Porto's riverside quarter, known as the Ribeira, is one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods and certainly one of its highlights. The area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and it does not disappoint.
Historically the quayside here was one of the busiest points on the River Douro with cargo from both up and down-stream landed here before the short journey to the centre of the city. Today it is equally bustling but the major trade here is now tourism.
The waterfront (Cais da Ribeira) is long strip of cafes, restaurants and shops overlooking the river and the Port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. Many of these businesses are housed in what would once have been single-storey warehouses whilst above and behind are a row of colourful, if not a little faded, houses. Many of these old buildings, some of which are six storeys high are still home to the local population and you will often as not see washing drying off the balconies.
Dominating the Cais da Ribeira is Porto's iconic Ponte Dom Luis I bridge which spans the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia. Completed in 1886 the bridge was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and with its iron framework it this is not difficult to guess. The double-decker bridge carries the city's metro trains on its top level and road traffic below. There is pedestrian access to both levels and it is well worth taking in the spectacular views from the 60 metre high top deck, if you have a head for heights.
Before the construction of the Dom Luis I bridge residents used to cross the river using a makeshift pontoon bridge made from around 20 old port boats lashed together by steel cables. The 'Ponte das Barcas' (Bridge of Boats) as it was known was built in 1806 and you can in fact still see the old pillars right next to the Dom Luis I bridge. Back in those days the crossing was made all the more precarious by the fact that the river was somewhat wilder as there were no dams upstream to calm the flow. Disaster struck in 1809 when, during the Peninsula Wars, Napoleon invaded the city. Fleeing residents rushed to the Ribeira and onto the bridge to escape. The old boats couldn't take the weight of the crowds and many were drowned that day. If you look closely there is a shrine-like monument close to the bridge, the Alminhas da Ponte, to those who died that day.
Behind the riverfront the city slopes steeply up and there is a fascinating maze of medieval streets and alleys. At their heart is the Praça da Ribeira, the centre of the old city's nightlife. Lined with bars and clubs to one side the square is dominated by the austere 17th century fountain behind which rises a three-storey granite wall featuring the Portuguese coat of arms and a statue of John the Baptist. However, this does not reflect the nature of the Ribeira Square today, as this is where the local population come to enjoy a night out whilst taking in the view across the river.
Heading up Rua de São João from Praça da Ribeira will rapidly take you up into the winding streets of central Porto, but it is the streets to the east which hold the most fascination. These dark, ancient cobbled alleyways such as Rua da Fonte Taurina and Rua da Reboleira refuse to be gentrified a very much retain an atmosphere of times gone by. Although hard to tell to the untrained eye these back streets are home to some of the Ribeira's best and most authentic restaurants.
In one of these streets, the Rua Alfandega (Customs house lane) you will find the Casa do Infante which is said to be the house in which Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. This fine medieval townhouse later served as the city's custom house before becoming the home of the Royal Mint. Today, much renovated it houses the city archives along with a museum which displays, among other things, some remarkable Roman finds that were discovered during excavations of the site.
From here it is just a stone's throw across to some of the other great sights of Porto. Across the road are the gardens that also bear Prince Henry's name. Overlooking these are is the imposing Palacio da Bolsa with its exquisitely ornate interior. Next door to this is the fine gothic Igreja de São Francisco with an equally sumptuous Baroque interior.