Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal, has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. The city boasts beautiful buildings with red-tiled roofs built on a gentle slope, offering stunning views overlooking the Douro River. In 1996, UNESCO listed Porto’s old town as a World Heritage site. Despite its growing popularity, Porto remains one of the cheapest European cities to visit without sacrificing excellent food and breathtaking views. It’s no surprise that Porto was voted the best European destination in 2012, 2014, and 2017.
Port wine and Harry Potter
Porto is famous for its export of Port wine, and visitors can explore many beautiful cellars worth visiting in the Vila Nova de Gaia area. Additionally, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, lived in Porto for 18 months just before publishing the first book. During that time, she taught English during the day and spent most nights creating the story of the wizard boy in a café called the Majestic Café. Like Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, the Majestic Café is also listed as one of the top 10 most beautiful cafes in the world, making Porto an important city for many Harry Potter fans.
Porto is a relaxing city to explore on foot, and if you’re here to check it off your travel list, it’s possible to see the city in just one day. While there are several famous Port cellars, churches, and cathedrals worth visiting, it’s the abundance of abandoned buildings in the city center that truly sets Porto apart. These decaying structures lend a unique charm to the city and offer a glimpse into its rich history and culture.
What caused our obsession with these abandoned buildings
We were unaware of the abundance of abandoned buildings in Porto before we arrived. However, we became extremely curious about their cause. These deserted structures were scattered throughout the city, including many in the prime real estate of the city center. As the second-largest city in Portugal, we had anticipated a bustling and prosperous metropolis, but instead found a landscape dotted with empty and dilapidated buildings. The government and tourism industry had painted a different picture of Porto than what we experienced. Although there are undoubtedly beautiful parts of the city, it’s important to acknowledge this lesser-known side of Porto that we only discovered once we visited.
Where we stayed in Porto
We chose to stay in Vila Nova de Gaia, located directly south of Porto City, which was only a 15-minute walk from the city center. The famous Ponte de Dom Luís I bridge connects Vila Nova de Gaia to Porto City. Accommodations in Vila Nova de Gaia were significantly cheaper than in Porto City itself, despite the close proximity to the city center. As mentioned before, Vila Nova de Gaia is famous for its cellars which house the Port wines.
First encounters with abandoned buildings
Although our Airbnb was nicely refurbished, it was located next to an abandoned mansion. From our accommodation, we could look straight into the abandoned block, which was surrounded by overgrown vegetation, with shattered windows and tiles. The place had an eerie, haunted feel to it. This was our first encounter with an abandoned building in Porto, but as we explored the city, we discovered that there were many more abandoned buildings like this.
Under the bridge
The first time we crossed the Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge, we were amazed to see a spectacular carpet of vines growing over a vast expanse of abandoned buildings directly under the bridge. It was truly beautiful in its own way, and we hadn’t seen anything like it in the city center. The vines were sprouting purple-colored flowers at that time of the year, adding to the beauty of the scene.
Porto from Ponte Luís I Bridge (Video)
We were instantly enamored with this breathtaking view, but it also sparked numerous questions in our minds. Why were there so many abandoned buildings in such a prime location of Portugal’s second-largest city? It was as if you wouldn’t expect to see anything abandoned like this around Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.
Uncovering the Mystery Behind Porto’s Abandoned Buildings
During the global financial crisis, the world’s attention was fixated on the bankruptcy of Greece. However, many of us were unaware that Portugal was also facing a challenging period. In 2011, Portugal received a bailout from the EU to avoid bankruptcy. Nevertheless, this alone does not explain the widespread abandonment of houses in Porto. When we visited Athens, Greece in 2015, we did not recall seeing abandoned houses in the city, although we did notice an abundance of graffiti.
Unfavorable cheap rents
In the early 20th century, the Portuguese government introduced a law to protect the poor by making it impossible for landlords to raise rent and evict their tenants. While this was good for the tenants as they could live in the city center at an affordable cost, it had unintended consequences. Landlords, unable to earn sufficient rental income from their properties, were not incentivized to maintain or renovate them. As a result, many of these properties were left to deteriorate and rot, with tenants living in appalling conditions. During our walks around Porto city, we observed many such tenants living in substandard housing.
