The hidden facts about Porto

Interesting facts about Porto go far beyond the Lello Bookstore or the kids that jump from the Luiz I Bridge.…

Sara Riobom
27 de August de 2023

Interesting facts about Porto go far beyond the Lello Bookstore or the kids that jump from the Luiz I Bridge. Do you want know about the Portuguese Robin Hood? What about the German origins of one of our famous dishes? These are the things that will allow you to REALLY dive deep into Portuguese culture and the city of Porto in particular. Check the most interesting facts about Porto below!

Port Wine never actually sets foot in Porto

Porto is synonymous with Port wine. Because of this, the fact that Port Wine never actually sets foot inside Porto is one of the most interesting facts about Porto and also very funny to me! Port Wine starts its life in the best vineyards in the Douro Valley. I really can’t do this region justice with just my words, so you should explore it on our Private Wine Tour in the Douro Valley.

douro valley portoalities tour

Port wine then comes to Vila Nova de Gaia to be stored, just south of Porto. Why don’t we just store it in Porto then? The answer is pretty simple… according to some. In some of the best port wine lodges, they’ll tell you that, since Gaia faces north and is more sheltered from wind, and isn’t as exposed to sunlight as Porto, it’s a better place to store the Port. If this was the only reason, this wouldn’t be one of the best facts about Porto.

wine barrels cockburns port wine lodges porto
Cockburn’s Port Wine Lodge

Money also had a say in the location of the cellars. In the Middle Ages, the city was under the dominion of the Bishop of Porto, who was entitled to collect the “Portagem da Terra”, a heavy tax over all goods traded in our city.

Our kings weren’t happy about the Church getting all of the profits so, in 1255, King Afonso III granted Gaia a “Foral”. This royal document made Gaia independent from Porto and importantly, free from the Bishop’s tax. A merchant’s dream, I would say.

This is why all the Port is stored in Gaia, then: the climate and the merchants’ desire to escape one of the two certainties in life, taxes.

Porto was the main battleground of the Portuguese Civil War

There’s something all countries have in common: we’ve all had a civil war. Ours took place from the 1832 to 1834, and Porto was its main battleground. But before getting to 1832, we just need to return to 1809, when the French invaded us for a second time. I promise it’s all connected!

marechal soult facts about porto
Marechal Soult, leader of the second French invasion

They conquered Porto, but their progress south was stopped because the Ponte das Barcas, one of the many bridges we’ve had over the Douro River collapsed while the population was trying to flee from the French. We still have a memorial to this disaster and its victims that you can see on our Full day private tours in Porto, along with what remains of the bridge that replaced the Ponte das Barcas!

alminhas ponte facts about porto
Alminhas da Ponte, the disaster’s memorial

In 1820, influenced by the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the Liberal Revolution started in Porto. It gave Portugal its first Constitution and it could’ve been a part of this list of the top facts about Porto…if it wasn’t for the civil war that started precisely because of it.

On one side were the Liberals (the defenders of the Constitution), who were under siege inside of Porto for a year, between 1832 and 1833. The siege was the work of the Absolutists, who fought against the Constitution. The Absolutists occupied almost all land south of the Douro river, except for the Monastery of Serra do Pilar. Nowadays you won’t find the Liberal army defending it, “just” one of the best viewpoints in Porto!

serra pilar best view porto
Monastery of Serra do Pilar

The Liberals won the war in 1834, thanks to us here in Porto, who fought to defend our city and the Liberal ideals. And now we get to most interesting facts about Porto in the middle of this incredible story: the gifts that the liberals gave to our city!

To thank the city for its help, D. Pedro, the leader of Liberals, gave his heart to Porto. Yes, you read that right! Up to this day, his heart rests inside the Church of Lapa, one of Porto’s most beautiful churches. You should visit the church, as I don’t know where you’ll find another one with a king’s heart in it.

lapa church facts about porto
Church of Lapa

Besides the heart, here’s another item to add to your list of the most interesting facts about Porto: a few years after the civil war, Queen Maria II, D. Pedro’s daughter, named Porto the “Invicta”, the “undefeated city”, a nickname that we still proudly use!😀

One of Porto’s most famous dishes is actually… German

We have two very famous dishes in Porto: the “Francesinha”, our amazing cheese and sauce-covered sandwich (we’ve already told you the best restaurants to get a Francesinha), and the “tripas à moda do Porto”, our very own tripe and bean stew. The name literally translates to “tripes made the Porto way”, and you will find this dish at the best traditional restaurants in Porto.

traditional portuguese beans stew tripas moda porto

Given the name of the dish, you would have thought that it is original from Porto… right?! If the answer was yes, this clearly wouldn’t be one of the best facts about Porto.

In fact, there are plenty of stories and theories behind the true origin of “tripas à moda do Porto”, but here, my friend, we will finally unveil the mysteries surrounding this dish.

