail?

Staircase at Bolhao Market in Porto

There have been many articles about Porto lately and most of them state that the city by the Douro is underrated. I like the undiscovered things and I don’t know if “underrated” is the best adjective to describe Porto.

In fact, why would someone travel all the way to Portugal (in this case) just to visit a city that they can see anywhere else in Europe, right? Maybe they would, just for these three unusual places to visit in Porto.

Lello Bookstore

Widely famous and publicized across enough tourist guides for you to think it’s just another tourist trap. It can be, if you don’t have the patience to wait (trust me, I don’t blame you if you don’t) or if you’re looking in the same direction as everyone else.

Stained glass skylight at Lello Bookstore in Porto

We waited for it to open at 10 a.m. Mariana at the guesthouse had told us that during the high season they could eventually open it half an hour earlier to make sure everyone got their photos taken before the official opening time. The facade of the building was already a clear sign of what we would see inside. I recognized the typography of “Lello & Irmao” from some old books my parents had at home. The big, bulky, heavy books I used to read out of curiosity. They smelled of… knowledge. Does this make sense?

The books on display on the windows seemed outdated, posing for a buyer that would never come, the colors discolored by the sun. Inside, a lady vacuumed the floor vigorously and, because she was seeing so many faces peering inside, stopped to signal the number ten with her hands. We nodded and replied with a thumb up.

The famous staircase at Lello Bookstore in Porto

When the door opened, a group of rushing people passed by the employee without replying to his “good morning”. They were on a mission. A “selfie” mission (sticks included). They aimed for the stairs (that are said to have inspired J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter) and the upstairs floor. They, literally, saw nothing. The rest of us were behind, browsing some books (it is a bookstore after all), admiring the stained glass skylight at the top… after this, everything is a blur in my mind. I noticed the peeling red paint on the steps and I failed to notice the carved busts of Portuguese writers on top of the pillars. We took photos and we fled.

Inside Lello Bookstore in Porto

Tell us the best time to return to the bookstore and appreciate it in peace, and we will. Like I said in the beginning, it can be offbeat enough if you have the patience to wait.

Note: Since July 2015 there is an admission fee of €3.00 per person

Centro Português de Fotografia

This building has enough distractions around for it to pop. The Clérigos Tower, for example, is enough reason to make you turn away from it. Why would you take the detour and visit the Portuguese Photography Center? Nothing in the building seems appealing enough to make you go there. But, of course, we had an inside tip and we knew what we were going to find inside. So definitely this was one of our very first planned detours (if there is such a thing).

Centro Portugues de Fotografia Porto

There is a reason why this structure is stripped from any awe elements and beauty. This was a prison and prisons, as any other institutional buildings, are more function than form, they serve a purpose. Can we confess we were thrilled to be inside a prison (as weird as it may sound)? I think it was the appeal of the structure to be honest and the collection of old cameras (and related gadgets).

Old cameras on display at the Centro Portugues de Fotografia in Porto

As (intentional) geeks this was pretty close to heaven: the cameras, walking in and out of old cells, looking out the barred windows to the city, seeing where Camilo Castelo Branco (a Portuguese 19th Century romantic novelist) had been incarcerated for adultery. The piece that attracted me the most was the story behind the composition of this 1908 New Year’s postcard (or the interpretation of it) by Aurélio Paz dos Reis, known as the pioneer of cinema in Portugal.

Postcard at Centro Portugues de Fotografia in Porto

Bolhão Market

I had a lot of high hopes for the famous Bolhão market, so much so that I left it for the very last day we were in Porto. So many people had told me stories about the vibrant vendors, and how they would talk you into buying their products and take the time to get to know you. I have no idea how (or when) I formed this romantic idea in my head, but that was exactly what I was expecting. And it was not what I got.

Shrine at Bolhao Market in Porto

We saw more tourists than customers and we were expecting (sorry, I was expecting) crowds of customers and half empty, close to out of stock, stands of fresh produce — judging by the mid-morning time we got there on a Saturday. Although the place is a bit rundown and in need of serious fixing up, there are enough pops of color to make it a great place for photography. But you see, this is a market and vendors expect you to buy their products, not just show the pretty photos you took that Saturday morning. Which is why they paid no attention to us or reciprocated my attempts of engaging in conversation to know more about their routine.

Fish stand at Bolhao Market in Porto

This was the first place (in years) that I couldn’t take advantage of my “looks like a foreigner” status because they don’t want to waste time entertaining or posing for foreigners. At the end of the day, they want their prayers to Our Lady of Conception to be heard (they have a statue of this Portugal’s patron saint at the entrance of the market) and they want the return on their investment.

Vegetables and fruit stand at Bolhao Market in Porto

Have you been to Porto? What are some of the unusual places to visit in the city that you would add to this list?

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