Inflexible building codes
There are strict building regulations in place that prevent significant changes to the appearance of buildings in the city centre, in order to preserve their heritage. As a result, any renovation work can be quite expensive. Additionally, younger generations are increasingly choosing to rent or buy homes in the suburbs, where living costs are lower and property prices are more affordable. This further exacerbates the issue of vacant properties in the city centre.
Financial crisis: The final nail in the coffin
The financial crisis only exacerbated the problem, as many companies went bankrupt and many Portuguese left the country in search of jobs elsewhere. By 2011, approximately 18.8% of houses in Porto were abandoned, meaning that 1 in 5 houses was left empty. Even Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, had around 15% of houses in the city abandoned. The primary reason for people abandoning their houses and investments is the lack of potential buyers. Even if people wanted to sell their houses, not many had the necessary funds to make a purchase, and foreign investors were also scarce. Moreover, many investors are not interested in buying properties that require extensive renovations. This has led to a growing number of abandoned buildings throughout the city.
The Portuguese government attempted to improve the situation by releasing 2,800 “Golden Visa” aimed at increasing foreign investment. The Golden Visa program grants permanent residency in Portugal to foreign investors who purchase property in the country. Around 80% of these Golden Visas were taken up by Chinese investors seeking residency in Europe.
Families living in shambles
When most of the surrounding buildings are in shambles, many locals choose to move away, leaving only tenants who are living off their cheap rents. As mentioned before, landlords are leaving these houses to rot, and we saw many families living in these decrepit homes. The row of houses underneath the Ponte Luís I bridge left the strongest impression because we actually saw people living in these ruins. While some of the houses still retain their facades, they are merely empty shells.
As we walked around and observed the extremely poorly maintained houses, we were surprised to find that many of them were actually occupied. In certain parts of Porto, we felt like we were walking through an apocalyptic movie set based in Europe. It was difficult to comprehend that we were actually in the city center of the second-largest city in Portugal. It’s a melancholic thought to consider how splendid these buildings must have appeared in the past, during Portugal’s peak of prosperity.
Porto’s saviour: Ryanair
Thankfully, in recent years, Ryanair started flying to Porto at affordable prices. The government used this opportunity to promote Porto as a popular tourist destination, which helped to attract more visitors. With more tourists coming to the city, opportunities opened up for locals. They realized the potential value of renovating the abandoned buildings, as there was a growing demand for apartments and Airbnb accommodations for tourists.
The Worst Tour
Many other tourists have also been surprised by the large number of abandoned buildings in Porto. We noticed that many people were asking the same questions online. There is even a company called “The Worst Tour” that takes tourists to see the “Real Porto.” On this tour, the company shows visitors the abandoned buildings and explains the stories behind these crumbling structures.
The Portuguese government in denial
“The Worst Tour” is not appreciated by the Portuguese government, as they are putting in a lot of effort to improve the image of the city. The tourism industry wants to showcase Porto as a beautiful, historic port city rather than a place filled with abandoned buildings. However, I believe that these buildings are what make Porto truly unique. They reflect the city’s history and culture. Seeing the crumbling buildings in Porto is like experiencing the favelas in Rio. They add character and authenticity to the city.
Porto’s Revitalization: Progress in the Making
Porto is still a beautiful city despite the abandoned buildings, and the tourism industry has significantly grown in the past two years. The Portuguese government is also limiting the number of new construction projects, which has led to more locals renovating these old houses to rent or live in. As the tourism industry continues to grow, better job opportunities are becoming available in the city center. More people are willing to move back to the city to live.
Our fascination with the abandoned buildings in Porto led us to share what we discovered. We do not intend for this article to be viewed as negative. We wanted to encourage people to explore beyond the usual tourist attractions and gain a deeper understanding of this remarkable city.