Everybody in Porto will tell you that the “tripas” were born in 1415, when we conquered the city of Ceuta (in northern Morocco) and the people of Porto sent all the good meat on the ships to feed our soldiers. We were left only with the intestines and stomachs and so we started cooking them. Because of this, people started calling the people of Porto “tripeiros”, the tripe eaters. It’s a fun story, but it’s all a lie.

sao bento train station conquest ceuta facts about porto
The Conquest of Ceuta, represented in the tiles of São Bento train station

We did give a lot of good meat to our soldiers, but the truth is that the tripe that we eat is the invention of the Suebi people, from Germany. They came to Porto after the fall of the Roman Empire and spread their tripe-eating habits everywhere they went.

Here we have “Tripe made the Porto way”, while in northern France, where the Suebi stopped on their way to Portugal, they have “Tripe made the Caen way”. I guess our “tripas” are not as unique as some think, but they’re still one of our most beloved dishes!

European Jewish History is always connected to Porto

The Jewish presence in Porto is as old as the city itself (we’ve even had multiple Jewish quarters in our city), but it only starts to play a part on the world stage after 1492. This is when the Spanish Kings expelled their Jewish population and a lot of them tried to come to Portugal.

king ferdinand queen isabel facts about porto
Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Spanish Catholic Kings

A group even went to our King to ask for permission for 30 of the most illustrious Spanish Jewish families to establish themselves in one of Portugal’s cities. This city, of course, turned out to be Porto!

This group was led by the man that lands this list of the best facts about Porto: Isaac Aboab, a respected rabbi from one of the greatest Spanish Jewish families, who died in Porto.

Some of his sons were born in Porto, but with the expulsion of Portugal’s own Jewish population in 1496, the Aboab family started to spread all over Europe.

Elijah Aboab Cardoso, for example, who was the founder of Hamburg’s first synagogue in 1630. Then, we have Isaac’s great great grandson, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca.

He spent a good part of his life in Amsterdam, where a good number of Aboabs had gone to, but in 1642 he went to Brazil to become the rabbi of the first synagogue in the Americas!

isaac aboab da fonseca
Isaac Aboab da Fonseca

Because of the Aboabs, Porto’s name is impossible to miss when talking about Jewish History. From Amsterdam, to Hamburg and Brazil, you can trace it all back to our city. The Aboabs are just a small part of this story, though. The amount of different tales that could be part of this list of amazing facts about Porto is way too big for this article. This is why we do our own Private Jewish heritage tours in Porto.

Porto was the heart of Portuguese discoveries

The Age of Discoveries is one of the most important parts of Portugal’s History, and Porto was right in the center of it all. Some even say that we were also the cradle of these discoveries, because the man that started them was born in Porto: Prince Henry The Navigator.

prince henry facts about porto
Prince Henry, The Navigator

The Navigator was born in Porto’s old Customs House, while his parents were staying in Porto. He became so associated with the place that nowadays we know it as “Casa do Infante”, the Prince’s House.  The Prince’s House is my favorite museum in Porto! You get to see roman mosaics and a whole scale model of Porto in the Middle Ages. Going there is definitely one of the best things you can do in the Ribeira area, close to the Douro river.

casa infante ribeira
Casa do Infante in Ribeira

Getting back to the prince, he stayed in Porto for only a few months after his birth, but the expeditions he sponsored along Africa’s west coast wouldn’t have been possible without Porto. 

A lot of the ships that sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil and India were built here, in the shipyards of Lordelo do Ouro. The men on these ships were from Porto. 

In the late 1800s, we decided to honor the Navigator’s role in our city’s History by opening a square named after him.

infante dom henrique square porto
Infante D. Henrique Square

It’s right above the Prince’s House and at the center you have a statue of the Prince, pointing towards the Douro river and the ocean, a reminder of the Portuguese discoveries.

The ghost of the S. Bento train station

Everybody knows about the S. Bento train station’s tiles, among the best tiles you can see in Porto. They just don’t know about its ghost – and I bet you didn’t think you’d find a ghost on a list of facts about Porto.

sao bento station tiles

Much like half the buildings around here, S. Bento train station started out as a monastery, the Monastery of São Bento de Avé-Maria. It was built in the 1500s and its fate completely changed because of the Portuguese Civil War. 

With the liberal victory in 1834, the Minister of Justice dissolved male religious orders and the female orders weren’t allowed to admit new novices. From then on, he would be known as “the Friar-Killer”.

Because of this rule, the female orders started to die out as their last nuns died. This is precisely why the Monastery of São Bento de Avé-Maria came to an end and when we got our ghost.

sao bento ave maria old monastery
The old monastery of São Bento de Avé-Maria, before its demolition

The last nun died in 1892 and the train station was opened just 4 years after. Ever since 1896, she has haunted the station, praying silently in the quietest hours of the night (and cursing the Friar-Killer a few times, I bet). You may even find this ghost while exploring the station’s beautiful tile panels on our Half Day private tour of Porto!

The rivalry between Porto and Lisbon is about more than soccer

I’ll start off by telling you that nowadays, Porto’s rivalry with Lisbon does focus mostly on soccer. Matches between Porto and Benfica, Lisbon’s biggest team, are always on the news and I wouldn’t be surprised if a second civil war started over them.

porto benfica football match
Porto vs Benfica football match

The second reason behind this rivalry is that rivalries are just fun. Personally, I find it fun to argue about accents, who has the best food… We don’t even need to go as far as Lisbon. We do it with Gaia (the city just across the Douro river) and they’re just to our south!

The third reason behind the rivalry relates to politics and history. Porto has always been Portugal’s second most important city and, as such, opposition to our government tends to gather here. It happened with the Liberal Revolution in 1820 and it carried on at least until the 20th century, with small revolts against our dictatorship in the late 20s. It doesn’t matter what the government’s political leanings are, we are always seen as the opposition to Lisbon’s centralizing power.

The diplomat who was smart like a garlic

Not many people recognize the name Afonso Martins Alho, but he was one of the most important diplomats in Portuguese History. And he was born right here in Porto!

Alho was a merchant in the 1300s, in Portugal’s most mercantile city at the time and our king, D. Afonso IV, chose him to negotiate a commercial treaty with England. 

He was successful and this was the first of MANY treaties of commerce and friendship signed between Portugal and England. The treaty of 1373 marked the official start of our 650 year old alliance, the OLDEST alliance in the world!

The alliance led to a few royal marriages, like the one between Charles II of England and Princess Catarina de Bragança, who took the custom of drinking tea to England. I guess the Englishmen can thank Alho for that!

catarina de bragança facts about porto
Princess Catarina de Bragança

Alho became so famous for his smarts that, up to this day, we still say that someone is “fino como um alho”, which translates to smart like a garlic (yes, Alho’s means garlic in Portuguese, which makes the expression so much funnier!). Nowadays we have a street named after him, pretty close to the São Bento train station, famous for how narrow it is and for having one of the best pieces of urban art in Porto: Perspéntico. It’s a massive painting of a cat, as shrewd and smart as Alho!

perspentico cat street art

Nobles weren’t allowed to sleep in Porto

One thing I really like about Porto is that you can always find a connection to granite. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, granite is always lurking, waiting to show up, including on this list of the best facts about Porto.

 We use granite a lot in our buildings and we even stopped nobles from sleeping in Porto just because of this rock!

main facade porto cathedral
Cathedral of Porto

Ok, I guess this needs some explaining. Our soil is mostly composed of granite, so it’s not the best for agriculture. Due to that, the people of Porto turned to trading and fishing instead of farming. Porto, you see, became the city of merchants and the bourgeoisie.

However, in the Middle Ages nobles had the right to demand to stay and sleep in any home they chose. This is when the problem starts.

The nobles would demand food, money and sometimes, after months away while trading and fishing, Porto’s men would even find their wives were pregnant when they returned.

These abuses were too much for us to tolerate. The nobles were forbidden from buying homes in the city and, from 1374 onwards, they weren’t allowed to stay in Porto for more than 3 days. Some tried to resist these restrictions, like Rui Pereira, so, as punishment, Porto’s people burned their homes!

Porto is the city of skylights

I know something as trivial as skylights doesn’t seem worthy of being included on a list of the top facts about Porto. Just trust me, the story behind this is very interesting!

If you look at Porto from one of our beautiful viewpoints (like the one at the Monastery of Serra do Pilar), there’s one thing you’ll notice straightaway: we have a ridiculous amount of skylights on our roofs.

porto skylight marques

If you look at our houses, you’ll understand the need for these skylights. They are very narrow and long, so the skylights are our only hope of getting any kind of natural light inside them.

As you can see, they were born for very practical reasons, but looking around you’ll notice that some skylights are a bit more richly decorated than they need to be. This is because they started being used as social status symbol.

You’ll find skylights with iron sculptures on top, intricate plaster decorations on the inside and even colourful stained glass. I won’t complain, it just makes Porto even more beautiful!

Zé do Telhado, the Portuguese Robin Hood

portuguese robin hood ze telhado
© Decaedela. Zé do Telhado (right) known as the Portuguese Robin Hood.

Zé do Telhado was a hero of one the wars we had in the middle of the 19th century, but then lived long enough to see himself became the villain… for a while.

He was born in 1818, but his story only starts to get interesting in 1846, when he joined the Revolution of Maria da Fonte against our government. He was so successful during this revolt that he was made a knight in the Order of Tower and Sword, our most prestigious award.

He had an award, but that doesn’t make you one of the most interesting facts about Porto. Zé needed to pay his bills, so he turned to thievery. He was caught in 1859, and that’s when we learned he stole from the rich to give to the poor, by sharing his loot with Penafiel’s people!

This is how he became our Robin Hood and worthy of being included among the best facts about Porto! Zé do Telhado was imprisoned right in Porto in the Cadeia da Relação, near the Cordoaria Garden, which just misses out on being on the list of Porto’s most beautiful gardens.

cadeia relacao facts about porto
The old Cadeia da Relação of Porto

While in jail, he met one Portugal’s most famous writers, Camilo Castelo Branco, who was also imprisoned there. It was Camilo who shared his story, so there might’ve been some embellishments here and there. But I promise most of the story is true!

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